This week I had the pleasure of speaking to Vernon Britt, owner of Britt Farms in Mount Olive, NC, or as he described their location, “the ‘toe’ of Wayne County”. I called him on a dreary afternoon and caught him sitting in his tractor waiting out the rain so he could pull the row covers off of his strawberries. Such is the life of a farmer, you’re lucky to catch them out of the field or in a still moment, but when you do it’s a treat. Vernon was cheery and kind and graciously took time out of his very busy day to speak with me. He has been farming his whole life; as a child his parents grew corn, wheat, tobacco, beans, peppers, squash, and the like. His grandfather raised hogs and cows in the woods which essentially became Vernon’s childhood playground. His father’s last harvest was in 1980 and the farm was run by different family members until 2006. Vernon was working full time doing sales for Lowes in Goldsboro and dabbled a bit in raising hogs until the price of pork dropped. In 2006 he came home and took over the farm himself, 2007 was their first vegetable harvest and they’ve been going strong ever since. Vernon and his wife, Jennifer, are the only full-time workers and they have seasonal workers that come every summer. They still have cows that they sell through Smithfield and their main vegetable crops
include strawberries, peaches, potatoes, onions, greens, and “a little bit of everything.” Strawberries are their biggest crop with five acres in production currently. They sell their produce primarily at the NC State Farmers Market in Raleigh, have a CSA of their own, and work with wholesale businesses.
The desire for farming was instilled in Vernon as a child from his father and grandfather, but “the way they farmed then wouldn’t work now because of new diseases and insects. The chemicals we use are a lot softer than what they used.” He went on to describe how farmers once used pesticides and herbicides that would kill everything in the field. Now they still use chemicals but instead of coating the field at the first sign of a problem they scout their fields first to see if their crops have a pest or disease and then pinpoint that problem specifically. “There are a lot more beneficial insects than pests,” he emphasized. “Weather is always a challenge. About the time you think you’ve got it figured out you’re totally wrong. Every day is a
challenge around here.” But I can tell from his tone, as he looks over his strawberry field in the rain, that it’s all worth it. He finds support in the farming community surrounding his farm, he and about four or five other farmers in the area work together and share knowledge. If one farmer is having a hard time selling all of one crop the others will help him out and vice versa, along with sharing experience and ideas to deal with pest or disease problems. It seems like a model from the past, but just what our local food system needs: collaboration instead of competition.
As winter approaches, preparation is the name of the game. The work on the farm will shift from fieldwork to work in the greenhouses and barns. During high summer, when there
aren’t enough hours in the day, if a tool or machine breaks it’s fixed as quickly as possible. The wintertime is dedicated to maintaining and properly repairing the damage from the summer. They will also begin starting seeds for the spring in December and by January their time is fully dedicated to planting and preparing in the greenhouse. Some crops will still be available in the winter such as previously stored sweet potatoes, pecans, kale, collards, lettuce, broccoli, and cabbage that can take the frost. They are looking into some new projects as well, and winter is the perfect time for scheming and dreaming. On the surface it may look as though things are slowing down, but for farmers, slow is an adjective rarely used and Vernon Britt is no exception.
When you buy produce from Britt Farms you can rest assured that your produce was grown with care in every step of the process.