Maggie Valley Berry Patch and Gardens grows community
Margaret Cox had no idea the purchase of what was once her grandfather’s farm more than 20 years ago would lead to a flourishing berry farm near Grant.
Now she couldn’t imagine doing anything else. When Margaret and her husband, David, retired and moved to Grant from Arkansas, they began thinking of ways they could turn the land into something that could benefit the community. They planted blackberries and strawberries and after a season of growing both, the couple realized strawberries were going to be the main product of Maggie Valley Berry Patch and Gardens.
“We realized there wasn’t as much of a market for blackberries, so after we realized the demand for strawberries was high, we felt like we could make that work,” Margaret says.
The couple sought guidance from David’s cousin, a successful strawberry grower in Arkansas. After his advice and encouragement, the Coxes are entering their 13th season for strawberries at Maggie Valley Berry Patch and Gardens.
Now, people come from near and far to purchase the sweet, luscious berries. Margaret says it’s hard to keep up with how many gallons of berries they sell, but they put about 70,000-90,000 plants in the ground each year.
Early Birds Get the Berries
While many begin their traditional workday at 9 a.m., that’s not how the schedule works on the berry farm. “We work 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. instead of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Margaret says. The crew of six pickers begins the day by harvesting the berries, cleaning them and preparing them to sell.
Margaret works primarily at the berry shed, the structure on the property where the berries are sold. The Coxes also sell berries from the back of their pickup at locations in Scottsboro and Guntersville. But, the local demand is so high, most of the berries don’t make it off the farm.
“We stay busy getting the strawberries cleaned and getting the weeds out,” Margaret says. “There’s just a lot of things we do on a regular basis to get the berries ready.”
David coordinates everything from the logistics of selling berries off-site to monitoring the fields after hours to check for disease and insects. “My husband is a perfectionist and is very diligent about what he does,” Margaret says. “He is always out spot checking things to prevent problems with the crop. He works at it so hard and if he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it right.”
David makes sure the berries are picked at just the right time, ensuring the fruit from Maggie Valley Berry Patch and Gardens is perfectly ripe. The strawberries are handled carefully and stored in a cool location to ensure they aren’t exposed to the sun for too long. That’s why the farm doesn’t offer a pick-your-own option for strawberries, although customers are welcome to pick blueberries, which are hardier.
Determining how long berries will be available, like most farming endeavors, depends on the weather. Different variables like excess rain or heat can cause the season to end early.
Strawberry season usually runs from mid-April through May and sometimes into June. “You can never really depend on June, though,” Margaret says.
Blueberries usually begin producing fruit in mid-June and run well into August. “Last year proved us wrong and our season was short,” she says. “We had a late freeze that wiped out a portion of our season. Blueberries aren’t as fragile as strawberries, but we lost about one-third of our crop.”
While berries are the main item that draws customers to the farm, visitors can expect a few new offerings this year. “We are expecting some onions to be available in April and we are testing out which flowers will grow, but we are hoping for some zinnias this year,” Margaret says.
The Coxes plan on venturing out to grow some corn and other vegetables, like peppers and tomatoes, too.
The farm’s Facebook page has a large following and is one of the ways the couple spreads the news about happenings on their property. Margaret says they started it about 10 years ago just to have an easy way to get the word out when berries are ready. “Our community isn’t exactly on the side of the interstate, so I thought, ‘How in the world will people know to come out this way?’” she says.
While social media and other advertising avenues are wonderful tools to spread the word, Margaret says the best advertisement for business is always word of mouth from a happy customer. “If we have a satisfied customer, and they tell neighbors or their family, then we get more customers from that contact,” she says.
Maggie Valley Berry Patch and Gardens has welcomed visitors from different parts of the country, but the moment David and Margaret realized word really had spread was when a couple from eastern Kentucky pulled up to the farm.
“It was late afternoon and this couple with their small granddaughter backed their car in and popped the trunk,” she says. They had tried the strawberries while visiting family in Alabama. They loved them so much, they talked about how good they were to friends back home, so they took orders and made the trip to bring some back for everyone. “We loaded at least 30 gallons of berries into that vehicle,” Margaret says.
On another occasion, some people riding bicycles stopped by the berry shed. “We could immediately tell they weren’t from around here,” Margaret says. They were a retired couple from Nova Scotia who were touring the United States. When they realized they were near a strawberry farm, they decided to stop by because they, too, were strawberry farmers at one time. “It turns out we do things very similarly in Nova Scotia and Marshall County,” she says.
The farm also sees a lot of local regulars, including a crowd from Chattanooga. Many of these customers have been coming since the beginning and they are now considered friends. “We know all about their families and we ask about their grandbabies,” Margaret says. “We’ve cultivated quite a few friendships through this.”
This year, the Coxes plan to host the fourth Strawberry Daze the first Saturday in May. Local businesses are invited to set up booths to sell their merchandise and there’s music, food trucks, entertainment and, of course, strawberries.
The festival is also a scholarship fundraiser honoring two local men, Daniel Helton and Greg Fuell, both graduates of Kate Duncan Smith DAR School. In memory of both men, the scholarships are awarded to graduating DAR seniors. “They were both just really good guys,” Margaret says. “We take this as an opportunity to raise money in their honor and to make people aware of those scholarship funds.”
While the berry business is good, the couple believes supporting small local businesses is essential. “Our country was built on local business and knowing the people you buy things from. Small businesses built this country and we like to be part of that. We are losing that connection with people we do business with,” Margaret says.
The Coxes hope to keep that connection alive by continuing to serve the community and loving the people in it. “It’s hard work, but as long as we’re able to do it, we will,” Margaret says.