The North Carolina Strawberry Association named Joan and Kenneth Rudd as its 2009 growers of the year. The announcement was made during the group’s annual meeting, held in conjunction with its Southeastern Strawberry Expo in Durham, N.C.

Association board member Bernice Kenan, owner of Bernie’s Berries in Greensboro, N.C., cited Rudd Farm’s innovations in strawberry production and service to the organization in making the award.

Building Rudd Farm

When Rudd Farm, located near a busy highway in Greensboro, N.C., was established in the early 1900s, tobacco was king. Kenneth Rudd’s grandfather and father produced the golden leaf, along with neighbors including current North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. By 2000, tobacco was far less lucrative, leading Rudd Farm to seek out alternatives. Joan had long wanted to grow strawberries, and as the future direct marketing guru of the farm, she reasoned that the farm’s location would lend itself to a u-pick operation.

With the advice of experienced strawberry grower friends, Rudd started with one and one-third acres, which many considered ambitious, fearing the market wouldn’t support the investment. However, the main difficulty with the 2001 crop was too many customers. Continual expansion will bring 2010 strawberry production to nine acres. Rudd Farm has since diversified into vegetable production, reusing former tobacco greenhouses for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. The explosive growth led the Rudds to purchase a second farm.

“Our farmstand is now open from mid-April to the end of October,” Joan says. Produce is marketed at a local farmers’ market and to area restaurants as well.

Innovations in production

Kenneth Rudd, who earned an electrical engineering degree at North Carolina State University and previously was employed at Standard Systems and Executone, began farming part-time during his college days. He says it would be costly to build a strawberry operation completely from scratch. He recycled John Deere tractors, other equipment and techniques from the tobacco days to make the transition.

Early visitors from the Strawberry Association were surprised by the method in which Rudd Chandler berries are planted. Tobacco is planted in contoured rows to help prevent runoff, so Kenneth followed suit with berries.

“I didn’t know any better,” he says. “I didn’t know you couldn’t do it, so I did it and it worked.”

For the central North Carolina farm, spring frost and freeze protection is a must; the region doesn’t receive the all clear until mid-April, dangerously close to berry maturity. Overhead irrigation is put to work as needed.

During the months between fall and late winter, plants may be protected with row covers. Growers such as Rudd and fellow strawberry farmer John Vollmer of Vollmer Farm (www.vollmerfarm.com) in Bunn, N.C., have struggled with the heavy labor and time requirements for placing and removing covers. In addition, proper storage is problematic.

In the last few years, Vollmer tackled those challenges by using old cable reels attached to a tractor to automate the process. Engineer Rudd, with input from fabricator Jenkins Co. in Browns Summit, N.C., refined his design and says the device reduces the manpower needs from four to two people to place and remove covers. As they are rolled onto spools, they are easier to store and less prone to damage.

Strickland Brothers (www.stricklandbros.com) of Spring Hope, N.C., is now fabricating Strawberry Cover Assist. Company President Terry Strickland says the product consists of a three-way hitch-type frame that hooks to a tractor; one reel holds an acre’s worth of cover.

“This is a significant issue for people, so [the devices] pay for themselves in labor savings,” Strickland adds.

Kenneth is a member of the association’s plant health committee. Rudd Farm was one of the pilot farms in a strawberry/conservation project to develop conservation cost shares for strawberries with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Like virtually all growers in the region, Rudd Farm uses the plasticulture strawberry production method. In late August, tips, primarily from Canada, are procured and rooted. Plastic is laid and the plants go in the ground in late September. Water and fungicide are applied beneath the plastic, with fertilizer added in the spring. Following harvest, plants and plastic are removed and cover crops are established.

The Rudds focus on direct marketing and don’t plan to explore wholesaling. As marketing director, Joan uses some roadside signage and maintains a Web presence through the farm’s site (www.ruddfarm.com), along with state agriculture department and other organizational postings.

“The best advertising is our customers,” she says. “If they get a good product, they tell everybody.”

Its proximity to a television station helps Rudd Farm get frequent coverage during spring frosts and as the season kicks off. Kenneth has appeared on several weather spots, along with a morning news show.

Rudd Farm adds special touches to build customer loyalty. A new recipe book is produced annually and the operation gives berry picking lessons, finding that a surprising number of people are new to harvesting. Pickers are supplied with disposable cleaning cloths when they return to the sales building. Berries are marketed in plastic baskets, rather than the less costly cardboard ones.

“They are easier to assemble and customers like them , ” Joan says. “They don’t get soggy and show off berries well for inspection.”

She also offers deliveries of large orders to area businesses and sponsors a frequent shopper card that promises one free four-quart strawberry basket following purchases of 12 baskets.

Supporting the association

The North Carolina Strawberry Association is a membership association of growers, suppliers, extension agents and others in the strawberry industry, with members in a number of states. It funds strawberry research, promotes strawberries to the general public, and provides production and marketing resources to its members.

Kenneth found the association helpful as he initiated his venture and continues to benefit from workshops, the annual expo conference and farm tours. He and Joan have given back over the years; both have served as key planners and presenters at meetings. Kenneth was elected to the board in 2006 and served as president during 2007 and 2008.

The presidency was an exceptional learning experience for the Rudds, who, with 10 years of strawberry production under their belts, still consider themselves novices.

“Working on a committee to help insure that growers are receiving high-quality plants from Canada was one of many highlights of Kenneth’s time as president,” Joan says.

She adds that the family was shocked and honored to be named growers of the year. “So many previous winners have been large, longtime growers; we feel fortunate to be part of such a nice group of people. It’s rewarding to know that maybe we are doing something right.”

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.