Staff photo by Allison Potter
As an elementary student, I remember waiting for the annual field trip to Lewis Farms’ “u-Pick” location on Gordon Road. After the 30-minute bus ride across town, our teachers unleashed us into the fields. My classmates and I would run from row to row, picking as many strawberries as our little hands could hold, with no thought to how ripe or large they actually were. There was no need to worry anyway; coming from Lewis Farms you never had to. I would return home with a box full for my mother, who would then slice them up, sprinkle them with sugar and serve them with a little bit of Cool Whip. Those field trips picking berries were the highlight of the school year.
Today, Lewis Farms still carries on this tradition. It has expanded to open another u-Pick location in Castle Hayne and opened satellite fruit stands in Monkey Junction and Hampstead that sell freshly picked strawberries, jams and other goods.
A third generation family business headquartered in Rocky Point, North Carolina, Everette Lewis created Lewis Farms in 1953.
“My father [Everette] grew up on the family farm,” said Cal Lewis, current owner of Lewis Farms. “He went to college and was part of the university [horticulture] extension program and decided he wanted to get back to the family business.”
Everette returned to the family tradition after serving in the army and receiving a master’s degree in plant pathology from North Carolina State University.
“He was advised by his dad to purchase his uncle’s farm next to his parents,” Lewis said. “Back then, he grew a lot of different crops but his passion was strawberries … just the complexity of growing the plant. He did his master’s thesis on a disease that affects strawberries specifically called red stele. ”
Everette was the first to propagate registered and certified strawberry nursery plants for commercial use in North Carolina and also introduced black plastic culture farming in the mid-1960s.
Lee Williams, who married into the Lewis family, has been involved in the business and also witnessed its growth.
“Everette passed away in ‘96 and then Cal took over the company and has really grown the business,” Williams said.
Cal Lewis pursued the family tradition after graduating from N.C. State and working with American Foods in Florida, learning vegetable and marketing practices. Since then he has worked to maintain and cultivate his father’s business.
“I came up from Florida in the early 80s and ran our soil fumigation,” Lewis said. “I began encouraging my father to diversify and grow more. Now we grow and produce 120 acres of bell peppers, 100 acres of commercial strawberries and expanded our blueberry production to 350 acres.”
Lewis began expanding Lewis Farms’ blueberry production and helped establish a blueberry marketing company called American Blueberries.
“We serve 18 southeastern North Carolina Growers and market 30 percent of N.C. blueberry production that ships nationwide, over 8 million pounds a year,” Lewis said.
He also began expanding the business by opening up new locations.
“I started the u-Pick on Gordon Road,” Lewis said, “which was an expansion of the Mayfaire location [no longer in operation on what is now Sir Tyler Drive]. The idea was to find a place to relocate next to a metropolitan area like Wilmington.”
There they grow blackberries, blueberries and spring strawberries for commercial sale. Williams said these were the original plants that Everette Lewis grew, and for good reason.
“They have a long history of being grown in North Carolina,” Williams said. “Blueberries are perennials that like to grow in sandy soil and strawberries have a need for a cooler climate.”
“We grow eight different varieties of blueberries,” Lewis said. “Each variety has a three-week picking span, this spans the duration of the season from mid-May to July. We grow two different species: high bush and rabbit eye species.”
Though North Carolina’s climate is well-suited for the strawberries and blueberries, this spring’s unusually cold start has caused the farm to begin production late, putting the season in jeopardy.
“When it gets below a certain temperature, the blooms die off,” Williams said. “The strawberry fruit blooms can regenerate, but the blueberries don’t. You only get one chance.”
To protect the delicate fruit blossoms, the farm uses frost protection, an overhead irrigation system that runs through the early morning hours and requires constant supervision. This process involves coating the fields in a continuous stream of 28-degree water, creating an icy protective shield that seals the fruit blossoms from cold temperatures.
“It’s physics really,” Lewis said. “When water changes to ice, it gives off heat. The ice saves the blossom.”
A season usually needs four to five nights of frost protection. This year, however, overhead irrigation has been run more than six times.
“During a normal year, we start around March 21,” Lewis said. “Last year we produced 20,000 pounds over the course of a season. This year we [didn’t] officially open season until April 10. Because strawberries are a cool weather crop, we can’t make up that time. The blueberries suffered significant damage early on, but we still have a good crop.”
The already-shortened season ends in mid-July as temperatures begin to climb, making May the optimal time for berry picking.