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April 23, 2017
Covington County grower Willis Thames touts the commercial potential of the native mayhaw berry
Willis Thames is happy to talk about the mayhaw jelly he produces—but not because he aims to sell more jars. He wants to encourage others to plant mayhaw trees to take advantage of a growing market.
“You would not believe the demand for the mayhaw berries and juice and trees,” Thames said.
The tart berries are not eaten fresh but processed into other products, such as jellies, jams, syrup, punch and wine. Some companies are seeking the juice to flavor products such as ice cream and alcoholic beverages, according to the Louisiana Mayhaw Association.
Though mayhaw jelly is nothing new to southerners, who enjoy it smeared on hot biscuits, appreciation for its fruity flavor seems to be spreading beyond the region.
“Mayhaw jelly is starting to be known outside the South. [Sales] are growing unbelievably, especially around Christmas,” Thames said.
Commercial mayhaw production has been spurred in part by aggressive marketing efforts and research into the cultivation and use of the mayhaw berry.
The mayhaw tree is a thorny hawthorn found in swamps and river bottoms across the deep South. In the past, collecting wild mayhaw berries meant using nets to scoop them from the water.
“I’ve always been interested in growing anything, and I’ve always loved mayhaws,” Thames said. “But growing up, there were just a couple of places around here that you could find them and gather them—if you could get permission to get on the place.”
Through the efforts of researchers, mayhaw trees have moved from the swamps into backyards and orchards, like Thames’.
“Probably 30 years ago, there was a handful of people who liked mayhaws and wanted to try to get them going [in orchards],” he said.
New grafted cultivars enable orchard owners to select for the characteristics they want, such as blooming time, thorns or thornless, and berry color.
A few named hybrids have been developed for commercial production.
Commercial mayhaw orchards can be found from Texas to Georgia, yet only about a half-dozen exist in Mississippi, all in the southern counties.
“Overall, growing fruit is a demanding endeavor and one that the grower must commit to with good management,” said Dr. Eric T. Stafne, associate extension/research professor and fruit crops specialist at the University of Mississippi.
“Mayhaws are native in our region, so they grow well, but they do require time and care,” Stafne said.
“The only problem as far as disease or insects that I have is what they call quince rust. There’s no cure for it but the prevention is easy,” Thames said.
He begins spraying the trees with a fungicide just before the first blooms emerge in late February.
A member of Southern Pine Electric, Thames is the owner of Big Swamp Creek Farm, near Seminary. Five generations of his family, including his own three children, have lived in this area of Covington County.
Thames planted his first 15 mayhaw trees to enjoy as a retirement hobby.
“I was thinking I needed something to do when I retired, so I just kept planting and planting. Actually, now it’s more than a hobby,” he said.
His orchard peaked at some 600 trees before Hurricane Katrina destroyed about a quarter of the orchard in 2005.
When he advertised his mayhaw products, people from across Mississippi and Louisiana responded. “I could not believe how many people were calling from everywhere, wanting juice or jelly or berries. The next year, I didn’t advertise and I still got calls,” Thames said.
The farm’s five-acre orchard now consists of some 300 trees in 10 wild varieties.
With the help of his wife Vivian, who passed away recently, Thames has produced as much as 9,000 pounds of berries. She enjoyed keeping the orchard and farm mowed, and growing vegetables.
Thames hasn’t sold berries for the past two years, choosing instead to make jelly despite repeated requests for large orders of juice.
Shoppers can find his Big Swamp Creek brand of mayhaw jelly, or a private-label version, at some 20 retailers across south Mississippi.
“We probably sell 400 cases a year, something like that,” he said.
The mayhaw berries start ripening in April and continue through May.
Using a long pole, Thames knocks the ripened berries from the limbs onto a tarp stretched across a frame of PVC pipe. It’s not the best arrangement, he concedes; harvesting berries efficiently is a challenge for small family farms that can’t afford the costly equipment used by large tree-fruit producers.
The harvested berries are sorted, washed and stored in a walk-in freezer. Freezing softens the berries, making them easier to squeeze, and boosts their juice production.
In a kitchen devoted to jelly making, Thames loads the berries into a bladder press to extract the juice. After straining, the juice is frozen in gallon containers until needed for jelly.
A jelly-making sessions begins with boiling the thawed juice with sugar and pectin in a large electric kettle. Once poured into hot, clean jars, the jelly is left to gel for two days before delivery to the farm’s wholesale customers.
Thames plans to have grafted mayhaw trees ready for sale beginning in the late fall. He recently erected a 22-by-96-foot high-tunnel greenhouse to shelter some 2,000 seedling trees he bought for grafting.
The seedlings grow in plastic pots for a year before Thames grafts them with help from his son Chris.
Grafting a seedling takes the guesswork out of predicting its bloom time, berry color and other characteristics when mature.
“I like to graft them so I know exactly what they will make,” he said.
Thames is grafting some of the newer mayhaw varieties that bloom and produce berries later in the spring, making them suitable for areas prone to late spring frosts.
What he’d like to do, he admits, is sell only grafted trees and juice. “But every time I mention this to our [jelly] customers, they just go berserk,” he said.
For information on all aspects of commercial mayhaw production, visit the Louisiana Mayhaw Association on the web at mayhaw.org. LMA is hosting its 22nd annual Mayhaw Conference on April 8 in Alexandria, La. Willis Thames can be reached by email at BigSwampFarm@aol.com or by phone at 601-722-4612.
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