HOMERVILLE, Ga. - Tison Bell eats about as many strawberries as he picks. But that's OK, because there is plenty of the pioneer Clinch County crop planted by his parents to spare some for the hungry 2-year-old boy.
The ankle-high rows of berry bushes might be the future of farming in Clinch County.
"(Tison's) my best farmhand as well as my buddy. He's out here just about every day with me," said Jason Bell, swinging his son up onto his shoulders for a piggyback ride as they check the lush plants.
Strawberries are a new crop in Clinch County. Mr. Bell is the first strawberry grower in the rural south Georgia county. But other strawberry growers can be found in Lowndes, Appling, Coffee, Brantley, Berrien and Chatham counties.
"Blueberries are our No. 1 fruit crop. Jason's the only one farming strawberries right now," said Mike Bruorton, agriculture extension agent for Clinch County. "But we're exploring it to see if there is a window of opportunity that Georgia can open into that market, which is dominated by California and Florida so far."
"Right now, we're in the infant stages of strawberry production, but we have room to grow," Mr. Bruorton said.
And planting the seeds of the possible new cash crop is a rookie farmer.
Mr. Bell, 30, is a fifth-grade English teacher in Clinch County. His wife, Heather, 26, teaches third grade in neighboring Ware County.
Both come from multigeneration farming families, but the strawberry patch is their first foray into the family business.
"I've never farmed anything before. But I've been wanting to do it for a long time," Mr. Bell said. "People grow a lot of blueberries in Clinch County, so I started wondering if strawberries would do well, too."
The couple then consulted family members, friends and agricultural officials for tips and researched the strawberry industry via the Internet.
"I studied it over a year and then talked with the county agent and the other farmers. They have all been there to help us out," Mr. Bell said.
The couple's friends, neighbors and even some relatives were skeptical about strawberries, and a few suggested that Mr. Bell try blueberries instead.
"People would kid me. They'd joke and say to me, `You can't grow enough strawberries for a pie.' But when I needed advice or a piece of equipment, they were the first ones there to help us out," said Mr. Bell, recalling that a neighbor with a meat-packing company loaned him a refrigerated truck to take one of his first harvests to market.
The strawberry patch has been a sweet success so far. About 0.7 acre, it produced about 18,000 pounds of berries last year - Mr. Bell's first season in business, Mr. Bruorton said.
Mr. Bell's berries, distributed by Sunnyridge Farms Inc. of Orlando, Fla., can be found in some supermarkets throughout south Georgia and northeast and central Florida.
The bulk of Mr. Bell's business has been his roadside stand.
People also can pick their own berries fresh or get them already picked from his farm along U.S. Highway 84 near Homerville, between Valdosta and Waycross.
A half-mile trail of large strawberry-shaped signs tacked up - with permission - on roadside utility poles guide motorists to the patch on his wife's family's homestead. An ancient sprawling oak shades a picnic table and swing nearby - attracting almost as many visitors as the berries.
"We get about 20 customers a day during the week, and anywhere from 40 to 60 on weekends. Some folks just like to picnic in the shade under the tree," said Mr. Bell, adding that his customers have included tourists from as far away as Germany. "It's neat meeting folks and visiting with them."
Although success has been sweet, growing strawberries hasn't been an easy row to hoe.
Hungry deer began munching their way through the patch until they were lured away with a salt lick nearby, and the berry field was surrounded with a low-voltage electric fence. Freezing temperatures also threatened the plants - prompting Mr. Bell to spend several nights in the field waiting for the right moment to wet down the plants to keep them insulated.
"We've learned the hard way," said Mr. Bell, whose uncle is a local blueberry grower.
Mr. Bell plants the berries in October in hill-like raised rows. The plants are irrigated and swathed in plastic to regulate the moisture and conserve water. The strawberries are ready for harvest beginning about St. Patrick's Day and will continue producing through mid-May, he said.
"We pick them ripe because we don't have to ship them far," said Bell, adding that California strawberries now appearing in area groceries are picked green in order to extend their shelf life.
The couple, who have been married three years, have deep roots in the county.
"This used to be my granddaddy's farm. It was tobacco and some corn back then. The strawberry patch is where he used to have their vegetable garden," Heather Bell said.
About 20 of their relatives have pitched in to help with the patch, she said.
"My grandmother gets the leftover berries, those that don't sell because they don't look as nice as the others, and makes them into preserves," Mrs. Bell said.