BY VENI FIELDS
VIRGINIA BEACH — Naturally the sky would open up. And the truck would break down. And the wind would just about blow a gale.
Curtains of rain poured over wide, green and white awnings on Friday, April 22, the afternoon of Cullipher Farm Market’s grand opening weekend in the open-air store at 1065 First Colonial Road that was Stoney’s until the end of last year. The storm toppled small, hand-lettered chalkboard signs sprinkled throughout carts and plats of flowers, herbs and produce along the edges of the oyster shell parking lot.
Six generations of Culliphers know well that the things no human can control are part and parcel of the family business.
Jane Cullipher smiled as she said it: “You go with the flow.”
Jane is married to Mike, the son of Louis, whose great-great grandparents began the family legacy in Bertie, N.C., and Knotts Island, N.C., a couple of hundred years ago.
Stories are passed down. Names are passed down. So are traditions with roots that grow deep and branches that spread across Northeastern North Carolina and Southeastern Virginia.
With George Washington Cullipher, born in 1850, is where most of them begin.
Back then it was subsistence farming, where families lived on what they raised in crops and livestock. The men farmed. Their wives and daughters taught school. The teaching salaries, Louis said, helped subsidize the farms.
Commodity or commercial farming came during the next generation. James B. Cullipher and his three sons raised tobacco, peanuts and cotton, along with feed crops for their working animals.
The next, Louis’s father, James E., began “truck farming” after World War II. The term comes from farmers selling their products to buyers at markets in Norfolk from the back of trucks he said were larger than pickups, smaller than 18-wheelers. That first produce included sweet potatoes and tomatoes.
Since Louis Cullipher’s birth in 1935, the farms have grown into a patchwork that includes around 300 acres that has added more than two dozen additional fruit and vegetable crops and transitioned from wholesale to almost exclusively retail. With the addition of the First Colonial Road market, the family’s produce sells at four satellite locations, in addition to its “stand” on Princess Anne Road in Pungo.
Because of the family’s commitment to education and the advent of agritourism as a way to achieve it, Cullipher farms include mazes, wagon rides and instructional play activities on their property and at events during different times of the year.
“I want to live a long time,” Louis told a reporter upon his retirement from his second government position, “because I’ve got a lot to do.”
To say that he has done a lot is vastly understated. With a degree in soil science from NC State University in Raliegh, he spent almost 30 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service, and more than a dozen years as Virginia Beach’s director of agriculture.
Also while raising with his wife, Becky, two daughters – Pam and Kim, who have carried on the teaching tradition – and coaching his son, Mike, in the family’s historic calling.
They call it “coming back” when a family member returns to farming full time from another career. Louis came back in 2001. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in agronomy from North Carolina State and working as an environmental engineer for the Virginia Department of Transportation for over a decade, Mike did as well, around the same time.
He credits Jane.
“She knew this is what I really wanted to do,” Mike said. “One of her favorite sayings is that this is not a dress rehearsal. You only get one life.” Jane didn’t want him to wait until he was older and look back and say he wished he had, Mike said, so they planned for two years, then Mike started farming full time with his father.
At different times, both men have been awarded by the city for “Excellence in Agriculture” — formerly called “Man of the Year,” and participated in numerous agriculture-related organizations.
Throughout the farm’s evolution from mule-driven plows to a complete cyber presence on social media, a web site, and videos online, the foundation and most important aspects of the business for the Culliphers have remained constant.
“It’s family, 100 percent,” Mike Cullipher said. “It’s ingrained in us, and my father always said that behind every tomato and every strawberry is a story. That’s true for all of us [farmers], and it’s important for us to tell our story and let people know what that story is.”
At each of the Cullipher’s locations, parts of that story are evident from floors to rafters, in tools and equipment used in past generations. They hang from beams and walls and refrigerators, along with small galleries of photos framed on tables, and at First Colonial Road, tilted under former potato washers now stacked with fresh produce.
In Kelly green tee shirts with the family’s new white tractor logo on the back, a small force of friends and family members – representing three generations of Culliphers – darted between customers and displays, righting things the wind had knocked over. They rang up purchases, restocked shelves. They showed people around the new place, answering questions and chatting until the rain slowed down.
Outside, at the far end of the parking lot, a white pickup truck with fogged windows sat near a large pile of soft sand Mike had brought over for the children’s area that will be like the one outside the stand on Princess Anne Road in Pungo. Inside the truck, Louis Cullipher waited in damp trousers and plaid shirt.
“Becky and I pretty much go where we’re needed now,” he said. While his successors handled the customers on a rainy April Friday, he dashed back and forth between his truck and a difficult patch of the drive he wanted to smooth out. Where he might be later would be anyone’s guess.
As the rain stopped, the truck door opened, and Louis Cullipher stepped out with his shovel.
The new Cullipher Farm Market is located at 1065 First Colonial. Call (757) 481-2346 or visit CullipherFarm.com for more information.
© 2016 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC