Brian Howard was raised on a farm, but eventually left to pursue a different career. When the economy began to crash in 2008, his father was prepared to let go of their land in northern Iredell County. It was then that Brian realized he wanted to continue his family’s legacy. If not then, he feared there would be no farm to return to in the future. We sat down with Brian to learn more.
Can you give a brief introduction? Tell us more about your business
In the early 70’s, my dad transitioned our land from a tobacco farm to a strawberry farm. We are a 100 acre farm, but we’re farming about 50 acres of it. We do pick your own and already picked, and we also have a CSA. We have seasonal vegetables, a lot of sweet corn and pumpkins in the fall.
Talk to me about the agricultural landscape of the county, how has it evolved from when you were younger?
Brian: Iredell County was predominantly a big dairy county, there are still some big dairies but a lot of dairies have gone away. The grain farming is still pretty prevalent in the northern part of the county, but the southern part of the county has gotten more populated. It’s farming people instead of the ground. We’re seeing our demographic change in how we sell strawberries. One family would come get 25 or 30 gallons, now two families come and bring all their kids and pick two gallons. We still have our price point down for the people that want to get some to freeze. We love to see kids come, but it’s hard to make it when you have that many people in the field. You know, eight or ten people in the field, and they leave with two gallons. We’re trying to figure out how to capitalize on that.
How long ago were customers picking those higher figures of gallons?
Brian: We still have people that do that (pick a higher number to freeze), but not as many are coming from Iredell county. They're coming from Wilkes, Yadkin, Ashe, up around Boone, we have a lot of people come from that way and pick a bunch and can (canning the product).
Most of them are long time customers and that's another thing, most of the people that pick enough to can and freeze are getting too old to pick them. You'll see people coming that are perfectly able to pick their own strawberries, and they buy them already picked. Then you'll see an old man and old woman out there, hardly can get out of the car, and they're gonna go pick their own.
What’s the hardest part of farming and what is the most rewarding?
Brian: The hardest part is labor. We use H-2A labor which is a government program to bring labor in, and it’s getting very expensive. Weather is always a challenge, but the most rewarding feeling in the world is looking across a field that's ready to be picked. You’ve worked all year to get it there. When you sell it to somebody, they rave about how good it is and thank you for growing it. It feels good to know you had a hand in producing the food that people are eating.
Why do you think it’s important for your community to buy locally grown food?
Brian: Because if you don’t, there’s a lot of produce coming in from other countries. They’re paying about $10 a day for labor, and we’re paying about $11 or $12 an hour for labor. When consumers can buy a tomato for 50 cents as opposed to $2, you don't see the value in it, but your food is safer coming from here. We have people in place to make sure it's safer.
We’re a convenient society, and everybody wants convenience. You go to the store and buy produce in a little box, it’s easy. Look at the back of the box and see all the words you can pronounce on it, and that’s what you're putting in your body.
A lot of the stuff you get at the grocery store, it’s been bred for shipping. They breed all the taste out of it so it'll last for weeks, maybe months. The stuff at my farm was picked that day. You can’t beat fresh produce. It’s so much better than what’s being mass produced.
It always makes me feel good when people come in and they'll buy a gallon or two strawberries. You'll see them come back around the corner for more because they've already eaten some and taste how good it is.
How do local farms impact your community’s economy?
Brian: We put our money back into the economy. If you buy from a grocery store, who knows where that money goes?! If you buy it from here we’re gonna come to the neighbor's store and buy our stuff, or eat in the local restaurants. The money stays close. We shop as local as we can because we want people to do the same for us. If they don't support local farms, there’s not gonna be any more. When we start depending on other countries for our food supply, we’re gonna be in dire straights.
Is there a favorite quote that drives you? What motivates you to start the day?
Brian: As my daddy always said, “If you can’t find something to do, you ain’t looking hard enough.” There’s always something to do on the farm. Sometimes it’s hard, it’s been a difficult strawberry year. You don't want to fight through a bunch of rotten fruit, but you gotta keep going. When you lay something down on the farm and don't do it, it will bite you quick. There’s no forgiveness. There’s no forgiveness on the farm. If you ever say, “I’ll get it tomorrow,” a lot of times it won’t be there tomorrow.
Howard Family Farm is located at 250 Crater Road in Harmony, North Carolina. Brian and his family invite you to pick your own strawberries, or you can place an order for already picked by calling 704-539-4994 during their business hours: M-F from 7am-7pm and Saturday 7am-4pm weather permitting. In addition to strawberries, the roadside market also has a wide array of produce for purchase. You can also visit their stand at the Pecan Park Farmer’s Market, or visit their Facebook page to learn more: https://www.facebook.com/Howard-Family-Farm-111656918872281/