Holden Brothers Produce Stand Flourishes
Holden Brothers Produce is a celebration of family and the good fortune of fertile soil.
The front gate was locked when I met with Kelly and David Holden of Holden Brothers Farm Market this winter, but behind the scenes there was a flurry of activity readying the business for the spring season. The market was getting a fresh coat of paint, and the fields were being prepped for the juicy strawberries that will be harvested in April and May. Even in the winter, this produce farm and market is a 24 hour a day operation.
Holden Brothers Farm Market grew out of the family farm that is more than 200 years old.
“Historically our farm operation, the farm itself, came through my grandmother and has been in the family since probably 1756,” Kelly explains.
The bicentennial farm was part of land grants to the Brooks family, the same family and grants that included what is now Sunset Beach. The Holden brothers’ great grandmother, Mary Anna Brooks, inherited the property from her father. Through the last 200-plus years, parcels have been sold off, placed in trust and deeded to other relatives. The 350-acre farm tended by the brothers may be the largest intact parcel.
The brothers grew up working on the farm with their father, Paul Holden, who mostly grew tobacco, soybeans and corn. “My father taught me this,” Kelly says. “He was a hard worker; I got my work ethic from him.”
Kelly, the youngest, went to Western Carolina University after graduating from Shallotte High School. It was the Vietnam War era, and he left school to join the Navy, where he was an electronics technician. David studied math and science at Campbell College before landing a job with American Standard in Wilmington. Over the next two decades he served in the Army National Guard and Army Reserve, became an accomplished commercial millwright and landed a job with Riegel Paper, where he stayed for 21 years.
Neither brother ever intended to return to farming. But then their father had a heart attack.
Responding to their father’s request, Kelly returned to the farm. He took night-time agriculture courses under the GI Bill. A few years later, he asked David to join him. David says leaving Riegel was a big decision. “I was making $13.45 an hour plus benefits; that was big money in 1985.” But he took a leap of faith and joined Kelly.
They changed the operation from tobacco farming to vegetables and fruit, opening a small sales shack where the northbound lane of Highway 17 is now.
“The early years were a struggle until we finally got on our feet,” Kelly says. “Business didn’t start to boom until after Highway 17 was four lanes, and all the new subdivisions started popping up and people moving in. Then we didn’t have to depend completely on tourists.”
Their business today is nothing like in the early years. “The whole industry has changed; farming is an industry now,” David says.
Kelly recalls the early days when he started experimenting with vegetable crops. “I think I was one of the first in the county to use plasti-culture,” he says. That’s the technique of applying a layer of plastic over the prepared soil and planting the crop through it.
He began growing tomatoes for the wholesale market in 1982, but that didn’t pan out. “In the process, I started putting vegetables in the back of a trailer out beside the highway and people started stopping. I couldn’t believe how hungry people were for cantaloupes.”
By 1984 he had opened the small stand on Highway 17.
“I saw I couldn’t do it all and asked my brother to take care of the market, and I’d do the field work,” he says. That’s how it’s been ever since. Kelly is responsible for the farming and manpower, and David handles the business side. Kelly’s wife, Barbara, helps with the books, and David’s wife, Ouida, works in the market. Their aunt, Mae Watts, worked in the market until a few years ago. Her sister, 90-year-old Beulah McCoy, still helps out.
“We grow all varieties of vegetables,” Kelly says, adding that more than 70 percent of what they sell is grown in their fields. They grow whatever works in the local climate and bring in others such as peaches, blueberries and apples. Just before closing for the winter, they were still picking collards, mustard, turnips and lettuce. The last of the bell pepper crop was picked mid-December.
“We’ve had a good business,” Kelly says, “but the challenge is keeping it going.” It is, as David says, a year-round operation that ignores birthdays and anniversaries.
Shortly they’ll pick up tiny strawberry plants nurtured on Prince Edward Island, Canada, and distributed through Cottle Nursery in Faison. The next plantings will be squash and cucumbers, then cantaloupes, tomatoes, watermelons and sweet corn, and the process continues with planting and harvesting being constant.
The fields will open for U-Pick strawberries in spring and tomatoes in summer. They grow five varieties of tomatoes, including one called Phoenix which matures well in warm weather such as we have in autumn.
Fall crops will include pumpkins. “I took me years to learn how to grow them,” Kelly says. With luck, the tropical storms will be few and far between. “What gets you are tropical systems that bring in bacteria and fungi. It’s difficult to combat that.” Likewise, if the crops are affected by storms, then the other growers to the south have the same problem and supply becomes scarce. David says the tomato harvest was so scarce this year that boxes normally costing $15 were up to $50.
Labor is the brothers’ biggest challenge. “I’m fortunate I have one family that has worked with me for 20 plus years,” Kelly says. From St. Luis Potisi, Mexico, they travel home after the last tomato harvest and return in March, often bring cousins and relatives with them. The majority of field hands are migrant workers. Yet there are still periods in the summer when he can’t get enough labor.
The key to their success, David believes, is stocking what customers want. That’s led to increasingly diverse offerings of honey, jellies, handmade items and more. “One hot item now is John Brown Pimento Cheese,” he says.
They’ve installed a new cooler that will offer meats and cheeses in 2018. They try to offer products from North Carolina or nearby: Ashe County cheeses, cornmeal from Evergreen, jellies from Hendersonville.
As spring rolls in, be sure to stop in and meet the Holden brothers and sample some of the produce they on one of the oldest farms in Brunswick County.
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Holden Brothers Farm Market
5600 Ocean Highway West, Shallotte