A Roadside Epiphany

Two brothers sustain a family tradition of independence by diversifying and selling direct.

By Boyce Upholt | Photos By Art Meripol

It started, as so many things have, with a watermelon glut. Bobby and Charlie Edmondson had been row-cropping rented land in southern Alabama for two decades: cotton, peanuts, soybeans, corn. Eventually they tried some watermelons, too. The fruit proved profitable, despite the three-plus-hour drive to a market in Birmingham. That is, until the Birmingham market was flooded with an overabundance of the melons in 2000.

“So, we decided, ‘Let’s just pull up there on the side of the road, and see what we can do,’” Bobby explains. Their land in Wicksburg fronts onto an intersection with U.S. Highway 84, so the brothers set up a trailer and began hawking watermelon to passing drivers. Bobby estimates they sold 300 the first day. “We got thinking, ‘Why? Why are we going to Birmingham? Let’s do more of this.’”

So they did. The brothers diversified. They planted peas, butter beans, cantaloupes, tomatoes, snap beans, peppers, squash, cucumbers and turnips. “And that’s just off the top of my head,” Bobby says. “There’s probably a few more that I’m missing.”

Thus, C&B Farm and Produce Market was born. The brothers have kept selling from that same corner for 18 years, expanding from the trailer to a tent, and eventually into a small building. The 2,000 acres of row crops they once farmed have dropped to only 300. On just 40 acres of fruits and vegetables, they say, they now make a better—and steadier—living.

In the Blood

The Edmondsons’ roots run deep. Their ancestors have been farming in southern Alabama since the mid-19th century, and were among the first white settlers to live in the area. The agricultural tradition continued for generations. Bobby and Charlie grew up hoeing and weeding on their grandfather’s farm.

“We loved the smell of the dirt as it was being tilled,” Bobby says. “And then the fall harvest was a different smell. It’s just something in your blood.”

Seth Cox, Bobby’s grandson, helps out in the field. Boiled peanuts are another favorite at the roadside stand.

Seth Cox, Bobby’s grandson, helps out in the field. Boiled peanuts are another favorite at the roadside stand.

That’s a phrase Charlie repeats, too. After high school, he joined the Army, and when he returned home in the mid-1960s, he spent two years driving a truck. “But farming’s in my blood,” he says. “I had to get back to it.” So he joined Bobby, who was performing wage labor for other local farmers. They’ve now been farming together for 45 years. (Charlie is 69, and Bobby is 64.)

“When we started off, it was rough,” Charlie says. “We didn’t have nothing handed down to us.” Now, he says of their current operation, which includes some 340 acres of farmland and their farm stand, “we have built it up to where we’ve pretty much got a good flow of income coming in all the time.”

The Edmondsons’ two older brothers, both now deceased, bought a tractor and a hay baler in the late ’60s and began custom-baling hay. The younger Edmondsons helped out, saving earnings until they could buy a tractor, too. For almost 30 years, they rented land and raised their row crops before their roadside epiphany.

Farm Stand Economics

The Edmondsons had discovered that by cutting out the middlemen, they could sell their produce at higher prices—and still their customers were paying less. (These days, a message on their Facebook page humorously offers this bit of friendly advice to their customers: “Buy fresh. Buy local. If you don’t it costs us both money.”)

The shift to vegetables also meant a steadier stream of income. Rather than one big payout at cotton harvest, the brothers are harvesting and selling all year.

Diversification also decreases risk. Most of their 40 acres of fruits and vegetables are double- or triple-cropped. So, if the June crop goes bad, they know they’ll likely make it up come August.

The direct interaction with customers helps the brothers understand what products are in demand. A few years ago, for example, Bobby found that people were asking for their peas already shelled. As a result, they invested in a pea sheller and cleaner. “All they have to do is go home, blanche ’em and put them in their freezers for later use,” Bobby says.

Such value-added products have become a boon. The brothers dry some of their corn harvest for sale as deer corn. They run sugar cane through an old mule-powered press and boil the juice into syrup. (A tractor has replaced the mule.) They grind corn into meal and grits. Peppers are cooked into sauces and jellies.

“Let’s say the peppers sell for $3 a basket. Now, you take that same basket and sell it for $12, $15,” Bobby says about the price of the produce after processing.

Labor of Love

It wasn’t always easy working together, the brothers say. “But now since we got older and mellowed out, we get along real good,” Charlie notes. They’ve settled into a division of labor: Bobby, the more talkative brother, mans the farm stand, from which he takes care of paperwork and business management. Charlie, meanwhile, heads the daily operations in the fields.

In the summer months, then, Charlie will be out checking the tomato fields, while Bobby is stacking produce for sale. They put in long hours—up to 14 hours during peak season.

All of their produce is grown within 4 miles of the stand. During certain seasons, though, they bring in produce from elsewhere.

“If you don’t have tomatoes, you might as well go home,” Bobby explains. In winter months, when tomatoes won’t grow in Alabama, they must ship tomatoes north from Florida. For a few months in August, they sell tomatoes that are shipped down from cooler regions in the mountains. They also source strawberries from Florida and sweet potatoes from Mississippi.

It’s not the kind of farm life they envisioned as children. But they feel like it honors the family tradition—finding a way to live off the land.

“We’ve always been independent, you know, our family has,” Bobby says. “If our grandparents could see this—keeping up our roots in farming—I think they’d be tickled to death.”