A Brief History of Hall Family Farm (told by 4th generation farmer Kevin Hall)

My great-grandfather, John Kistler Hall, Sr., born September 25, 1878 in Indian Land, SC, began his married life on December 20, 1899 with a few household belongings, 2 hens and a rooster.  Indian Land was typical of the post Civil War south, agrarian, poverty stricken, and devoid of opportunity.  Despite the hardships, J.K accumulated a “vast fortune” of one thousand dollars and in the 1920’s purchased land on Providence Road West in southern Mecklenburg County, NC, to farm cotton.

J.K. grew cotton primarily and was landlord to a small community of tenant farmers, or sharecroppers.  He  provided mules, equipment, housing, seed,  and land, and the tenants provided the hard manual labor to grow cotton.  There were no tractors, electricity, indoor plumbing, air conditioning, central heat, or any of the other modern conveniences that we enjoy today.  The fields were plowed one row at a time with mule-drawn plows, cotton was hand picked, heat was provided by firewood cut with handsaws and split by hammer and wedge, and transportation consisted of buggies or mule-drawn wagons.

The farm ultimately grew to about 600 acres in size, most of it on the north side of Providence Road West, where Ballantyne Country Club sits today.  My grandfather, Leitner Shurley Hall, born September 7, 1914, was one of the youngest of  eleven children raised on the farm.  He has shared many memories of growing up on a southern cotton farm during the Great Depression.  His experiences included driving a mule-drawn wagon loaded with cotton into Pineville to sell to the cotton mill, cutting and splitting pine into 4-foot “stove wood” to sell to the mill in the winter, walking behind a mule and plow all day long, hand loading natural pit gravel into a wagon to help maintain the gravel roads, hand applying arsenic-laced molasses onto cotton bolls to kill the destructive boll weevils, and watching a favorite mule drop dead in the field after having acquired tetanus from a splinter.

After experiencing the grueling farm regime of the Great Depression, my grandfather joined the army, found himself a young bride in Portland, Oregon, returned home to the farm, and in 1941, just days before Pearl Harbor, was accepted into the Mecklenburg County Police force, with whom he enjoyed a 38 year long career.  Leitner and his wife, Elizabeth, raised six children in a rented farmhouse just around the corner on Lancaster Highway, where Providence Point subdivision sits today.  In 1955 J.K. gave him some cotton fields on the south side of Providence Road West on which they built a modern home with almost all the modern conveniences of today ( no air conditioning).

While Leitner did not farm for a living, the itch to farm remained strong and he and his family tended an enormous garden each year, typically growing watermelons, cantaloupe, sweet corn, tomatoes, green beans, okra, squash, and peas.    My grandmother canned hundreds of jars of vegetables and soups every summer to help support their eight person family.  Today Leitner is 94 years old and still manages to set out a few tomato plants each year.  One of his brothers, Harry, remained on the farm his entire life.  He grew watermelons to sell in Pineville and kept hogs and milk cows until his decline in health in the early 1990s.  The farm pond from which the current strawberry fields are irrigated was the favorite pasturing site for his milk cows for many years.  I remember as a child in the 1970’s, walking barefoot behind my great-uncle Harry as he bottom-plowed his field for a new crop of watermelons.  Of course, by this time, the farm had graduated to a diesel tractor rather than mules.

My father, Thomas David Hall, was born May 23, 1939 and is the oldest of Leitner and Elizabeth’s six children.  He grew up here in Lower Providence, working and playing on J.K.’s farm and the nearby farms of his aunts and uncles.  Times were changing, though, and it was becoming apparent that one couldn’t survive any more on a small farm.  My grandmother’s greatest gift to her children was instilling the  importance of education in them, and ultimately my father (and all his siblings) went to college and received degrees.  My father’s career has been consulting engineering in the field of water and wastewater and he has been steadily employed by the same engineering firm for nearly 40 years.  While his career led him away from active farming, the love of land remained and he has acquired significant holdings of land over the years, including a non-working farm in my home state of Virginia.  His youngest brother, Tim, studied agriculture at NC State and now is a NC Department of Agriculture Agronomist serving farmers in eastern North Carolina.  Today he grows all the vegetable crops on our farm, including sweet corn, lettuce, collard greens, and watermelons.  Tim is also responsible for planting the strawberry “bug” in my ear several years ago.

My contribution to Hall Family Farm has been the addition of modern drip-irrigation based farming methods, and of course, the pick-your-own strawberry operation. Lara, my wife, and I are both Virginia Tech graduates of electrical and mechanical engineering, respectively. After marrying at Harrison United Methodist Church in February 1996, we began our engineering careers in manufacturing in Wilmington, NC. In January 2000, we had our first child, Sabrina, and we had migrated back to Charlotte trying to stay employed in a declining manufacturing environment. Lara chose to stay at home to raise Sabrina. Stephanie followed in January 2002 and Daniel in February 2006. By this time I had given up on hoping to find stable employment in American manufacturing and was now working independently in home construction and rental property management.

Ballantyne was created in 1994 and the remnants of J.K.’s farm on the north side of Providence Road West were sold and became Ballantyne Country Club.  Incidentally, one of the houses visible from the strawberry fields sits directly on the site of the old barn.  The remaining land on the south side of the road is all that is left of the original farm.  As Ballantyne grew and grew, my uncle Tim recognized the potential of our farm as an “agri-tourist” operation due to its close proximity to a large population and repeatedly suggested I should consider a strawberry operation.  In 2006, now living just down the street from the farm and being self-employed and able to control my life, I began to study the prospect in earnest and spent countless hours on the Internet absorbing as much knowledge about pick-your-own strawberry operations available.  To my pleasant surprise, North Carolina was a pioneer in the latest technology of growing strawberries, annual strawberry “plasticulture”, which is growing a one year strawberry crop on raised soil beds covered in black plastic mulch and irrigated with buried drip tape.  I found fascinating and excellent source material available on the Internet, largely originating from researchers and extension personnel at NC State, which provided us with all the technical information required to plan the operation.

In early 2007 we committed to proceed with a 1 acre pick-your-own strawberry field opening spring 2008. The first half of 2007 was spent running all over several states purchasing used equipment necessary for the operation. Summer of 2007, unfortunately one of our driest on record, was spent preparing the field for bed-making. We were forced to pump our precious pond water supply nearly dry to get enough moisture in the field to plow it. In August 2007 we laid the raised beds for our first crop of strawberries and planted them in October 2007. The next 6 months we fretted and worried after investing a huge sum of money into the venture, and wondering one, would we have a successful crop of strawberries? and two, would anyone come to buy them?

Well, we opened our pick-your-own strawberry field April 12, 2008, and thanks to perfect weather and wonderful customers in the community, we had a spectacular first season. That summer we raised a second crop of cantaloupe to make efficient use of the strawberry beds and prepared a second 1 acre field for strawberries. As we approach the opening of season 2 we again sit on pins and needles, fretting about the rainy weather, the poor economy, and the ever-present catastrophic risk of hail. However, this year we know that we will have plenty of enthusiastic and happy families eagerly anticipating opening day.

Hall Family Farm began as my great-grandfather’s decision as a young man to commit himself to a life of farming. Once a sharecropping cotton farm amid an entire region of nothing but farmland, it has evolved with the times into a pick-your-own strawberry farm amid a bustling city. We are a family farm that does as much of the work in planning, growing, maintaining, and selling as possible. We do not import labor as do most farms these days. The persons you see working in the field as you drive by are most likely Lara, me, my father or uncle, sometimes a cousin or brother, and on sunny hot days you will see my 94 year old grandfather out there as well. Our family has eaten food grown off this farm for nearly 100 years and we will continue to respect and maintain the land to keep it fruitful and safe for many years to come.