Produce vendor says sales are good so far this summer

By Dale Short, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 7/3/16

It’s early morning at a produce stand alongside Old Highway 78. At the long tin-roofed counter backed with blue tarps, a man is busy unloading baskets of fresh vegetables from his pickup. There are no customers yet, but most likely it’s the calm …

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Produce vendor says sales are good so far this summer

Posted

It’s early morning at a produce stand alongside Old Highway 78. At the long tin-roofed counter backed with blue tarps, a man is busy unloading baskets of fresh vegetables from his pickup. There are no customers yet, but most likely it’s the calm before the storm.

“Afternoons between about dinnertime and six o’clock are the busiest,” says proprietor Johnny Bircheat. “I’ve got probably a hundred regular customers.” But that number swells on holiday weekends such as this one. “A few years ago around the Fourth of July we went through 800 pounds of tomatoes.”

Bircheat, a Berry native whose stand is adjacent to Eastgate Plaza, has farming in his blood. His employment has come full circle. “I started working in the field when I was about 10,” he says. “Then my parents moved to Jasper in 1971, and I started selling produce in Birmingham. Then I drove a truck for a while, and now I’m back here into produce again.”People want good merchandise. They don’t want any of this junk you find. A lot of people go buy their groceries at a store, and then come by on the way home and get their fresh stuff from me.”

Bircheat, who gets questions about his last name, says it’s understandable: “If you meet anybody with my name, they’re kin to me,” he says. “There’s only one family of us.”

He gets some of his merchandise from wholesale suppliers, but much of it he grows himself: okra, squash, cucumbers, and peppers. His tomatoes will be coming along in another week or two. In the meantime, he picks out the best ones he can find from suppliers, mostly in Georgia and on Sand Mountain. Bircheat used to raise cantaloupe, he says, but he’s given up on it. “There’s something wrong with Alabama cantaloupes. I haven’t had a good one in six or seven years. They taste like bitterweed to me.” He buys his cantaloupes from Florida right now, selling between 50 and 75 in an average week, but expects markets in Kentucky and Tennessee to crank up any time now. ”Texas used to grow good watermelons,” he says, “but with all the floods they’ve had, I don’t know if they’re going to have much of a crop or not.” He currently gets most of his from Slocomb, Alabama, and from Florida. Chilton County and Georgia continue to have the very best clear-seed peaches, he says. His own crop “is doing pretty good this year. I’m not hurting for rain right now, but we need one pretty soon. I’m just hoping.” He laughs. “If worse comes to worst, maybe I can call the fire department to come dump some water on my garden.”

Some people in retail sales get burnout with customers, but Bircheat’s not one of them. “It doesn’t get on my nerves,” he says. “I enjoy talking with folks. My wife says, ‘You talk a customer to death,’ but there are lots of people who come in and sit around to talk.”

He even learns a lot in the process, he says. One customer told him he always saves one watermelon for Christmas Day. “Believe it or not, he says he wraps one in newspaper and puts it in his basement where it’s cool and dark. And on Christmas morning it tastes as fresh as if you went to the field and picked it.”

Bircheat is somewhat of a connoisseur when it comes to vegetables, because they’re his favorite food. As to his choice of the ideal vegetable plate, he had the combination just a few days ago. “We had baked sweet potatoes, boiled new potatoes, fried green tomatoes, and cornbread for supper. Other people wanted steak, but I told them just to give mine to the dog. I’d take vegetables.”

As for light meals, he says tomatoes fill the bill. “When you’ve been out in the heat all day, you don’t want a heavy meal for supper. What I do is cut up some tomatoes, put salt and pepper on them, and go sit in my recliner and watch television.”

Though several weeks remain in the growing season, Bircheat says he’s already planning ahead. “Right now everything’s going real good for us. But what I hope to do is sit here through the winter and sell Christmas trees. Have a Santa Claus down here. Have some hot chocolate. Maybe a little fire out back where kids can roast marshmallows while their parents are hunting for trees.”

He wipes sweat and waves at a customer who’s just driven up. “At least that’s my plan.”

Dale Short’s email address is dale.short@gmail.com