Dairies, Vegetables and Flowers

The following are excerpts from a variety of articles written by Jennie Jones Giles and published in the Hendersonville Times-News from 2002 to 2007.

The excerpts are used here to give insight into the historical agricultural community of Mills River.

 Heart of the Dairy Industry

Tall empty silos covered with vines dot the landscape. The old silos stand empty and silent, a testimony to the once thriving dairy industry.
The idyllic, pastoral scene of well-fed dairy cows chewing their cuds in a grassy meadow is almost a nostalgic scene from the past.
“In the 1960s, every little corner had a dairy,” said Drew Brannon, member of the Henderson County Soil and Water Board and former dairy farmer.
Thirty years ago there were more than 40 dairies in Henderson County. (There were 90 dairy farms in the county in 1957)
“Most farmers want to keep farming,” Steve Fullam said in 2005 when the Fullam family began a creamery at the dairy. “They don’t want to build houses or commercial properties. They don’t want to sell off the land. But it’s always an economic struggle to keep a farm viable.”
Chuck Carland had about 200 Holstein and Jersey cows on approximately 200 acres of leased land off Jeffress Road.
“Dairying is a passion,” he said. “It’s what I love to do.”
“We can’t have a dairy in the middle of a subdivision,” Carland said. “The local people who have been here for generations can’t afford to stay here anymore.”
People are moving here for the scenery, the green space, the rural nature; but those things are disappearing as more and more people move to the region, Carland said.
“In five years, there won’t be any more pastures,” he said. “The mountains used to be dark at night. Now, there are lights everywhere. People complain about the smell of manure. Soon, there won’t be any left to smell.”
The bottom land along the rivers, now used as crop land and pasture, will be nothing but a swamp in a few years, Carland said.
“With all the development and roads, where is the water to go?” he said.

“These days, whenever I drive the back roads of Mills River, I am more apt to see deer and riding horses in the remaining pastures than dairy herds,” said Jim Brittain of Mills River. “Land surveyors and realtors are busily lying out and selling mountain-view lots on former dairy farms.”

Black and white Holstein cows grazing in the pasture, spotlessly clean machines ready for the next milking, dogs herding cattle, children raising their own calves, employees who seem a part of the family and neighbors and friends sharing the workload – it’s a way of life that is rapidly disappearing in Henderson County.
Dairy farms were once found in several areas of the county and Mills River was the heart of the county’s dairy industry.

 Vegetable Fields

One after the other, the tractor trailers are pulling into the lots at Flavor 1st. Okra, cucumbers, squash, beans and tomatoes are loaded onto the trucks, which are going to Atlanta, Columbia, S.C., and Charlotte with produce grown in Henderson County.
A computer sits above the desk. This is the modern-day world of the produce business, with computers, weather updates and push-to-talk communication.
The Johnson family, owners of Flavor 1st, is continuing the business of growing, selling and shipping produce from Henderson County begun almost 200 years and eight generations ago by their ancestors, some of the earliest settlers into the region.
Much of the farming is in Mills River.
The facilities on Hoopers Lane and Banner Farm Road in Mills River handle the produce grown on the farms in Mills River.
They grow green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini, pepper and eggplant.
Kirby Johnson said in Henderson County more and more farm land is being lost and the price of farm land keeps rising.
“With more and more bottom land getting lost to development and horse ranches, we’re turning to modern ways of hillside farming,” he said.
With generations of knowledge of the local land, family members know where to plant their crops.
“You can’t harvest beans in South and North Mills River because of the deer,” Kirby Johnson said. “The deer will harvest the beans for you.”
“I’ll plant tomatoes or corn in Mills River,” he said. “The deer don’t mess with them as bad.”
In addition to acreage planted in vegetables, Johnson is also growing hay in the county to feed the Black Angus cattle being raised in Mills River.

In 2005, Flavor 1st was named the 2005 Supplier of the Year by the Bi-Lo/Bruno’s supermarkets.
Flavor 1st won the award over much larger national and regional suppliers of fresh, perishable items, such as Del Monte, Pet Dairy and Fresh Express.

Flavor 1st, which is based in Mills River, packs and ships vegetables grown by farmers in a 70-mile radius, including Henderson, Polk, Transylvania, Rutherford, Madison and Yancey counties and the upstate of South Carolina.
At least 49 farmers in the region supply Flavor 1st with at least 53 different items. The company also packs and ships produce grown by farmers in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and other areas of South Carolina, bringing the total number of farmers to about 150.

In 2012, Flavor 1st was the largest farm for row vegetables, and handling fruit and vegetables “from seed to (dinner) table” in Western North Carolina, Kirby Johnson said.
This year, Flavor 1st committed $100,000 to develop phase 2 of the 50-acre Mills River Park.

 Horticulture and Flowers

The pink of the Monet poinsettia could have been sprayed with an airbrush. Some of the poinsettias are painted blue and purple, with glitter for the holiday season. The poinsettias are sprayed with special paint in an air sprayer.
The thousands of poinsettias at Van Wingerden International range from deep red to all shades in between, some with dark green leaves and others with pale green leaves.
Some of the poinsettias carrying the Nature’s Heritage logo are variegated. Acres of poinsettias are in shades of white.
Some of the holiday plants are mixed in planters with other foliage and chrysanthemums of white and red.
The company will ship close to a million poinsettias before the holiday season ends, said Bert Lemke, general manager. Twenty-five to 30 tractor trailer loads of poinsettias leave the facility daily.
The acres of poinsettias are shipped to locations within a 350-mile radius of Henderson County, from the Carolina coast, to Raleigh, Nashville, Tenn., and the panhandle of Florida.
Poinsettias grown in Mills River are sold at Ingles, Fresh Market and Home Depot stores and in other retail markets. Many are bought by florists.
There are 37 acres of greenhouses at Van Wingerden International, spread on four locations in Mills River.
In the greenhouses, large pumps fill the concrete floors with 3/4 inch of water.
The water is recycled, filtered and pumped to the next area.
“We re-use all water with nutrients,” Lemke said.
The company received a Friend of the River award from the Land-of-Sky Regional Council for the recycling of the water and nutrients in the greenhouses.
Aart Van Wingerden, who died in 1996, moved his floriculture company to Mills River in 1972. After moving from the Netherlands in 1948, he began a vegetable farm in New Jersey, later converting to bedding plants.
Van Wingerden was named to the Floricultural Hall of Fame for his research and use of soilless mixes to raise bedding plants and the invention and use of double polyethylene air layering greenhouse covering.
He chose the Mills River area to construct his greenhouses after studying the climate throughout the United States, Lemke said.
“This area has the highest percentage of clear skies and sunny days in the winter,” he said.
The more sunny days, the less heat it takes to keep the greenhouses warm.
In addition to growing the poinsettias, mums and other foliage, such as ferns and ivy, the company is growing African violets, roses and cyclamen.
“Cyclamen is a gorgeous plant for Christmas,” Lemke said.
“When the poinsettias are gone, we begin filling the greenhouses with flowers for Valentine’s Day,” he said.
The major volume of plants sold by the company is in the spring, when seeds to cuttings are sold in many varieties of plants and flowers.
The largest greenhouse grower in Henderson County is Van Wingerden in Mills River, accounting for 50 to 60 percent of the wholesale production in the county. Smaller greenhouse production accounts for about 5 percent, with the remaining 45 percent field nursery or container nursery growers, said Cliff Ruth with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service.

 Old-Fashion Flowers

The flower industry is not new to the fertile Mills River valley. Old-fashioned flowers once brightened the valley.
Long stems of pink, yellow, lavender and white gladiolus adorned every available space inside a building on N.C. 280.
The building was once where the Bradley family graded and packed gladiolus grown on the family’s farm.
Since 1947 the family of the late Gordon Bradley has grown gladiolus in the Mills River valley.
Kathleen Bradley remembered when she and her husband, Gordon, started the gladiolus farm 55 years ago. (Kathleen Bradley died in 2006)
“We used to grow 100 acres,” she said. “We made a living from glads and did some farming on the outside.”
Now, Don Bradley said, countries in Central America are growing flowers and selling them so cheaply that it is hard for American growers to compete.
“There used to be 10 to 12 growers in Henderson County,” he said. “Now it’s down to just us.” (2004)
Bill Bradley is currently selling the old-fashioned flowers on Saturday mornings at the Mills River Farmers Market on N.C. 280 in Mills River.

For other stories written in past years on the Bradley gladiolus farm, visit the following: