WAGRAM — Life is good and the picking is easy at Fontcol Farms.
The name might not sound familiar, but Fontcol Farms has been a staple in Wagram for decades, formerly known as Cooley’s Strawberry Patch, the business is now being run by the next generation of Cooley’s — Dan Cooley and his wife, Lizzie Stricklin, who took over the operation from Dan’s uncle, James Cooley and his wife, Sissy.
Fontcol pays homage to the history of the area and is what Wagram was known as before the town was renamed in 1920. The name also allows Dan and Lizzie to expand the type of crops they offer in the future.
“We have a letter from 1903 that is addressed to a Ms. Effie Cooley that has Fontcol, North Carolina which was based around the Mill Pond that is still on our family farm,” Dan said. “They were part of the community that lived here, which included a blacksmith, post office all based around the Mill Pond. We wanted to bring back a little piece of history, so in a few years if we get strawberries down pat we can add some other crops.”
The four-acre strawberry farm on Airbase Road needed some attention in order for the Cooley’s to get ready for the season. Despite growing up in the Cooley family, prior to taking over the day-to-day operations Dan had not working in the patch.
“My dad ran the business across the street for 15 years, then took a two-year break before my uncle picked it up and did it for 17 years,” he said. “It’s always been a family affair but I wasn’t quite the age to be helping when my dad did it. When my uncle was working it I had a cousin that was fairly active in it, that’s probably why I’m okay with operating it now because I didn’t do much of the work then.”
In the off season, Dan and Lizzie, both 25, moved back to Scotland County after getting married and got to work revamping the family business.
The couple planted 68,000 strawberry plants which according to Dan could yield almost 70,000 pounds of berries. After clearing the fields and having a contractor come in and lay the plastic and set the drip lines, Dan and Lizzie had to wait a week before planting all of the fruits. Once the plants are in the ground they have to be constantly watered for a week.
The unpredictable weather the area has been experiencing this year could have cost the farm all of their crops, but Dan and Lizzie were vigilant and after numerous sleep-less nights spent in the rows of berries the couple saved all their blooms.
“It ended up being a lot more work than we anticipated,” Dan said. “If you get a warm spot of weather and then it goes back to freezing you have to do overhead irrigation to protect the plants because the ice will insulate the flowers and protect the bloom. We spent 13 nights where we had to stay up all night with the overhead irrigation with all the sprinklers running.”
The strawberry picking season usually runs from April 1 through the beginning to middle of June, depending on the weather.
“Once it gets to June and we have more heat it might be a little harder to fill up a bucket,” said Dan. “Now would be a good time to come out while the picking is easy and the temperature isn’t so hot.”
People also get more bang for their buck at Fontcol’s instead of buying strawberries from the grocery store. It costs $1.75 per pound to hand pick strawberries from the patch and its $3 to stop in and buy pre-picked.
“The strawberries in the grocery store are shipped green, once you see them in the store they have ripened on their trip to the grocery store,” Dan said. “If you come out here, they are rip straight from the plant and you get all those good natural sugars.”
The Cooley’s hope other young couples will come back to Scotland County and open family owned businesses, because Dan wants to see his hometown thrive.
“The reason we moved back to Scotland County was to open another good family-oriented business, that’s the name of the game,” he said. “If more young people come back to Scotland County and have things to do we’ll continue to grow the county and have other businesses come in.”
Fontcol Farms has also started a delivery service on Mondays and Thursdays. The minimum for delivery is $15 and orders must be placed by 3 p.m. because orders will be delivered between 4 and 6 p.m. on those days.
The couple doesn’t have a favorite strawberry recipe, but aren’t shy about taste testing their product when the pre-picked buckets come in.
“We just pick the strawberries, but we love to hear what others do with them. We just pick them and educate the community about the process,” she said. “Our favorite part is just watching people enjoy the strawberries.”
The strawberry patch is located at 23800 Airbase Road in Wagram and is open Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from 12 to 4 p.m.
Amber Hatten-Staley can be reached at 910-506-3170 or [email protected]