Dec 30, 2019
Hurricanes blow in changes for Southeastern organic grower
Dean Peterson

North Carolina is productive vegetable country with good soils, good climate and access to urban markets, but the September hurricane season is changing the industry. One example is Black River Organic Farm near Ivanhoe.

Most of 2019’s Hurricane Dorian stayed out to sea and it brought a few inches of rain into North Carolina’s coastal plain. But Hurricane Matthew in 2016 brought 18 inches to Black River Organic Farm and Hurricane Florence in 2018 accounted for twice that amount.

“We got 37 inches of rain in just a few days,” said Stefan Hartmann, owner of Black River Organic Farm. “It was an unheard-of amount of water. That water had to go somewhere.”

The farm’s four propane tanks floated out into a swamp. One greenhouse was demolished – not by wind – but by pounding rain. Crops were destroyed. The original farmhouse had four and a half feet of water in it. Other homes and buildings were flooded.

A new planting of longleaf pine intended for the pine straw market was hammered and half of the seedlings were lost. That brought uncertainty into the plan to diversify into forestry. Pine straw is the annual blanket of needles longleaf pines deposit on the ground that can be baled and sold for mulch.

The Black River Organic Farm has been certified organic since 1989 and Hurricane Florence put a crimp in that since the official recommendation was to suspend production in flooded fields. “What do I do now?” Hartmann asked. “I’m still adhering to the organic standards, but am not certified organic.”

Organic certification has been a marketing mainstay of Black River Organic Farm – both when selling direct to customers and to the wholesale market.

The first wholesale market for the farm was Wellspring Grocery in the 1980s, one of the first health food stores in North Carolina. Wellspring was eventually bought by Whole Foods Market in 1991.

Eastern Carolina Organics is the main way the organic produce is marketed wholesale today. The organization is farmer-owned and markets and distributes Carolina organic farm produce. With Ivanhoe in a more rural part of North Carolina, Eastern Carolina Organics is a way to tap The Triangle of North Carolina – the urban area of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

“Being located here in a rural area has always been a challenge,” Hartmann said. “We’re removed from the lucrative market of The Triangle. Sometimes, we grow too much for the local market and wholesale’s the outlet.”

Local farmers’ markets are still the market mainstay. Black River Organic Farm has had booths at the Wilmington Farmers’ Market at the Tidal Creek Cooperative Food Market and at the Poplar Grove Farmer’s Market, both in Wilmington.

“I’m full in favor of organic certification because as a farmer it keeps you sharp,” Hartmann said. “It forces you to pay attention. It forces you to keep up with all the changes. Being organic means something to our customers.”

Rotation, cover crops and composting are the main organic practices used on Black River Organic Farm. Rotation has been effective against insect pests that tend to overwinter in and near the fields of their host crops.

“We had an outbreak of potato beetle and all I did was move my potatoes one mile up the road,” Hartmann said. “They’re going to build up in that field, but then I’ll move the potatoes back.”

Moving cucurbit production a mile up the road was also a simple solution to a squash bug outbreak, but the learning curves in organic farming are steep. “Have a big loss and you notice it,” Hartmann said. “You know you have to change and you do learn. Hopefully, you learn it before you go out of business.”

The cover crops are seeded in strips in the fields and are one of the farm’s success stories. “You have grasses and blooming clovers that attract beneficial (insects),” Hartmann said.

The raw material for composting is obtained from neighboring poultry farmers. The material is properly composted and applied as fertilizer.

“In 30 years, I’ve sprayed very little,” Hartmann said. Bt. is the most common product used for insect pest control but some chemical soaps and other approved products are also used. “It’s a lot of work for sure, but I do enjoy it,” Hartmann said.

The restaurants Black River Organic Farm sells to are its most discerning customers. “I’ve been surprised by one thing,” Hartmann said. “I’ve found that year after year, they prefer what I grow – my collard greens, my broccoli, my potatoes – and want to know how I do it, and it’s nice to hear that. I tell them organic is a system; it’s a whole system.”

But then there are the hurricanes.

The long-term plan for Black River Organic Farm is to downsize the operation and maybe give up the cucurbits and fullest season crops that would normally be harvested – or lost to a hurricane – in September. “We’re pretty small, about 10 acres,” Hartmann said, “but to rebuild the same way would be foolish.

“From a farmer perspective,” Hartmann said, “the winter months are supposed to be a time of rest where you can stretch and get ideas for next year. After Florence swept in, we were day-to-day trying to do triage. It’s taken away a farmer’s ability to catch his breath for the second season.

“We were just recovering from Hurricane Matthew,” he continued. “After Hurricane Matthew, we got a lot of support from friendly people and business customers. We were very grateful for the help we received in Matthew and that helped prepare us for Florence. We didn’t get the support with Florence because it was so widespread. We were one of many, many damaged people.”

— Dean Peterson, OG correspondent

Photo: Stefan Hartmann, right, owner of Black River Organic Farm near Ivanhoe, North Carolina, is considering a change in his crop selection to reduce threats from the region’s hurricanes.

– Dean Peterson, Organic Grower contributor

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