May 20, 2009
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Except for the look of the vehicles steadily pulling in and out of the roadside lot, the scene at Don and Linda Beard''s open-air produce and curb market at 5731 Military Road, where Wolf Road intersects, could almost have been plucked from the fictional community of Mayberry.
Among a colorful assortment of fresh vegetables and fruits on homemade stands under a small canopy, Linda cheerfully assists a consistent stream of Friday afternoon customers. Two of them, Jerry Woods and Anne Young, have stopped to sit a spell, sharing a neighborly chat in a pair of lawn chairs. Jerry stops by every day for something tasty and a sociable visit.
Jars of "Amish Wedding" brand jellies, jams, sorghum, banana pepper rings and Southern mild chow-chow line a long shelf over the makeshift center bins. A cooler at the rear of the compact space holds eggs from free range chickens, real cheeses tasting "like the old hoop cheese," and homemade butter. Hand-lettered cardboard and wooden signs hailing $1 homemade mini-pies, boiled peanuts and a friendly welcome dot the displays.
Here, against a rural backdrop, without a computer or Blackberry in sight, the pace is slower. The stress meter on hold. Surrounded by bright, yellow squash, plump, red tomatoes, cucumbers, peaches, potatoes, oranges, onions, watermelon and more, the Beard''s, together for 41 years, have managed to preserve a little bit of yesteryear.
"If you''d go south, you''d see a lot more of these ''mom and pop'' places, but not so much here any more," says Linda, who married her sweetheart in 1968, after his high school graduation -- literally. "His mama wouldn''t let him get married unless he graduated, so he graduated from Lee High, and we got married on the same day," she smiles. "I was a city girl -- I grew up in Burns Bottom -- but he turned me into a country girl quick."
As the couple interact with customers and banter with each other, it''s soon apparent Don''s wit and Linda''s friendly air are part of the quaint market''s appeal.
"We make folks feel at home," Don explains, adding, "We have been known to stand around and talk," with a tongue-in-cheek grin.
Bringing it in
While heavy rains in Mississippi have kept many farmers out of their fields for much of May, Don has been striking out before daylight two and three times a week for Birmingham, Ala., coming back with "The Beast" -- his trusty ''97 Dodge Ram three-quarter ton truck -- loaded with fresh produce grown in states including Florida, Georgia and Texas.
If you ask the retired city police officer, he''d tell you it''s in his genes.
"I was chopping cotton in the first grade," says this son of a Sunflower County sharecropper. "Me and my brothers grew up working in an old-timey store my parents had across from Lee High, Jimmy''s Fruit Stand."
The 20-year veteran of the force grew used to the road as a child. "We''d go all the way to Florida for produce and daddy would pull over at night to sleep." The younger Beards would sometimes catch a few winks under the truck.
"Until a police officer told them they didn''t need to do that," laughs Linda, "cause there were a lot of gators around there."
His parents are now gone, but Don has continued the family''s tradition of staying connected to the earth. He usually grows his own corn, peas, squash and cucumbers, but rains have already forced him to plant twice, like many others in Lowndes County.
Passing it on
Four-year-old Hunter Beard is learning his way around the produce from his Ma-maw and Pa-paw. Grandmother Linda demonstrates how to seek out a good cantaloupe.
"If you can''t smell a cantaloupe, you know it''s not ripe," she instructs, holding a fragrant melon close to her face.
"I help sometimes. Like this!" proclaims Hunter proudly, carrying a cantaloupe and lifting it almost over his head onto the scale. One of these days, he''ll be learning how to make change, a skill Linda feels is sorely missing in young people these days. "I learned when I was a teenager, working at the Princess and Varsity Theaters; we didn''t have any machine telling us how much to give back!"
Good for the heart
After retiring from the police force in 1989, Don, who was one of two hostage negotiators in the ranks, and his wife operated a country store on the site of the current market until health scares intervened.
A series of heart attacks in the early 1990s and five bypass procedures in 2003 led to an implanted defibrillator and a caution to slow down.
"This is something I can do at my own pace," Don explains. "You''ve got to have a purpose. ... We just had a good check-up, and the doc told us what we''re doing is probably the key to why we''re doing so well. "
Linda added, "We don''t just sit around." The couple keep the produce stand open Monday through Saturday, from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. ("Sunday is the Lord''s Day," Linda affirms.)
The Beard''s are big on buying American-grown produce and goods made in the U.S.A.
"If you want to know what''s wrong with America, just look out in your driveways, look at your TV''s. ... Where was all that made? We all need to be more American-loyal; it''s not our duty to keep the world rich."
That''s one of the reasons it''s important to the couple to hunt for the best farm-grown produce they can, from Southern suppliers they know. "If you sell good produce, people will come back," states Linda.
And dispensing smiles doesn''t hurt either.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.