by Sally Colby
In 2008, Ray Tuegel and Cheryl Ferguson were commuting back and forth between Albuquerque, NM and Cheryl’s family farm in North Carolina. They hadn’t intended to become farmers, but Cheryl’s father had always encouraged her to come back to the former tobacco and cattle farm. The farm has been in Cheryl’s family for over 150 years, and is a designated North Carolina Century Farm.
“The kind of farming we were going to do was nothing like my father did,” said Cheryl. “There was a lot of clearing and repairs to be done, and the infrastructure we needed didn’t exist.” The couple got to work, repurposed what they could, and added irrigation and electrical lines.
Cheryl explained the farm name. “A plum granny is an old-time southern Appalachian term for passionflower, and they grow wild all over the farm,” she said. “We weren’t looking at it as a marketing tool, but it’s a great conversation starter.”
Since Ray and Cheryl had spent some time on an organic farm in New Mexico, they had some ideas about what and how they wanted to grow. “We wanted to grow things we like, and things that we like to grow,” said Ray, explaining the start of their certified organic farm. “We wanted to grow specialty crops, more niche and less commodity, but found that we needed to diversify. We started out with raspberries and garlic, and we still love growing both of those, but you can’t make it at market if you’re a two-trick pony.”
Before the couple started growing raspberries, they did a lot of research and started small. When the first berries were ready, Ray and Cheryl took them to market for taste testing and customers voted for their favorites. “The customers enjoyed it, and it helped build our customer base and brand early on,” said Ray. “Based on that, we eliminated one variety and never planted it again.”
Although fall raspberries were popular at market, the spotted wing drosophila (SWD) forced a change of plans. “We had heard a little about SWD, then we got calls,” said Cheryl, explaining that customers had found larvae in the berries. “We quickly shut down the pick-your-own and started to do research. It’s a problem, particularly for an organic farm because there aren’t any good things we can do.”
The solution was to switch to raspberry varieties that ripen in May, before the SWD population expands. “We’re trying to extend that a little, as late as into June,” said Ray, “so we’re in that transition right now.” Since the contours and soil improvements had already been done for the fall-bearing plants, the spring raspberries are going into the same beds.
Plum Granny also grows blackberries and black raspberries, and Ray plans to increase both to complement other seasonal crops. “We start in spring with strawberries and go as late into summer and fall as we can,” he said. “We have grapes and apple trees that help us do that. Rather than increasing a crop that produces all at the same time, we’re trying to stretch it out and always have a fruit presence at the market and for our subscription program.”
Ray has found that blackberries are somewhat easier to grow, and are more acclimated to the area. “We’re in a marginal area for producing raspberries profitably,” he said. “We got into blackberries because we were growing raspberries, and in order to grow raspberries successfully, you need to eradicate wild blackberries that are in the field or in the neighborhood of the field. I rogued out the blackberry sprouts, and after doing that for weeks on end, I realized that blackberries do so well here that I should grow them here with the raspberries.”
Ray and Cheryl grew a lot of garlic in New Mexico, and have become the largest garlic growers in the Piedmont Triad area with 24 varieties and 18,000 and 30,000 stems in the ground. “Once we have cured garlic, we try to have six to seven varieties every week at market,” said Cheryl. “I call it ‘from mild to wild’ in terms of flavor profile.”
The selection process for garlic begins with Ray and Cheryl’s own tastes. After researching varieties, they put 200 to 300 test plants in the ground. “We taste the leftover cloves at planting,” said Ray, describing their evaluation process. “We get an idea of what to expect, then we see how it is at harvest — does it fit the slot we need? For example, we spent a long time searching for a hot, spicy garlic, and tried different varieties to fill that slot.” Plum Granny keeps seed for their own seed bank, sells garlic seed and produces seed for other growers.
The season begins with spring garlic in April, then scapes in May, fresh garlic in June and July, and cured garlic in August. Ray says the main challenge in growing garlic is managing soil moisture and fertility and minimizing weeds during the growing season. “We plant in the fall, weed it once in winter and it takes care of itself until spring,” he said. “Harvest time is pretty intense. In the space of two or three weeks, we have to get all the plants out of the ground, then grade and store them.”
Although Ray and Cheryl didn’t intend to grow a lot of other vegetables, they realized that they’d need variety to keep customers coming back. Plum Granny Farm produces about 70 different crops with many varieties. The goal is to keep the table full at market and have ample produce for the subscription program. “We just finished the second year of that,” said Cheryl, adding that they plan to offer 50 memberships this year. “We need to fill those boxes. People want more than fruit and garlic, so we have a good mix of products.”
Ray says it’s important to try new things and create a market for them. After experimenting with and developing a market for shishito peppers, he noticed more vendors are offering them. “We have to be continually looking for the ‘next’ crop,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of failures until we find the ones that work.” Cheryl noted that they started growing ginger to add to their own fruit jam, and have since added turmeric, Thai ginger and artichokes.
Cheryl says when they started farming, they were looked at with suspicion because people didn’t understand organic farming. “We didn’t have a lot of customers from our immediate community at first,” she said. “People were curious and would show up and ask questions, but they weren’t customers. Now we’re starting to see more and more people from our community come to our events. We have a plant sale in April, and we coordinate a farm tour with other farms in our area. This year we had seven farms on the tour. It’s a matter of educating all kinds of folks, and our immediate community is part of that.”
Visit Plum Granny Farm online at www.plumgrannyfarm.com.
North Carolina Century Farm switches gears
by Sally Colby