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Courtney Farms makes successful transition from fruit stand

When Courtney Farms opened an upscale open air market on U.S. 90 in Ocean Springs eight years ago, it quickly became a popular place for people to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and gourmet food items. The problem was, it could be a very seasonable business.

In the spring, fall and early summer, Courtney Farms did great. The Courtneys used the outlet in Ocean Springs to sell fresh produce supplied from their farm in George County, as well as from other sources.

A big issue for the Courtneys was the seasonality of the business. When it was 35 degrees in the winter, or 100 degrees in the summer, business slacked off as customers opted to shop somewhere else that had heating or air conditioning.

“We did great in the spring, early summer and the fall, but it wasn’t good in the dead of winter or in the hottest part of the summer,” says Eddie Courtney, who owns Courtney Farms with his brother, Mike, and mother, Jane Ann Courtney, a retired school teacher. “It wasn’t an ideal situation for a fruit stand.”

Another issue is it takes a large volume to make much money, and fresh produce has to be sold in a few days or it spoils — especially in an environment without air conditioning.

So the Courtney looked at what was working well. They started selling plants the second year they were open. Plant sales had grown to became a bigger and bigger part of the business.

“We weren’t really planning on selling plants,” Courtney says. “It never crossed our minds. It just kind of built into something we could make a profit on. We allocated some costs and the fruit stand wasn’t generating enough profit. So we looked at it long and hard, and decided that plants were the way to go. It is working out great. It is a good business to be in. We do miss the fruits and vegetables, but it was a good move. It is working out great.”

Now that they are solely concentrating on plants, they can do a better job. And unlike fruits and vegetables, most plants (with the exception of cut flowers) taken care of properly will last for a long time until a customer picks them up and takes them home.

Courtney Farms switched over to plants a year ago in January. And it recently added water fountains, statuary and bird baths.

“Water fountains and bird baths are pretty hot right now, one reason being a lot of people lost that kind of thing in the storm,” Courtney says. “But there was a big demand for water fountains even before the storm. We offer delivery and set up and probably do that on 85% to 90% of the fountains that we sell. The fountains can be very heavy, so our delivery and setup service is popular.”

Right now is about the slowest time of the year — with the exception of January — for plant retail because it is so hot. Many people don’t want to get out and work in the heat, and plants set out during the hottest time of the year need more care to survive. Also, the selection of plants is low in the hot summer months, from the end of July through the middle of September.

The Courtneys still have their farm in George County, but they don’t grow nursery plants. Instead they grow 150 acres of watermelons, which are marketed wholesale. They buy some plants from George County nurseries, but also rely on some good suppliers from Louisiana.

People are most attracted to plants in full bloom. Blooming perennials are the top sellers at Courtney Farms. In the summertime big sellers include hibiscus and plumbago and other plants that thrive in the heat. Bedding plants including vegetables like peppers and tomatoes are popular in the spring.

Ocean Springs and the surrounding area have a climate that is good for growing plants year around, and gardens are a big deal for many local residents. Particularly people like to decorate for the holidays, which means good business for Courtney Farms.

“Easter is pretty big,” Courtney says. “We do a lot of fall decorations around Halloween, from the first of October to Halloween. We sell a lot of pumpkins and yard decorations like hay bales and corn stocks. That helps us in the fall coming out of the slow time of the year. And we have a big Christmas season.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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