Down the road, about five miles outside the city, Jo and Tony Hall have found a way to turn their love of gardening into a livelihood that brings the bounty of their harvest into the homes of others.
Thirteen years ago, they opened Hall’s Produce stand, located on U.S. 69 South.
“We've always grown vegetables, and when we worked at the state hospital we used to sell them over there to people who worked there,” she said as her husband worked behind the building, plowing up their three-acre lot where they will plant their gardens.
Onions and potatoes already have been planted, “and we're fixing to put out tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, probably put all that out today. Later on, in the next week, we'll be planting beans and peas, watermelons, canteloupes …” Mrs. Hall said.
Their selling season generally runs from mid-March to late October, although last year the stand remained open through late December before closing for a three-month hiatus. Even though they don't expect the first of the produce to be available until about the beginning of May, “we got some items and just kind of put it out for sale,” she said.
On the shelves inside the screened-in stand, one can find offerings of jellies and jams, homemade pickles, salsa and fresh items like pineapple, eggs, watermelon, cucumbers and tomatoes.
At the beginning of the season, they bring in produce from Florida and the Rio Grande Valley at the beginning of the selling season, but “when our growing season is here, we provide what we grow or what we buy from other local people, (especially if they) have something that we don't, or if we don't have enough of what we need. Then we buy from local people,” Mrs. Hall said.
The stand draws a lot of repeat customers, as well as folks passing through. “We have them from Beaumont, Houston, Louisiana ... if they stop, well, most of the time when they come back through here, they'll stop again,” she said.
Local or out of area, customers stop for the same reason: The availability of fresh, garden-grown produce.
“I'm not going to say we're any higher or lower (in cost) than (the stores) but you're going to get something that's more fresh, even if it is coming from somewhere else,” she said.
The most sought-after produce? Tomatoes and watermelons.
“I wouldn't open my stand if I didn't have (those),” Mrs. Hall said, “they are the two things that I sell the most of.
“Whenever we get local tomatoes, the Jacksonville tomatoes, that's what everybody wants. They usually come in the last of May, first of June – sometime around the Tomato Fest we'll still have green and ripe tomatoes. That's what everyone waits for. That and Noonday onions. And I'd have to say Grapeland watermelons are something else that people are real interested in.”
The couple's biggest challenge, her husband said, “is keeping enough stuff.”
People want produce that's fresh “and don't have all these chemicals in them,” he said, describing how they let nature dictate the maturity of their produce.
“Have you ever bought a tomato that's been hollow? They grew it too fast … they put stuff on it that makes it grow fast,” Hall said.
Over the years, he and his wife have relied on extra hands to handle their gardens, but the Halls – longtime farmers – still enjoy raising food for others to enjoy, exemplifying something Benton said: “There is no age limit to the fun of getting your hands dirty and enjoying the fruits of your own labor.”