When Will and Ann Bates’ oldest granddaughter, Hallie Bates, was 9 years old and ready to enter the 4-H program in Poteet, Texas, she told her grandparents she wanted to raise animals—pigs, specifically. Will, a longtime agriculture teacher in Poteet, agreed to help her, but under one condition: she had to grow strawberries, too. “This is a strawberry place,” Will explained.
Indeed, it is. The city’s water tower, painted to look like a strawberry, and the 7-foot-tall, 1,600-pound strawberry replica in front of the fire station offer an inkling of the town’s claim to fame. And the annual three-day Poteet Strawberry Festival brings 100,000 people to town every April.
Hallie, now 12, gladly complied with her grandfather’s wishes. She grew enough berries to sell at that year’s festival with plenty more left over, so she opened Hallie’s Strawberry Patch to the public as a pick-your-own operation. Pretty soon, she was putting money away for college. “We never thought it would be that successful,” Will says.
Soon, Hallie’s cousins, Hannah Chandler, 13, and her sister Tess Chandler, 10, wanted in on the action. The current patch, now named Three Cousins’ Strawberry Patch to reflect the expansion, covers a little more than an acre. “Ann and I are the landlords and banker and they’re the labor—and they do a lot of it,” Will says.
The strawberry season runs from late February to about the middle of May. By June, it’s too hot and the plants stop blooming, and it’s time to get the ground in shape for the next year’s crop, which is planted in the fall and tended to all winter. Not that the three cousins mind all the work. On a visit to the farm in mid-February—just as their plants should’ve been coming up but weren’t because the recent weather had been everything but sunny—they ticked off the things they like about being in the strawberry business. “My favorite part of it is the U-Pick-’Em part,” Hallie says. “I get to meet a lot of people from all over…China, New York, India, Russia. They get real excited about what we’re doing.”
“My favorite part is when the people come in and give the little kids scissors so they can go cut the berries off the plants,” says Hannah. “The kids get these huge saucer eyes; they get so excited, you have to remind them not to run with scissors.”
Tess likes selling the hanging baskets of strawberry plants, but she doesn’t like it if too much moisture makes the berries soggy and turns them into mush. “They’re transparent!” Tess marvels. “You can see right through them. It’s so gross!”
But even during the most tedious part of the process—planting—the three girls manage to have fun, sometimes racing to see who can put the most plants in the ground in the shortest amount of time. They’re not above throwing the bad ones at each other when they’re harvesting, eithe
“We have fun with it,” Hallie says, adding that Granna (Ann) keeps a close eye on them to make sure things don’t get out of hand. “But the best part is eating them. You know how they say they sell all they can and eat the rest? I like to say I eat all I can and sell the rest.”
It’s not all fun and games out in the strawberry patch, though. Sometimes, the weather doesn’t cooperate. Other times, armyworms, birds, wasps or a combination of pests attack the plants that the kids have nurtured all season. But the kids keep it all in perspective. “Part of why we’ve done so well is because we’ve learned to rely on God,” Hallie says. “That’s the truth of it. That’s where it’s all at.”
Hannah and Tess’ mom, Meaghen Chandler—a former Strawberry Festival Queen—says the joys and challenges of growing strawberries for fun and profit have been good for the cousins in other ways, too. “They have an opportunity to get their hands dirty,” she says. “They know what hard work is. They get tired and keep going. That’s the kind of stuff money can’t buy.”
And it looks like another name change might be in the works. Two younger male cousins, Jacob and Caleb, have taken to doing what they can in the strawberry patch, as well. Perhaps a Five Cousins’ Strawberry Patch?
Congratulations to Three Cousins' Strawberry Patch on their win of Grand Champion Strawberry Growers at the 2018 Poteet Strawberry Festival!
The local Rotary Club in Poteet, Texas, started the Poteet Strawberry Festival in 1948 to celebrate the area’s long-standing reputation as a strawberry mecca, and to bring people—and their dollars—to town. But in the 46 years that retired agriculture teacher and strawberry guru Will Bates has worked the annual festival, he’s seen attendance figures triple as the number of local acres devoted to growing strawberries has dwindled from 300 to as low as 30. Will attributes the decline to the amount of labor that’s required—whether homegrown or hired—coupled with the cost of machinery, fertilizer and other inputs for keeping current operations small and preventing some would-be growers from even trying. It’s been quite a blow to a town that takes such great pride in its treasured rubies. “We realized it’s hard to say you’re the strawberry capital of Texas if you don’t have any strawberries,” he says.
The Poteet Strawberry Festival Association is addressing the situation with an initiative to make it easier for people to grow berries by supplying a free plasticulture system that covers the soil or plants with plastic to control weeds without the use of herbicides or hoes. The association also purchased a mulching tool that builds and shapes the beds and covers them with the plastic mulch—all in a single pass—and lets the growers use it for free. That’s helped bring the number of strawberry acres up to around 50. “It’s made a difference,” says Will. “We had people who wanted to put in berries, but they couldn’t afford the labor or equipment for a big operation. Our acres are slowly coming back.”
Poteet’s nonprofit groups fund most of their annual activities with money raised during the festival, which provides about 30 college scholarships a year to local students. In Poteet, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is more than an old Beatles song. It’s the main goal.
By Clay Coppedge • Photography by Andy Sams
Find Three Counsins’ Strawberry Patch on Facebook.