As reported in The Red & Black, Donna and John Washington opened Washington Farms in 1993, when they originally only grew strawberries. With his background in forestry and finance and her background in teaching, strawberry farming was not a predictable career choice.
“We started farming with no land, no tractor, we didn’t even own a shovel. We had three kids and we were going to start a business, so it was kind of crazy,” Donna Washington said.
Following thorough research and buying land in Oconee County, John Washington started growing strawberries. Little by little, with the work of the family — including the Washingtons’ five children and other employees — the farm grew to two locations and more crops and attractions.
The business, which attracted student employees from UGA, envisioned growing strawberries for people to come pick, but for those who cannot pick themselves, one job of employees was to pre-pick strawberries. Mary Gilbert, a former employee for 10 years and a 2010 UGA graduate, began working at the farm while she was a freshman and remembers the amount of strawberries there was during peak season.
“Inside the little shed where we sell out of, we would have all those pre-picks, all over the floor, on shelves, I mean strawberries were everywhere,” Gilbert said.
With Donna’s education background, she began teaching children about the process of growing strawberries during their elementary school field trips. Using pictures and a bee puppet to describe pollination, Washington taught the students and then John Washington took them on picks for some hands-on experience.
Washington said a late frost in their third year growing strawberries took out 60% of the crop, which is what made the farm deide to grow other crops.
“John figured the more we could diversify and offer more things, the less all your eggs are in one basket,” Washington said.
Starting with pumpkins and then blueberries and blackberries, the farm offered new products for customers to pick. After introducing pumpkins, a corn maze and other fall fun activities soon followed to attract older kids and UGA students, according to Washington.
Anna Kate Cartwright, a fourth year advertising major from Douglasville, has worked for the farm for three years and through her work there, Cartwright has built relationships with regular customers.
“It’s really cool to see these people become more than customers and become friends,” Cartwright said.
Though strawberry picking is a fun weekend activity, the process of growing the strawberries requires a lot of effort. According to Washington, strawberry season is six weeks, usually beginning in mid-April and concluding at the end of May.
Due to their short season and reliance upon good weather, strawberries are hard to grow and maintain.
“Strawberries are very labor intensive, they’re very high maintenance, they’re very high risk,” Washington said.
Washington Farms is no longer growing strawberries but it will continue with its other crops and farm activities. The blackberries, which the farm has been growing for 10 years, continues to grow from the first cane they planted, unlike strawberries that have to be replanted every year. Also, blackberries bloom in May and are not at risk for frost, unlike strawberries that can be harshly affected by late frost.
“We’re hoping that we can continue to do the agritainment part...and we intend to keep the blueberries and the blackberries going,” Washington said. “We still have our foot in farming, just not the labor-intensive strawberries anymore.”
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