Green Acres Berry Farm Sells Strawberry Treasures
As the spring weather warms and April advances toward May, field hands at Green Acres Berry Farm in Milan begin picking the first fruits of the strawberry crop. Every day for the next six weeks, they will fill baskets and flats, load boxes onto wagons and trailers, and haul the harvest of ripe, juicy berries across the fields to the farm store where cars roll in early for the 7:30 a.m. daily opening.
Now entering its 19th season of production, Green Acres sells sweet Chandler strawberries to hundreds of customers who return year after year to get their fill.
“People like going to the farm to buy their produce,” says owner Denton Parkins. “There’s just something about that.” There’s something, too, he says, about the unique flavor of a fresh Tennessee berry that you won’t find in the varieties shipped in to the grocery store. “It all goes back to the soil type, and I think that’s the reason that Tennessee strawberries have a flavor nothing like California or Florida berries. We could grow a shipping berry here, but we want to have a product that Walmart doesn’t have. We grow what I refer to as a fresh-market berry; it needs to be consumed within a couple of days. Chandler is, to me, the best berry on the market.”
Parkins is a third-generation farmer and the only one among eight siblings who had a desire to farm. In its early days, the family farm, founded by Parkins’ grandfather, raised fruits and vegetables, dairy and beef cattle, and row crops (such as corn and soybeans). When Parkins’ father took over, he turned the farm into a dairy operation that ran from 1941 to 1992. But problems with labor and zoning necessitated a change in direction. Although Parkins has a degree in agriculture, he admits transitioning out of the dairy operation left him at a bit of a loss.
“When we got out of the dairy business, I didn’t know where to turn or what to do,” he says. “I tried row crops for a few years, but I just didn’t see that as the way to success for me.”
The sweet taste of success came a few years later in 1997, when Gibson County UT Extension Agent Phillip Shelby invited Parkins to a lecture about growing strawberries on raised rows covered with plastic, a technology known as plasticulture.
“We’re very close friends today, but at the time, he didn’t know me from Adam,” Parkins says. However, Shelby had been out to the Parkins property and seen the barns, buildings and highway access. “He thought this would be a great fit, so I really give my Extension agent the credit for making that phone call and getting us to that meeting.”
Parkins spent three years researching plasticulture and getting set up. In 2000, he harvested the first strawberry crop from his initial 3-acre patch. Today, the strawberries cover nearly 10 acres.
“If you want to grow strawberries and be successful, as far as getting a good, large strawberry and good production, plasticulture is the only way to do it,” he says, adding that a good piece of land is a crucial starting point, his own well-draining soil having been built up by 50 years of cow manure from the dairy days.
Proper picking is another key element. “We divide our 10 acres in thirds so we pick 3.3 acres on Monday, 3.3 on Tuesday, 3.3 on Wednesday, and on Thursday, we go back to what we picked Monday. You have to stay on top of the picking and get that ripe fruit picked off,” Parkins says. “If you don’t keep the fruit picked off, that plant will actually shut down and quit producing. The key is to keep those plants picked clean and to be consistent and stay on top of it.”
All that picking depends upon a reliable workforce. Green Acres hires its workers through the federal H-2A temporary agricultural labor program, which requires the farm to provide visas, transportation, housing and workers’ compensation insurance, and guarantee at least 30 hours per week and $10.28 per hour.
“It’s very expensive, but it’s our lifeline to staying in business,” Parkins says. “We use 21 H-2A boys from Mexico. Some have been here 10 or 15 years; they’re like family.”
Of course, the best thing about strawberries is the eating, and Parkins and his wife, Donna, prefer their strawberries fresh. They created their own favorite dish they call Strawberry Delight: fresh sliced strawberries covered in mounds of whipped cream and topped with gooey milk chocolate topping.
Once the strawberries finish producing in June, Parkins plants pumpkins in their place. The ability to grow a second, different crop on the same field in the same year is an added benefit of the plasticulture system. Now covering 12 acres, the pumpkin patch has outgrown the strawberries and draws another bumper crop of visitors to the farm come fall.
Starting in mid-September, Green Acres Pumpkin Patch offers more than 100 varieties of pumpkins in all shapes, sizes and colors. Photo ops abound among the corn stalks, hay bales and pumpkin “people” created by the Parkins family.