Grandson keeps family farm stand growing

CorrespondentJuly 5, 2014 

— On a narrow road in South Durham, Alex Watson, 20, is running the family farm stand, one of the only urban farm stands in Durham County. This year, Watson will sell 20,000 pounds of watermelon. This month, he’ll go through 160 baskets of peaches, and in one week’s time, 2,200 pounds of tomatoes.

Unlike the now-ubiquitous farmer’s markets that dot the Triangle twice weekly, the Perkins Orchard farm stand is open seven days per week, from eight in the morning to nine at night. There are no artisan crafts or food trucks, just a simple wooden structure in a shady grove behind the Perkins residence on Barbee Road.

“This is the place I grew up,” said Watson, who is the operations manager for Perkins Orchard. He took over the farm stand from his grandfather, Dr. Joseph Perkins, 81, who started the stand in 1971.

Forty years ago, Joseph Perkins started the stand as a way to sell some of the produce he grew on his three acres, before the area was known as “SoDu,” or a way to get to Southpoint mall, or near the food truck rodeos of Durham’s Central Park. Back then, Perkins wanted a way to give the community the bounty from the 200 fruit trees that lined his property.

“I just had a lockbox and a scale, and it was a total honor system,” said Perkins, now the president and founder of the Apex School of Theology. “It was just a way to sell some of my fruit. I’m not from a family of farmers or anything.”

In 2004, Perkins decided Watson, who was showing an interest in the stand, could take it over – with Perkins’ guidance and checkbook. Watson was 10.

“Running the farm stand in middle school and high school was … interesting for my social life,” said Watson, who graduated from Jordan High School in 2012. Watson doesn’t look at the farm stand as a way to make easy cash. Although he’s expanded the stand each year he’s been the owner and operator, he said it’s the community and the ability to work with food that make him passionate about the family business.

“I love that I get to touch stuff that grows from the earth,” Watson said. “Selling fruits and vegetables has broadened my thinking and opened me up to the community.”

21st-century touches

Watson said nostalgia is part of the farm stand’s appeal, but he has added definite 21st-century touches to the stand. Like other 20-something businessmen, he uses social media, has iPad checkout counters that can take debit or credit cards, and tries to think of new ways to please his customers (organic Popsicles for the kids). He even launched a free app he created himself last year that keeps customers abreast of what’s in stock, ripe or on sale.

“The app took forever to make and get certified, but it’s cool,” said Watson. Last summer, he debuted new wooden stands that allow for more produce to be displayed and greens offered in a refrigerated hut that sits on his grandfather’s property.

Eventually, Watson would like to study meteorology, a way to continue learning about nature and agriculture. He has five employees, many of them high school friends from Jordan.

Afam Nwogalanya has worked at the stand for five summers. The North Carolina Central University student said Watson is a good boss, relaxed and at ease with customers and willing to help out if someone’s in a pinch.

“He’s very giving to the community. If someone doesn’t have the money, he gives them more,” said Nwogalanya.

Relationship with growers

For Perkins, watching his grandson increase the business has been a point of pride.

“I don’t know how to do any of that debit card stuff,” said Perkins, “And he knows how to be online. It’s impressive.”

Perkins still goes with Watson to Raleigh twice a week to meet with farmers. Most of the Perkins Orchard produce is grown in North Carolina or South Carolina, and Watson has developed close relationships with growers in the region.

Watson also said customers, especially young African-American customers, keep him humble and invested in his business.

“I want to set an example for them, to show them you can do all sorts of different things when you grow up,” said Watson.

The stand has loyal customers, some who even travel cross country to buy ripe Carolina peaches.

“Look at my license plate; it says Washington state,” said Harrison McMillan.

Originally from Durham, McMillan left the city in 1967 for the west coast, but when he visits his family each summer, he stops at Perkins Orchard and does his shopping.

“I always come here. You can’t beat the produce,” said McMillan. “Their fruit is sweeter.”

Watson said that’s because he only allows vine-ripened fruit at the stand, and he lets it ripen in the open air to develop natural sugars and flavors.

“People get hooked on the fresh taste,” said Watson, who said he has regulars from age 12 to 97.

Watson and Perkins said they have four perennial favorites: tomatoes, peaches, cantaloupes and watermelons. The watermelons – some seedless, some orange-fleshed – have inspired legions of fans, including raccoons.

“I learned you have to put wire (mesh) around the watermelons,” said Watson. “One of the many things I’ve learned here.”

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