Story and photos by Deborah Horn
“It’s like finding a treasure,” Heather Wheeler of Barnhill Orchards explains to three-year-old Emalyn Jones. Wheeler is showing the youngster how to find strawberries by pulling back the cover of leaves and instructs her to only pick the red ones.
Emalyn listens intently and nods, and then she and her mother, Kelly Jones of Cabot, begin filling a quart container.
“She loves strawberries. We all love strawberries,” Jones says and adds, “Strawberry shortcake is my favorite.”
The producer, Barnhill Orchards, located near Lonoke and known for their fresh vegetables and fruits, decided to open their fields in May and invite the public to pick all they wanted, says Barnhill Orchards family farm spokesperson and second-generation farmer Ekko Barnhill.
They call it a Family Day and encourage folks to bring their kids. By mid-morning, the parking lot is full and the strawberry fields are dotted with families.
After having her picture taken at the strawberry cut-out board that denotes the field’s entrance, Cora Calland, 8, says, “It was hard work, but fun.”
She’s a big strawberry fan and hopes her mom, Mary Beth Calland from Sherwood, will make strawberry pie.
“We will eat a few, make strawberry jam…Perhaps a pie,” Calland says as she juggles three kids. “They’re having fun,” she adds.
Baby Finn Adams doesn’t say much but is quickly developing a taste for strawberries right off the bush, says his mother, Andi Adams of Sherwood.
Sandy Barnhill, who was handing out containers, says, “It’s the perfect day. We’ve had a steady stream of people.”
Before leaving the farm, the pickers stop in at the Barnhill Orchards’ Farm Corner Market to pay for their berries, as well as make a few purchases like fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes and cucumbers.
It’s located at the corner of Sandhill Road and Hwy. 89 in Lonoke County, and Donna and James Waggle, of Ward, say they shop there about once a week.
“Their strawberries are awesome, sweet and juicy,” she says, while James Waggle swears, “These are special.”
Jack Sundell, owner of The Root Café in downtown Little Rock, says Barnhill Orchards is one of their best suppliers. “We love working with them…They have some of the best strawberries in the area.”
Ekko Barnhill says, “We have people who come from around the state, and outside the state to buy our strawberries.”
A growing concern
The family recently enclosed the market and added other local producers like Wayne Plantation Sunflower Oil of Scott and Arkansas’ Loblolly Creamery, who offers a Barnhill Orchards Strawberry flavor.
“We are especially proud of our partnership with Loblolly Creamery Ice Cream,” Ekko Barnhill says.
Of course, their selection depends on the season but includes lettuce, green and red tomatoes, squash, onions, new potatoes, cucumbers and more. Their cantaloupes, pecans, peaches, blackberries and blueberries are just as popular as the veggies, Ekko Barnhill says.
A sweet history
Barnhill Orchards was started on roughly 60 acres in 1980 after Lt. Col. Bob Barnhill retired from the U.S. Air Force. After serving 28 years as a pilot and geophysics scientist, he traded his uniform for a tractor.
Bob Barnhill and his wife, Carlotta Barnhill, grew up “in the country.” Her family farmed rice near DeWitt and his father was a catfish farmer at Corning.
The couple bought farmland in Lonoke County because the soil is a sandy loam that’s known for its ability to produce “the sweetest fruit,” he says.
And who can resist a good recipe for Shortcake
Crust -This recipe is from the Junior League of Pine Bluff’s award-winning cookbook, “Southern Accent.”
1 cup sifted flour
6 Tbsp. shortening
1/4 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. ice water
Cut shortening into flour and salt. Add water and form into dough. Roll pie crust thin, cut into squares or circles, prick and bake at 400 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes or until lightly brown.
They recommend topping with fresh strawberries
Strawberry Sauce – This recipe is from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Research & Extension Cooperative Extension Service, Jefferson County Extension Office
1 pint fresh strawberries, wash and remove caps
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. fresh lemon or lime juice
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
In a food processor, combine strawberries, sugar, lemon or lime juice and vanilla. Puree, then chill. Serve over ice cream, pound cake or Junior League shortcakes and top with fresh whipped cream.