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Happy Dirt Organic Farmer | Herbie Cottle

happy dirt organic farmer herbie cottle stands in a field, holding red kale

about the organic farmer

In 1912, organic farmer Herbie Cottle’s great grandfather planted his first strawberry crop on the land the family still owns in Duplin County, North Carolina. The Cottle family started growing tobacco in the 1940s and transitioned to vegetable production in the late 1990s. Herbie was one of the first farmers in Duplin County to lean into organic farming. Since 2007 when he received his first organic certification for 3 acres of land, Herbie has successfully scaled his organic vegetable production and has become a role model for budding organic farmers in North Carolina. He now has over 400 acres of certified organic land. Herbie became a Happy Dirt farmer/owner in 2008 and sits on Happy Dirt’s board of directors. 

"i think if i had to still be growing conventional vegetables, I would be out of business."

Why did you choose to go through the USDA’s organic certification process?

A couple of reasons. We knew that, the tobacco income was gone and there was a strong demand for organic.  The pricing for conventional was terrible, and I could see that maybe we could make more money growing organic. And then also, I felt like we needed to try to grow healthier food for everybody, my family included.

I think if I had to still be growing conventional vegetables, I would be out of business. I mean, there are so many large farms that grow so cheaply. There’s so much competition. I would be out of business. I would probably be doing something else.

As a farmer who once used conventional farming practices and made the big transition to organic vegetable production, what would you say to someone who may not fully understand the benefits of growing and eating organic?

Of course putting the chemicals in your body is the most obvious. But also the conventional products don’t have the nutrients that the organic has, in my opinion. It’s debatable, but in my opinion conventional products don’t have the same nutrients that organic products have. I feel that’s why people are getting sicker and sicker because they don’t have the right nutrients in their bodies to fight off diseases. 

Organic is also a lot better for the soil. 

For consumers who are frozen by sticker shock, how would you encourage them to choose at least one organic vegetable or fruit each season to purchase?

First I would say that if you’re eating conventional food, it’s not fulfilling what your body needs so you’re wasting your money. You would be better off buying organic food that’s more nutritious. You can eat less of that and have a better outcome.  Other than that, organic produce just costs more to grow. 

 

'You know, the older you get you realize that you do what you can. You don’t want to work until you can’t go anymore, right?"

Seeing that agriculture is the number one industry in North Carolina, the state really values the farming community. Though that being said, what is one way in which the state could better support organic farmers?

There’s not a ton of state support from the state for organic farmers. Certainly more research from the state would be nice. I think that’s the biggest thing. 

Like organic variety trials?

Yea, variety trials and how to do it. And, just how to grow organically because  it’s just not well-known. Most organic farmers have figured it out by trial and error themselves.

If you have a problem, what do you do? If you’re a new farmer, what do you do? Even older farmers or more experienced farmers, it’s a challenge lots of times. 

As the weather shifts and becomes more unpredictable, how are crops affected?  Are there crops that you could once grow successfully that may not have the same success rate now?

You know, the weather has a lot to do with our quality, you know? I mean, there’s nothing we can do about it. If we get a lot of rain then the quality is going down.

Of course when the weather pattern is changing to be dry, it hurts the crops. Another thing is the heat. Crops don’t like it at 90 degrees or above. Okra and bell peppers, those kind of things do. But, the stuff we’re growing in the early spring like string beans and corn and squash, they don’t like the heat. They start shutting down and not growing like they should when it gets about 85 or 90.

We used to be able to grow broccoli but we can’t grow broccoli in the spring anymore, except for this spring that was perfect. Broccoli is very sensitive to heat so once it gets 90, it starts flowering out before it is ready. That’s the problem with it. String beans are similar to that. They will curl up. They won’t be straight when it’s 90-something.

farmer herbie cottle sits at his desk in the farm's office with his farmer-of-the-year award in the background

It seems like farmers never really take vacation. Do you take vacation days?

Yeah! You know, the older you get you realize that you do what you can. You don’t want to work until you can’t go anymore, right? And then you’re stuck at home.

Do you have any lessons learned from your grandfather and dad? Any life advice?

Oh, well, just, you know, keep growing a diversity of things is probably one of the biggest things they taught me. 

As far as life advice, just work hard. Keep working. Keep working. 

what they grow (organic)

Acorn Squash

Broccoli

Collards

English Peas

Green Beans

Green Kale

 

Potatoes

Radishes

Red Kale

Root Vegetables

Summer Squash

Sweet Corn

If you’re a buyer and want to learn more about our North Carolina, organic produce availability,  reach out! We’d love to hear from you. And if you’re curious about Happy Dirt, take a few minutes to watch the Happy Dirt brand story

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