“Mama, I just want to eat one,” Kaylee Redditt said to her mother, Jordan Polimeni, as she navigated the rows of leafy green strawberry leaves at Washington Farms.
“No, Kaylee,” Polimeni replied with a smile, glancing up from her own strawberry search. “Put it in the bucket and save it for later.”
As Redditt wandered further down the row of plants, Polimeni wiped sweat from her forehead, looking fondly at the field around her.
“This is only Kaylee’s third or fourth time (strawberry picking), and she has no idea we’re not doing this ever again,” Polimeni said. “It’s like the end of an era; as a kid, (my mom) used to take me and my brother. We used to come here growing up all the time — these are the best strawberries you can find.”
Like many other families who have been coming to Washington Farms for the last two-and-a-half decades, the Polimenis’ tradition of strawberry picking has been passed down from one generation to the next, and has become a spring staple.
While always a memorable day, this year, strawberry picking was a little more special for the family — and nostalgic. Weeks ago, John Washington, owner and founder of Washington Farms, announced that after 26 years, this is the farm’s last season offering strawberries.
“I’m 65, I’ll be 66 this summer, so I’m wanting to slow down and enjoy life more. We’ve got (five) kids; it’s just time to be with them and relax some and take it easy,” Washington told the Daily Post one recent afternoon at his Loganville farm. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s really been enjoyable.”
‘Nobody’s done that here before’
Washington and his wife, Donna, didn’t always run farms; though Washington has always loved being outdoors — he received his degree in forestry from the University of Georgia — it wasn’t until the early 1990s that he broached the subject with friends and family.
“In 1979, 1980, interest rates went out the roof to about 19%, and nobody was building a house, so basically my job disappeared,” Washington said. “There wasn’t any need to buy timber because you couldn’t do anything with it, so I became a registered investment adviser. Then God called us to work at the Eagle Boys Ranch, and Donna and I went up there and worked there for several years as house parents.”
When he and Donna were ready to leave the ranch, Washington decided he didn’t want to put a suit and tie back on — ever again, for that matter.
“I wanted to play in the dirt,” he said. “There was no way I was going corporate again.”
Luckily, Washington found a way he wouldn’t have to dress up again for work.
“I was up in North Carolina and I saw a pick-your-own strawberry farm,” he said. “We were going to homeschool the kids, so I decided we’d grow strawberries. Never been a farmer, so the learning curve was straight up; I had no idea what I was doing.”
The Washingtons also didn’t have a lot of money and couldn’t buy land outright.
“A real godly man, Coleman Whitehead, he was the one who suggested leasing instead of buying, because he said, ‘You know, what if nobody comes and picks strawberries? Nobody’s done that here before,’” Washington said. “I leased six acres of land and planted strawberries and God’s just blessed us time and time again. We became strawberry farmers (in 1993) and in 2000, moved from our first location to our location in Bogart. It was about that same time that we opened this (Loganville) farm, because I think we needed this income to pay for the other land that I bought.”
Currently, the Washingtons operate two farms: the Loganville location in Gwinnett, which solely offers strawberries and will be sold after this season, and the Bogart location in Oconee, which is larger and offers fall events.
The Bogart farm, with its blueberries, blackberries, pumpkins and corn maze in the fall, will remain.
Blood, sweat and tears
Though thousands now flock to Washington Farms annually and John and Donna are fondly referred to as “the strawberry people,” farming wasn’t always so successful, Washington said.
“There are several times where you back up and say, ‘I’m not this smart; it never would have fallen in place if God hadn’t been involved,’” Washington said. “But there’ve been times that I’ve stood out in the farm at 3 o’clock in the morning when we had a hurricane and we had 55 to 60 mph winds in the field and I just watched the plastic beds I had made. The dirt was being washed off, just plastic flapping all over the field.
“But I look at the things we’ve gone through and I look at what some of the other farms are having to go through now, where they’re just totally devastated and they’re underwater for weeks and their whole crop is just completely gone, and I think, ‘Yeah, I’ve had some tough times, but it could’ve been a lot worse.’”
Their first year in business, Washington said, he and Donna broke even; they sold just enough strawberries to replant for the following year.
The second year, the farm flourished.
“I felt like, ‘OK, maybe we can make a living doing this,’” Washington said. “But our third year, we had a late freeze. It was 16 degrees with a 25 mph steady wind all night long, and we already had the blossoms for our first crop out there. We lost 60% of our crop for that year in one night; there wasn’t anything I could do about it. You can’t cross-protect with winds that high, you can’t run your water, so my third year in business, I basically told my wife, ‘We can’t pay the power bill, we can’t pay the mortgage, the kids can’t eat for the next year.’ We were almost out of business our third year.”
Washington had an idea that would either save them or break them, though, and he leased 5 acres to grow pumpkins that fall.
“We had 3,000 schoolkids come out at $2 a piece our first year (of pumpkins); that was $6,000. Then we did a little hayride and sold some pumpkins and we made just enough money to get us to the next strawberry season,” Washington said. “We had lost 60% of our crop — it took that 40% to replant. We used all our money for the strawberry crop, so we made just enough money (from the pumpkins) to survive. That’s when we diversified, and later on we added the blackberries and blueberries just to diversify even more.”
While Washington credits God with having a hand in his farm’s success, he also said it was his family’s hard work — for about eight weeks per year during strawberry season, he estimates he works about 100 hours per week, with Donna and the kids, especially when they were younger, helping — and his love of “playing in the dirt” that has kept Washington Farms going the last 26 years.
“It’s been really hard and we’ve had really hard times to go through, and when you’re standing out there and you know that your crop’s gone and what are you going to do, you just have to have persistence and you’ve got to get back up and keep fighting, keep working,” Washington said. “I also loved what I did. Back then, I was the farmer — I planted, I weeded, I buried irrigation lines. I did whatever was necessary, because I loved playing in the dirt.”
“I told my wife one day, ‘I can’t believe I get paid to do this,’ because I’m out there hot and sweaty and dirty,” Washington continued. “You know the old saying, ‘Blood, sweat and tears?’ Well I got blood, I got sweat and I got tears on all the land that I’ve ever owned. Probably more blood and sweat than tears, but I just loved what I did.”
Looking back — and forward
In the weeks since Washington announced the final strawberry season, families, like the Polimenis, have turned out in droves to both farms, eager to get their last picking in.
They’ve also shared their stories of the farm on Facebook and in messages to Washington Farms, Washington said — something he and Donna love to read.
“A lot of people have told us they feel like our farm is a ministry,” Washington said. “You can read that (story) about one lady who came out with her grandkids, whose mom had died. She was hesitant about bringing the grandkids out to the strawberry farm and she told us, ‘I haven’t seen my grandkids smile in months.’ They came out to the farm and just laughed and had the best time and she said it was just wonderful. A lot of folks have (similar stories).”
As Washington reflected on the past two-and-a-half decades, he paused, choking up.
“(The response) has been overwhelming, people just talking about bringing the kids out, bringing the families out,” he said, wiping away tears. “It’s been special. We’ve been doing this for 26 years, so when you look at leaving something that big behind, that’s hard too. We’re known as the strawberry people — for a quarter of a century, people have known us as the strawberry people. But all the comments of, ‘hate to see you go, we love your strawberries, we’ve been bringing our kids out there,’ it makes you feel like you did something good.”
Though the Washingtons said they are sad to let go of the strawberries, they’ll still be around, Washington said.
“We’ll still have our fall farm. That’s another hundred hours a week right there, so we’re not completely quitting — we’ll still have plenty to do,” Washington said laughing. “But our motto has been ‘making memories at Washington Farms,’ and we know that we’ve done that.”