UNICOI, Tenn. (WJHL) – Not one of the thousands of Scott’s Strawberry & Tomato Farms strawberries nearing peak ripeness near the Nolichucky River is bound for a corporate store this spring.
Instead, the crop will be sold solely in the 62-year-old operation’s strawberry stands around Northeast Tennessee. Changing consumer habits and greater quality control are the main drivers, Scott’s co-owner Steve Scott told News Channel 11 Tuesday.
Weather permitting, berries will be for sale in at least nine stands starting Thursday, he said.
“Probably Thursday and Saturday this week and hopefully next week we can get into it every day – so we’re getting there.”
The marketing change comes after more than a decade that consumers could also find Scott’s berries in some grocery stores stretching as far west as the Knoxville area.
Scott said the pivot back to full direct-to-consumer sales comes after several years of watching consumer buying habits change.
“I think people are getting back to wanting stuff fresh from the farm,” Scott said.
He said those habits are coming full circle. In the 1970s about 40 percent of sales came when families would visit the farm and pick their own berries.
“They’d bring picnic lunches and set and eat in the field, stuff like that,” Scott said from the farm’s Unicoi office as workers drove toward leased acreage along the river in Washington County to continue prepping the 12 planted acres for harvest.
Family activities had changed by the 1980s — and buying habits with them.
“That dollar a gallon difference in price didn’t mean that much, plus I don’t think people had the time,” Scott said. “They had kids got into little league baseball traveling teams and stuff like that.”
By the early 2000s, Scott’s father Wayne, who had founded the farm in 1959, broadened sales to supermarkets.
But as the pendulum swung back, Scott said he was also recognizing trucking berries all over the region for sale in stores wasn’t all upside.
“You get to a point that you can’t control the quality the way you’d like to,” he said.
“Now we’re going to sell at our stands, we know who’s working the stands, we know what we’re sending to the stands, we know when they were picked, we know when they were sold.
“So we stand behind them. That’s more of what we’re shooting for.”
While Scott’s isn’t yet venturing back into the you-pick arena, Scott said that’s a possibility at some point.
“You read a lot in these farm magazines about the farm experience — down on the river, Fender’s Farm, they have a fantastic business down there.
“The corn maze is one aspect of it, but the pick your own — people are getting back to it.”
Scott said like every year, this year’s harvest season and yield will be at the mercy of nature.
The crop dodged a bullet April 22 as early morning temperatures plunged to record lows.
“We had to pump on them (covering the blossoms and early fruit with water to insulate),” Scott said. “Came through it fine. And it got down pretty cold — we had like 24 in the field, 23 in places.”
Temperatures and rainfall can mean a harvesting season of anywhere from 25 days to 55 days.
“We shoot for 1,000 crates an acre,” Scott said. “That’s 4,000 gallon, and sometimes you get it sometimes you don’t. That’s a pretty high mark, but my father, that’s what he shot for and that’s what we shoot for.”
Regardless of whether the 12 acres yields close to 50,000 gallons or something less, Scott said the current picture looks good for a product local consumers have been accustomed to enjoying for six decades.
“As far as the strawberries go they’re looking really good,” co-owner Steve Scott said Tuesday. “We’re happy right now.”
Information on strawberry stands and the farm’s home market in Unicoi, including real time information on whether berries are for sale that day, can be accessed by clicking the “strawberries” link at the top right of the company website: