The summer heat (and, I’d venture, the veracity of the weeds we’ve been experiencing due to the late-season rain) caused our August CRAFT tour at Flying Cloud Farm to be our most intimate yet. This allowed us to get into the dirty (and sweet) details of “Berries Through the Seasons” with farmer Annie Perkinson, who has been farming in Fairview on her family’s land for the last 17 years. As you turn into the driveway, you are greeted by a quaint farm stand complete with hand-written signs; Flying Cloud seems to welcome you in with open arms. The U-Pick flower corner offers $5, $10, and $20 bucket sizes that can be filled by the eye candy you couldn’t have missed on your way in. Annie is constantly visiting the insulated boxes that house the vegetables, restocking the blackberry baskets and eyeballing squash sizes to label with the appropriate price sticker. The stand is open mid-March thru Christmas, seven days a week.
Flying Cloud takes full advantage of the warm summer months by growing strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries. These specialty crops are in addition to the multitudes of vegetable and flower crops they also produce on their 20 acres of leased land. Flying Cloud has found a certain niche in berry and flower production, trying to always have some of each in their CSA boxes and available at their on-site farm stand. Along with u-pick of both berries and flowers, they offer pre-arranged and wholesale flowers for events. They focus on having flowers year-round, using woody (such as pussywillow) and dried arrangements in winter to extend the flower season.
The new spring heat brings on the strawberries first, so this year’s’ strawberry field was our first stop. Flying Cloud plants 1 acre of strawberries each year, which amounts to about 1,000 plants. Using Everbearing strawberry plants requires a lot of maintenance, especially pertaining to weed and pest control. Flying Cloud uses a June-bearing variety called Chandler, which they buy as plugs from Walker Brother’s Plants. By treating their strawberries as annuals, it’s a lot easier to follow organic standards pertaining to pests, as the plants are replaced each year. The majority of maintenance comes in the form of bed preparation pre-planting, in late August. They use white clover as a cover crop between the rows, planting in September at the same time that they plant the new baby strawberry starts. This way, when the strawberries are finished producing in early June, there is an established cover crop ready to take over to rejuvenate the field. The plants will bear the following May, and require a remay cover in the winter.
They are able to pick the strawberries heavily for 6 weeks beginning in early May, and then turn them over to u-pick until they taper out. The strawberries overlap slightly with the ripening time of the blueberries, which comes on heavily for 4 weeks in early June thru July. They have about 500 blueberry bushes of 4 varieties (Jersey, Duke, Blue Crop, and Patriot), which are weeded and mulched two times a year. They follow the biodynamic calendar, which calls for pruning in February or March of each year. The only protection for the blueberries against birds is drip tape that is draped thru the tops of the bushes; it allows just enough of an optical illusion to scare any would-be predators away, they’ve used reflective tape also in years past.
Mid-July is blackberry time, which Annie describes as being the “perk to berry growing. Strawberries are brutal; you’re always bending down. But with blackberries, you don’t need to kneel, and sometimes you even get to reach over your head!” she exclaims as she reaches up to pluck a particularly juicy specimen off the bush in front of her, popping it in her mouth. The variety that Flying Cloud grows is called Chester Thornless Blackberries, their best feature allowing whomever is harvesting to drape all over the branches without fear of impalement.
Spotted wing drosophila, a particularly evil cousin of the common fruit fly, is a well-known pest of blackberries in Western North Carolina, but Flying Cloud knows just how to deal with them. They pick all ripe fruit off the bush, sorting into “good” and “bad” piles. They sell what they can of the “good” as fresh fruit, freezing whatever may be left over to be processed into value added products in the winter. The “bad” are also frozen and later fed to the pigs. The freezing ensures that the larvae are not introduced back onto their land in the pig’s manure, and it seems to work well as Annie estimates they only lose about 10% of their blackberries each year to the pests.
We’d like to thank Flying Cloud for giving us the juicy details on their berry production, and encourage any who are interested to visit their picturesque farm to pick a basket for themselves. Happy harvesting!
___________________________________________________________________________________________WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Director at 828.338.9465 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology and Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. Along with lab and garden work, she also loves writing about alternative farming techniques and food-based communities. Her own project, developed over the last year, is called The Driving Food Home Collective, which works to empower young women to publish investigative writing about food and farming organizations across the United States (www.drivingfoodhome.com). She currently resides in Celo, NC and spends her time working in local food and farm advocacy, homesteading, and frolicking in the South Toe Valley.