Brenda Blake of Blake Farms in North Wilkesboro is pretty comfortable raising chickens, vegetables and the grain crops that are part of the family farming operation. After all, the Blake family has been in the farming business since 1978, with three generations now actively involved.
But the idea of growing colorful hanging baskets in the family’s former tobacco greenhouses was uncharted territory, even for such a well-diversified, progressive and experienced farm.
When the Blakes transitioned out of tobacco, the greenhouses sat empty, Blake said. The family was interested in putting them to use versus tearing them down, but wasn’t sure what to do. Hydroponic lettuce, greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers and even strawberries were discussed, but did not move past the idea stage, in part due to the perishable nature of produce and the need to have ready markets.
When the farm hosted a regional tour for staff with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Agronomic Services Division, agronomist Dwayne Tate, who regularly works with the Blakes, asked his coworkers if they had any suggestions for using the greenhouses.
Agronomist Georgia Love suggested growing hanging baskets targeted for Mother’s Day sales. Love had some personal experience growing hanging baskets in greenhouses and knew it could work.
“The greenhouses had been sitting empty for four years, and we didn’t know what to do with them. And then I talked to this nice lady (Love), and she told me I could do flowers in here,” Blake said. “I thought, I can sell flowers.” So began the journey.
After researching what it would take and talking with Love more, the family farm took the plunge in 2016, producing and quickly selling around 1,000 hanging baskets by word of mouth and through Facebook posts. That success convinced them to bring a second greenhouse online this year, doubling the number of baskets for sale. In addition, the family added a few ferns and some strawberry and vegetable plants.
Starting a new business can be a fun adventure, but it can also be daunting and a little intimidating when it is something completely new.
“We were nervous. We called Dwayne a lot and he got this crew up here and they have really helped us,” Blake said. “Without their help, we would have not done this at all. These greenhouses would have probably still been sitting here empty. Knowing Georgia had experience with hanging baskets in this type of greenhouse let me know we could do this, and having on-site consultations from NCDA&CS agronomists and N.C. Cooperative Extension Service specialists has helped us as issues have come up.
Tate and Love have continued to support the Blakes through this new venture, offering fertility advice and even connecting the family with floriculture and greenhouse specialists from N.C. State University Extension, such as Brian Whipker and Amanda Taylor, to provide technical assistance with other production and pest management concerns.
Taylor is a nursery and greenhouse area specialized agent serving western N.C. counties. Warmer weather has plants in the greenhouse blooming earlier, and Taylor has been able to offer the Blakes advice on managing that.
“I have been happy to help the Blakes in their venture growing hanging baskets and bedding plants,” Taylor said. “In a greenhouse environment, getting on an issue quickly can keep a small problem from getting much bigger and costlier.”
Tate, the NCDA&CS regional agronomist, enjoys being able to help growers troubleshoot problems and make these types of connections.
“The Blakes would be successful no matter what. They are a unique family unit,” he said. “Georgia gave them confidence to move forward and Amanda provided technical support that was outside the scope of my work expertise. I see my role as kind of like that of a first responder. Come in, assess the situation and call in help as needed.”
The Blakes sell directly to consumers from the farm Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with 13-year-old son Luke assisting customers at the greenhouse. “He absolutely loves it, and is good at it,” Blake said.
Working together with family is a blessing, Blake added. “We meet at the shop every morning and have breakfast together and go over the day’s work. I feel very fortunate and very blessed to be able to do that.”
Altogether, the farming operations support four Blake families – patriarch and matriarch Gary and Lorene who started the farm, their son Chad and wife Brenda, grandsons Seth and Luke, and Heath and Tyler and their families. That means every new venture on the farm is important to the business.
The family grows 550 acres of corn, 150 acres of soybeans and operates 22 poultry houses in addition to the greenhouse plants. Growing the spring baskets works well in the overall farm operations, and involves some of the younger family members and Blake’s daughters-in-law. They plan to wrap up sales of the baskets by the end of May, taking a break with greenhouse production during the summer. Mums will be planted in mum beds in July to be ready for fall sales. The farm is list on Facebook at Blake Farms LLC.
Regional agronomists are part of the Field Services Section of the department’s Agronomic Services Division. They provide advice on crop fertilization, nutrient management, lime needs, soil testing, plant tissue analysis, use of animal wastes and composts, nematode analysis, and testing of source water and nutrient solutions. To find a regional agronomist for your area, go to http://www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/rahome.htm or contact Michelle McGinnis, field services section chief, at 919-733-2655.