Photo | Provided
Asparagus, Brussels sprouts and other fresh produce are available at the recently revived Burris Farm Market in Loxley.
Greg Burris is clearly back in his element.
Whether discussing the science behind protecting strawberries from frost or the exact timing of picking peaches, Burris is back doing what he loves.
The former building contractor who turned to farming decades ago and literally made a name for himself doing it, has reopened the landmark Burris Farm Market in Loxley after more than 10 years away.
“I’ve already had my retirement,” he said with a smile. “I just did it backwards. I’m just going to do this until I can’t any longer.”
That’s not to say he and his wife, Kay, didn’t enjoy retirement, because they did.
“The original plan was to go on sabbatical and enjoy some of the things we didn’t get to do while we were working seven days a week,” he said. “It was an early bucket list.”
For Burris, there is simply something serene about being back in a field or an orchard. It’s almost spiritual.
“I’ve raised some crops and it’s probably the closest [thing] to being in the Garden of Eden,” he said. “You know, it’s a very satisfying thing. I like growing produce for people. I don’t like it when it rains.”
Starting with a single acre of strawberries and a new orchard of peach trees, the Burrises are helming the popular establishment again after selling the business and leasing the building to others in 2006.
“The lease was for 15 years,” Burris said. “I just felt like if we were ever going to climb the mountain and smell the roses or whatever, that was the time to do it. We had pretty much worked ourselves down, too — we were wore out, really.”
The market is truly a family business now too, as their son, Drew — an Auburn University alumnus — has come back to help his parents. It’ll be just one more thing Drew learns at the business, his dad said.
“He learned how to walk here,” Burris said of his son. “He started driving a forklift when he was 10 when a couple of college guys didn’t show up on a Sunday morning …”
Burris said his son, who was 17 at the time, was initially upset when his parents sold the market. The plan was always to have the younger Burris take over when and if he wanted to. That was the reason for the 15-year lease on the property, Greg Burris said.
“I figured he was going to go to Auburn and maybe he would grab something he really wanted to do,” Burris said. “By the time he was 30 or 32 years old, the lease would be up and it might be something he wanted to come back to.”
In addition to giving more responsibility to Drew, Greg and Kay have also learned to delegate more to very capable managers, Greg said.
“They’re making decisions,” he said. “I kind of point them in the right direction, but I leave them to make decisions. I’m kind of pointing the boat. It’s my job not to let it run aground.”
Burris started farming in 1980 when he planted thousands of peach trees on his property. He admitted peaches were difficult to grow, but he chose to start with them because they were more scarce in Baldwin County compared to other crops.
“I didn’t want to raise sweet corn because there were a lot of growers growing sweet corn,” he said. “I didn’t need to grow watermelons because growers were growing watermelons. At one time there were 60,000 acres of red potatoes grown in Baldwin County. So I concentrated on the hard stuff.”
The initial plan for his 5,000 to 7,000 peach trees was to sell the fruit wholesale. Burris convinced his father, who was a contractor, to clear his schedule so the two of them could concentrate on picking a first crop of peaches. However, the weather that year had other ideas, he said.
“So, we cleared the calendar, didn’t have any houses to build and 35 days before we were going to pick our first peaches, which we usually pick around the 20th of May. We had a hard freeze and I lost 90 percent of my fruit,” he said. “So then I didn’t have a house to build and we didn’t have any peaches, [except] we had about a 10- or 15-percent crop.”
The crop yield was too low for wholesale, so Burris decided to go the retail route. He opened up a stand on Highway 98 in Daphne called “Peaches and Produce.”
From there the business grew and would move to North Hickory Street in Loxley. Burris would begin planting strawberries, another crop he admitted is difficult.
He described at length what molecules do when protecting the berries from frost. Needless to say, he seemed less than thrilled at the prospect of being awakened by a frost alarm that looks like a “digital radio” and manning the sprinkler system as it sprays water on the berries to protect them from the cold.
“Some of the readers might not know water is a liquid, it’s a gas and it’s a solid, and when the water turns to ice it makes latent heat,” Burris said. “That’s what kept the strawberries from freezing. It will hold a strawberry down to 22 degrees without freezing them, as long as you keep producing ice and keep the sprinklers running.”
Taking care of the berries on cold nights when it was needed and coming to run the market the next day was not easy, Burris said.
“… After three or four nights of staying up all night frost-protecting strawberries and going to work, I came out of hibernation like a grizzly bear,” he said. “Sleep deprivation is a form of torture. That was part of it.”
His strawberry production grew to 10 acres at its height.
Burris added other produce slowly at the initial location, even if it meant using other wholesale vendors. He would eventually grow as many as 22 crops on land at his home in Belforest, as well as land he leased from others. He said he tried to live up to the market’s motto of “we grow it for you.”
Although Burris stopped growing almost a decade ago shortly after selling the business, he recently planted peaches and strawberries again. He said his first crop of strawberries should be ready in about a month. He has about an acre of berries planted to start, but wants to build it back up. He said he plans to grow other produce again as well.
A market employee who is familiar with the Burris farming operation is Stephanie Nuñez. She said three members of her family, including her mother and grandmother, worked for the Burrises in the early to mid-1980s.
“I used to play in the peach orchards,” she said. “I’d eat the strawberries.”
Photo | Provided
Kay Burris (above) and her husband, Greg, came out of retirement to reopen their namesake market along with their son, Drew.
Attached to the Loxley market, the Burrises run a bakery where patrons can purchase ice cream, fruit cobblers, apple dumplings, strawberry shortcake, breads and other treats. Like many things that helped lead to creation of the market, Burris said starting the bakery was a business decision.
As his first peach trees started to mature, Burris began to realize how difficult a crop they are to raise. There is a set number of pounds of fruit each tree can produce and the trees have to be thinned in order to produce the right size peaches, he said.
“Do you want 500 peaches or do you want 200 peaches on that tree?” He asked. “You want big peaches. So, you have to thin 300 of them off.”
In the thinning process some fruit gets missed, Burris said, and those missed peaches become too ripe to sell wholesale.
“You’ve got a ripe peach, or an overripe peach, and what’s better on a bowl of vanilla ice cream than peaches,” he said. “So, that’s what helped create the bakery and the ice cream. It was more about the peaches and trying to find something to do with them.”
In reopening the bakery, the Burrises called on trusted former employees to help train new staff. Much of the knowledge behind the bakery’s recipes comes from the mind of Jeri Straight, who also came out of retirement to help. She and her husband had both worked at the market.
“I left about 20 years ago,” Straight said. “I came back because my husband died and I wanted to get out of the house.”
Melba Jerkins also came out of retirement to share her knowledge, Burris said, on one condition: She asked to be allowed to sit on a stool while she works.
In August of last year the Loxley market, then co-owned by Richard David Stewart, who purchased the business and leased the property from the Burrises, announced it would close its doors. In a Facebook post at the time, the owners blamed traffic diversion from the Baldwin Beach Express and the oil spill for dwindling business.
But Stewart was arrested last year on sexual abuse charges from 2017. The case is set for a jury trial on Monday, Jan. 28, at 9 a.m. in front of Judge Jody Bishop, according to court documents. David Allen, one of Stewart’s defense attorneys, did not return a call seeking comment. Clyde Caldwell, Stewart’s other attorney, declined to comment. Officials with the Baldwin County District Attorney’s office did not return a call for comment on the case.
The Baldwin Beach Express, an expansion of the Foley Beach Express, takes travelers from Interstate 10 to Orange Beach and bypasses the traditionally busy Alabama State Route 59. Burris said the “expressway” will impact business at the market, which fronts 59, but he hopes people will go a little out of their way to visit.
Because many of the travelers are on vacation, Burris thinks they’ll stop and shop on their way to or from the beaches. The market is only minutes from the express anyway.
“I always call this road the yellow brick road,” he said. “It’s happy time. It’s like Dorothy and Toto and all that. What happens here is people have time.”
For local folks in a bigger hurry, he said the market is laid out more conveniently than a grocery store, which he hopes will bring customers back. The decrease in traffic on the highway could actually be somewhat positive too, Burris said.
“The expressway was needed,” he said. “The traffic was terrible.”