Story By Debra McCormick | Photographed by Will Hair
There is rich heritage in the history of farming in southeastern North Carolina, and it is alive and well at Lewis Nursery and Farms of Rocky Point, North Carolina.
Lewis Nursery and Farms is a third-generation farm specializing in the production of strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. Cal Lewis is carrying on the family tradition that his father Everette Lewis carried on from his parents, E.A. and Gertrude Lewis, in the Riley’s Creek area of Rocky Point. In 1953, Everette Lewis, a WWII veteran, purchased land from his uncle that was next to his parents’ land to create the current location of Lewis Farms. Cal Lewis joined his father in 1982, and since then, the family farm has added two retail farm locations on Gordon Road and in Castle Hayne.
Lewis Farms on Gordon Road is certainly the more prominent location in most people’s minds. Among locals and Wilmington visitors alike, it is a cherished place to visit for pick-your-own-strawberries since the mid-1980s. With a bucket in hand, one can wander through the strawberry farm and pick all of the most desirable fruit there is to be harvested. Also available at this retail location is their delicious homemade ice cream, made on site with the fruit they grow. There is also a thriving nursery with vibrant hanging plants and garden flowers, where you can find traditional plants like geraniums as well as some unusual finds like lush beehive ivy.
It was a sunny, breezy day in April when I sat down with Cal Lewis at the retail location on Gordon Road. He explained to me that the Lewis Farm headquarters has always been eighteen miles north of Wilmington in Rocky Point, N.C. and that the Gordon Road location is the berry farm for pick-your-own, ice cream and the nursery.
When he joined his father in the family business, they diversified by adding crops of blueberries and blackberries. Today, Lewis Farms has 350 acres of blueberries and twenty acres of blackberries. From the Southeastern region, Lewis Farms provides the largest percentage of blueberries to the overall American supply. Their strawberries are shipped and distributed to North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and sometimes to New York. Harvest seasons are different for each type of berry and involve some overlap, but basically, strawberries are harvested in April and May, blueberries from mid-May to July, and blackberries in June and July. Still, strawberries reign, Lewis says, “Strawberries are the most consumed of all the berries.”
Lewis shared with me the challenges of being a modern-day berry farmer – the regulation, labor shortages during harvest times, and moisture. Since the Rocky Point and Wilmington areas get rain quite frequently and berries are easily susceptible to too much moisture, one of the greatest challenges is protecting them from over-exposure to water. The use of covers is essential to managing moisture, so blackberries and winter strawberries are grown under protected tunnels as a way to control the environmental conditions.
His wife Jackie Lewis manages the Gordon Road retail location. Originally from High Point, North Carolina, her family was in the furniture business, and she was a teacher when she married Cal Lewis. Undoubtedly, it has been a long journey of expansion since she first joined the family business. “In the beginning, Cal said to me, ‘We’ll just have a small flower project to the side and hang a few plants for sale,’ never thinking that it would expand to what we have today,” she said.
For many Wilmington residents, picking strawberries at Lewis Farms has become a hallmark of growing up in the area. Part of what has made this tradition possible is that Lewis Farms used to sponsor field trips for area schools. “We did the field trips through the nineties and the early 2000’s, and my sister-in-law Beth Lewis managed them, but we had to stop because the retail location just started getting too busy,” explained Lewis. There is a “full-circle” feeling she gets when she sees the same families return to pick their own berries. Very often, with buckets in hand and excited to begin picking, mothers, grandmothers and children will gather in the area near the nursery before they begin, and she will hear women say to their children, “When I was a little girl I came here to pick berries too.” “That,” she says, “is one of the really nice things about the business that gives me a lot of joy and a lot of gratification.”