[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of stories highlighting local farms that were featured in the annual Stokes County Cooperative Extension Small Farms Tour]
When participants in the Stokes County Cooperative Extension Small Farms Tour visited Mabe’s Berry Farm in April they learned that the success of the farm depends on generations of family effort and a healthy helping of science.
The farm, founded by W.G. “Bill” Mabe and his wife Emma in 1967 is one of the oldest strawberry farms in the state.
Mike Rogers, who now runs the farm with his wife Christy Mabe, said they grow close to 80,000 strawberry plants a year, selling pre-picked berries from their roadside stand and allowing people to also come and pick their own.
“We are a plastic culture grower,” said Rogers, explaining that means the plants are grown in raised beds that are covered in black plastic and watered using an underground drip irrigation system. “We grow a variety of berries called Chandler because they produce a really big, juicy berry.”
Rogers said growing the perfect berry is a year long endeavour that requires lots of work and scientific knowledge.
“We plant fresh every year,” he said. “We start in July when we will get all the plastic up and burn the fields. Then we come out and take soil samples and figure out what fertilizers we need and apply those.”
He said choosing the right fertilizers was very important to the process because it could impact the size and even the flavor of the berries.
“Then the plants come in in clippings from Canada,” said Rogers. “We call every family member we know and spend a weekend taking the clippings and putting them in a 50-cell greenhouse tray and getting them under water. Then we lay the the plastic and get the drip irrigation installed.”
He said the farm uses a plant bedder that forms the beds, places the drip-line and covers it all with plastic. Before the plants are placed in the ground the Rogers inject the beds with a gas that kills any types of soil fungus that may be present.
“We do that in late August so you have 38 days or so for anything that could be detrimental to work itself out,” he said. “Then by the end of September or early October we will come in on a carousel planter. It punches a hole in the plastic, sets the plant in and covers it back up. It usually takes us three days to get it all planted.”
After making sure the plants are well watered and thriving they will let them grow during the winter before dealing with possible frost issues in March and April.
Rogers said that temperature fluctuations can have a dramatic impact on the health of the crop, noting that frosts can destroy blooms, killing a crop before it even starts, and high temperatures can cause heat damage.
“We use a lot of technology to deal with temperatures,” he said. “We have thermocouplers plugged into some of the blooms so I can tell what the bloom temperature is. We also subscribe to Skybit which is fee-based weather service. It takes our latitude and longitude and elevation and tells me exactly what the temperature will be at different points in the day.
“If it looks like the temperature will get to a point where it could cause heat damage we will irrigate underground to help take the stress off of the plants,” he added, noting that if frost seems likely the family will set out sprinklers to coat the plants in ice to prevent frost damage. “When the water goes from liquid to solid it releases a little bit of BTU heat which protects the plant.”
Christy Mabe Rogers said even with all the science, the fields require a lot of love and work from her family.
“It is a completely family run operation,” she said. “We don’t grow more than what we can handle. I want people to go out here and pick a clean strawberry and not have to worry about anything. I want the fields to be immaculate.”
She noted that while the farm is not organic, they make sure that any chemicals they use will be safe for consumers.
“We don’t give anything to anybody that we would not feed our own kids,” she said. “Our daughter will put a hurting on a half a gallon of strawberries every day.”
The Rogers said all the hard work was worth it when they see a kid coming out of the field covered in strawberry juice.
“We are very blessed to live in the country,” said Christy. “When I see kids who do not have that opportunity come up here it truly warms my heart.”
“Nothing thrills us more than to see a kid come out of the field on a Saturday morning and he is just covered in red strawberry juice,” agreed Mike.
The farm also offers blueberries later in the season.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.