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Produce Stand

Produce growers fill niche for locally grown vegetables

By Billy Davis

On an unseasonably tolerant July morning, the customers kept coming and coming at 115 Tubbs Road.

They left with grocery sacks stuffed with cucumbers, and boxes brimming with tomatoes, after paying Paul Brewer, 60, for his hard work.

It’s not hard to know where Brewer gets the vegetables for his produce stand. Rows of vegetables surround his home on two sides, giving his yard in west Batesville the look and feel of a country garden.

But Brewer has overseen his produce business for more than 15 years within the city limits. He started in earnest in 1995, when Panola Mills shut its doors and Brewer and many others began searching for a new way to making a living.

Brewer’s customers see the rows of vegetables in Batesville, but he grows most of his produce on 10 to 12 acres on Travis Road south of Batesville.

 “I can’t grow everything out there because the deer would eat it up,” he said.

Brewer’s tomato customers are buying Early Pick, a 62-day tomato, and Goliath. He buys his seeds from Burpee and Totally Tomato seed companies.

The tomatoes and other plants are started in a greenhouse, located near the produce stand. Brewer fills it with 1,200 tomato, pepper, cucumber, and squash plants in late winter.

Brewer said he works alone, since wife Jamie works full-time for the Panola County Extension Service.

His main helpers are a ‘50s era John Deere, used for cultivating, and a late model Mahindra that is used for just about everything else.

To stake all of those plants, Brewer uses the “Florida weave” method, which supports the plants with a double line of twine. The first line is strung around the young plants, and he adds more twine as the plants mature.

While Brewer is enjoying a steady flow of customers, Anthony Atkinson, 31, is trying to woo them, too.

Atkinson revived his family’s produce business this year, hoping to build a customer base within the next three years.

“The hardest part is juggling two jobs,” said Atkinson, who is employed as a lineman by Tallahatchie Valley Electric Power Association.

But he has help, including wife Lisa and other family members, and a few part-time workers.

The family grows Big Beef tomatoes and other produce at Atkinson Farms, located on Atkinson Road southwest of Batesville.

Atkinson said his plan is to restart a family tradition. His later grandfather, Pat Atkinson, operated a 10,000-plant tomato farm in the ‘40s. His father, A.C. Atkinson, also grew and sold produce.

Like Brewer, Atkinson Farms grew its plants from seed in a greenhouse, which Atkinson preferred to call a “hot house.”

He said the family lost 5,000 tomato plants in late winter when a freeze killed them all. Another 2,600 Big Beef plants were grown from seed and replanted in late February and early March.

Panola County is blessed with other produce sellers, including Jerry Perkins’ tomato operation on Shady Grove Road east of Batesville

Perkins also grows peaches on approximately 125 trees.

“It’s been unusual weather, probably the most trying year in several years,” said Perkins, who grows Goliath tomatoes on 900 plants. 

The Davis family operates Blackberry Acres Farm in the Eureka community, where blueberries have been the best seller over the summer, and customers have bought squash and cucumbers, too.

Panola Countians have also become familiar with Tom McCullar’s peach orchard, located in the Mt. Olivet community. 

Many more Panola Countians also enjoy the generosity of friends and neighbors who have an abundant garden.

But Brewer and Atkinson, and many more growers know they can’t afford such generosity.

Time is money.

And tractors don’t run on goodwill.