Scott County farmer David Mann is as Virginia grown as the strawberries and other produce hand-picked and distributed area-wide from his several hundred acres of farmland located on either side of the Clinch River.
He heads his own produce venture, Mann Farms, as a part of Century Farms, which has been family-owned and operated since its establishment in 1842. A farmer like his dad and granddad before him, the Gate City-raised Mann didn't seriously consider the occupation until the age of 19.
“When I was in high school, I never thought about farming,” he admitted.
The young Mann attended East Tennessee State University and then Mountain Empire Community College for a year and a half before deciding to get back to his roots.
“Then, I just kind of started hanging out with my granddad [while he farmed] and it just kind of snowballed from there,” David Mann said.
Since that time, the farmer has worked in dairy and produce alike, planting and picking his own fruit and vegetables for years before building the self-sustaining business he owns today.
Mann Farms is a family operation, true to its name. David's entire family assists in the day-to-day running of the company: Wife and business partner, Judy, and daughters, Amanda and Jacy, help sell produce at Mann Farms in Fort Blackmore, Va.; his mother operates the company's single strawberry stand in Weber City, Va.; and his 94-year-old father, as David put, “farms all the time and helps me.”
Judy and David Mann agree self-employment has as many benefits as drawbacks.
“I like being my own boss, theoretically,” David said. His wife countered, but, “Everything is on your head [and it's] kind of scary at times.”
The husband and wife met when David Mann gave Judy a ride one day across the river near the bluff where he was working on a dairy farm at the time.
David had an old farming truck and “there was no floorboard, the passenger side had rusted out,” Judy Mann recounted with a hearty laugh. “And, I was in love, I guess.”
“It was the truck,” David Mann added, grinning.
The two were friends for five years before dating and have been together the past 20 years since. Their first crop revenue came around the same time, from five acres of tomatoes David planted himself and, being a good year for the fruit, they turned a nice profit.
It hasn't always been easy to make a living, though. The couple was met with struggle in the farming industry for another 12 years, selling produce at a roadside stand and even from a barn, before developing a partnership with their present host distributor, Food City. Mann Farms supply six of the local chain stores with strawberries and all Food City stores (over 100) with seasonal produce like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, beans and zucchini.
Although the purpose of their involvement in the local farming community is inevitably “to make a good living,” the Mann family agrees that the people they meet and the time they spend together have been the real driving force behind the longevity of Mann Farms.
The eldest Mann daughter, 27-year-old Amanda, said she plans to carry on the family tradition by working in the business for the rest of her life. Her younger sister, 21-year-old Jacy, however, plans to attend college in pursuit of a counseling degree.
In the wake of summer and peak strawberry season, the Mann Farms Weber City strawberry stand and their main warehouse located adjacent to their strawberry fields at 11005 Veterans Memorial Highway in Fort Blackmore are abuzz with excitement.
“This time of year, everybody gets really excited about the strawberries,” Amanda Mann explained.
Locals from Southwest Virginia, out-of-towners and peddlers (looking to buy in bulk for resale) from as far as Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia flock to the two sites in quest of the plump red berries the Mann name is known for.
“We're a destination,” David Mann said.
Although, the family no longer has to plant and pick their own crops (they have 30 workers who primarily perform the manual labor), David still does all the spraying.
“I like getting out on the tractor, myself,” he said. “You can get a lot of thinking done on a tractor.”
For more information about Mann Farms, visit them on Facebook or call 276-995-1000.
Fresh from the Farm is a weekly summer series featuring farmers and producers from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. To suggest a local farmer or producer, email Sunday Stories' editor Carmen Musick at email@example.com.