This past Friday I had the great pleasure of visiting Cox Family Farms in Goldsboro, NC. Robbie and Janie Cox have been farming together for twenty-six years, their farm just down the road from the family farm Robbie grew up on. Robbie has been farming this particular piece of land himself for forty years. It has been in his family forever and he cleared the land and cultivated it himself. When I asked him why he decided he wanted to farm he replied with a smile: “Because I like it.” He and Janie (and their two sweet farm dogs) were excited to show me around their farm and explain their projects. You’ve seen their vegetables on our order page—bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers, squash—they have about 10 acres in vegetable production, three greenhouses, and two hoop houses.
The greenhouses are used mostly for growing the cucumbers and starting seeds in the cold months, right now one of them is full of herbs that are drying. Hoop houses are essentially greenhouses that are not heated, often used to get a jumpstart on the season, they warm up to be about two weeks ahead than the crops in the field. For Cox Farms, the red bell peppers do the best in the hoop houses. They water all of their crops with drip irrigation, which is essentially a line of black tape between every row with holes poked through it. It is a more efficient way of watering directly at the base of the plant and in a steady drip instead of a flood. With forty years of farming under his belt, Robbie is an arsenal of knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. “When you’re a good farmer your plants will talk to you, they’ll let you know what they need. I go out and look at mine every day.” It takes a long time to learn this stuff—I’ve heard it takes ten years just to feel established and knowledgeable as a farmer, and then you can really start–but you never stop learning and adapting. “I’m still learning every day,” Robbie emphasizes. A really interesting innovation that they use to start a lot of their seeds during the bitter cold winter months is an insulated Maola truck. Heating a greenhouse enough to start seedlings is incredibly expensive, but heating a well-insulated back of an 18-wheeler is not so bad. He has grow lights set up that are on a timer and plenty of space to start all of their seeds for the spring season.
This is located in their packaging plant, which is a huge open room with a conveyer belt used to grade and sort their vegetables and tons. Off to the side they have their coolers which are enormous walk-ins the size of several rooms that have different sections in them to store their vegetables at the needed temperatures.
Robbie and Janie once trained racehorses on their land. In their office they have a wall of newspaper clippings of their horses that have traveled more around the country than I have and won different races. But training racehorses is hard work and they decided to shift their focus to their vegetables. This summer they decided to replace their horses with chickens and got 200 Rhode Island Reds mixed with Brown Sussex laying hens, outfitted some old horse stables, and fenced in 5 acres of land. The first thing they showed me when I arrived at the farm was their chicken set-up. Let me tell you, these are some of the happiest and friendliest chickens I have ever seen. They instantly came up to us when we opened the door (probably looking for food) but they even let us pet and hold them (something that not many chickens enjoy). Their nesting boxes are in the horse stables along with wooden planks for them to roost on and food and water. The stables are well ventilated with huge doors, which is important for keeping down the smell and ammonia build-up. There is a large covered, open space for the chickens to scratch around and explore before they are able to open up the coop for them in the mornings, but once they are allowed outside, the chickens run to the sunshine. Right now the hens are fenced in to a slightly smaller area to keep them from eating the recently sown wheat seed in their grazing area for next season. But they are certainly not going without, their outdoor enclosure is equipped with a section of tall weeds for hawk protection, a big trailer for shade, plenty of space to wander and scratch, and some leftover veggies to munch on. Robbie and Janie love their chickens, their excitement was tangible and contagious. As we discussed the difference between store bought eggs and farm fresh eggs, we decided you can barely compare them: the deep yellow yolk, the strong white, the rich flavor (my mouth is watering just thinking about it). There is always something to be said about farming with compassion, not only is it better for everyone involved but the product is incredible.
What struck me the most about visiting Cox Farms was how welcome I felt. Janie instantly greeted me with a hug when I arrived and I left with gifts of eggs and pecans. They are proud of their farm and are happy to show their hard work and lifestyle to those interested. They have customers who will come to the farm to buy directly from them–especially for their famous orange watermelons, which sound like they are worth a trip to Goldsboro. Farming to them is about good connections with their customers and providing good product that they are proud of. They have regulars that come back every week because they’ve gotten to know them, farmers that they know and share knowledge with, businesses (like Papa Spud’s) that they work closely with to reach out in the community. This seems to be the best way to bring a community and people together: good farming and good food. We all have to eat, and farmers like Robbie and Janie are maintaining the spirit of community with their work, all we have to do is join in.