Severt’s Christmas Tree Farm changes tune with diversity in strawberries, cabbage

AFP Correspondent

ELK CREEK, Va. (May 10, 2016) — In a county where pumpkins are usually a second crop to Christmas trees, Severt’s Christmas Tree Farm is home to a different crop, and it is set to become even more diverse.
The farm has been growing strawberry plants since 2005 for shipment to growers in Florida.
This year they plan to add cabbage, a traditional crop in this Grayson County community, to their rotation.
Carlos Taylor, son-in-law of the founder, Mike Severt, talked about the strawberry plant operation in a recent telephone interview.
He said the family will plant 40 acres in strawberry plants by hand this month.
The preliminary work was underway when he was interviewed in late April.
The land had been “gassed” and covered with black plastic to destroy any pests that might harm the plants. Workers were removing the plastic so planting could begin.
Taylor said the tiny plants, some only buds without leaves, would be planted and blossoms picked off as they develop.
These plants are called “mother” plants.
Picking the blooms allows the plants to spread out and produce runners rather than berries.
“We will plan to plant 7,000 plants per acre,” Taylor said. “We can harvest 20 plants from a mother plant. We will harvest about 175,000 plants per acre.”
Harvesting is done in early October, he said.
This allows them to be shipped to growers in Florida who want plant them by Oct. 15 in order to have ripe strawberries to market in December.
Taylor said they are harvested to form bunches of 25 which are shipped to the growers in boxes of 500.
The Severt operation does everything it can to be sure their plants are problem free when shipped to Florida, Taylor said.
This includes hand spraying when necessary.
They use both irrigation and fertilizer as needed in the strawberry fields.
They rotate the strawberry fields, he added and have been using rye as a cover crop.
This year, they are going to set out 15 acres of cabbage this year as part of the rotation.
Cabbage has been a historic staple of the vegetable produce industry in both Carroll and Grayson counties here on the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Being able to borrow a cabbage setter to plant this crop will make that job a little easier than setting them by hand.
The family business includes Mike Severt and his son Colby as well as Taylor and his wife, Sherrie Severt Taylor who runs the office.
Since the farm’s foundation crop, Christmas trees, and the strawberries are very labor intensive, the farm relies on migrant labor through the federal H2A program.
The numbers vary depending upon the season and the work to be done, Taylor said.
Recruiting is done through the government, he noted.
Taylor said the strawberries are a high risk and expensive crop to produce.
Just gassing an acre of land in preparing it for the strawberry plants can cost $2,800.
“It’s farming,” he added. “It’s real labor intensive.”