Nestled in the foothills of the Ozarks, in Northeast Oklahoma’s “Green Country,” is Stilwell – proudly known as the “Strawberry Capital of the World.” The county seat of Adair County is famous for “Stilwell Strawberries,” and the annual Strawberry Festival ongoing since 1948, but few realize it could all soon come to an end.
While Wikipedia claims Stilwell once had 2,000 acres of strawberries, 85 year-old veteran grower Burl Doyle asserts there were actually 4,100 acres at the peak. Scott Talbert of J5 Farm, LLC in Stilwell explains, “Last week Burl and I could only count about 19 acres in production across the entire county now.” Even fewer acres are actually in Stilwell, and over half of those belong to Doyle and his brother, also in his eighties.
Talbert recalls “Someone once told me Hope, AR has an annual watermelon festival analogous to our strawberry event, but that basically no watermelons are grown in Hope anymore.” He continues “I realized we’re nearly no different since more than 99% of strawberry acres in Stilwell have already vanished, and the less than 1% that remain all belong to senior citizens.” So Talbert and his wife, Teatske, decided to take action.
With zero horticultural experience, they decided to take a portion of their 135-acre farm and ranch and grow strawberries. Moreover, seeing the parallels between aging Stilwell strawberry growers and the rising average age of those in American agriculture in general, they sought to involve their five homeschooled boys. The two oldest, Jonathan 14 and Joshua 12, spearheaded the operation by securing “Youth Loans” through the Farm Service Agency within the USDA. They in turn recruited their brothers, Josiah 10 and Judah 8, to help with their respective half-acre berry patches. Talbert added: “Even Jedidiah, nearly 4, talks about ‘strawberry meetings’ and ‘taking off the blankets’ – referring to the row covers used to protect the crop from the cold. It’s truly been a family affair.”
Talbert shared that the Farm Service Agency Youth Loans represent a creative effort by the federal government to spawn interest in agriculture and promote entrepreneurial ambition in a rural context. “We had to tweak the paperwork a bit, as it was clear the program was geared towards youth borrowing a chunk of land to graze cattle. But our FSA loan officers were great about being flexible with the forms and collateral requirements, since we were dealing with nearly 17,000 plants and a future crop rather than an instant asset.” With the first berries currently being harvested, it’s clear the Youth Loan program has been a win for the boys and their family, as well as the town and its strawberry heritage.
Company Name: J5 Farm, LLC
Contact Person: Scott Talbert
Phone: (937) J5FARM9
Address:RR 2 Box 1220
Country: United States