Apr 7, 2007
Farm’s Switch To Vegetables Changes 250-year Tradition

The national bicentennial farm has been in the family since 1756.

Until the 1980s, it primarily produced tobacco, soybeans and corn. At that time, the Holden brothers diversified from tobacco and planted an initial three-acre vegetable crop. Today, they have 225 acres in cultivation.

“The first few years into the change were hard because of buying new equipment, ” Kelly Holden said. “But it proved to be the best thing I could have done in the long run because we see what’s happened to tobacco. Getting out ahead of others helped. I’m still watching some farmers try to change over.”

Tomatoes have become a big crop for them.

Tomato lovers may not agree on the pronunciation or even on whether the red beauties are fruits or vegetables, but here’s something everyone can appreciate: fresh, field-ripened tomatoes nearly year round. And since it’s neither California- nor Florida-based, that’s just one thing that makes Holden Brothers Farm unique.

“We’ve had tomatoes as late as December,” Kelly said.

He and brother David farm in southeastern North Carolina’s Brunswick County, a rapidly expanding area known for its beaches.

To produce tomatoes from spring through late fall, Kelly, who oversees field operations, plants in stages from late winter until August. That final crop is one of agriculture’s contributions to the popularity of the coastal area with tourists.

The fall crop is a six-acre, pick-your-own plot, Kelly said.

“That’s become a tradition for us. Some people even plan their vacations around picking their own fall tomatoes.”

The pick-your-own operation runs from late September until mid-November or later.

The fall tomatoes, and early spring strawberries, are the best choices for pick-your-own crops, he said.

“People don’t like to pick when it’s hot. They’re spoiled by air conditioning,” he said.

Holden Brothers grows a range of tomato varieties, but has found that spotted wilt virus-resistant and crack-resistant types are essential along the hot, humid coastal plain. Quincy is a favorite variety.

“Beet armyworm populations are unbelievable,” Kelly said. “I grew fall tomatoes for five years before I ever made a decent crop. I rotate insecticides so bugs don’t build up resistance.”

Aggressive insecticide and fungicide programs have helped to make tomatoes the farm’s largest crop

He’s also developed a technique for avoiding cracked and split fruits. When temperatures are especially high, his migrant crews pick them when slightly under ripe. The harvest is then quickly chilled in coolers and then transferred to normal room temperature to ripen.

The majority of Holden tomatoes are sold at their roadside market, which David Holden manages. The brothers pride themselves on offering a diverse selection of fruits and vegetables, primarily grown on the 300-acre family farm.

The warm climate keeps customers in fresh produce year round. Cool-season crops, such as lettuce and greens, are planted during the winter, followed by popular spring and summer produce, including cantaloupes, sweet corn and watermelons.

“Our big advantage is our late frost date (approximately Nov. 18),” Kelly said.

While some growers may see the area’s sandy soil as a disadvantage, Kelly favors it. It doesn’t build up disease pressure that finer, wetter soils do, he said. Still, he finds that disease problems increase without adequate rotation and he’s rented some additional land.

The farm, with two irrigation ponds and five wells, primarily uses drip irrigation.

Holden crops face an ongoing threat from wildlife, especially deer, as wooded areas border some of their fields. He hasn’t yet found a good solution.

The farm employs a permanent crew of 12, supplemented by 25 migrant laborers during the summer.

The Holdens’ first roadside stand was built in 1984 on the well-traveled Highway 17, which runs along the coast between Wilmington, N.C., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. The current facility was built in 1991 and is equipped with four cash registers, all of which are pressed into service on busy holiday weekends. Although they employ billboard and radio advertising periodically, word of mouth is the Holdens’ best marketing technique.

“Our store has become a landmark, ” Kelly said.

For more information, call Holden Brothers Farm Market at (910) 579-4500.

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