It was a warm, humid, June morning as I drove through the Albemarle region of northeastern North Carolina searching for the farm of Reuben James and Eric James.
In the blink of an eye I passed by the little town of Weeksville, then crossed the Pasquotank River over a two-lane bridge and followed the winding blacktop of the Salem Church Road.
The morning mist had lifted from the soybean fields bordering both sides of the road. Just around a bend in the road was a green sign, at ground level, that stated in bold, white, type, James Bros.”
To the left of the sign was an office building and beyond the building were fields of dark green potato foliage, almost ready for vine kill and a late June harvest.
When they’re not in the office taking care of business, you can find Reuben James, 77, and his son, Eric James, 41, out in the fields or working on their equipment.
When I caught up with Reuben and Eric they were getting their grading and sorting equipment ready for the 2014 harvest.
Father and son run complementary farming operations. Together they share equipment and manpower to farm over 2,000 acres of potatoes, field corn and soybeans.
“He rents some land from family members and he helps me,” Reuben said of the working relationship with his son. “He works for James Brothers and we share equipment.”
For more than 150 years the James family has been farming these low-lying fields of Pasquotank County, growing potatoes, soybeans and field corn.
Reuben said that in the early 1900s his grandfather, John Calvin James, first began growing potatoes commercially.
He said that James Brothers began when his two uncles, Vernon and William along with his father, Reuben, took over their father’s farming operation following World War II. Their brother, Ernest, came home and joined the enterprise following his retirement from the military.
In 1960, Reuben started working full-time on the family farm with his father and uncles. Eric started his own operation in 2006.
The James surname is well known in agricultural circles throughout the state as well as nationally in the potato industry.
Reuben’s uncle, Vernon James, was NPC president in 1966 and USPB chairman in 1976-77 as well as a state representative in the North Carolina legislature from 1945-1949 and again from 1973-1992.
North Carolina State University’s Vernon G. James Research and Extension Center is located in Plymouth. Vernon James died on October 21, 1992.
Reuben served as North Carolina representative to the U.S. Potato Board for 14 1/2 years and Eric is currently serving on the USPB.
“The potato board has done a great job of promotion,” Reuben said of the USPB.
Currently they grow about 300 acres of potatoes — Envols, Dark Red Norlands, Yukon Golds and Lehis — all for the fresh market.
“We’re from Florida to Canada, a higher percentage goes to Pennsylvania,” Reuben replied when asked where the potatoes are shipped.
“We used to grow chips and table stock,” Reuben said. “Then we got of the chip business. We were Frito-Lay growers at one time and they trimmed up their growers. They had 15 at one time and now they’re down to four or five here.”
Tommy Fleetwood, marketing supervisor with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and the executive director of the North Carolina Potato Association, said that while the state’s grower base has been in decline, potato acreage has remained steady. He estimated that there are about 30 growers in North Carolina growing potatoes commercially.
“I guess you would call it a niche market,” Fleetwood said when asked to describe the state’s potato base.
“As far as the time period of our harvest goes, from mid-June through July, typically is how the season runs. Nothing is stored here, everything goes fresh, for retail and for chips. The industry here is about 70 percent for chips and about 30 percent table.”
Fleetwood said that the growers’ window of opportunity falls into place between the end of storage season and the beginning of fall harvest.
“We follow north Florida, the Hastings area, and it transitions right up into here,” Fleetwood said.
“Our normal starting date is March 1,” Reuben said. “The harvest usually starts the 5th or 10th of June and runs through August.”
Reuben said that the average yield is usually 200 cwt per acre. However, because of the late start due to we conditions in 2014 they averaged 175 cwt.
The biggest issue they face is weather. They rely on Mother Nature for all their water.
“We used to irrigate, but that was when we toted pipe and irrigated out of the creeks,” Reuben said.
There’s some insect and disease pressure.
“European corn borer and the Colorado potato beetle, are things we go after,” he said. “We might, occasionally, have some early blight. We have had late blight a couple of times and that was a new strain that came out.”
Attending this year’s Potato Expo in Orlando, Reuben said that he sees a bright future ahead for the potato industry.
“You see a lot of young people in the business and the leadership they’re taking that gets my attention,” he said. “They are good leaders and it shows.”