Sweet, spicy and local: Greenhouse grant helping pepper farm expand

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STANTONSBURG — Two Wilson County farmers are pushing the envelope when it comes to pepper production.

Walker Shelton and Thomas Webb, owners of Planters Produce Co. in Stantonsburg, are the recipients of an N.C. AgVentures grant from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. The grants are administered by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

Shelton and Webb are 2011 graduates of Beddingfield High School.

“We’ve just been good friends growing up and went to N.C. State,” Shelton said. “Once we got out of school we wanted to diversify into produce whereas traditionally our families have been tobacco and grains production and now the produce side, we think that is a better opportunity long-term than tobacco. We started growing cucumbers in 2015 and added on acreage and started growing peppers in 2016. We added a little more in 2017 and this year we are still growing cucumbers and peppers is our main crop.”

Shelton and Webb were among 27 grant recipients statewide through the program this year.

The pair used the $9,500 to pay about half of the cost of a 200-by-35-foot greenhouse where they are currently growing about 260,000 pepper plants.

“It’s an old greenhouse we bought secondhand but everything inside of it is new,” Shelton said. “It paid for a lot of the fans and heaters and the T-rail system that holds the plants up, which makes it unique compared to a traditional tobacco greenhouse that would be a little different than that. Currently inside we have jalapeños, banana and some bell peppers in there right now and we will seed a little more next week, some more bell peppers and some specialty-type peppers as well.”

“We started growing the cucumbers because there was a company that was in need of bushels of cucumbers,” Webb said. “After we got started in the cucumbers, they were interested in more pepper acreage and more pepper bushels, so we tried out the peppers in 2016 and really enjoyed the pepper crop.”

The peppers will be transplanted in the field when they are ready.

“We are learning something every year. There’s not a lot of other pepper growers in the county,” Webb said. “There are some neighbors that grow cucumbers. We were able to consult them. The peppers have been a little harder to get answers to questions we have. We have been able to figure it out and learn as we go.”

The company planted 20 acres of peppers in 2016 and 20 acres in 2017 as well.

“We might increase a little bit, maybe five more acres, but we are not going to increase much more than that right now,” Webb. “We are going to get growing these plants under control and if we see that that’s good, we can grow from there.”

Walker said the greenhouse gives them more control over when they have the transplants available to set.

“In the past two years we have been having outside growers produce the transplants for us, a third party,” Walker said. “We had to travel a little bit father to get to them and hopefully we can do it cheaper and have more control over everything having it done in-house. That is really the main reason we wanted to establish this greenhouse.”

One of the requirements for the grant was that recipients had to do some sort of community outreach.

“We were both members of Beddingfield FFA and got a lot out of it,” Walker said.

Last week, eight members of the current Horticulture 2 class visited the greenhouse and the farm.

Bryant Glover, carer and technical education-agriculture teacher and Future Farmers of America adviser at Beddingfield, said seeing the greenhouse was a real opportunity for his class.

“To let these kids see somebody who has been in the class that they have been in, who has going through what they have gone through, to see that they have actually become successful and can actually do something with what they have learned actually gives these kids a chance to say ‘Hey, maybe I could come out here and work with them, learn from them, figure out what I’m doing and maybe go out on my own.’” Bryant said. “It’s really neat to see. I have known both of these guys all of my life and it is really cool that nobody around here had really done, especially the younger people, with vegetable production and all of that. So it’s kind of showing, ‘Hey, we have got a new generation. We’re trying something new.’ And for them to actually bring these young kids out, it’s really neat and it helps us out a lot.”

Tommy Batts, commercial horticulture agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County, said the Tobacco Trust Fund was set up to help combat economic losses in the tobacco market especially right after the tobacco buyout. It serves 18 counties, which includes Wilson.

The grants are up to $10,000.

“They are looking for innovative, different thinking,” Batts said. “This is an annual program and they usually open it up about October and if you are interested at that time, let us know and we can get you an application.”

Batts can be reached at 252-237-0111.