Thursday, April 16, 2009
Hills rolling in strawberries
By SUE WATSON
Brownlee Farms, known for its fall pumpkin crop and its tree and shrub (nursery and landscaping) business, has added a new wrinkle to its retail mix this year.
Owner Brooks Brownlee and his workers are producing about two acres of sweet and delicious Chandler variety strawberries, developed in California in 1982.
Brownlee has his packing shed all ready and plenty of flats ready to be filled with berries. They began ripening in the field last week.
Weather has been good overall, although his workers had to cover the plants with cloth last week to make sure the crop was not damaged by frost. The berries made it through two nights of frosty temperatures last week and haven’t missed a heartbeat. Strawberries should be available at the farm for the next six weeks at least, Brownlee said.
What strawberry lovers need to know right now are the directions to the farm and the best time of the day to be there to assure there will be berries at the packing shed upon arrival.
“We’ll be open at 8 a.m. every day until we sell out every day,” Brownlee said.
The farm is located at 314 Skating Rink Road off Highway 178, west of Red Banks Road. Driving east on Highway 178 from Byhalia, turn left on Skating Rink Road. Or if driving westward on 178 past the Texaco Station at Red Banks, turn right on Skating Rink Road. The narrow gravel road crosses the railroad tracks in just a hop, skip and a jump. The white sign on the right after crossing the tracks says Brownlee Farms. Drive through the gate, past the house and up the hill. Drive further back past the first two buildings to the large pole shed on the left. Yes, you are in the country. If you don’t see anyone right away, honk.
To be sure there are plenty of fresh picked strawberries upon arrival, call Brownlee at 901-626-0855 (cell) or 662-838-7616 (Brownlee Farm office) and make arrangements. Or e-mail Brownlee at firstname.lastname@example.org
He said he has been in the wholesale nursery business for 20 years but opened his farm for direct sales to the consumer in 2006. He started selling trees and shrubs on site and several years ago decided to add pumpkins to the mix to create a niche market. The pumpkins have been a phenomenal success. Brownlee said he started looking about for another niche market that would go along with the pumpkins and learned from Mississippi State Extension Service that pumpkins can be double-cropped with strawberries.
So this year is the test of his new mix and by all accounts the strawberries are doing their part. Brownlee Farms will sell shrubs and trees and landscaping supplies along with strawberries on up until Father’s Day, he said.
He called the berries coming off the top of the crop his bonus berries. They are delicious and the bell ringer for when the plants come to full bearing maturity in a few weeks. The hills will be rolling in strawberries.
“This is our first year to grow them and we’re getting an education on growing, picking them, taking care of them and marketing them,” Brownlee said.
He started out mid-October last year with raised beds and 35,000 Chandler strawberry plugs.
The week of Thanksgiving, Brownlee covered the beds with cloth that would protect the plants from heavy freezes so they would grow all winter long. He removed the covers mid-March but had to put the covers back on last week.
Berries are ripening now and Brownlee hopes the plants will continue to bloom until Mother’s Day. On July 4, he takes out the strawberry plants and puts in his pumpkins in the same beds. They will be bearing pumpkins by mid-September.
Down the road, Brownlee said he wants his farm to be used for agritourism. That means that the consumer can buy and experience the farm products and produce as well as take farm tours like a hayride or a walk in a corn field. Eventually, he hopes to convert a growing corn field into a corn maze for tourists.
“We’re trying to make Brownlee Farms have something to offer all year long,” he said. “We are trying to diversify our mix and become an agritourism stop statewide.”
At pumpkin pulling time in September, Brownlee will be selling mums, cornstalks, hay and will offer hayrides - all the stuff that makes Halloween and Thanksgiving (harvest) an exciting time of the year.
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