From the Farmer's Tractor
April 27, 2008
Sonny Cottle, 54, is a strawberry farmer based in Faison, North Carolina. His family-run Cottle Farms is a year-round supplier of fruits and vegetables specializing in strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. Cottle comes from a long line of farmers and has been farming for 25 years.
How did you get into strawberry farming?
My grandmother was a landowner, and my dad and all my uncles were farmers. My uncle Ned started Cottle Farms about 45 years ago. I grew up on the farm and started selling strawberries roadside when I was about 12 years old. Faison is a small town of just 600 people, and so the farm started out small. These days we have growing and U-Pick locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
About 15 years ago we went to growing strawberries on plastic, which is much more efficient. Theoretically, you can grow the same amount of strawberries on one acre with plastic as you can on three acres without it. The crop grows faster on a raised bed and we can limit the water and fertilizer to the bed, instead of the whole field.
Another big change came about eight years ago when we started growing other fruits and vegetables besides strawberries. We now grow specialty peppers, grape tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, squash, blackberries and blueberries.
How will strawberry farming evolve in the next five years?
For years, we raised our strawberry plants at a nursery on Prince Edward Island in Canada. This year, we started growing plants here in North Carolina with the help of what we call high tunnels. These are greenhouse-type enclosures that enable us to extend the growing season for about four months, and we expect this to continue for years to come. We sell about 12 to 15 million strawberry plants per year.
What is your greatest challenge as a strawberry farmer?
We’ve got so many. We need better varieties of strawberries that have a longer shelf life and that can better withstand heat. We’ve been working on that for a long time, but it’s a slow going process. We also have things like insects, disease and cost issues. The cost of plastic is up. The cost of fertilizer doubled since last year.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
Most of what we sell goes to chain stores. We are constantly in touch with them, attend trade shows and stay on top of the market. We have close contact with NC State as well. Based on market trends and demand, we started planting organics and we now have 160 acres of organic blueberries. This year, for the first time, we planted two acres of organic strawberries. We also have organic strawberry plants.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
We plant cover crops to prevent erosion, use plastic to save water, and we’re getting into organics. We don’t waste anything.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
We sell some of our products locally, though the majority goes wholesale. We have stands outside some of our fields for local sales.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
Everybody is interested in how we grow strawberries, and they love when strawberry season comes. We probably do a school tour every day during strawberry picking season, and the kids love it. We’ve even got some parents who bring their kids here who used to come picking as kids. It’s a lot of fun to see the joy passed from one generation to the next.