Fruits of their Labor

The time is ripe for enjoying the bounty of local summer fruit harvests.

Thorned blackberry vines don’t deter James Hollingsworth and partner Debbie. Photo by Matthew Coughlin

Underneath the shade of an old pecan tree, a plywood table holds baskets of peaches. On the ground nearby, a water trough is filled with watermelons sitting on ice, the perfect thirst-quencher for a hot July day. A small metal building holds refrigerated coolers full of delicate summer produce such as freshly picked blackberries, while cantaloupes are piled high on rustic displays marked with handwritten signs: Two for $5. The summer roadside produce stand is a hallmark of the season, calling out with the promise of a fresh meal while conjuring a thousand childhood memories of bare feet, sunshine and fresh fruit.

The farmers who grow the bounty filling these stalls are as varied as the produce on display. Some hold just a few acres or a couple of vines, while others tend thousands of trees or plow heavy equipment with hefty price tags. Whether big or small, a third generation or just getting started, they all keep a watchful eye on the weather as they turn the south Alabama soil.

Art Sessions in his peach orchard. Photo by Matthew Coughlin

A Family Empire

Art Sessions pulls out a kitchen knife and deftly slices the rind off a wedge of fresh cantaloupe. The flesh is still warm from the sunshine under which it was growing just a few minutes ago. The wholesale cantaloupe buyers who are gathered around wipe the juice running down their hands on the seat of their pants, content with the quality of the product they are loading up. Not long afterward, their pickup truck pulls out of Sessions’ packing house in Grand Bay, loaded down with the weight of a bed-load of melons.

Summer is in full swing at Sessions Farm Stand, where the third generation of family is planting, picking and packing local produce of every sort. “We’ve always been diversified,” explains Art, whose father established the farm after returning home from World War II, having survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. Scattered on several large parcels of land, the Sessionses have 600 acres of pecans, 4,000 mature citrus trees, 60 acres of watermelons, 20 acres of peaches and so much more. They are the area’s largest citrus producer, and come November, you can bet their state-of-the-art cooler will be filled to the brim with crates of satsumas. For now, however, it’s the summer fruit we are interested in.

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Art’s son, Jeremy, admits this really isn’t good country for growing peaches. “We just don’t get enough cold weather,” he says. Meanwhile, it’s easy to get too much cold for their citrus crop. That’s the upside to diversification — no matter the weather, hopefully one thing will stick. “It looks like we’ll have a bumper crop this year,” Art says, hopefully.

Blood, Sweat and Tears

While the Sessionses explain that dry weather is good for melons, over in Elberta, James Hollingsworth says that you can’t drown a blackberry. He and his partner, Debbie, get out in the field in the late afternoon to pick their berries directly into plastic retail clamshells. The less they handle them, the better.

“After about 4 p.m., the sun starts to get lower and the berries firm up and are easier to pick without damaging,” Debbie says. The couple tends their small operation themselves, having taken over from James’ brother just a few years ago after he ran the farm for almost 20 years. A winter freeze took the blueberry crop this year, so they are focusing all their energy on the blackberries.

James was born just around the corner on 2,500 acres of farmland that his family of seven tended together. His father was the first in the area to advertise his crops directly to consumers via the newspaper each year, and in this way he sold the bounty of 40 acres of corn and 10,000 tomato plants. That was then. These days, James farms a small patch and turns out just one high-quality product that sells for a premium in local markets and restaurants.

Betty Wilson of Betty’s Blueberry Farm. Photo by Matthew Coughlin

Like Family

While some are born into the farming life, others choose it. Betty Wilson and husband Jack moved home to Wilmer 30 years ago after inheriting some family land. “We were spinning our wheels and going nowhere,” Betty remembers of the hectic life she and Jack led in the business world before becoming blueberry farmers. “We flew into town in Jack’s small airplane and landed in that field over there. The corn grew up around it and we couldn’t get the plane out. And so we stayed.”

All jokes aside, owning a farm is no laughing matter. There’s plenty of hard work to go around, not to mention the constant worry of inclement weather. For a period of time, they had a few greenhouses on the property growing tomatoes and the like, which allowed better control of conditions and gave some insurance against storms, drought and cold. Hurricane Katrina had other plans for the farm, however, and wiped the houses away. Now in their 80s, they are content to welcome guests to the farm for u-pick blueberries.

Betty’s Blueberry Farm is now at a figurative fork in the road. Though several children and grandchildren have spent summers dabbling with crops, all have pursued other occupations, and Betty wonders how much longer she and Jack will be able to keep up the property. Having a u-pick operation limits the workload somewhat and offers welcome interaction with customers of all walks of life. “Our customers are almost like extended family,” Betty says as she pulls out a drawing of a jar of blueberries made for her by one of her youngest patrons. Repeat customers bring their children and grandchildren back to the farm every year for more than just good produce. It’s a bonding experience.

Photo by Matthew Coughlin

Now’s the Time

Come July, farmers across Mobile and Baldwin counties are nearing the end of their summer season. Our area is blessed with a warm spring, and seeds go in the ground early enough to have several plantings.

By August, however, it will be too hot to keep the plants — or farmers — feeling hearty. Most growers aim to have their final harvest in line with the bumper-to-bumper cars headed to the beach and backyard cookouts of Fourth of July weekend.

Given that farmers big and small agreed the crops came almost two weeks early this year, the time is now to snatch up some delicious, fresh-from-the-farm summer sweetness.

Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau

Strawberry Crostata

A rustic crostata is perfectly imperfect. The fruit pastries are simple for novice bakers to execute, yet taste as lovely as the most intricate pie.

1 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter, diced
1/2 cup ice water
4 cups strawberries, rinsed, hulled and halved
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons strawberry jam
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
1 extra-large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
turbinado sugar, to taste
vanilla ice cream or whipped cream for serving

1. Place the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Pulse a few times to combine. Add the butter and toss into the flour with your fingers to coat. Pulse again until the butter is the size of peas. With the motor running, add the ice water through the feed tube. Continue pulsing until the dough comes together.
2. Turn dough onto a well-floured board and form into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.
3. In a large bowl, combine strawberries and next 5 ingredients until well combined.
4. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Roll the pastry on a lightly floured surface until it forms a 12-inch circle and transfer to the parchment-lined pan. Pile the strawberries in the middle of the pastry, leaving a 1 1/2 inch border of pastry. Fold the excess pastry up over the filling, pleating where necessary. Brush the pastry edges with the egg wash and sprinkle with turbinado sugar to taste. Bake for 35 minutes, until the pastry is browned and the filling is bubbly. Allow to cool for 30 minutes.
5. Top with ice cream or whipped cream and serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 8.

Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau

Blueberry Buckle

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup milk
1 egg
2 cups well-drained blueberries

Crumble Topping:
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 butter, softened

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan. Blend all ingredients except blueberries until well mixed. Gently fold in blueberries, being careful not to break fruit. Spread in prepared pan.
2. Combine topping ingredients in a small bowl. Crumble topping over batter. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until topping is browned and center cooked through. Serve warm. Serves 12.

Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau

Blackberry Dutch Baby

A Dutch baby is a glorified pancake that rises to soufflé heights when baked. Be sure to serve it right away, though, as it falls almost immediately.

6 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
pinch kosher salt
4 tablespoons melted butter
20 large blackberries
powdered sugar for serving

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round pan with straight sides or the pan of your choice.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except blackberries and powdered sugar until no lumps remain. Pour into prepared pan. Scatter blackberries over batter and place in preheated oven. Bake for 20 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar and serve immediately. Serves 6.

Photo by Elizabeth Gelineau

Peach Crumble Bars

This take-on-the-go version of a peach crumble is modernized with healthier ingredients and comes together in a snap. Serve as a dessert with a scoop of ice cream, or enjoy for breakfast with a little yogurt and a sprinkling of toasted nuts.

3 cups peaches
1/3 cup raw cane sugar
zest and juice of one lemon
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1 cup oat flour, made from grinding oats in a blender until fine
1/2 cup coconut palm sugar (or substitute light brown sugar)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup melted coconut oil

1. Combine peaches, cane sugar, lemon zest and juice in a heavy-bottom saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, stirring, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add cornstarch and stir to dissolve. Let cook for 3 minutes more. Remove from heat and let compote cool for 15 minutes.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together oats, flour, coconut sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Stir in coconut oil and mix well. Add a heaping cup of oat mixture into a well-greased 8 x 8 glass baking pan and press into the bottom. Set aside the remaining oat mixture. Bake the pan for 10 minutes, until crust is fragrant and lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes.
3. Top crust with the peach compote, then sprinkle the top with the rest of the oat mixture. Bake for another 25 minutes, or until topping is browned. Allow to cool, then refrigerate until completely firm. Cut and serve chilled. Makes 12 bars.

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