PEMBROKE — Fat, juicy, vine-ripened and locally grown, strawberries are one of the tastiest rites of spring. The thought of strawberry shortcake evokes the season when they are harvested in abundance.
Ellery Locklear, owner of Locklear Farms in Pembroke, is asking, ‘What if they became a rite of fall as well?’
He is offering quantities of berries this fall, and defying conventional wisdom that strawberries are planted in the fall and picked in the spring.
These locally grown berries are not available in the supermarket, but they may be found at Locklear’s roadside stand near N.C. 711 and Deep Branch Road in Pembroke.
So, what is a fall strawberry, and how does it stack up to the spring edition?
“I think they are sweeter,” said Arlin Wood, who runs the Locklear Farms’ stand in Pembroke. “Other people say they are tarter than spring berries.”
Somewhere between sweet and tart, fall strawberries are a welcome surprise, serving up the flavor of spring in a smaller package.
There are several differences between the spring and fall versions of strawberries, and there are some similarities, too, Locklear said.
“The berries are smaller in the fall,” he said. “We’ll overwinter these plants, and the strawberries our customers buy in the spring will be the same big berries they are used to.”
Locklear Farms has 1.5 acres of strawberries, and his workers stay busy picking them fall and spring. To survive the cold that winter throws at them, they will cover the rows with fabric that protects the plants down to 22 degrees.
“Eventually, cold weather will shut them down, and they go dormant over winter,” Locklear said. “It’s a challenge.
“When they come out in early spring, the early crop will be double what I got before. The plants will be better established.”
Locklear said he has been “tinkering” with fall strawberries for six years.
“I started small and inched up to see what works,” he said.
Strawberries, whether customers pick their own or buy them already picked, are an important cash crop for local farmers such as Locklear.
“I have five workers,” Locklear said. “If I can keep them busy all year, I won’t have to look for labor seasonally.”
The growing seasons have come together this fall. Summer season tomatoes, peppers and green beans are for sale next to collards, kale, turnips and mustard greens.
“This fall has been stellar with above normal temperatures,” Locklear said two days before Thanksgiving. “The frost last night killed my tomato vines. I’ll check to see if it hurt the tomatoes that are left.”
The killing frost was good for collards and other greens. Two days before Thanksgiving, customers arrived steadily to buy giant collard plants for their holiday tables.
Kermit Locklear bought a bag of tomatoes.
“These are real good,” Kermit said. “I got no use for collards.”
Locklear Farms sells its produce at the twice-weekly Lumberton Farmers Market, where he is the largest vendor, and on the farm. Locklear also sells produce to other roadside stands.
If his farm were located somewhere else, Locklear might tap into the farm-to-table restaurant market. He would dearly like to see a local restaurant that serves fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables.
“Secretly, I’d like to have a restaurant. It could be done here, I believe,” Locklear said. “My wife and I ate at the Chef and the Farmer. It’s not in an urban area.”
The Chef and the Farmer, located in Kinston, is owned by Vivian Howard, who has become a celebrity because of her TV show that appears on public televisions stations. Howard buys locally and cooks creatively.
“It was the best food I’ve eaten,” Locklear said. “It took us several months to get a reservation.”
In the meantime, Locklear continues to spread his risk with new products. He had an acre of chrysanthemums that sold well this fall. He’s thinking about growing asparagus.
Locklear Farms has several greenhouses, which are used for nurturing seedlings for transplanting and growing hanging baskets. It takes a lot of experience to grow year-round and to get the timing just right.
Black plastic and irrigation are critical, especially for strawberries. Locklear said his sandy, well-drained soil is perfect for growing everything. Of course, weather is always a wild card, but this year, he is holding a full house (so far).
If growing a crop of fall strawberries is a pleasant surprise, Locklear and his business story are an unusual chapter in agriculture.
Locklear has 20 years of experience in farming small. Surprisingly, he did not attend N.C. State or any other college. And, his family are not former tobacco farmers, or farmers at all.
Locklear set out on the most difficult path for his career. Growing vegetables and fruit requires more labor, marketing, management and science than row-cropping wheat, corn and soybeans.
“I’m a first generation farmer,” he said. “I learned the hard way, starting at 16.”
“It can be done,” he said. “I would advise a young person that all they need is $100 for seeds and fertilizer and some dirt.”
That’s how this successful small farmer did it. That’s how he plans to make strawberry shortcake, made from fresh, local berries, a tradition on Thanksgiving tables throughout the region.
Scott Bigelow may be contacted at email@example.com or by calling 910-644-4497. Tomeka Sinclair can be reached by calling 910-416-5865 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.