Flippens Fruit Farm is a family affair

Photos by Carolyn Ross Tomlin.
Top left, Three generations of the Flippen family, spouses and grandchildren now run the business. Bottom left, A large metal pan now holds popping corn for sale in the market. This pan was used by Mama Dan as a bassinet when her babies were small.
Right, Suzie Flippen Hoover has been selling fruit since she was five years old. She is a familiar site at the Flippen tents near busy intersections and farmers’ markets in the area.

As the patriarch of Flippens Fruit Farm & Hillbilly Barn, Jack Flippen knows that hard work, building slowly and developing a family-oriented business equals success.

A computerized label maker is attached to one of the many farm products made from the fruit.

Flippen should know. He and his wife Diane (aka Mama Dan) bought 600 apples and 300 peach trees in 1952 on credit from a Stark’s Nursery salesman who stopped by their farm. The company gave the Flippens six years to pay off the purchase, but according to Jack, “We paid them off early—much earlier than we expected.” Diane recalls him trudging through snow in hip boots to set out those trees that winter. Today, they own 175 acres in northwest Tennessee planted with 100 trees per acre for a total of 75,000 trees. People come from everywhere to buy their fruit and the products they make from the fruit. They’ve developed their own Flippen label for marketing the merchandise, which is available for online ordering.

Building a fruit business

“My family was tailgaters,” says Jack. “That’s a term for people who sell produce from the back of a truck. We would set up at roadside stands or a crossroad and peddle melons, vegetables and fruit from a few trees. And, like other farmers in the area, we raised some cotton, also.” In fact, they started the orchard business because they didn’t like dealing with cotton. “The first group of fruit trees was planted between rows of cotton—just in case the trees didn’t survive, the cotton would be there.”

At that time, Obion County, in northwest Tennessee, was filled with orchards, and the county grew more fruit than anywhere else in the state. Apples, more than anything else, were in abundance. Jack saw the potential for expanding his operation and planted more trees. However, a late spring frost in 1980 wiped out the orchards. In the meantime, Washington State, the top apple grower, had overplanted acreage and the market fell. Neighbors who had orchards were going bankrupt. Washington State continued to plant more and more apples and was becoming a major producer for the nation. Growers there added controlled atmosphere storage so they could store the apples throughout the year. This was bad news for Obion County fruit growers.

The market offers jellies, preserves, mixes and sauces from the fruit grown on the Flippen Farm. Their original label is attached to each item.

“I realized that to survive I had to diversify,” says Jack. “While considering several options, a hailstorm came just when the apples were ripe and knocked off the fruit. In despair we looked at the fallen fruit and wondered how things could get any worse? Then, Mama Dan had an idea. ‘Why not pick them up, peel the apples, freeze them  and turn them into other products?’ That decision made the difference in our success instead of our failure.”

What made a difference?

As in real estate, location is everything, and Flippen Fruit Farm is no exception. Located in Obion County in northwest Tennessee, the farm is only 3.5 miles from the 18,000-acre Reelfoot Lake, a magnet for tourists. In the winter of 1811-1812, an earthquake with a magnitude higher than ever recorded on the modern Richter scale caused the Mississippi River to flow backward and formed what is now known as Reelfoot Lake. Gaping crevices formed. With this movement of earth, 10 to 15 feet of rich topsoil was deposited and covered the land. “This is perfect for growing fruit trees,” says Hayes Flippen, one of Jack and Diane’s three children. Other than fishing and hunting, the area is known for its wintering of the American eagle. Thousands of people come to Reelfoot area just to see these magnificent birds and other cold-weather waterfowl. These tourists take a short side trip to Flippen Fruit Farm, where they purchase products made from the fruit trees.

Jack Flippen, the family patriarch, shows a biscuit cutter and talks about using their preserves and jellies on hot-butted biscuits.

Another thing that contributed to the successful fruit business was the landform in the area. When an earthquake occurs, the ground rises and falls, creating hills and valleys. Using this natural resource, Jack realized that if he built ponds and lakes near his orchards he could accomplish two things. First, water would serve as a source of irrigation during a drought; and second, he knows that hot air rises and cold air comes down. If they cleaned up the trees surrounding the lakes, the cold air wouldn’t collect along the brush and woods. In order to make the ponds deep enough, Jack used a dirt pan and bulldozer and dug the craters 15 to 40 feet deep, thus making the warm air level with the land, which would keep the chill off on cold nights.

Looking to the future

Today, the Flippens’ children, Hayes, Suzie and Pam, are partners with their parents in the business. “It’s a family operation,” says Jack. “Not only my children, but their spouses and my grandchildren are involved. As soon as our kids ‘got their wheels’ they started peddling. I told them not to come home with a truck full of fruit at 3 p.m., at least wait until 6 p.m. or so.”

All three went to college and returned to the family farm. “We knew as Flippens what our life would be,” says Pam. “We choose to be here. It’s the good life for all of us.” Suzie Flippen Hoover has been selling since age five, when she opened her first fruit stand. Hayes attended college with a major in agriculture just to get out of work on the farm. However, he returned to help out and stayed out of college until age 24. At that time, the basketball coach visited and offered him a scholarship to help salvage a losing season. The next season they went from winning three games to a victorious 18 wins.

Fresh-cut apples are always available for customers to try. Jack and Diane want customers to enjoy their shopping experience and check out the farm merchandise that is for sale.

Several years ago, Jack and Mama Dan decided to make some changes in the business. “I told my three children, I’ll give each of you one-fourth of what I have now, pay you a salary and, at the end of the year, we’ll split the profits. Some farmers make the mistake of just paying a salary.”

Other than family, employees number about 45 workers during the summer months, from June to September, and about 15 during the remainder of the year. It’s been said that Flippen’s Fruit Farm employs 25 percent of the population of the small community of Shawtown, Tenn. (population, 100). Customers demand corn, cucumbers, okra, squash, tomatoes and other summer vegetables as much as the fruit.

Jack and Diane Flippen are the only fruit tree growers left in the area. Today, they sell over 40 varieties of peaches, several varieties of apples and a few other fruits. They start with a new variety of peaches about every 10 days and continue until September, making them available at fruit stands, festivals and fairs in the vicinity. In addition, they have expanded into a pie factory, bread room, coffee shop and country store. Company-owned trucks transport peaches to surrounding states, and vendors come to the farm to supply their needs.

In addition to the fresh fruit, Mama Dan has written a cookbook of Southern recipes. In their country store, the Flippen’s label is attached to BBQ sauce, preserves, apple and peach butter, yeast bread, cookies, syrups, chow-chow relish, hush puppy and onion ring mix, pie mix and crust, as well as dried fruits. All products are either grown on the farm or come from local markets.

“Farming has changed since we first started,” says Mama Dan. “We had to learn different aspects, such as marketing and advertising. This is a constantly changing business. In the early years, our season ran from May through October, and we took the rest of the year off. Now, it’s a 12-month job and a two-week break at Christmas.”

There have been setbacks. Late spring frosts, a hailstorm in 1984 and a late Easter freeze in 2007 destroyed 100 percent of the crop, which meant buying fruit from southern Alabama. Then, in December of 2005, a fire consumed a large building filled with tractors and other equipment. In spite of adversity, the Flippen family regrouped and survived these challenges.

For the Flippen family, success comes from treating people like you want to be treated. “Integrity is important in life, and it’s vital to running a business,” says Jack.

For more information on Flippen’s Fruit Farm, call 731-538-2933 or visit www.flippenhillbillybarn.com .

Carolyn Ross Tomlin is a writer based in Jackson, Tenn.

Insects and Fertilizer

Steve Killion, Pam’s husband and son-in-law of Jack and Diane Flippen, is in charge of the orchards. “So many of the products for insects and fertilizer have been eliminated, and we have to find other chemicals that will take care of the problems we face,” says Killion.

Insecticides:
• Warrior—the main insecticide used
• Imidan
• Endosolfin
• Lorsban

Fertilizer:
Killion takes a soil sample each year to access the necessary chemicals for that year. This is a free service from whomever he buys products from. He uses a blend including ammonia nitrate with 2.5 pounds of nitrogen per tree on a full crop year. Due to the spring freeze, with no fruit on trees, only .5 pound of nitrogen was used per tree. He also adds phosphorus, potassium and trace elements.