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Business Spotlight: Bearing Fruit

Second career is a sweet change for former clothiers

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In 2021, Randy and Johnelle Little kicked up their heels and sold PFI Western Stores Inc., the boot and Western-wear retailer along U.S. Highway 65 that the couple owned for four decades.

The Littles sport cowboy and ranch attire better than most, but they can wear it honestly as the owners of 100 head of Angus cattle in Republic.

Raising cattle is one thing. Growing things from the soil is another. And after selling their store to Texas-based retailer Cavender’s, the one-time clothiers had a desire to get their hands dirty.

So earlier this year, they purchased Missouri Berries, a 180-acre U-pick strawberry farm in operation for a year, from their neighbors, Danielle and Josh Rogers. Randy declines to disclose the purchase price of the farm, which the Rogers began prepping and planting in 2019.

Of course, the Littles needed a farm dog, too, and that’s Jed – a hugger and a scaredy cat, according to Randy. Jed is retired, too. He’s a former rodeo dog who worked for years with a literal monkey on his back – a 7-pound cowboy-suited monkey that rode astride Jed as the dog dashed around the arena to entertain the crowd.

The berry farm is a whole new setting for both the Littles and Jed, who find much to enjoy working in the fresh air and sunshine.

The 25,000 strawberry plants put in by the previous owners are in full production, and 6,600 blueberry bushes are about to pop as well, expanding both the farm’s offerings and its season. Randy is happy to offer a ride in his Polaris Ranger utility task vehicle to show off something new on the far side of the farm. There, about a dozen rows of blackberry seedlings have been set up in tidy hillocks covered with landscaping cloth, and a sophisticated irrigation system is ready to roll.

U-pick sweet corn is coming to the next field over, and an unplanted field will provide the locale for a future strawberry patch, as these crops, like most others, have to be rotated. Randy also points out where a future field of sunflowers promises Instagram-ready backdrops for farm visitors. In every direction, new planned attractions are in the offing, like canoe rentals on a picturesque farm pond and a patch of ground just begging for blankets and lawn chairs for an upcoming bluegrass show – the kind of entertainment the Littles frequently offered through PFI to raise money for charity.

Today, though, there are strawberries – lots of them – and on this Tuesday morning, families are walking out of rows with flats of red fruit to be weighed. On the coming weekend, Randy expects the kids’ farm play area to be hopping, and a concession trailer will sell strawberry-themed treats, including strawberry doughnuts and slushes. Asked for a crowd estimate, he figures 500 visitors come on a good weekend day.

“I’m probably low-balling,” he says.

At the part of the field closest to the road, two workers are harvesting what Randy calls jam berries. Recent rains made some of the berries unsuitable for U-pick, but he says they still taste good and are perfectly suited for use in jellies or baked goods. The Littles donate jam berries to Ozarks Food Harvest and other charities.

Randy says he’s bought new software that keeps track of daily, weekly and seasonal totals, so in the future he’ll be better able to gauge the farm’s performance. When asked what the farm’s revenue was in 2022, he says he didn’t know – he hadn’t bought it yet and only knows what he was told – but the new system will track every ounce going forward. He also declines to offer projections for the current year.

Randy’s focus is on the fruit, and he planted each of the 1,250 blackberry seedlings over the course of two days, sun-up to sunset.

“At my age, you shouldn’t be doing this,” he laughs, noting he’ll soon turn 72.

Berry farming is a new skill for Randy, and he’s been learning everything he can about it.

“It’s challenging,” he says. “I’ve been to strawberry school, blueberry school and I’m going to blackberry school. It’s more in-depth than you imagine.”

He also welcomes ag and marketing students from Missouri State University for internships and tours at the farm.

“Every day I’m working, I’m smiling,” he says. “I enjoyed the people at the store for 47 years – had a great time – but here, we’re having a blast with it. It’s something different.”

Johnelle says she also enjoys the different pace of the farm – from relaxed weekday mornings to busy berrying weekends.

On this day, Johnelle is training 25-year-old Hannah Evans, of Sparta, to run the scale and ring up customers. Another worker is Jim Dowler, an automotive professional for 35 years. Taking a break from riding a 50-year-old tractor through the blueberry patch, Dowler says he likes pretty much everything about working on the farm.

“I like to be outside – mow and trim and take care of the berry plants,” he says.

Pretty much everyone at Missouri Berries is new to berry farming, though the retail stuff is old hat for the Littles.

Little says he is eager for blueberry season to arrive.“Do I know when it’s coming? When they tell me it’s here, because I don’t know nothing about this stuff,” Randy jokes.

He has a vision for the distant future of the farm. “What I’m wanting to do is develop this on out – it’s got great irrigation, and everything is put into place,” he says. “I want to find some young, good family, and then they could place a house over the hill, and they can do this as a business.”

A farmer has to be able to make clear-eyed assessments – of soil quality, storm clouds and signs of rot, blight or gall on the fruit plants. And Randy is just as frank in assessing himself.

“You know, I’m on the back side of my life,” he says. “We’re going to make it as long as it stays fun. That’s my whole point. I’m not in it for anything other than fun.”

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