OCEAN SPRINGS — A common lament of farmers is that they do most of the work while the middleman takes most of the profits.
One prominent George County farming family, the Courtneys, have solved that problem. They cut out the middleman by opening up an upscale farmer’s market in Ocean Springs on U.S. 90 near the heart of town.
“The cost of fertilizer, chemicals and labor is what is driving us toward the retail market,” says Eddie Courtney, one of the owners of the family business. “It got tougher to make ends meet on the wholesale end. The middleman was making more than us. Daddy helped get the Farmer’s Market started in Point Cadet in Biloxi. We’ve been doing that ever since it has been open.”
The Farmer’s Market in Biloxi is just over the Biloxi Back Bay bridge on Highway 90 from Ocean Springs. The Courtneys saw that a lot of their customers were coming from Ocean Springs, which didn’t have a fruit stand.
Those customers no longer have to cross the bridge — and perhaps get stuck while the drawbridge is up. Customer response to the opening of Courtney Farms in June has been all that the family hoped for.
“It has been one of the most commented on new businesses we ever had in the time I’ve been here,” says Margaret Miller, executive vice president, Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce. “We had been thinking about opening a farmer’s market here for years. We felt it would enhance the community. Better than that, we found Courtney Farms was interested in starting a business and rekindling what was a vacant piece of property.
“One of the things that is outstanding is they have taken a little small concrete building and your typical weedy vacant lot and turned it into something of real value. It has definitely been part of the beautification of Highway 90. It is an outstanding asset to our community. Everybody feels that way.”
Miller describes the attractively decorated, open-air market as “a feel good place.” And while you might expect women to embrace an easy access outlet to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, specialty canned goods and nursery plants, the business has also been popular with men.
“I’ve been amazed at the number of men who have told me that it has enhanced their quality of life having Courtney Farms here,” Miller said. “They did a good job researching the plan and developing the idea. They have quality produce at an affordable price. They have become an integral part of the community, which I think ensures success in Ocean Springs.”
The business has eye-catching outdoor displays such as a pumpkin cabin and pumpkin towers surrounded by hay bales and flowering mums. The displays inspire customers to do similar yard art displays. Courtney says they didn’t expect how well items like the flowering mums would sell. Currently they are purchasing the potted plants for resale, but are looking into growing nursery plants themselves. They also intend to grow cut flowers, which have also proven popular with customers.
The family started farming about 20 years ago, and has about 650 acres. The farm was started by the father, David Courtney. Sons Eddie and Mike work alternate days so they are at the Courtney Farms outlet in Ocean Springs one day and at the farm the next day. Mike’s wife, Fay Courtney, and daughter Meliah Goddard help staff the retail outlet. The Courtney’s sister, Lisa Wagner, who lives in Ocean Springs, also helps out a lot at the store.
“At least two members of the immediate family are here every day that it is open just to make sure the customers are satisfied,” Eddie Courtney said. “That is our main goal to make sure people find what they want, and it be as fresh as possible. We ship stuff from our farm here every day here. Therefore it doesn’t get old and isn’t stored in a cooler several days before being placed on a shelf.”
Is their produce fresher than that found at the supermarket? There is no doubt, Courtney says. The farm also sells to grocery store warehouses. The produce first goes to warehouses before it is put on the store shelves.
Of the 650 acres farmed, 500 acres are in vegetables such as watermelons, strawberries, squash, cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, peas, butter beans and okra.
Vegetable crops are very labor intensive. About 20 to 25 migrant laborers are used to help because of the difficulty in finding domestic labor.
“We use as much domestic labor as we can, but that is hard to find,” Courtney said. “We did that for six or seven years, and it just got worse every year. Nobody who lives around here wants to pick vegetables, so we have to use migrant labor. Our labor comes in March, is here for nine months, and in December they have to go back home and get their papers renewed. If it weren’t for the migrant labor, we would probably be out of business. It would be a lot easier if you could use domestic help. But it is just not available.”
In addition to the produce from the farm, the store sells a lot of canned goods, mostly jams and jellies in addition to specialty gourmet items like picked beans and sweet potato butter, under the Courtney Farms label. The goods are packaged by another company.
“It’s just a real good line,” Courtney said. “A lot of it is gourmet items that you can’t find anywhere else. We have a good line of sugar-free products that sell well.”
Courtney says it has been expensive launching the new business, but it is paying off. “Business has been real good,” Courtney said. “We’ve been very pleased, and are looking forward to next spring. We missed that this year because we opened in the middle of the summer. We missed the strawberry season. Strawberries are a big item for us. We grow about eight acres of strawberries.”
Courtney said customers seem to be very satisfied, and often comment on how much they appreciate the business locating in Ocean Springs.
“We appreciate the business,” Courtney said. “We just want people to go home and tell their neighbors and kinfolks what we have up here, and hope they come to see us.”
Courtney Farms also has an outlet about 10 miles north of Lucedale next to their packing shed that is open seasonally. In addition to the produce sold at the retail outlet, they also wholesale a lot of vegetables that are shipped to the cities along the Mississippi Coast, as well as Birmingham, New Orleans, Pensacola and other cities in the region.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com or (228) 872-3457.