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Small business owners worry bridge repair will sound death knell for farm

Customers looking for organically-grown fruits and vegetables, freshly-baked breads, cakes and cookies, even a petting zoo with an educational twist – often find their way to Greenlands Farm Store on Midway Road in Bolivia.  The tiny Brunswick County town covers less than one square mile.   And Midway Road connects that rural area with Southport, Saint James, Oak Island.  As WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn reports, a very small bridge in need of repair about halfway down Midway Road could mean a complete closure of the artery for six months – and a sizeable detour for Farm Store customers.

Heather Burkert, landscape architect, mother, wife, and co-owner of Greenlands Farm Store walks the farm’s 20 acres and wonders aloud how the business will survive the road closure. 

“You know it’s a lot to ask for someone to go 12 miles out of their – you know – ‘cause it’s 12 here, 12 back. So we’re talking a 24-mile jaunt.”

Heather lives on the farm with her husband Henry.

 [SOUND OF PIGS SQUEALING FOR FOOD] “[to the hungry pigs as he scatters food] Okay, okay, okay.  So we didn’t really have a clue what was going on.   And probably wouldn’t until they put the signs up and it said ‘Road Closed’.” 

A small bridge on Midway Road is slated for a complete overhaul, according to DOT officials.  The replacement bridge, which will be about 50% larger, will meet primary road standards in the event Midway Road grows beyond secondary status.    

Henry and Heather’s adult daughter Maud also lives on the farm with her husband and daughter.  A self-described vegetarian, she works closely with the animals – most of them rescues.  

“I know we’re not going to change the world, here, but you know, if you can touch a few kids’ lives, it means you touch a few animals’ lives…” 

A large part of the family’s mission involves community outreach -- in the form of an educational petting zoo.

It’s taken the Burkerts several years to build their business.  And the prospect of customers facing a 24-mile round-trip detour for at least six months – well, to the Burkerts – that’s pretty much the death knell for the farm.

“I mean – small business owners – we don’t have the resources to hunker down for 9 months without any income.  Especially when you have an active farm and animals and things that – we just can’t shelve things, you know?  We have to keep feeding the animals and taking care of properties and everything like that.  So it’s not something we can just close the door and come back in 9 months.” 

So the Burkerts set up a meeting with the DOT engineers in charge of the project. 

Around a large conference room table, four DOT engineers listen to the Burkerts’ concerns about emergency vehicle access, increased traffic load on other roads, the closure of a hurricane evacuation route.  DOT engineer Karen Fussell agrees to move the project out of hurricane season. 

But a temporary bridge, which is what the Burkerts really want, is out of the question, say the engineers, because it would double the cost of the project.  Heather confronts the lead engineer.

 “Let’s say it was your business.  How would you feel about it?  That’s a reasonable question.”

“I don’t know… I don’t know that I would … I don’t know that I would put a business on a secondary route.  I would want it on a primary route.  So I don’t know what it feels like to have owned a business on a secondary route.  I can’t – I can’t speak to that.”

Fussell overlooks the need for a farm business to exist in a rural setting. 

Henry Burkert holds up a petition with more than 75 names they’ve collected over the last week. 

“Well, we’ve got a few people right here who’ve already signed…”

“I understand that…”

“It’s not just about our business.”

“I understand.”

“It’s about the region.”

“It’s the people on Midway Road.”

“The people that travel Midway Road.”

“No. It’s the people that live in Southport, Oak Island, Long Beach Road… they are going to be impacted by it because of a number of reasons.”

This bridge and 8 others in Pender and Brunswick Counties are part of the same contract.  So far, there’s no date set for construction of the Midway Road Bridge.  Engineers have asked the contractor to schedule the job for January of 2014.    

That would give the Burkerts more time to prepare – possibly salvage the family business and the life they love so much. 

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 2 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.