For the Hocutt family of Sims, N.C., farming has been all about looking for opportunities, adding acreage and making their own luck for at least five generations.
Hocutt Farms and Triple J Produce have quietly grown to nearly 4,000 acres of nearly a dozen crops, headquartered on a quiet strip of land near the Buckhorn Reservoir where Wilson, Nash, Johnston and Wake counties nearly converge.
“We’re always looking to upgrade,” says Joey Hocutt, half of the fifth generation — brother Jay is the other half — who help run the current operation. “There’s always an opportunity, and while we think we’re at where we want to be, I wouldn’t say no to the right chance.”
Joey runs the packinghouse and the burley tobacco operation; his wife, Kristi, works in sales; Jay helps manage Triple J Produce and oversees the fields; and mother Judy manages most of the paperwork. His father, Mike, oversees everything.
The Hocutts raise flue-cured tobacco in addition to burley, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, peppers and soybeans. In recent years, they’ve added organic crops of sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins and asparagus.
Nearly all of their conventional crop of sweet potatoes is the Covington variety, while the organic side is mostly Evangelines. They grow a variety of squash, and their peppers are mostly sweet. An interesting crop in the mix is the 15 acres of organic asparagus; it takes years to mature, but then produces from those same stalks for over a decade.
“This is our fifth year of organics,” Joey says. “It’s the nature of the beast. You’ve got to have a little bit of everything to sell to the stores we sell to. You need to have diversity when you’re doing organic. We use lots of stuff, try lots of different things. Our customers are mostly out of state. There is quite a bit of competition in the state, and unless you want to play cutthroat with other growers, it is sometimes better to go [to other markets].”
As the 2011 late fall harvest was winding down, Joey was seeing good results from a year that while marked with odd, headline-grabbing weather, was pretty moderate for farmers. This was welcome news after years of drought and near-drought conditions.
“The quality [of the sweet potatoes] is about the same as last year, but we are definitely going to yield more,” Joey says. “We were using a lot of ‘new’ farmland this year, new soil that had not had potatoes on it before, and those fields — in Wilson, Johnston and Pitt counties — were really popping.”
Good for a so-so year
Joey offered a rundown of how the farm had fared for the year.
• Cucumbers: “They came out pretty good. It was the best year out of the last five, and it all goes back to weather. Conditions were good for any crop, but excellent for cukes. The previous year, it was too wet at planting, and that just wiped up the crop in April.”
• Peppers: “Peppers held on longer this year. Last year, the sun got so hot after the rains, it just burned up the peppers in the field.”
• Tobacco: “Tobacco did fairly well, but Hurricane Irene wiped out our Pitt County crop. But most of that [hurricane] was farther east, and we missed out on the tornado damage.”
• Squash: “Squash did OK, but it gets hectic around here about the time it is ready. We’ve got three crops running by then. The first year we grew squash, we didn’t know as much about it — especially the butternut and acorn varieties — and we picked the butternut too early, had a lot of throwaway. But there is a market for it, especially for bulk loads for processors, who use it for soup.”
• Pumpkins: “We sell pumpkins for pies, which makes us a little different than most growers. The crop was pretty good.”
• Soybeans: “We’re hoping to get 20 bushels per acre or more this year.”
Joey says that based on how 2011 has gone, he was getting a clear picture on strategies for 2012. He is planning to follow growth trends.
“Some of the folks we supply want more varieties of squash, and I think we’ll continue to dabble in that; I think we know how to grow it now,” he says. “While organics might be just 2% of our crop, it just comes down to more plowing and weed-pulling. We enjoy it. It is well worth our while to get into it. The industry seems to be going that way now.”
It was following growth opportunities that allowed the Hocutts to form Triple J Produce back in 1998.
“At the time, we were using Williamson Produce in Wilson, and they were ready to get out of packing sweet potatoes,” Joey says. “It was a chance to get started, and we were already in, so we decided to go all the way. They still do all the selling and shipping for us, and we do the packing.”
Triple J Produce sells under the brands Classic Tops and Buckhorn Sweets, although most of the crops they grow at Hocutt Farms are not for fresh markets. but destined for processors instead. The company, at least for now, only processes what it grows. But based on the philosophy that has built and grown this farm, things are always subject to change.
Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.