McRae farmer changing crops

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McRae farmer changing crops after more than half a century of farming: Once considered the largest strawberry producer in the state - in a city known across the country for its berries - Bill Holt this year was forced to find a new crop

Bill Holt stands by the 1947 John Deere tractor he has used to plow his strawberry fields for 56 years in McRae on Thursday. This is the first year Holt did not plant strawberries. In a town once famous for their delicious red berries, Holt's decision to change his crop means the end of an era. (Greg Benenati/The Daily Citizen)

For the first time in 60 years, Arkansas' one-time biggest berry grower had no strawberry plants to pick this May except for three rows in his garden that he kept for himself. At age 78, Bill Holt of McRae has switched crops.

On June 15, Holt - dressed in a straw hat, a button-down shirt, and khaki pants - disked land that had once grown berries and was now devoted to sweet potatoes. Perched on his tractor and surveying the land beyond his 80 acres, Holt spoke of the decline of strawberry growing in McRae.

Before the strawberry market shifted over to Bald Knob, McRae was one of the largest shipping points for berries in the United States, Holt said.

"Now there are no strawberries grown in miles. Twenty-five miles away [in Bald Knob] is the closest," Holt said.

Holt said that he was the largest strawberry farmer in Arkansas at points in the 1950s and 1960s, when he grew 30 acres of strawberries with 6,000 plants filling each acre. He remembers doing numerous interviews with newspapers and television crews who would come every harvest.

Reporters were lost in the crowd that once gathered around Holt's strawberry fields. Beginning in 1951, Holt opened his fields up to whoever wanted to pick his berries. Holt said that the change was due to the difficulty in finding enough laborers to finish the job. Holt believes that the difficulty in finding laborers to harvest the berry crop is the reason that the berry industry in McRae declined.

In earlier decades McRae berries were shipped by rail all over the country; now people came to Holt's farms and bought berries directly from him. The difficulty in finding a steady workforce for the harvest time had been bypassed.

On a May day a hundred cars carrying berry pickers from throughout Arkansas and beyond would fill nearby fields and line the road to his home, Holt said. Some pickers would come in the evenings after work.

Most of those picked Holt's berries for their own consumption; others would sell them on the roadside. Berry pickers would be eager for the harvest to begin and on the first warm and clear day in March, Holt said that his phone would start ringing from callers curious to know if Holt's berries were ripe.

"No, no," Holt would say. "They're not ready for another two months."

This year too, people parked their cars along his farm wanting to pick strawberries, Holt said. He had to turn them away.

Two setbacks in recent years, caused Holt to give up berry farming.

In the mid-1990s, an agricultural pilot sprayed the wrong material over his field. Holt estimates that he lost $50,000 in berries from the mistake.

"An airplane sprayed them and ruined them for two years," Holt recalls.

Disaster came not only from overhead, but also from far-off California.

In 2000, Holt planted 25,000 strawberry plants which he purchased from California for $10,000. The plants filled four of the 12 acres of berries he was then growing.

"Those plants never grew a strawberry," Holt said.

Growing strawberries was the family business for Holt, who was born in McRae in 1927. His father, Shirl Holt, began growing berries in McRae in the 1920s after moving down from Sharp County. Growing up, Holt said he remembers the carnivals that would pass through McRae during the berry season.

Holt, who had his first berry crop in 1947, said he became the largest berry farmer in the state and the last berry farmer in McRae because of tenacity.

"Everybody else just backed out of it. I stayed with it," Holt said.

Over the years, Holt has had other crops and enterprises besides strawberries on his 80 acres, which straddles Grand Avenue a little more than two miles from the center of town.

At one time Holt had thousands of hens, and farmed more than 600 acres of soybeans on rented land.

"We were pretty busy here at one time," Holt said.

Holt doesn't have any concrete plans for retirement, although he said that two surgeries in recent years have slowed him down some.

"I don't have enough Social Security to live very good," Holt said. In the meantime, Holt will keep farming.

Although watermelons and sweet potatoes are the new staple on Holt's land, the strawberries that once grew there are not easily forgotten by Holt.

"When you do something all your life and then you don't have it, you really miss it," Holt said.