For years, the Vollmer Farm in Bunn has been a destination for families looking for organic strawberries and produce. Here, families could pick berries, spend time on the playground and enjoy some local ice cream before heading home. It's about 45 minutes from Raleigh.
Russell Vollmer, whose family has farmed this same land for five generations, is happy to provide a memorable day out for his customers. But his mission is bigger than that.
"We want them to know more," said Vollmer, whose known to wear a T-shirt with the slogan "Who's your farmer?" "We want to create a connection with the food that they eat and the farmer that's growing it."
Vollmer Farm is one of a handful of farms providing pick-your-own organic strawberries in the spring, followed by organic blackberries and blueberries in June. The farm has about five acres of strawberries, 1.5 acres of blueberries and several rows of blackberries that are open for public picking when they are in season.
It also sells its organic produce from its farm market, at farmers markets in the region and through its CSA program where boxes of produce are delivered to central locations across the Triangle.
Vollmer took me on a tour of the farm last weekend. With the help of extension agents, experts and experience, the farm has transformed from a tobacco farm that once sold chemicals and fertilizer to an organic farm that focuses on natural techniques to build up the soil and protect the crops. The switch came in the 1990s before it was common to see organic items in a conventional grocery store.
No longer relying on chemicals to combat pests and fertilizers to help the crops grow, the Vollmer family has had to learn new ways to farm.
To build up the soil without using fertilizers, Vollmer takes some fields out of commission for a season and grows cover crops such as clover and oats. Once tilled back into the soil, the cover crops add nutrients to the soil for the next berry crop. Crops such as lettuce, tomatoes and peppers have moved into greenhouses where he can better control pests. And once blueberry season hits, he'll have workers out there pulling up weeds instead of just spraying a chemical to kill them.
That kind of extra work adds costs to the produce. Pick-your-own strawberries are $5 a pound. The bucket my daughter and I filled up with delicious, juicy strawberries was $17.
"It's so labor intensive," Vollmer said. "Everything is done by hand."
But Vollmer also knows more and more customers are looking for local and organic food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, organic food sales reached $28 billion in 2012, up 11 percent from the year before.
Of course, a trip to Vollmer Farm isn't all business. When I head there with my family, we usually spend several hours picking berries, playing on the playground, eating ice cream and shopping in the market. A favorite of my girls: The old airplane that's now turned into a playground piece.
The farm also is a popular spot for field trips and excursions in the fall when it opens up its big Back Forty Playground with a jumping pillow, underground slide, zip line, hayrides and more.
Vollmer said the farm is working to expand its offerings to the public, especially in the spring and summer. There are plans to add day camps in 2015 with a focus on farm work and lots of fun. He also hopes to add more greenhouses.
"For springtime, it's all about strawberries, blueberries and sweet corn," Vollmer said, "and what we can grow here to put good food on people's plates."
Vollmer Farm is at 677 N.C. Hwy 98E in Bunn. It's open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., daily.