August 2005
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J & J Berry Farm’s Got the Blues

by Callie Bryan

  Although J & J Berry Farm is mostly a “you-pick” business, the Baileys will gather blueberries for those customers that have placed orders for already-picked berries.
Even though his skin is tanned dark brown and he sports a Hook and Tackle button-up shirt, Johnny Bailey will quickly say his appearance can be misleading. Although Bailey claims he enjoys fishing, he also admits he hardly has time to enjoy the sport since he and his wife Jo Ann began J & J Berry Farm in Elmore County seventeen years ago.

Bailey’s interest in berry farming was a gradual process. After reading an article in an agricultural magazine that explained how land that grows wild huckleberries would also be well suited for producing blueberries, Bailey began contemplating starting a business of his own. After deliberating for one whole year, Johnny and Jo Ann decided to give it a go.

Bailey started small but kept adding 600 more plants each year. Now, his farm consists of more than 2,000 total plants of six different blueberry varieties. And he continues to make improvements and additions to the farm each year.

For example, they began growing and selling day lilies about four years ago and presently have ½ acre of these showy flowers. They are currently in the development stage of satsuma production. They have 15 young satsuma trees, and Bailey plans on adding more each year.

The Baileys have about 1,500 blackberry plants as well. However, due to low production, none are being sold this year.

The Baileys take a break form their busy day to sit on the porch of the J & J Berry Farm market.  
“I don’t know if we didn’t have any blackberries this year because of disease or due to my poor management,” Bailey jokingly says. He says he cared for the plants in the same way he always has in the past, so he feels sure the problem is disease. In future years he plans on going to Washington to get blackberry plants that are not as prone to our area’s diseases to replenish his blackberry portion of the farm.

The land is not all that Bailey has developed from scratch; there are several structures on the farm he has built himself. Bailey worked in the construction business for 25 years before he officially retired seven years ago. His background is evident in the greenhouse, the market and in his own house, all of which he built himself.

“About 10 years ago Jo Ann and I got caught out in the middle of the blueberry patch in a lightening storm for a good 15 minutes,” Bailey says. “That’s when I decided it was time to build some sort of shed out there. So I built a market area where we meet our customers before we take them out in the field. A few years after that we added a swing and several rocking chairs on the porch, and this year I laid sod in the yard out in front of the market.”

The J & J Berry Farm market appears inviting even though it looks slightly bare. The Baileys prepared the market for Hurricane Dennis by taking down the signs and the swings and storing the rocking chairs inside. Luckily, they had no damage to the market or to their plants from the bad weather.  
Since the beginning of the business, Bailey has also added a 30-by-32 greenhouse where he propagates and raises the young day lilies before transplanting them to the field outside. Because the climate can be controlled in the greenhouse, Bailey says it has been crucial to sustaining tender plants during the cold winter months.

Bailey admits he hardly ever throws anything away, which proved to be an advantage in constructing the greenhouse and market. He built both from remnants left over from his construction days. However, neither looks like they are made from scraps; both are skillfully crafted, as is his house.

“I built this house about 18 years ago with my own hands,” Bailey says proudly. “Together Jo Ann and I laid all those stones in that wall. And those beams,” he says pointing to huge exposed wooden beams near the cathedral ceiling, “those beams came out of the old Coca-Cola plant in Montgomery. They are 3 ½ feet by 12 feet and are over 100 years old,” he adds. “Jo Ann helped me sand a century’s worth of paint off of them; seriously, I bet it was a quarter-inch thick. We sure used up some sand paper!”

This house seems to be the central meeting place for the Bailey’s three children and four grandchildren.

“There’s not a weekend that goes by that one of them isn’t here,” Bailey says. “We are lucky to have them all this close and are fortunate that they like to come and help out on the farm. I think they just like to help because they get to drive the customers back and forth to the fields on the John Deere Gator,” Bailey jokes.

Although weekdays are usually their least busy time, this year, with his granddaughter’s help, Bailey says they have broken several of their personal selling records on income.

On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, J & J Berry Farm is open from 8 am until 7 pm. On Saturday they are open from 7 am to 7 pm, and Sundays they operate from 1 pm to 6 pm.

Needless to say, Saturday is their busiest day. Bailey claims that on Saturdays they usually have a line of customers waiting for them at the market when they arrive a little before seven. And sometime during the day there is bound to be a traffic jam, Bailey claims. Even though they work hard all year round, May through August are the busiest months because it is prime picking season.

They are mostly a “you-pick” business, but will take special orders for already-picked berries. They also reserve the closest two rows to the market for handicapped customers. This, as well as other small gestures, is clear evidence the Baileys definitely cater to their customers.

“We are what you’d call a ‘mom and pop’ type business,” Jo Ann says. “ We know most all of our customers on a first name basis, and each year we mail them out postcards about ten days prior to ripening to remind them to come back to see us.”

They also hand out brochures with what they call “working people recipes” printed on them. Jo Ann claims all ten are really quick and simple. Furthermore, they offer customers tips for preserving the berries until cooking time.

Blueberry Muffin Recipe

2 cups flour
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups blueberries

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and cinnamon three times. Beat eggs, and add milk, oil and vanilla. Combine all ingredients. Fold in the blueberries. Fill greased muffin tins 2/3 full. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 to 18 minutes.
Makes 18 muffins
“We have several customers that will come five or six times each season. They come to buy all they can eat in a year,” Bailey says. “If they are going to freeze them, we tell them to not wash them, or they’ll stick together and put them in a zip lock bag and in the freezer right away.”

Other than contacting their regular customers, the Baileys don’t do too much more marketing. Since blueberries have been in the news recently with their beneficial health qualities, they pretty much sell themselves Bailey says.

They have, however, been trying to sell to a different type of customer.

“With us being out here in the country on a dirt road, we hardly get any accidental customers; most of our customers are regulars. This summer, though, we have been going to Eastchase behind Dillard’s for their little farmers’ market type thing,” Bailey says. “That’s a whole different client base there, but we have sold out every weekend we have gone.”

With maintaining the berry farm business and operating the farmers’ market on Saturdays, to say the Baileys are a hard-working pair is an understatement. But as he might attest, working hard keeps you young. In fact, Bailey says they are blessed that they are

healthy and still able to work as hard as they do at their age.
“But we’re not old, we are just more experienced. I’m 71, and she’s, umm- she’s right behind me,” Bailey carefully phrases.

So maybe one day before he gets old, Bailey can wear his fishing shirt for its intended purpose.

Callie Bryan is a freelance writer from Auburn.