Lilley Farms grows community

Published 4:31 pm Wednesday, May 16, 2018

One morning in early April, the only red things in the strawberry fields with Carolyn Lilley at her family’s farm on Tyre Neck Road are the ladybugs — a welcome sight, because they eat the pests.

Yet the calls are starting to come fast and furious to her phone. “When does strawberry season start?” the excited callers ask.
It’s not uncommon to get calls about picking strawberries year-round, Lilley said — she’ll get at least one call per month, no matter the season. But the calls ramp up at the first sign of warm weather, and they don’t slow down for weeks.

Lilley Farms has been a fixture in Western Branch for nearly 100 years. The family will celebrate the farm’s 100th year and apply to become a Virginia Century Farm in 2019.

Carolyn Lilley examines the young strawberry plants in the family’s field off Tyre Neck Road in early April.

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And although they’ve only been growing strawberries for the better part of two decades, the sweet red berries from Lilley Farms have become a spring tradition for many in the area.

“Mother’s Day is crazy,” Carolyn Lilley said. “That is a tradition. People want to come out with their mothers, and then they all have strawberry shortcake.”

The strawberry season generally runs about six weeks starting near the end of April and attracts thousands to the family’s fields on Tyre Neck Road and on Bennetts Pasture Road in Suffolk. Visitors can pick their own or purchase pre-picked berries, as well as strawberry jam.

But although strawberry season is a small part of the year, the farmers are busy with the berries starting in September, when they prepare the fields and plant strawberries that will take root and then lie dormant over the winter. They break through the soil, depending on the weather, in February or March.

The farmers watch closely for signs of frost after the plants flower, as frost will kill the berries before they even form. On nights when there is frost danger, they get up every hour to check on the plants and turn on the irrigation system that will protect the blooms.

Even once spring is really here, the strawberries are in danger from hail or hard rain.

Carolyn Lilley is glad to see ladybugs on a strawberry flower — they eat pests.

“Especially when the berries are ripe and you have hail or thunderstorms, even a hard rain can bruise the fruit,” said Jimmy Lilley, one of the three brothers who, with their wives and children, comprise the farming family. “But at the same time, we never talk bad about rain. You only have eight weekends in that six weeks. If it keeps people from coming to the field or does damage to the crop, either one, it can be a real bad situation.”

Rain can really put a damper on the strawberry season, especially since it seems the rain only comes on the weekend around these parts.

“I’m not a gambler, because my whole life is a gamble,” Jimmy Lilley said. “That’s what agriculture is, because there’s so many variables that you don’t have any control over.”

The Lilleys have always diversified their farming business to fight against the fickle whims of Mother Nature. Rufus and Minnie Lilley came in 1919 and bought the farm on Tyre Neck Road from the Mackes and the Wards. The farm started with hogs and also over the years grew grain, corn, wheat and soybeans frequently. Potatoes, peanuts, oats, rye and cotton have been rotated in occasionally.

To Rufus and Minnie Lilley were born Ralph, James, Chester, R.C. and Eloise. The three brothers who currently operate the farm, Jimmy, Larry and Jerry, are James’ sons. Some of their children are involved, too, making it a fourth-generation farming family so far.

“Most every subdivision on this side of the Churchland Bridge we planted at one time or another before it was developed,” Jimmy Lilley said. That goes for most of the Chesapeake Square area and what’s now Harbour View, as well. “At one time or another we leased it from farmers that were retired or developers that were waiting to develop — never all at once.”

The family has also diversified into the tree business and grows a dizzying array of varieties of trees, which it sells with ball-and-burlap to wholesalers and landscapers up and down the East Coast.

This year will also be its third year of a pumpkin patch open to the public in the fall and offering you-pick pumpkins and gourds, hay rides and other fun activities.

Through it all, the closeness of the family is what keeps them together and what keeps the plants growing, to the delight of the community.

“We’ve always worked together,” Jimmy Lilley said. “We get a lot of feedback from people saying that they’re glad we’re here.”