A third-generation farm makes changes to survive tough market

Waller next to the duck race apparatus, with the new farm store in the background.
Photos by Ron Barnett.

The history of Ottawa Farms near Savannah, Ga., is a story of continuous adaptation, reinvention and retooling to meet the changing market of the times.

H.B. “Pete” Waller, current owner and third-generation operator of this multifaceted 700-acre agricultural enterprise, has lived through the metamorphosis of the business model at least four times himself.

Back in the 1930s and ’40s, the farm was mainly in the truck farm vegetable business. That market dried up when transportation improvements made it possible for growers farther south in Florida to sell their produce to a wider market during a longer growing season.

Then, the Wallers started planting cotton and corn to go along with the cattle and hogs they had been raising all along. The hog market collapsed in the 1970s.

Nine years ago, Waller saw the need to go in a new direction again, and moved into the pick-your-own fruit business, focusing on strawberries, blueberries and eventually blackberries. He also retooled his cattle operation, specializing in natural-grown beef.

Today, the farm draws visitors from as far as 50 miles away during berry-picking season, and the annual Strawberry Festival has become a statewide event, attracting up to 10,000 visitors each April.

Waller is now expanding even further into the concept of the farm as not only a place to grow crops, but as a tourist attraction. He plans to build cabins and offer vacation packages “where folks can come out on the weekend and find out what agriculture is all about.”

The transformation has kept Waller on a continual learning curve.

“Let me tell you about the farming business,” he says. “I’m 76 years old, and I’ve been learning since I was 15. My dad passed away when I was 15, and I’ve been learning since then. Every year it’s a different challenge with a crop.”

Berry business

Waller got into the strawberry business on the advice of his local county extension agent.

“We planted a half-acre of strawberries,” he recalls. “I didn’t figure we’d ever sell a half-acre, but we started out with the strawberries and when folks would come here, I’d get them to give me their name and address and telephone number where we could send them a card the next year when the strawberries came in.

“Since that time, we’ve got them on the computer now and e-mailing, and we’ve got about 10,000 e-mail addresses.”

He gets his plants out of Canada. “We’ve tried several different varieties over the years, but the Chandler and the Camarosa have been our best two berries for this part of the world,” Waller says. Camarosa, in particular, has a much longer shelf life both in the field and after it’s picked, in addition to producing bigger and sweeter berries than any other variety Waller has tried.

He digs up his 5-acre sandy loam strawberry field at the end of every season, takes soil samples and follows the lab recommendations for fertilization and lime. In mid-October, about two weeks before planting, he puts out MIDAS, a broad-spectrum soil fumigant that has been approved as a substitute for methyl bromide to control a broad range of soilborne diseases, nematodes, weed seeds and insects.

“It’s worked real good,” Waller says.

He plants his hybrid strawberries on 10-inch beds, about 30 inches wide, with two rows down each bed. He spaces the rows 6 feet apart.

Strawberries are usually ready to start harvesting in the middle of March and running through the third week in May.

After that, five or six weeks of blackberry picking time keeps his customers occupied until it’s time to start on the blueberries for about six weeks, he says.

He’s growing 5 acres of Tifblue and Wooded blueberries and, for the first time this year, 3 acres of Navajo blackberries.

He’s been producing 4,000 pounds of blueberries per acre on a plot of virgin soil with a pH of 4.5, which is just right for blueberries.

Waller checks the diseased and dead leaves removed from strawberry plants.

Attention to detail

Other than the fumigation and some Captan fungicide, Waller uses very few chemicals.

He uses a drip irrigation system on his strawberries and blackberries, and he fertilizes those berries through the irrigation system. He hasn’t had to irrigate the blueberries.

He uses a pivot irrigation system on 10 acres of field corn, which he grows for his 150 head of beef cattle.

“The best advice I can give anybody if they get into anything is to get a good county agent,” Waller recommends. “Send off samples to labs to find out what they need to do with their fertilization.”

Attention to detail, he says, is the key to success in growing a good crop of berries and avoiding trouble with pests and diseases.

“I’ll put it this way: you can’t farm out of a pickup truck going down the road,” he says. “You’ve got to go into the field and see what’s going on.”

It’s essential to take care of problems as soon as they arise, he says.

“Timely spraying is a must. If you’ve got a problem, you need to address it right away.”

He makes sure his crew goes through every strawberry plant in the field and removes dead leaves and debris. That, and any spraying that needs to be done, must be done before covering the plants.

“In the strawberry business you don’t want any dead leaves or anything left in that field that would create a disease problem,” Waller says. Failure to remove those materials in a timely manner can cause disease to “take off like wildfire.”

In addition to Captan, he sometimes sprays with Sevin if he see any mites or other harmful insects.

Workers remove dead and diseased leaves from strawberry fields.

“And then, we’ll go ahead and wrap them up with our row covers. Then we’ll start checking our row covers every once in a while and make sure we don’t have anything taking place under them row covers, where you can’t see nothing,” he says. “And if we have a problem, then we’ll pull those row covers back and spray for it.”

He uses 50-foot-wide, 250-foot-long row covers, which create heat to get the berries growing faster.

“If we don’t put row covers on and it freezes it will freeze the berries,” he says. “Right now from bloom to berry is 25 days. If we don’t cover the field up with this cloth, if it comes a freeze, we’ll have to come in here and turn on the overhead irrigation system to freeze over the plants. We can put these row covers on and protect them down to 20 degrees. That conserves water. If it gets lower than 20 degrees, I’ll go ahead and freeze over the cloth and everything.”

He uses black plastic as mulch for strawberries and white plastic on blackberries to reflect the heat of summer when the berries ripen.

At picking time, Waller flags the fields to allow picking on 10 rows at a time, so all the plants aren’t picked at the same time.

Waller has five full-time employees who work with the berry production as well as the cattle and other crops. He also runs an industrial insulation business and an asbestos removal business.

He’s doing a demonstration project with rows of pine trees alternating with 40-foot strips of hybrid bermudagrass. It produces four streams of revenue: hay, pine straw, timber and cattle.

“You’ve got to have a lot of apples in the barrel these days to make a living on the farm,” he says.

A pond house, designed and built by Waller, will be an attraction for agritourists. The lake is stocked with bream, catfish and bass.

Strawberry festival

Once he made the leap into the strawberry business, Waller decided to stir up some interest by organizing a strawberry festival, including a beauty contest.

Strawberry blossoms appear on a cold day in February on rows covered with black plastic mulch.
Waller stands beside his first year’s planting of blackberries.

“We had probably 400 or 500 people here and it looked like it was going to be a success,” he said, “and every year it has grown and grown and grown.”

The festival includes an old tractor show and an antique auto show, along with hayrides, cow train rides, pony rides, duck races and pig races. He also has built a 20-foot-high “billy goat walk” to delight the kids.

“Anything that grandma and grandpa want their grandchild to do, we’ve got it here,” Waller says.

He also has plenty of bluegrass and gospel music, square dancing and about 90 vendors on site for the event.

Waller has just built a small store on the farm where he’ll sell his beef, which is grown without any antibiotics or growth hormones.

Of course, fresh, luscious, red-ripe strawberries are the main attraction.

Ron Barnett is a freelance writer in Easley, S.C., and is always on the lookout for new and interesting stories in the Carolinas, Georgia and east Tennessee.