From Row Crops to Roadside Stand: Changes on the Farm
As metropolitan development swallowed some of the land they farmed, this family found a way to make lemonade.
By Nancy Dorman-Hickson | Photos By Logan Cyrus & Nancy Dorman-Hickson
The jangling bell on the door at Black’s Peaches and Cotton Belt Bakery announces Arthur Black’s departure. Tired of being cooped up inside the roadside market, the York, S.C., farmer strides quickly to the barn at his fruit, vegetable and hay operation. His dog, the graying but game Bobbalou, matches Black’s brisk pace as he responds to a customer’s request for hay.
“The ‘Three Little Pigs’ house was right here,” he says, pointing to a messy hay pile that in no way resembles the storied swine shanty now. “We rebuild it every year,” he says. “That hay over there? That’s what’s left of what Beth used to decorate this place.” A multi-car train, a gigantic cow, a huge turkey and a grinning car, all made from hay, are just some of the creations that pop up on the farm during events like the Autumn Farm Festival, or spring and summer fruit-picking tours.
Beth White is Black’s daughter and the fifth generation involved in the family farm. “I started working here when I was 13,” says White, who manages the store and bakery, which specializes in pre-ordered baked goods. Black’s wife, Marsha, contributes to the bakery and keeps the books.
The Black family roots in the area run dirt deep. “All four grandparents and their parents, and their parents were from here,” he says. “I was on the school board for 16 years; my daddy was on the county council for twentysomething.”
Black got out of row cropping in the 1980s due to land loss in the wake of development. “We used to be 32 miles from Charlotte; now we’re 16,” he says. Instead, father and daughter oversee a calendar chock-full of agritourism events. “We’re blessed to be in a pretty good location here. This is a five-lane highway that goes from I-77 to I-85,” says Black about the road, Black Highway, that runs in front of their property.
As further evidence of their deep roots in the area, the state highway was named for his grandfather, a state representative. “We have 7,000 to 8,000 people come through here every week in the fall.” About half of those visitors are schoolchildren. Black’s Peaches has earned conservation recognition for educating children about agriculture.
At the roadside market, fresh produce brims from open bins year-round. Tables and chairs prompt friendly conversation, and delectable baking smells perfume the place. “Probably 90% of [the produce] we sell here, we raise,” says Black. That includes peaches, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, stake tomatoes, pumpkins, gourds, squash, beans, and round and square hay bales.
The farm operation has three full-time and two part-time employees year-round and adds on as needed. The workforce for the market, bakery and agritourism portion of the business fluctuates from three to 20 workers. “We still have a lot of hand labor with the fruit and vegetables, but it’s not nearly as intense as it once was,” Black says.
While Black is in charge of the farm, White coordinates the agritourism events for Black’s Peaches. Every season provides a focus: Spring means strawberries; summer puts peaches front and center; fall brings the annual Autumn Farm Festival; and winter offers, among other things, handmade wreaths made with natural items from the farm. Tours and events often include a maze, a hayride, a hay trampoline, extravagant decorations, such as the “Three Little Pigs” house, games, food and more. “Whose idea was the ‘Three Little Pigs’ house?” Black asks his daughter.
“Yours,” she replies as she boxes a pound cake for a customer.
“I come up with some ideas,” Black says, “and then Beth implements them.” He praises her artistic bent, seen in the hay creations and decorations she designs year-round. The father claims he’s a challenge to work with. But his daughter smiles and disagrees, citing what they have in common: excess energy.
“I can’t stand to sit,” White says. “He’s like that too.”
By far, peach season is their busiest time, not to mention the basis of their reputation and name. “Most people pick a hard peach and ship them, and they will last you for a week,” Black says. “We pick them riper. Therefore the flavor is better, in our opinion.”
They advertise in area magazines and newspapers, and use social media to draw customers. During the school year, tours geared toward students are a large part of their market. Travelers passing through stop in on a whim, then make it a habit. Charlotte urbanites and area locals are a big part of their customer base. “We’ve become a suburb of Charlotte,” he says.
The changing mindset of customers remains Black’s biggest challenge. “People want organic, they want non-GMOs,” he says.
“They think they want them,” White says.
“We have to explain to people why we spray, to keep the fungus and the bugs off these fruits and vegetables,” Black says.
Then again, sometimes the mindset of today’s customers works in his favor. A neighboring farmer asked Black why he bothered with square baling. “He had a trailer of round bales,” Black says. “I asked him, ‘What will you get for that load?’ He said a little less than $300. I told him, ‘I’m getting $600 for the same amount of hay.’
The hay customer will pay for convenience. We pay attention to what people want, and then that’s what we raise.”
Agriculture has taught him about the necessity of change. “We’ve been raising peaches since 1923, but we’ve also done a lot of things here—pulled cotton, row crops … we had a packing house for peaches, and then we started a pick-your-own peaches [business]. Now, we [have] ended up in the roadside business. You have to go with the flow in farming,” he says.
Sometimes a choice made because of circumstances—moving away from land-intensive row crop farming, for instance—brings unexpected bonuses. The gregarious Black discovered that he loves interacting with people who are buying his products.
“I like to see somebody walk out of here with a smile on their face with a good basket of peaches and strawberries and tomatoes,” he says. “You know you’ve done a pretty good job then.”