Farmers Seek Return to Familiar

3 year old Beckett helps his mother pick out fresh strawberries from Jep's Farm Stand in the drive thru parking area near Pony Espresso in Southern Pines. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

Strawberry season is in full swing, and everyone’s buzzing about where to fill their baskets. It’s been an isolating winter because of pandemic restrictions, and farmers are ready to open their markets and fields.

“We’re looking forward to getting back into the routine after this strange year,” said Highlanders Farm owner John Blue.

The coronavirus pandemic curtailed business for a number of “pick your own” farms last year. A number of operations hastily developed social distancing procedures that were, at times, awkward and cumbersome. Farmers like the Blue family now are looking for a more normal year.

Blue’s family has owned the Carthage plot for generations, and he currently runs the place with his wife Vickie. The couple is feeling positive about sales this year.

Highlanders, like other farms in the area, was hit by the freeze on Good Friday. Blue feared the worst and, while there was some damage, it was nothing terrible. “Most people are expecting a decently sized crop this year.”

Highlanders Farm opened on Wednesday. Freshly made ice cream will be available, and customers have the option to drive up or walk up to shop. Though the farm isn’t offering berry picking yet, said Blue, they will open up their patches later this season.

Savannah Laur, a local agricultural agent with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, said Highlanders Farm is not the only Moore County farm that is hopeful about this year’s crop, despite the inconsistent weather.

“People used rope covers to protect their crop from the late frost,” Laur said. “Anyone who didn’t do that, I’d be worried about. But farms I’ve driven by so far knew to put them out, so I think they were all saved.”

Over in Eagle Springs, Kalawi Farms and Ben’s Ice Cream is getting ready to show off the results of their “huge peach crop” from last May. In the meantime, they are selling berries and homemade ice cream. Customers can use the drive-up window, or wear a mask inside the shop. Kalawi is a family-centered operation, from its multigenerational ownership down to the ice cream flavors named for various grandkids. 

Along with their normal offerings, Kalawi is going to surprise patrons with a new addition to the menu: smoothies. They have made strawberry cheesecake a permanent flavor too, after it received rave reviews as last year’s seasonal special. 

Karefree Produce, the organic farm that stocks most area farm-to-table restaurants, is planning to sell berries soon too. Their target time is this coming week, and picking will hopefully be an option by Mother’s Day. This year, pickers will be socially distanced and in two separate fields, said owner Karen Frye. “We’ll watch to make sure it doesn’t get too packed.” There will be a sanitation station too. 

Another crowd favorite, Olde Carthage Farms, opened Saturday. “I’m excited to meet the people who come back every year, to talk with our regular customers,” said owner Harvey Godfrey, who specializes in organic produce. Berry pickers will be welcome, and Godfrey expects the farm to get busy. “It’s spring: things are starting to green up, ripen up. People have been stuck in their houses for a long time, and are excited to get out again and see other people get out too.” 

The farm will have booths for folks to wash or sanitize their hands before and after the picking process, while all other selling and buying of produce will happen through a window. Masks are optional.

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