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Greenhouse strawberries pay off for Columbus County grower

Grower Mark Cox says his father’s willingness to try new things encouraged the family to try growing off-season strawberries in greenhouses this winter. Local customers came to their operation to buy strawberries for $4 a quart.

Ornate letter "W"hen Mark Cox and his family needed a cash crop to occupy unused space in their tobacco transplant greenhouse, they turned to a Columbus County staple – strawberries – with a twist. While strawberries are plentiful here in May, they are priceless in the fall and winter.

Cox turned to Extension agent Milton Parker, now retired, for advice on how to grow cool-season strawberries in his greenhouses. Another local grower had successfully developed a system for growing strawberries indoors in a vertical system with PVC pipe.

Cox, along with his brother Mitch and father, Horace, decided to try another system – one that had not been used commercially, Parker said. With the help of an $8,000 grant from the Rural Advancement Fund International, the Coxes planted 12,000 Festival strawberry plants in seamless rain gutters, stacked waist-high on benches in the greenhouse. The plants were irrigated through a system of plastic tubing running through each gutter.

Mark Cox said his father has always been something of a tinkerer, a trait that encouraged his sons to try something new. “The only way you learn is to try something,” he said.

The system worked well, except for one problem. The plants were too close together, causing some disease problems with gray mold, Parker said. Cox removed some of the plants and replanted them directly in the ground in another tobacco greenhouse. The plants did well, but were more difficult to harvest at ground level.

“This system will allow someone to grow something inside off-season,” Parker said. “The motivation is to find a crop to occupy the greenhouses nine months of the year.”

Cox was able to quickly establish a client base, hungry for off-season strawberries. Family members took orders for the berries that sold for $4 per quart. Without ever putting up a sign at his Tabor City operation, Cox began getting drop-in clients as well.

“It’s hard for people to turn down strawberries, especially off season,” Cox said.

In addition, he found some local businesses willing to sell quarts of berries. Clients soon came to those locales looking for the sweet, red strawberries. He also took a stab at driving some berries to restaurants in nearby Myrtle Beach, but discovered the trip did not pay for itself.

The Coxes still raise some tobacco transplants in greenhouses, but business had not grown as quickly as they had hoped, Mark Cox said. The strawberries were an attempt to find another high-value commodity they could raise in the greenhouses.

He is pleased with his first season’s success and may even try other crops – perhaps cool-season lettuce – next year.

Parker, who served both Robeson and Columbus counties, encouraged growers in this coastal plain area to try new things. A number of them, like the Coxes, have received grant support from RAFI, he said.

“We have a great opportunity to grow a wide variety of specialty crops down here,” he said. “I believe the future of North Carolina agriculture lies in value-added crops.”

One grower is selling value-added pecans, coated in sugary glaze and sold in paper cones at amusement venues. A Robeson County grower in raising 10 varieties of paw-paws, which make delicious ice cream, Parker says. Still another is raising shiitake mushrooms in inoculated oak logs. A number of growers have found success in brambles ranging from blackberries to raspberries.

Such new opportunities are “for those willing to take a chance and step outside the box,” Parker said. “That’s where Extension has to position itself – in the driver’s seat.”

—Natalie Hampton