On a sweltering late June afternoon, Herbie Cottle takes a break from what has already been a 12-hour day on his family’s produce farm in Duplin County.
He was up at 3:45 a.m., out the door by 4:30 a.m., pulling corn as the sun came up. He met his workers in the fields, dropped empty boxes, picked up full ones. He turned on irrigation pumps and turned them back off. He washed and packed and labeled. He watched his crew load trucks and send them off to restaurants and grocery stores across the state.
He still had a few hours of work ahead of him, and then he’d wake up and do it all again the following day.
“I tell people all the time that you’ve really got to love farming, or you wouldn’t do it,” he says. “It’s too ridiculously hard in terms of work and stress. You got to really love it, or you’d be doing something else. It’s in your blood.”
Farming truly is in Cottle’s blood.
“We’ve been farming on this land since 1912, when my great-great-grandfather came here to start growing strawberries,” he says.
The Cottles eventually began growing tobacco and, later, a wide array of vegetables. In 2007, after the tobacco buyout, the family began to explore organic farming as a way to grow their income. “We’ve been converting land ever since then,” Cottle says, and today the farm has 350 acres that are certified organic. They yield dozens of types of produce, including kale, collards, squash, peppers, and more. Cottle Farms packs 50,000 boxes of vegetables a year, selling to distributors that serve restaurants as well as supermarket chains.
“You enjoy doing it, but it’s really not easy,” Cottle says with a laugh. “It’s much more management intensive, more hands-on when you start farming organically compared to conventionally.”
Cottle says his family relies on the eight full-time employees and dozen-plus seasonal workers who help make the farm run—and who help pick up the workload. But he isn’t able to offer health insurance to these critical members of his team.
“They’re a good person and you want them to have insurance, but you just can’t afford it,” he says. That’s why Cottle is urging state lawmakers to close the coverage gap and extend health-care benefits to his workers. “I’ve got some of these employees who’ve been working for me for 20 years. I’d love to be able to provide health insurance for them. But I can’t do it. It’s just not possible with the cost of health insurance.”
He pauses for a minute and turns his attention to an employee.
“You know that field,” he says, adding a few directional details. “Go up there with the tractor and set it on the left side and I’ll come pick you up.”
“Trying to get set-up for the morning and move some tractors around,” he says by way of explanation. The work on a farm doesn’t stop for politics. (Or much else, for that matter.)
That’s why recruiting and retaining the best workers is so critical; these employees are its lifeblood. “The margin of profit is so little in farming,” Cottle says. “You can’t afford to hire management people. It would help to be able to offer things like insurance to be able to attract people to come work at the farm.”
But more importantly, he says, closing the coverage gap would be life-changing for his employees and their families.
“I want to make a better life for them.”