Amy Ballew with Mulberry Farms sells strawberries to a customer at Pepper Place market in Birmingham.
Amy Ballew with Mulberry Farms sells strawberries to a customer at Pepper Place market in Birmingham.

By Stephen Dawkins

Chilton County is renowned for its peaches, and many other crops are produced in the county’s fertile soil. Travelers stop off Interstate 65 each summer to visit one of a number of farmer’s stands for fruits like plums, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries, and vegetables like cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, okra and squash.

But sometimes, it’s the local farmers who are doing the traveling—to farmer’s markets around the state, where customers await that don’t have the luxury of passing stand after stand on their way home or to work.

Pepper Place in Birmingham established a model that other markets around the state have emulated. Pepper Place—named not for the vegetable but for the landmark Dr. Pepper Bottling Company building at the site—began in 1999. One of its first vendors was Chilton County’s Burnette Farms.

Mary Charles Burnette said her husband, Mike, has farmed all of his life. The business, with several orchards near Thorsby, originally focused on peaches in the summer and turnip greens, collard greens and sweet potatoes in the fall. Because of increased competition and demand, the business has evolved. Now, the Burnettes grow strawberries, plums, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and corn–and offer a pecan cracking service.

“What used to be a summer and fall thing has turned into a year-round thing,” Mary Charles said.

So, on Saturdays during the spring, summer and fall, there are the Burnettes at Pepper Place, selling their produce to new customers and ones that have been looking them up for years.

“People here in Chilton County, they either know a farmer or know of several different places you can go,” Mary Charles said. “In these cities, they have to wait for this stuff. They really appreciate it. It’s not plentiful for them.”

Pepper Place started out with about 20 tents, Burnette estimates, and now boasts more than 100 on a given weekend. The Burnettes have visited other markets, including ones in Tuscaloosa and Calera.

“You’ll see a Chilton County farmer at just about all these markets,” she said. It is just enjoyable,” Mary Charles said. “I don’t look at it like being a job. It’s really fun.”

Burnette estimates that about 20 percent of the company’s business comes from “retail,” with most of the sales being wholesale. During the peak of peach season, the Burnettes might take 60-80 gallons of peaches to a one-day market, held in the morning or afternoon.

“We still consider ourselves a small farm,” she said. “Mike does a lot of it himself, but we have three full-time employees that do all the harvesting, packing, and help load. It’s long hours, and sometimes seven days a week.”

On the other end of the retail market experience spectrum are Shawn and Amy Ballew with Mulberry Farms. Shawn, originally from Oklahoma City, Okla., married into the family that managed Williams Farm. He soon picked up the trade–and learned to appreciate it.

“If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

Mulberry Farms is comprised by about 100 acres of peach orchards and about 200 acres of a sod farm. The business employs about 20 full-time employees, depending on the crop.

But Shawn said he and Amy began taking produce to Pepper Place this year because of two people not on the payroll–at least not yet. The couple wanted their twin 7-year-old daughters, Amelia and Bella, to learn people skills.

“I want them to know this life instead of already having iPhones,” Shawn said. “We wanted to teach them to deal with the public. Most of the time, people come up to us and talk about how hospitable we are. I think that’s important. I’m a face-to-face person.”