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
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
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
"An airplane sprayed them and ruined them for two years," Holt
Disaster came not only from overhead, but also from far-off
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
"When you do something all your life and then you don't have it, you
really miss it," Holt said.