Chamber Group Ventures Into Moore Farm Country
They feasted on vegetable muffins and tomato sandwiches at Samarkand Manor, visited a field of organic flue-cured tobacco, and saw and heard the joys and challenges of raising peaches.
Co-sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Agribusi-ness Awareness Day Tour was designed to introduce the uninitiated to the farm scene and to bring others up to date on the latest in farm practices. Extension Director Craven Hudson and Extension horticulture agent Taylor Williams served as guides.
"This is an industry vulnerable to loss of market," Williams said as they traveled by Kirk Tours mini-bus to Eagle Springs.
Williams said produce stands are especially vulnerable to highway design changes. Some roadside markets in the eastern part of the county have already closed because of the rerouting of a redesigned U.S. 1 bypass.
Now, produce stands in the western and northern parts of the county may be affected when the proposed Interstate 73-74 corridor is developed.
Learning About Gardening
Although peach orchards have long been a favorite symbol of the Sandhills, Williams said that peaches have not always been raised in this area.
Before the group arrived at Samarkand Manor, Williams gave a brief history of how the state-run training school received its exotic name and its association with peaches.
A well-traveled visitor decided to settle in the region years ago and named the small rural community for an old trading center in Mongolia. He began raising peaches on the property he had purchased and named Samarkand. His farm was later sold, and part of the land was bought by the state to build a youth training institution.
Students at the all-girl Samarkand Manor greeted the visitors and invited them to partake of healthy refreshments, including muffins featuring carrots, squash, apples, nuts, raisins and coconut, along with some of that stuff not so good for you, such as sugar.
The 47 students come from all over North Carolina and range in age from 11 to 18 years. The state-run residential school was opened in 1918 as an all-female facility, later became co-educational and reverted to all-female in 2002.
Agnes Evans and Karen Wicker, Extension agents who have been working with the Samarkand student body several years, reported that the girls planted, harvested and cooked the vegetables grown in a garden on campus. They also baked the muffins.
Evans said she adapted the muffin recipe from an old recipe for Pinehurst muffins and added a Samarkand touch. She said the project was also carried out as another way to deal with childhood obesity issues.
In their garden are tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, bell peppers, squash and a little yellow tomato known as a pear tomato.
Superintendent Donald Burns said the school's introduction to gardening was boosted some years ago by a grant from Coastal Carolina Presbytery. The grant was used to build a greenhouse. It is no longer in use but remains as a token of the gardening endeavor.
"I remember coming to the greenhouse and watering the tomatoes and the tomatoes were good," read one of the students from notes left by an earlier student.
Most of the students are from urban areas and had no previous gardening experience. Evans said some young gardeners were reluctant at first to try unfamiliar vegetables, such as eggplant.
"But when they grew it and ate some and found out it tasted good, they really liked it," Evans said.
Williams pointed out that the girls had planted marigolds inside the raised beds, beside the vegetables. In addition to adding color and beauty, the flowers help with insect control and the battle against nematodes, he said.
About a mile away, the group arrived at the Billy Carter farm and a glance at organic tobacco raised for a very particular market.
Carter met the tour group at the edge of the field and delivered a mini-lecture on the cultivation and marketing of the special leaf. The Carter farm also produces conventional tobacco and about eight acres of burley tobacco.
"This is probably the most diversified farm in the county," Williams told the group.
In addition to tobacco, Carter grows vegetables, fruits, wheat, corn and other crops. Tomatoes grown on the Carter farm are often the same ones for sale at area roadside markets.
"It's all based on having good quality at reasonable prices," Williams said of the Carter fresh produce operation.
Carter said no synthetic materials are applied to the organic tobacco. For fertilizer, he uses meat and blood meal. For sucker control, farm workers dribble vegetable oil onto suckers directly from a plastic gallon jug with a hole in the lid. The oil burns off the suckers.
The latter practice is time-consuming, but Carter said his workers are adept and work faster than you might expect. A crew of eight or 10 men can cover a field in less than a day.
Suckers are flowering offshoots that, if left unplucked, will weaken the quality of the plant.
"We're not going to put anything on it that will kill you," Carter said, adding dryly that "We'll let the tobacco do that."
Almost all of the tobacco is used for cigarette blends.
"It's a very intersting crop, and we've enjoyed doing it," Carter said. "There's a good market that pays almost twice as much as we get for regular tobacco."
Carter sells organic tobacco through Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co.
However, raising organic tobacco is more costly than raising regular tobacco, and the higher price compensates for the added expense and risk the farmer takes. The farmer must pay for the certification process, which is expensive and time-consuming with paperwork and red tape.
"It's very much micro-managed," Carter said of the crop.
Adding to the complications is the fact that much organic leaf is marketed in Europe, where the certification process differs from that in the United States. He estimates that 75 percent of the crop goes to Europe.
Carter is one of only about five organic tobacco growers in North Carolina.
Although primarily a tobacco farm, the Carter farm raises huge quantities of fruits and vegetables, much of which is sold from his backyard.
When he graduated from N.C. State University, Carter had made up his mind that he would not raise tobacco on the family farm. The farmer admits that he soon learned he could not make a profit without raising tobacco and thus continued the family tradition. Nevertheless, he continues to look for innovations and new ways to diversify.
From the tobacco field, the group traveled to the curing barns to observe freshly harvested tobacco unloaded from trucks, transferred to racks for the curing process. The scent of tobacco permeated the air, affording some tour members their first opportunity to see and smell freshly-cured tobacco.
Supplied with a box of homegrown tomatoes from the Carter farm, the group traveled a few miles up N.C. 211 for a visit to Kalawi Farm, operated by Art and Jan Williams and family.
Art Williams stood in for his wife, who is the peach orchardist and operator of the produce stand and ice cream shop on N.C. 211.
Kalawi Farm had its beginnings in 1952, yet another family endeavor. Prior to farming, Williams was in the logging business. Now he raises such crops as corn, soybeans and sorghum, and his wife raises the peaches.
"Peach trees are real temperamental," Williams said. "They may live 40 years or one year."
The average lifespan is between four and 20 years, but growers usually plant new trees every two years to keep the crop going.
Propagated from one rootstock imported from China, today's peaches largely date back to the original plant, but now there are 35 varieties raised at Kalawi. The season is longer, beginning in June and lasting into September.
The best-flavored peaches ripen in late June and continue through August, according to Williams. He has a favorite peach and was not hesitant to recommend China Pearl.
"China Pearl is the best peach ever made," Williams said. "It tastes like ice cream."
Williams said local peaches are especially tasty because they are picked just as they ripen. This enhances flavor but shortens shelf life to about four days, thus they are more perishable.
Most supermarkets, on the other hand, sell peaches that were picked before fully ripened, shipped thousands of miles and have a shelf life of 10 days.
It was the trashing of over-ripe but perfectly good peaches that persuaded Jan Williams to open the ice cream shop beside the produce stand. She didn't want to see good peaches go to waste.
"I've been told we've got some of the best ice cream anywhere," her husband said.
The shop stocks about 20 different flavors, which change from time to time. The favorite is peach ice cream, made with peaches picked on the Williams farm. They sometimes, early in the season, do supplement the supply with canned or frozen peaches, just until the season's abundance kicks in.
Williams said his wife grew up on a peach farm, and raising and marketing peaches comes naturally. His wife and her sister were both crowned Peach Queen when they were teens, and the Williams daughters have also held that title.
Talk of the new I-73-74 does not bother Williams. Customers are largely beach travelers and local people looking for fresh ripe peaches.
"The future looks good," Williams said. "We have a lot of traffic to the beach. We get a lot of golfers. Golfers like ice cream, and they don't buy the little cups."
The farmer added that their land has been blessed with a good climate in the Sandhills and also by the forethought of his father, who built ponds across their farmland, making it possible to irrigate 300 acres of cropland. Peaches actually thrive in dry weather, and too much rain can damage flavor, but the other crops welcome irrigation.
Peaches are picked daily. The seasonal help consists of family members and local young people who want summer work.
The name Kalawi was formed from the first two letters of their three oldest children, Kate, Laura and Will. Their fourth child, Ben, came along as a bonus. It was too late to add his name to Kalawi so the family compromised by naming the ice cream for Ben.
Before leaving, the visitors bought peaches and other fresh produce at the stand and tried a serving of Ben's ice cream.
Florence Gilkeson can be reached at 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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