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Row crop, tobacco growers turn to vegetables

Two years ago in January, Travis Riggs looked up from his ledger at his wife, Gayle, and asked her, “You thinking what I'm thinking?” She looked back at her husband and said, “I'm thinking, ‘Let's just get out of it.’”

“‘Well, I'm thinking the same thing,’” he recalls saying.

With that brief conversation, the Riggs ended more than 30 years of growing flue-cured tobacco, corn and soybeans to concentrate solely on vegetable production.

Happy with situation

Going into the second full-time year of selling their produce directly to the public at three roadside stands in Onslow and Carteret counties, N.C., the Riggs family — Travis, Gayle and son, Chris — are glad they made the switch. Among the many benefits, they are able to set their own price.

The list of crops they grow on 150 acres includes strawberries, butter beans, greenhouse tomatoes, lettuce, sweet corn, asparagus, blackberries, raspberries, watermelons, cantaloupes and onions. They also make and sell jams and jellies.

The three Riggs operate as a unit. Travis handles the production, Gayle works the marketing and Chris, who came back home to farm with his folks after graduating from North Carolina State University, grows greenhouse vegetables and offers a youthful vision to the family business.

Based on his past experiences with produce, Travis made sure he had a market before he planted a particular crop.

“You can't just go out there and plant anything and hope to sell it,” Travis says. “That's a lesson I learned after 30-something years of trying to grow and sell cabbage. I would cut 30 to 40 acres of cabbage not knowing what I was going to get for it. That taught me a big lesson about marketing.” They market strawberries, watermelons and cantaloupes through seven Food Lion stores in the area, as well as the three roadside stands.

In addition to growing quality produce and fruit, the family also relies heavily on marketing.

The biggest draw to the stand on U.S. Highway 24 that runs from Jacksonville is the five and a half acres of strawberries.

In season, the strawberries attract some 20,000 people to the roadside stand. Customers can either pick the berries themselves or buy the berries already picked. As many as 1,500 school children come to the Riggs Farm to learn about how berries grow and pick a bucket full. The Riggs charge $2 per child to cover the cost of the bucket.

“We give them soft serve ice cream with strawberries on top and let them enjoy that in the picnic area,” says Gayle, who's putting her 26 years of real estate marketing experience to good use. “We see so many of those little buckets bring their parents back with them on the weekend.”

One on one

One of the most important things in this type of business is person-to-person contact, Gayle says. “Either my husband or myself are here at the stand everyday. I also try to survey my customers to see if they want something specially grown.”

They started growing greenhouse lettuce because a customer asked for it. The soft serve ice cream topped with berries also came at the suggestion of customers “who thought it would be nice to have a cone of ice cream when they came out of the field to pick strawberries.”

Even with three farm markets, Gayle says personalized service is paramount. “There are people who want us to take a bag and walk along beside them,” she says. “That's the way we started out — with personalized service.”

While acknowledging the operation is now large enough to require 15 employees, seven migrant laborers and others, Gayle says, “we try to do the little things that the larger markets can't do. We want to keep it on small scale, but have enough revenue to support us.”

With that in mind, the Riggs opened two additional markets to catch the tourist trade during the summer. The three markets remain open until Thanksgiving.

Travis would still rather be in the field than under the shed, but he's warmed up to the idea. A veteran tobacco producer, he started with about two acres of tobacco in 1963, the year he graduated high school.

Four years ago, he was up to 120 acres of flue-cured tobacco. Three years of successive quota cuts, however, dimmed his prospects of making a living for his family. By the time he saw the writing on the walls of his 18 bulk barns in January of 1999, Riggs was going into the growing season with quota amounting to 45 acres of tobacco.

When he had the conversation with his wife, he was looking at a substantial increase in quota rent, a cut in quota and the decision of whether or not to retrofit his barns to continue to sell his tobacco.

“If I had stayed in tobacco, I would have had to spend a lot of money retrofitting the barns,” Travis says.

“Yes, it was a hard decision,” Travis says matter-of-factly, sitting on a table where an employee trims and packages produce. “But it was the right decision.”

Tobacco production was to the point where just about all of the labor was out of it, Travis says. With vegetables, it's just the opposite. He had grown vegetables, along with the other crops for 18 years.

For strawberry production, he'll lay black plastic in the fall, plant the strawberries in October and watch them like babies for diseases and fertility problems.

During the summer months, vegetables also require a vigilant eye and timing sprays. Chris handles the strawberries and greenhouse production.

With temperatures predicted at near freezing for a mid-April night, the Riggs were out in the fields covering up 15 acres of watermelons, cantaloupes, squash and tomatoes with ReMay, water and Styrofoam cups. The pre-freeze work saved about 95 percent of the transplants.

Labor intensive

The labor in vegetable production is intensive, but it's still not anything compared with the stress of trying to find enough acres to have a substantial allotment and then not knowing what price you would get at the market, Travis confides.

“I don't spend as much time out in the fields as I did when I had tobacco and 1,100 acres of soybeans and corn,” Travis says. “It's regularly 7:00 or 7:30 every evening when we get in. We used to go all night sometimes in the field.

“To be able to farm enough tobacco to make a living, I'd have to rent about 1,100 acres of cropland,” Travis says. “Cheap corn, cheap soybeans and the fact that the price of tobacco hadn't gone up in 15 years made it pretty clear to me that we needed to be doing something else.

“Tobacco was good to us, but for some to make it, some have to get out of it,” Travis says. “Everybody can't have a few acres of tobacco and survive. It takes more than it used to.”

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