Coming Full Circle
Berry’s Produce, just a few miles north of the city on Route 301 in Hanover County, changes constantly through the progression of the seasons. It mirrors the rural landscape that surrounds it, is a sort of bellwether of the time of the year.
So, in late March, when the produce stand opens for business, there are preserves and butters and breads and root crops and greens. As spring makes itself known in the countryside with the first wildflowers, flats of bedding plants and vegetable seedlings make their appearance, along with local crops. Then throughout the summer there is a rainbow of bright vegetables plucked from vines just a few miles away. You can smell the earth here and taste the sunshine transformed into summer squash and Hanover tomatoes.
In the final eruption of harvest in late October, hundreds of pumpkins and gourds of all sizes and shapes and colors cover the land surrounding the produce stand. And there are mums and pansies.
“I carry a lot of produce and flowers,” says owner Sandra Berry. “Also I do some garden décor, flags, and different garden pieces and I have wreaths. But this time of year our main product is local produce. I have corn, Hanover tomatoes, cucumbers, green bell peppers, all different types of squash, yellow zucchini, white squash, you name it. And we have green beans, spring onions, cabbage, egg plant, Jalapeno peppers and melons and cantaloupes, just about anything you can think of, including local blackberries and local peaches. I also carry Montana Gold Bread which they deliver to me twice a week.”
The produce is about as fresh as it gets, trucked in from a couple miles away on Studley Road. “My father was a farmer so I grew up around this type of business,” Sandra says. “My brothers grow a lot of my produce and I get a lot of it from them and anything I can’t get from them I get from other local farmers. I get quite a bit of produce from Robert Dodd.” Robert Dodd of Black Creek, out in Hanover’s east end, is the king of the Hanover tomato. He’s known far and wide for the superiority of his produce, from tomatillos to jalapenos to Hanover tomatoes.
The farm Sandra’s brothers work is right near Studley Store. “I was born and raised in Studley,” Sandra tells me. “Just past Parsons’ Cause subdivision on the right hand side of the road. I grew up there. The farm is still there. My dad passed away about five years ago, but my mom still lives there on the farm and my two brothers live on that farm and farm the same farmland.”
Just last year, on the day of the Hanover Tomato Festival, Sandra had a visitor of extraordinary magnitude—the most powerful man in the Free World. She describes what it was like before and after his arrival. “The secret service men were here and the helicopters were flying overhead, the whole nine yard,” she says. And he came into this outdoors farmers’ market and bought peaches and watermelons and tomatoes, this man who was stumping for the upcoming election.
“He was very cordial, a very nice man and came in and shook our hands and introduced himself and pretty much said he was here to get some of our famous Hanover tomatoes he had heard so much about,” Sandra remembers.
The man was President Barack Obama and he spent about half an hour at Berry’s Produce. “It was an amazing visit, it was a huge surprise,” says Sandra. “Something that I never would have thought ever would have happened here.” As an afterthought he returned to buy an entire box of Hanover tomatoes that would later that evening grace the dining room table of the White House. “He is a genuinely nice man,” Sandra says.
As she talks we walk through this outdoor farmers’ market, a post and beam structure capped by a simple corrugate metal roof. “I like the openness to it,” Sandra says. “I don’t want it closed in. I want to feel the weather, hot or cold.”
We pass by shelves that are loaded down with McCutcheon jams and jellies—pumpkin butter, cherry butter, pear butter, strawberry butter. She points to a shelf brimming with jars of honey. “One is local and the other is from Berryville, Virginia,” says Sandra and then sweeps her hand past another shelf. “The Relish Barn is a Virginia product too. Pickled okra, pickled little hot peppers, chow-chow. We carry Virginia Diner peanuts and Coleman peanuts which are also from Virginia.”
Along with Montana Bread they also carry Carol Johnson’s Homemade Treats out of Doswell, just north of us. “Carol used to work for Smokey Pig until they closed down,” Sandra says. These treats include lemon tarts, chocolate chip cookies, pecan tarts, pound cakes, almond butter cookies, and more. “I try to keep it all as local as possible,” says Sandra.
We move out from under the shield of the roof into sun-drenched warmth and Sandra shows me the remaining perennials—ice plants, verbena, petunias, hibiscus, lamb’s ear, day lilies, yarrow, knockout roses, crepe myrtles, canna lilies, daisies, tea roses. “Earlier in the summer and the spring, there was a much wider selection, but they were all bought up,” Sandra says. “Most of perennials I get from Sandy’s Plants right here in Mechanicsville.”
Berry’s Produce is celebrating its seventh year in business. “It has really grown and taken off and I’ve got really good customers really good people that support me,” says Sandra. “I never expected us to grow so quickly. The second year I was here it kind of overwhelmed me because we had grown so fast and it just started to take off. And then each year we’ve grown a little bit more and we’ve added something new.”
Sandra Berry considers how her life has come full circle. “You know when I was growing up on the farm and I turned eighteen I couldn’t wait to get away,” she says. “But as you know as you get out into the world and you start looking at things you realize it was a very good life. There’s something to be said for going back to your roots where you grew up. I love what I do. I get so much enjoyment out of this. Just the people coming in and meeting the people and the people telling me how much they enjoy coming here. And I’m feeding people.”
March through November
10-7; seven days a week
9592 Chamberlayne Road
Mechanicsville, VA 23116