Photos Courtesy of Kelley's Berry Farm
E very year there’s one question in particular that’s heard loud and clear all over Tennessee, starting about mid-May. It’s heard from kids and adults alike, not to mention on local news programs and in produce departments: “Are the strawberries ripe yet?” The lusciously sweet, juicy, fiber-filled strawberry is arguably the most eagerly anticipated produce of the season. For most southerners, it’s more than just their taste; it’s a flashback to childhood—fresh strawberry pie, homemade strawberry jams, jellies and preserves, strawberry freezer jam, strawberry shortcake, strawberry salad and strawberries just for plain ole finger-lickin’ healthy nibblin’. The berry season starts with the strawberry.
Actually, whether the berries are ripe isn’t the first concern of farmers and berry lovers in the state; instead, it’s whether that ever-present late frost of the winter-to-spring season was bad enough, lengthy enough or late enough to hurt or even destroy our strawberry crop for the year—and up the prices dramatically. When that late frost occurs, as it invariably does, farmers put down straw and/or fabric crop covers, tucking the berries lovingly into their outdoor beds in an effort to keep them warm, much like a child is swaddled on a cold winter’s night. Without a late frost, this year's strawberry harvest is bountiful and sweet.
With the news that the season's strawberry crop is plentiful, people all over the state begin deciding when and where they will purchase or pick their jelly-pie-cake-salad-eatin’ strawberries; where these short-seasoned gems are concerned, berry enthusiasts can’t afford to wait until the last minute. If you are a post-picked purchaser, the “where” choices are numerous, with roadside trucks, fruit stands and farmers’ markets popping up all over the state. If you are a pick-them-yourself-purchaser, your choices aren’t quite so widespread, though there are a number of farms across the state offering the pick-your-own service. One such farm–that sits conveniently just outside the Nashville area–is Kelley’s Berry Farm.
This family-run, family-friendly farm is located on the banks of the Cumberland River in Trousdale County. In addition to strawberries, brothers Patrick and Jon Kelley also grow blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and peaches.
When it comes to growing these delicious red gems, nature doesn’t always cooperate. Patrick Kelley says that the last frost this year only did minor damage. But, he says with a grimace in his voice, he remembers last year. It was April 16, he recalls: “It was one of the latest frosts on record [locally] and it destroyed a lot of our strawberry crop.” The southern berry farmer went on to say, “We enjoy doing what we do, but it’s a gamble. Sometimes it’s like gambling in Vegas.”
The Kelley brothers are accustomed to the ups and downs of farming, having done it all their lives, even during high school. When asked if the two brothers grew up on a farm, Patrick answers yes. When asked if their dad was a farmer, Patrick laughs and says without a hint of resentment, “Dad was a physician. He liked farming. But [my brother and I] did the farming for him.” Perhaps their father, now deceased, knew exactly what he was doing: The boys’ exposure to farming obviously fostered a love that would carry on as their lifelong careers. Perhaps that’s just what the doctor ordered.
Do Patrick and Jon follow their own father’s footsteps when it comes to their own kids working on the farm? “The kids sell for us,” says Patrick. “But they don’t work on the farm. All of our kids are in college, but they do like to sell for us. We sell in so many different places, we couldn’t do it without them.”
It’s a family venture, with brothers Patrick and Jon at the helm, assisted by Patrick’s wife, Cathy, and their two children, Katie and James, as well as Jon’s two kids, Jenn and Hunter.
Local Table asked Patrick Kelley for a few details about their farm: What do families get out of the “pick-your-own” system? “This is a great way to see exactly where the berries are coming from and how they are grown,” he says.
What kind of farming do you strive for? “Our farming practices include cover crops in the winter, crop rotations and integrated pest management. We use horse manure on our berry plants for organic matter,” he states.
What’s new this year? “New to our farm products is homemade blueberry jam,” Patrick answers. “This the first year we are selling our jam. This coming season we will be adding strawberry, blackberry, raspberry and peach jams. We hope everyone will give them a try. We strive in growing high-quality and great-tasting berries. Over the years we have learned many things to do, and many things not to do, in growing the best berries. I hope all berry lovers give our berries a taste.”
It’s pretty obvious, after speaking with the Kelleys, that whether you buy your berries picked or pick them yourself, you can count on this family to help you get it done.