Farmers tickled green over new grader

Wilson County business sorting cucumbers for Mt. Olive Pickle Co.

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A new grading machine has made a Wilson County farm the center of the county’s cucumber universe.

The Harrell family, fourth-generation farmers near Saratoga, run Agrarian Inc., which purchased the massive grader earlier this year.

“We have been growing cucumbers for roughly 20 years now,” said David Harrell, an owner of the company. “This is the first year we have ever graded cucumbers ourselves.”

The farm is located off of Good News Church Road north of Saratoga.

“It’s just a whole lot of hard work and it’s something that we have wanted to do for a long time,” said David Harrell. “It’s been a long road to get to this point. It’s been a whole lot of sleepless nights, early mornings and I couldn’t have done it at all without our employees and our family. Our entire family is in this business.”

Bill Harrell, David’s father, said the grading machine has required a lot of long hard work and a lot of planning.

The Harrells found the machine in Michigan. It took 11 tractor-trailer loads to bring the pieces of the grader 850 miles to North Carolina and it took two months to assemble.

“It’s basically just about the only machine like this that was available that was in somewhat running condition,” David Harrell said. “It did run cucumbers last year, not that we didn’t have to put a ton of work into it. It was this or go drag something out of the woods and completely refurbish it from scratch.”

According to Harrell, the person the company has normally taken its cucumbers to decided he only wanted to grade his own cucumbers this year.

“Mt. Olive gave us the opportunity to fill in his shoes and do our own cucumbers as well as the other growers who were originally going to his facility,” Harrell said. “So we picked up all those bushels and we have way more grader than we need capacity for but what we hope is that in the future whenever we gain more volume, more bushels, more growers, we won’t have to completely re-haul the machinery. We will turn the volume up on it and keep cranking them on through.”

Harrell said the hope is that the grader will help give Agrarian Inc. an alternative revenue stream by taking on the grading of other growers’ cucumbers.

“Now we are going to involved in the next step in the process,” Harrell said.

Harrell said all the cucumbers are sold to the Mt. Olive Pickle Co.

Company representatives were at the grader Wednesday to see the operation.

“It’s a nice operation that they’ve got,” said Phil Denlinger, vice president for agricultural procurement for Mt. Olive Pickle Co. “They have done a good job. It’s a very nice operation. We are very glad to have them as a buying station.”

Harrell explained the grading process.

The cucumbers will come to the plant are mostly from Wilson County, but also from Greene and Jones counties.

“We will essentially grade the cucumbers by sizing them according to the diameter of the cucumber,” Harrell said. “We will pick out all of the defective cucumbers. There’s nothing wrong with them other than they are just misshapen. We will throw those into a separate batch and that’s what they will make the relish out of. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the quality of it. It’s just not what the consumer wants to buy when they buy a jar of pickles. They want nice, straight pickles.”

Each line on the grader corresponds to a different size pickle.

At the bottom of each line, a packing crate is filled with exactly 1,000 pounds of cucumbers.

“We programed the scale head to make this door close at exactly 1,000 pounds,” Harrell said. “It will print a tag with the weight on it and the farmer whose field those came from, the field that it came out of, what size it is, the day and the time and our grading station number. It will close itself back up, open that gate back up and allow it to fill another 1,000 pounds in it.”

Harrell said the future of the cucumber business looks promising as opposed to other crops.

“You can’t really put a bright face on any commodity crop right now,” Harrell said. “It seems to be a promising future in most of the produce that’s going on right now. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen 10 years from ow, but for the foreseeable future, the cucumbers look to be a viable option for farmers right now.”

Denlinger said Mt. Olive will pack the full line of pickles from an operation like Agrarian.

“Each size has its own niche in the market anywhere from spears to whole pickles to chips,” Denlinger said. “We pack everything from a station such as this.”

Tommy Batts, commercial horticulture agent at Wilson County’s North Carolina Cooperative Extension office, said the five main cucumber growers had 337 acres of cucumbers in 2017 and all of those were for pickling.