Our Roots Run Deep
Maggie Valley Berry Patch and Gardens
by Maggie Cox
March 23, 2021
My husband David and I have often been asked why in the world would two retired people take on the task of growing strawberries. Sometimes they actually ask why two OLD people would do that. It seems to baffle our friends and family as to why two people, who grew up having to work the soil, would actually want to give up an easy retirement to work hard and be at the mercy of the whims of nature. I must admit that I have often wondered about this myself.
The short answer is heritage. We both grew up in rural communities, he in Arkansas and I in northern Alabama. We grew gardens and crops because we had to do so to live. Our parents depended on gardens and farms to support their families. My husband grew up on a small dairy farm, so he too knew the constraints of farming. We each went off to school, got our degrees and pursued successful careers. We both did a little growing of plants, gardens and decorative, as hobbies because we liked the satisfaction of growing things. We truly felt the joy and connection to our childhood.
Fast forward to the year 2000 when our paths finally crossed, and we married. We both continued to work for a while, but we started indulging again in our passion for growing things. Our yard in Arkansas was beautiful. We plowed up part of the yard and grew vegetables. We retired and moved to Alabama where we got serious about gardening. Our neighbors and church friends were swamped with winter cabbage, bell peppers and whatever else was in season. About this time, we decided to start selling some things. We had planted blackberries, blueberries, muscadines, peaches and more.
My aunt approached us about wanting to sell us part of the farm that had belonged to my grandparents. We bought it. Then another aunt wanted to sell. There was a great opportunity there but also the realization that we needed to make money from that property. We visited with Larry Odom a well- known strawberry farmer in Arkansas who just happened to be the first cousin of my husband. Larry was very candid with us and said we would have to work hard, and if we weren’t willing to do that, not to waste his time. He became our mentor, critic, and friend.
We started with about 5,000 plants which seemed like an outrageous undertaking. I worried about selling them because our farm is about two miles west of nowhere. It is a very rural area, and I obsessed over what I would do with buckets and buckets and buckets of berries that no one wanted. Thankfully the first season showed us that people did want our berries, and they would travel to get them. In fact, they were willing to wait while we picked them. That first year, we picked the berries with the help of my parents. I borrowed a card table and stationed it under a cedar tree for our first sale station.
As the years progressed, we increased the number of plants. Currently, we plant around 85,000 plants. We built a real building for sales and bought a milk truck bed and converted it into a cooler. We hired pickers. We bought farm equipment. We mortgaged our house. We worried and paced the floor over weather forecasts. We built a better building and changed some of our crops. We went for any available training. We networked with other farmers. We endured!
I cannot truthfully say that it has been easy. It is full of work and frustration, but it is also full of satisfaction. In March, we start getting phone calls about the berries. Our Facebook page, Maggie Valley Berry Patch and Gardens, is covered with questions about the begin date. When opening day finally arrives, we know the days will be long. The standard joke is that we work not 9 to 5 but 5 to 9. What a way to make a living!
The payoff is in hearing the squeals of delight as youngsters bite into their first real berry of the season. It is seeing old customer friends return and catching up with them. Our customers are very special to us.
We readily acknowledged that COVID-19 scared us. It was almost time to open for the season when we had the statewide modified business shutdowns. However, the berries were still beginning to ripen. We began to plan for a different kind of season complete with masks for all of our workers and countless bottles of hand sanitizer. Social distancing signs were ordered and placed at our sales locations. On our Facebook page, we informed our customers of the measures we had implemented. We were able to open our farm and our customers came and brought others with them. Not only was this an escape from a severe financial blow, it was a resounding affirmation of our customer loyalty.
This farm is a labor of love. We love this old farm. I love the memories of playing in the barn when I was a child. I love remembering my grandmother’s garden that was located near the current berry shed. I think of my father and his siblings working the corn fields that now produce berries. I love feeling that we are continuing a tradition of farming. It is a connection to days gone by.
Our commitment to our customers and friends is to continue as long as we can and to do the best we can. After all, we can sit on the porch swing maybe in the winter.