Focusing on organic production and education, Russ Vollmer is enthusiastic about farming and it shows. He’s a 5th generation farmer at the helm of his family’s farm — Vollmer Farm. “It was in tobacco for many years,”said Vollmer, describing the 100-acre Bunn, NC farm. “Tobacco paid the bills, there was some diversity, with grain and other crops, but the focus was always on tobacco. It’s what allowed my grandfather and great-grandfather to add more tracts of land to the farm,” he said.
Once Russ’s dad took over the farming operation, the last tobacco crop was in 1996. That meant having to figure out how to keep the farm viable and in the family without income from tobacco. He turned to growing vegetables and fruit, strawberries in particular, to take the place of tobacco. In 2000, the farm became certified organic.
“As organic production has become more popular, there’s a better understanding that farmers who are producing under an organic system aren’t all hippies and fruitcakes,”said Vollmer. “We’re serious farmers who are trying to provide an option for consumers.”
Vollmer explains that his father’s formal education was in agronomy, the farm was headquarters for the family-run ag chemical sales and custom applicator operation. “My dad made the decision and I continue to carry it forward, to produce under a certified organic system,” said Vollmer. “He and I have always agreed that ag is a big table and there are a lot of pieces of ag that are required to feed the world.”
The season begins with asparagus, a crop that Vollmer would like to grow more of. “It’s highly valued by our customers and it’s good for an organic system,” he said. “Deer don’t care for it, and bugs don’t like it either. It’s an easy crop to grow, and it’s high-value.”
Vollmer says that strawberries, which follow asparagus, are extremely challenging in an organic system but the reward potential is worth the effort. The 5-acre u-pick strawberry field comprises several varieties including Chandler, Camarosa, Sweet Charlie and Albion. “We grow four varieties because they all have plusses and minuses,” said Vollmer. “There’s no strawberry crop insurance, so I think it’s good to spread the risk. Sweet Charlie is early; Camarosa is the workhorse that can weather ebbs and flows in the season. Chandler’s downfall is short shelf life, but it’s a high producer and tends to push hard around Mother’s Day, which is a big weekend for us. Albion is a showy berry that doesn’t yield especially well, but comes in late when the heat kicks in and the other varieties are falling back.”
The next fruit to mature is blueberries, then thornless blackberries; both for u-pick. “They are a market that’s expanding for us,” said Vollmer, describing the trellis-grown blackberries. “We don’t grow any raspberries because it’s too hot and humid. I have so many customers who are transplants from the north and want raspberries, so I want to grow them.” Vollmer said, adding that North Carolina State University is working on a raspberry cultivar suitable for that state’s climate.
Vollmer Farm grows numerous summer vegetables that are sold both on the farm and at several farmers markets. Two indeterminate tomato varieties — Bigdena and Heritage — comprise most of the tomatoes, along with Roma and Cherokee Purple.
What was once a tobacco-seeding greenhouse is now used for growing tomatoes. The 200-foot-long greenhouse holds 1,400 plants grown on a trellis system. “We seeded tomatoes on December 3rd and they went into grow bags on February 4th,” said Vollmer, adding that the planting bed is pine bark and sand. “We train them up then lay them down once they reach the ceiling. If we do a good job, we’ll be able to carry tomatoes into October.”
Until last year, the farm had a traditional CSA program, but the family has found a more successful way to offer produce shares. “We now have a farm membership, which is like a gift card,” said Vollmer, “there are three levels and depending on the level, we throw in free money as an incentive for people to purchase ‘higher up’. We do it all through computer — people sign up electronically and can add money to their card,” he explained. The system is set up so that customers can use their farm membership card through a smart phone at all of the farmers markets. The system also accepts debit cards. “Farmers at farmers markets who are not taking debit cards are going to lose out,” said Vollmer, “Customers will spend more with you if they can put it on a debit card. It’s easy and quick.”
Fall harvest features pumpkins, which are grown on bare ground. Vollmer says that it’s difficult to grow pumpkins organically, so he relies on a two to three year crop rotation for the pumpkin field to help control disease.“We till the ground, apply an organic contact spray to kill whatever is on the soil surface, then seed,” he explained, adding that seeds are hand-planted at 24-inches. We apply organic quick-start fertilizer and the plants typically cover so fast that it holds down grass pressure for a while. Eventually, in October, there’s as much grass in there as pumpkins. It ends up as a mat that’s trampled down.”
Vollmer Farm offers school tours; most of which are in October during pumpkin season. “One of our Vollmer values is ag education,” said Russ. “We bring a lot of groups from North Carolina State University who want to learn about what we do, but we try to focus primarily on ag education through our school tour program with kindergarten and first grade.”
This year, Vollmer Farm will be starting a summer camp program for ages 6 to 13; they’ll go through an ag classroom and learn about farming and how crops grow. “We’ll couple that with a farm tour, so they’ll have classroom time then see the crops growing.” Vollmer added. He believes many children connect fresh produce and fruits to a grocery store, so he wants to provide an experience to change that thinking and help young people understand the effort behind food production.
As for managing a farm and a busy agritourism business during the peak of harvest, Vollmer has found that it’s important to be able to relate to those who aren’t familiar with farming. “We learned that if you want to venture into bringing public onto your farm, you’d better think long and hard about that and be the type of person who likes people,” he said, reflecting on how the farm has changed over the years. “Some farmers are too independent for that to be a good choice for them. But we’re all about creating farm experiences and u-pick experiences for customers – they learn so much, especially when they bring children.”