It’s the end of the season at M&M Berry Farm in Henderson County, North Carolina. Mike Pack Junior walks through the rows of dormant blackberry bushes at his family’s farm.
“What we’re walking through right now are the canes that produced fruit this summer. So we pruned all this stuff out, piled it out in the middle of the row, brought a flail mower in and chopped it all up. It will go back in the ground to have a little nutrition and fertilizing to help feed the fruit for next season,” he says as the cane crunches under his feet.
His grandfather, James Pack, is a few rows over. He remembers what the farm was like before the berries. “Well this farm was apples. It was beautiful apples,” he says. “Then we gave this land to Mike.”
His son, Mike Pack Senior first learned how to farm from his grandparents. “I was born in Polk County because that’s where daddy is from and worked on a dairy farm with my other grandfather. We came here when I was in the seventh or eighth grade and then as I got older, I started spraying apples and helped gather apples. Then the apple business got a little hard for a little while and they shut some of it down and then, like Daddy said, the property was transferred to us and I rented it to some people to farm a little bit and then it was Driscoll’s that came in and did the berries,” he says.
At first they grew blackberries for Driscoll’s, a national berry company based in California. When that relationship ended, the Pack family had to decide if they would keep growing berries on their farm.
“Well, me and my dad, we sort of had a discussion and he called me up said ‘You want to get in the berry business?’ And I thought, well sure, just how hard could that be?,” Mike Pack Junior says with a laugh.
He remembers all the hard work that followed, and how much there was to learn at the beginning. “I was just excited from the get go. It was a lot of learning, a lot of learning. It was almost like you were thrown into it. And what do you do next? There were a few farmers around here, if it hadn’t been for them wouldn’t even know where to start. So there’s a great group of blackberry farmers here in Henderson County,” he says.
The Pack family now grows about twenty acres of blackberries, and sells the majority of them to a cooperative in Michigan called North Bay Produce. The company sends trucks to the farm to transport the berries throughout the country, but some of the berries do stay here in Western North Carolina.
Mike Pack Senior estimates about five percent of their berries are sold locally at farmers markets. “We would love to sell more local,” he says. “We would love to be closer to consumer.”
They’ve talked to chefs about serving their berries at local restaurants, and considered adding agritourism or a roadside stand to their farm. Those are some of their long term goals, but they say their main roadblocks are having enough labor and making their farm suitable for visitors.
Until then, they’re involving their own family in the berry business. Mike Pack Junior’s two teenage daughters deliver berries to local farmers markets. They help load the truck and do some of the paperwork, but their father wants them to decide for themselves if they want to go into farming when they’re older.
“I’m hoping they would fall in and get interested in it, but we just have to see where it goes. I don’t want to push them to do anything they don’t want to do. So I’m hoping they show interest and want to carry it on,” he says.
In the meantime, he’ll keep walking through the blackberry rows, getting the farm ready for winter and dreaming of spring next year.
“It makes me proud because I live here on the farm,” he says. “I can just get up and look out the window and just see it. So when you’ve got everything mowed, everything’s pruned and wrapped, it really makes you proud when springtime comes and stuff starts flowering and growing, and you know you’ve put your blood, sweat, and tears in it to get it where it’s at.”
Hear more stories about family farms in the Growing Local archive: asapconnections.org/broadcasts
Re-run aired: October 22, 2018