By Susan Marquez
Jeff Brown and Don van der Werken both have agricultural backgrounds and a love of farming. Dedicated to a healthier way of life, they began researching blueberry farming. “We were living in New Orleans and looking for a piece of property,” recalls Don. “We found an ad in a real estate rag for a piece of raw land in southern Mississippi, and we learned it had once been a test site for blueberries. We decided we would give it a go.”
The two started JD Farms in 2008. The soil and climate in the Poplarville area are ideal for growing blueberries, and their crop has done well. In addition to bulk blueberries, they began making products such as blueberry lemonade, blueberry juice, pies and more.
Then one day, Don was listening to a gardening show on Mississippi Public Broadcasting called the “Gestalt Gardener.” The show’s host, horticulturist Felder Rushing, mentioned that Poplarville had, at one time, been a research center for camellias. “We were looking for another crop, so we decided to plant camellias.”
You may be wondering why Jeff and Don chose camelias as a crop. It’s because the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant are harvested for tea. “I talked to some other local folks and learned that Lipton Tea once had a research center here in the 1950s,” says Don. Just as the soil and climate are ideal for growing blueberries, it is the same for growing tea. “The plants are really hearty,” says Don. “The deer don’t eat it, and for the most part, pests don’t bother it.”
Don and Jeff turned to Mississippi State University to help with tea research. “We knew how to grow it, but we didn’t know how to process it. As luck would have it, MSU had a visiting professor from China who was a tea expert. He spent time with us and showed us how to make tea. We ordered our tea processing equipment from China, and now we produce green tea, blends with green tea and fermented black tea.”
When making their blueberry juices and lemonades, there is a lot of pulp left over. “I knew there had to be something we could do with it,” Don says. A side story is that they found an old coffee mill and grinder from a roasting operation in Kiln, Mississippi, that was destroyed by Katrina. “It was basically bits and pieces, but we bought it and got it working. We dried the blueberry pulp in big pizza ovens and added it to coffee beans we bought from New Orleans and roasted in-house. Now we offer blueberry coffee, and people love it.”
They also add the blueberry pulp to a mixture of whole wheat, oatmeal and eggs to make dog treats. “The treats are safe for human consumption, but we don’t add sugar, so few people would like to eat them. However, dogs love them.”
Currently, JD Farms has 14 acres of blueberries and four acres of tea. They also grow pears, peaches and mayhaws. Tours of the farm are given by appointment. “We haven’t done as
many tours because of Covid, but we do welcome groups,” says Don. “We have to do it by appointment only; however, because we are a working farm. We have had garden clubs, civic organizations and other groups come over the years, and everyone seems to enjoy it.”
Along the way, Jeff and Don have acquired a bakery inherited from a neighbor who passed away. They offer blueberry muffins, pies, scones and more, including German stollen during the holidays. “We follow the seasons,” Don says. Products produced on the farm can be purchased through their website, JDFarms.us, as well as at area farmers’ markets and various festivals.