Gardens showcases N.C. crops from the field to the table
Rex and Ruth Sasser are pictured with the “corn field” that is part of the Field of Dreams exhibit presented by the North Carolina Electric Cooperatives. Rex Sasser oversees the planting and management of the crops in the exhibit. His wife Ruth and their daughters travel to Raleigh twice a week from Goldsboro to check on the crops’ progress.
It takes a lot of work to put on an event as big as the N.C. State Fair every year. Planning “for next year” is often well underway before the fair even closes its gates for the final night.
Behind the scenes, a small army of people work to make the event a success. And for many it is a labor of love. At 72 and 85 years old respectively, N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services retirees Carl Tart and Rex Sasser have been the dynamic duo behind the Field of Dreams exhibit since it began 19 years ago.
Both admit they enjoy staying busy and managing the Field of Dreams exhibit offers them every opportunity to do that. With some advance planning, plus weekly efforts to cultivate and care for the garden and a little luck in October, Sasser and Tart turn the area on the East end of Dorton Arena into a lush and productive teaching garden to show kids (and parents) where their food comes from.
“Helping people make the connection between farming and their food has been the goal of Field of Dreams since the very beginning,” Tart said. “Most fair exhibits run for five to seven years, but this one has survived because education in this area is so important. Look at everyone moving into our area. The need for education grows every year.” Sasser starts planting in June so when fairgoers come through the gates in October, they can find red tomatoes ready to be picked, neat rows of corn reaching maturity, beans and onions ready for picking, plus soybeans, cotton, peanuts, sorghum, various herbs and greens just waiting for fairgoers to notice them. “It’s not the optimal time to grow,” Tart said, but Sasser makes it work by looking at the maturity date of the plants and backing up the planting to sync with the Fair’s opening.
Carl Tart with sorghum planted at the Field of Dreams exhibit.
Growing outside the normal planting windows creates challenges from the start to the end. “The hardest thing is to try to get plants. People don’t have the plants we need because it’s past when people traditionally plant,” Sasser said. “We called everywhere trying to get plants, but no one had any.” Tending to the plants is essential because of the specific time frame in which they need to be ready. “We had plenty of time with the research station. If the first crop didn’t come up, we could plant again. We can’t do that here,” Sasser said.
As the fair opening gets closer, the challenge switches to keeping the plants alive. “My biggest fear is if we get a frost right at Fair time,” Tart said. “It has happened before and we covered everything with cheese cloth for two to three nights when it happened. And we have had to put in big fans before to keep the air moving because of the cold temps.”
When Tart was first approached about the concept of Field of Dreams, he knew he wanted Sasser’s help. Sasser was retired from the Research Stations Division as superintendent of the Cherry Research Station in Goldsboro where he oversaw operations at the station including planting and managing research plots.
Sasser had farmed for 15 years before joining the department and he continued growing some crops outside of work. His experience and knowledge have proven to be invaluable in the success of the exhibit. “When we first came in the red dirt was right at the top of the ground and it was hard as a rock,” Sasser said. “We took a front-end loader and broke it up and then brought some compost in and worked it in.” Tending to the garden has become a family affair for Sasser, his wife Ruth and their three adult daughters. The couple makes two trips up a week from their home in Goldsboro to water, fertilize crops, weed and scout for problems with the crops. “The insects are something we really have to stay on,” Sasser said. Tart added that “this late in the year, things like mildew” are also problematic. Asked to pick his favorite plant, Sasser said “for some unknown reason, I like to see tomatoes come up. And I don’t even like tomatoes.” “He likes ones that show fruit,” Ruth Sasser added. Seeing the joy on kids’ faces as they come through the exhibit is more than worth the effort, both men said.
“I am amazed at the number of people who come back and come through every year,” Tart said. For him, meeting and talking with people is one of the best parts of the job. “We get new people through the exhibit who are interested in what we are doing. It’s exciting to see people who want to know where their food comes from,” Tart said. While Tart and Sasser spearhead managing the exhibit, it wouldn’t be successful without the many volunteers that answer questions and share information about what visitors are seeing, which includes NCDA&CS staff and students from FFA chapters across the state. “When you have 20,000 kids come through, it takes a lot of help,” Tart said. “The key to this whole thing is the relationship built between the visitors and volunteers.” Over the years, new wrinkles have been added to the exhibit to help connect the dots the crops take from the farm to the table. Pizza, taco and Thanksgiving dinner graphics illustrate for example that tomatoes can be in the pizza sauce and on tacos.
As a bonus attraction for coming through the exhibit, kids can “harvest” some crops along the path and “sell” them at the farm stand. They take that “cash” and exchange it for a goodie bag at the end of the exhibit.
Field of Dreams is presented by the N.C. Electric Cooperatives and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., expect for Thursday, Oct. 12, when it opens at noon beside Dorton Arena near Cotton Park and Kiddieland.