A passion for his work takes Cal Lewis to the state growers’ Hall of Fame

It’s summertime, when vacationers can at last shed their landlocks and head for the Carolina coast. For many travelers, a traditional part of that excursion is a stop along the coastal routes at seasonal produce markets in Wilmington, Castle Hayne and Hampstead stocking the strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, peppers and other goods from Lewis Nursery and Farms Inc.

Located in Rocky Point, just north of Wilmington, Lewis Farms is a third-generation family farm managed by Cal Lewis, who was inducted this year into the Hall of Fame of the North Carolina Vegetable Growers Association.

The NCVGA is an organization dedicated to the improvement and promotion of the North Carolina vegetable and fruit industry and which represents more than 2,000 of the state’s vegetable growers.

“This organization lobbies important issues to government on behalf of growers and helps serve as a forum for allowing education and innovation of the industry to be presented to producers,” says Lewis, who has served on the NCVGA board and as president.

Asked what the award means to him, Lewis says, “Just that I’ve been around a right good while now, and my peers recognize my passion for what I do and the experiences I’ve shared within the industry.”

Lewis is a 1977 horticultural science graduate of N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “I went to N.C. State following a family tradition,” Lewis says. “My great-grandfather on my mom’s side was in one of the earliest graduation classes ever at State. My dad got his master’s in plant pathology, and my uncle got a B.S. in horticulture.”
His dad, fellow CALS alumnus Everette Lewis, also once served as a New Hanover County Cooperative Extension agent and helped manage the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station in Fletcher during his master’s degree work. Everette Lewis started Lewis Nursery and Farms in 1953.

Lewis, here checking his blackberries, considers it important to carry on the traditions of his forefathers on the family farm.
Lewis, here checking his blackberries, considers it important to carry on the traditions of his forefathers on the family farm.

Over the years the farm has diversified to its present-day production: 20 acres of strawberry nursery plants, 359 acres of blueberries, 20 acres of blackberries, 140 acres of green peppers and 100 acres of standard spring strawberries. Add to all this 20 acres of tunnel-grown winter strawberries.

High-tunnel production – use of plastic-covered greenhouses to produce late or early season strawberries – is among the innovative and progressive methods Lewis Farms initiated in the state. Another is a method Everette Lewis introduced in the 1960s: growing strawberries and vegetables via plasticulture. This is the system of placing dark plastic covering over rows of soil, thus heating the dirt, which enables strawberries planted there to grow more quickly through holes in the plastic sheets.

Winter tunnel production of strawberries is one of the farm’s innovations that Cal Lewis proudly mentions, along with tunnel production of blackberries; new variety trials and use in strawberries, blueberries and blackberries; organic blueberry production; and row matting, plasticulture and drip irrigation for producing blueberries.

“We introduced growing peppers via plasticulture in North Carolina with [fellow grower] Doug Wilson in the early 1980s, and we helped pioneer the use of drip irrigation in strawberries and vegetables in the early 1980s,” says Lewis.

He also takes pride in “our loyal employees and maintaining the stewardship of our farms,” Lewis says. “I enjoy the challenge and reward of observing the evolution each year of all our crops and working with our staff to bring them to successful harvest and market.”

Jackie Lewis, Cal’s wife, oversees the family’s retail branch. The signature market of Lewis Nursery and Farms is on Gordon Road in Wilmington. There customers can pick their own strawberries, blueberries and blackberries or browse among bedding plants and hanging baskets. And a special treat available at this market is the Lewis Farms ice cream, made with the nursery’s own fruit.

Traveling down I-40 toward U.S. 17? Take the Castle Hayne exit to a satellite market that offers “U-pick” or already picked fresh strawberries, honey from the Lewis Farms bees, and strawberry, blueberry and blackberry jams. Also satellite stands in Hampstead and in Wilmington’s Monkey Junction and Riverfront Farmers’ Market carry Lewis’ fresh-picked strawberries, as well as jams and honey.

Lewis Farms has been marketing fresh blueberries in southeastern North Carolina since the mid-1960s and now principally owns a blueberry marketing firm, American Blueberries LLC, with locations in Rocky Point and Ivanhoe.

The farm also has an ongoing relationship with N.C. State and CALS’ Extension and research activities. “We encourage our staff to stay connected for purposes of understanding what’s new in variety and cultural advances, as well as pest control,” says Lewis. “We have pesticide license renewal responsibilities that require continuing education through N.C. State Extension.”

Interestingly enough, when Lewis came to N.C. State as a freshman, his eventual degree in horticultural science was not necessarily his goal. “In fact, I first entered the food science curriculum,” he says. “My family was very adamant about my getting a college education regardless of the field of study. My allegiance was at N.C. State.”

Over the years, the Lewis farm has diversified to its present-day production of blackerries (pictured), strawberry plants, strawberries and green peppers.
Over the years, the Lewis farm has diversified to its present-day production of blackerries (pictured), strawberry plants, strawberries and green peppers.

He recalls that his favorite courses were in entomology, plant pathology and “any horticulture related courses,” and favorite horticultural science professors included Dr. Gene J. Galletta, Dr. Richard M. Southall, known as “The Colonel,” and Dr. C. Richard Unrath.

After his 1977 graduation, he worked for a soil fumigation firm in Florida, before returning to the farm in 1982, working as manager with his father, family and staff. His father died in 2010.

“To be successful in this business I feel it takes having a passion for it,” Lewis says. “The intensity of fruit and vegetable farming is very stressful, and you cannot be successful without loving it. I know my father had that passion, and I do, as well. I’m quite confident that my grandfather did, too.”

Under Lewis’ direction, the farm continues its growth and its heritage of innovation, diversity and personal connections to customers.

“I consider it important to carry on a tradition that my forefathers started,” he says. “Being able to utilize the same land that my grandfather and father farmed is highly motivating. I’d love to be able to pass the land down to the next generation.”

– Terri Leith

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