By Sarah Richardson
Through the turbulent year the entire United States has weathered, farmers in the Greenbrier Valley have run into more local, specialized problems. On top of dealing with the “new normal” of COVID-19, a late frost in May took out a sizeable percentage of produce around the region, including those at the beloved Sunset Berry Farm & Produce in Alderson.
“On Mother’s Day we had a hard freeze, and we put frost blankets on our strawberries, almost two acres worth, but those only give you 60 degrees of protection,” said Kent Gilkerson, who owns Sunset Berry Farm with his wife, Jennifer. “We should have had roughly 5,000 gallons of berries, and we ended up with 227 gallons. So it was almost a total loss. Overall that’s about $100,000 in berries we should have had. We sell them for $20 a gallon for the pick-your-own, and that’s our biggest business.”
After the near-total loss of their strawberry crop, the couple had to get creative.
“There was someone in Virginia last year that opened up a sunflower field, and I heard it did extremely well,” Kent said. “Jennifer has been telling me to plant flowers for years up here, so this year we finally did it.”
Working with the space they had, Kent planted several patches and rows of sunflowers around the property. “The sunflowers were actually kind of a last-minute decision after the strawberry failure. We didn’t have a lot of room, so everywhere that we did have room we plowed up and planted some sunflowers. This is our very first year doing sunflowers, as well. They do quite well. Next year we will have a couple acres of them in the front right here. They seem to be a pretty good product with a good market.”
This isn’t the first setback the couple has had as farmers. Kent and Jennifer have lived on the farmstead outside of Alderson since Oct. 2008. At the time, the property was heavily overgrown and needed a good bit of elbow grease to get it in farming-ready conditions, and they knew they had their work cut out for them. Then, in Mar. 2009, the original log home on the site burned to the ground. Not to be deterred, they build a new home and continued working toward the farm of their dreams. The couple began farming produce in 2010, and with Kent’s years of farming experience, continued to expand their offerings.
“We needed a place to sell our berries as we grew and our business expanded, we had more and more product and needed avenues to sell them,” explained Kent. “So, Jennifer got together with Mainstreet Alderson, and they created the annual Strawberry Festival. It’s held the Saturday of every Memorial Day weekend each year. Our business there has doubled almost every year. This would have been the fourth year. Year before last our strawberries hit perfectly, I never left my spot and was just handing out buckets of berries the entire day, that was a busy day.”
Despite the complications this year has brought, the farm plans to expand even more in 2021. “Next spring we will have double the strawberries, we will have four acres. Last year was the first year we planted 2 acres, and we started out in 2010 with just 500 plants. So now we should get close to 60,000 with a few new varieties that we haven’t tried before,” said Kent.
“One of those is outgrowing the other plants, which I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but they’re about twice as big as the normal plants. Everyone seems to love them, they’re called Ruby June, and in Virginia and North Carolina people really like them. We have the strawberries in the spring, and we normally rip those up around June 20. Then we will have a big field of sunflowers. We plan to plant some earlier, so ideally, we will have sunflowers blooming around the end of July all the way through to the first frost. We will have different fields coming in at different times.”
The sunflowers have brought in a new aspect to the farm, with photographers from both West Virginia and Virginia scheduling photoshoots amongst the aesthetic fields.
“Some of the photographers have had people coming out every 15 or 20 minutes, with the weekends of course being the busiest,” said Kent.
“It’s basically one big outdoor photography studio,” added Jennifer. “We have had about 20 photographers doing mini-sessions around the farm and that’s doing really well.”
Through the end of Sept. they are hosting a photography contest with a prize of $300 to be split between the person who took the photo (professional or amateur) and the person featured in the photo (or parent), and a shopping spree at Factory Connection in Ronceverte. All you have to do is visit the farm in Sept., take a picture or have your picture taken, post it on their Facebook page under the contest post, and the photo with the most likes wins! The winning photo will be chosen on Oct. 15.
Another new development at the farm is their branch out into the wedding industry. “We are starting to do weddings, I think every weekend in the month of September is already booked for next year, as well as a few weekends in August. We have a few more to do this year, as well. We have a 40×40 tent, and some chairs and tables. We advertise them as affordable weddings,” said Kent. Visit their Facebook page at Sunset-Berry Farm and Produce or call 304-646-3784 for more information.
The farm is usually open to the public for the pick-your-own berries, but right now its cut-your-own sunflowers with a $10 per person or $30 per vehicle admission fee. Attendees get six sunflowers per person, or 20 per car. Make sure to bring your own clippers! The price of admission helps cover the cost of strawberries lost to the frost.
To visit the farm, Google directions to Alderson Senior Center and then follow sunflower signs another 4 miles. They are open Saturdays and Sundays from 2 to 8 p.m., Monday through Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m., and Fridays from 6:30 to 8 p.m.