By: Cheryl Hemric / James Sprunt Community College
Driving down a dirt road, you can almost miss one of the newest farms in Bladen County, which is tucked away like a hidden treasure. With just an acre and a half, Charles Vickers is growing success, one garlic clove at a time. It is a ‘Made in North Carolina’ success story from the ground up.
As you step out onto the property, you can smell the cloves of garlic in the sun-baked field, and you can see where some of the cloves are starting to be harvested and prepared for restaurants and local merchants.
Charles recently completed the Southeastern Farm School, offered through the Small Business Center at James Sprunt Community College. It is a program designed for farmers, and those interested in farming, to give them the skills needed to run their farm like a business and make a profit. As with all programs offered through the Small Business Center, the farm school is offered as a service to the community at no cost to the individual.
“The Farm School class gave me the confidence where I was a bit lacking,” said Charles. “It was confidence in myself to make my farm successful.”
Charles credits his father’s interest in gardening for his motivation into becoming a farmer. “My Dad always gardened and he was disabled, but that was the one thing that kept him happy and moving.”
The farm Charles has started is in the beginning stages. It is much like any start-up business. He doesn’t have a lot of the tools that larger, more established farms have access to, so he improvises where needed.
“It’s his humble spirit and determination that make it work,” said Roxanne Reid, an instructor for the Southeastern Farm School at James Sprunt. “Charles is very hard-working and very smart. He is very strategic about the foundations he is setting for his farm.”
She adds, “Charles is a good example and reflection of today’s small farmer. Many farmers struggle to identify unique and specific crops. We teach our students to hone in on a niche and to grow for a purpose so they can become profitable, and that is exactly what Charles has been able to do.”
Charles’ niche: Garlic.
“Garlic was something different to grow,” said Charles. “Nobody else does it here and I enjoy seeing it grow.”
Charles started his garlic farm with a 20 pound box he purchased and he has been growing off of that ever since.
“I was looking for something of a higher value for a smaller property,” said Charles.
He adds as he looks over his field and sees the garlic scapes, the flower buds on top of the garlic stalk, “The scapes of the garlic is also of an extremely high value. The scapes are like a delicasy, especially on the West Coast.”
The scapes are often used in salads and pestos to give an intense garlic flavor to the dish.
This year, because of the excess moisture from the heavy rains following Hurricane Florence, Charles only expects that only 10% of his field will be marketable.
“We had bulb development but not clove development,” said Charles. “I have to be ok with that.”
Charles looks forward to next year in which he hopes to grow different varieties and at having an opportunity to take another shot at it.
“It has been a learning curve,” said Charles. “This is still new to me. There is still a lot to learn.”
Charles understood early on that the business aspect of farming was of the utmost importance.
“That is what I was looking for in this, the business and organizational knowledge to keep my farm going.”
Having the desire to go commercial with his farm, Charles sought to become GAP certified, and he is the first student of the Southeastern Farm School to achieve that designation for his farm, which stands for Good Agricultural Practices.
“It’s about cleanliness and it’s food safety,” said Charles. “It’s mainly about the health of the product and the health of people the food is going to.”
This certification has become a bigger deal in recent years with news of food contamination and people becoming sick.
“It is more based on the experience of problems that have arose in food production over a period of time through irrigation, soil amendments, and those types of things,” said Charles.“I was ready to abandon [GAP Certification], but James Sprunt helped me to have the confidence to truly follow through with it.”
“Being GAP certified has helped me personally because it has given me a format for record keeping and that’s very important. To a degree, it is foundational in the business plan.”
It has also opened up opportunities for Charles that he never thought would be possible.
“I have my foot in the door in one or two markets, and that is success in itself, just to get your foot in the door,” said Charles. “Profitability is one thing, but when you are building, sometimes just making the connection is just as important…. Making the connections and profitability are really running a race with one another.”
Having his foot in the door, and being GAP certified, Charles has been able to make a few small sales with two major distributors of produce nationwide.
“They try to pull as much local produce as possible from local growers and farmers,” said Charles. “They are meeting the needs of chefs for middle to high-end restaurants.”
Charles says he is proud to know that his garlic is being used in dishes at restaurants.
“I know that my garlic has gone to Raleigh. It makes me feel good to know that my product is being used locally and regionally,” said Charles. “The distributors give me ideas of what their chefs want, giving me packaging hints and that type of thing as to what they are looking for so that I can adjust to that in the future.”
With his farm located in Bladenboro, North Carolina, Charles says that he is in a prime location.
“I am fortunate that my farm is sitting at just an hour to Fayetteville, an hour to Wilmington, an hour to North Myrtle Beach, and an hour to Florence. I have location, and because of that, I have access to several really good markets.”
As for advice that he would give to other farmers, or those interested in farming, Charles says, “Do your research and grow something. Don’t try to do too much too fast because I have done that and it doesn’t turn out well.”
He adds, “There are going to be failures and there are going to be successes. It is trial and error. Grow something, put it in the ground, learn what it takes to keep it alive.”
Charles hopes that his farm will continue to be viable and that he will be able increase production.
“I hope to be an example of what a farmer can be.”