A little more than a year after Atlanta-based popsicle company King of Pops bought Daniell's Nursery, a long-standing landmark in the Fairplay community, bright red strawberries began to poke through newly tilled earth.
A stone’s throw south of Highway 166 and Post Road, the land was once harvested and cared for by the late Ira Daniell, his son Gene Daniell, and Gene’s children, who took horticulture classes at Douglas County High School in the 1970s and inspired the nursery. The Daniells, who mostly sold landscaping plants in bulk to Wal-Mart, local folks and other stores sold the property to the Carse brothers May 12, 2014.
“My hope was that it could continue the way that my brother, Tim, and dad had just made so much progress with it and taken it so far,” said Gene Daniell’s daughter, Sherry Daniell McKinley. “I just hated to lose that, I guess, because the roots were so deep. I just hated to cut them off.”
Today, King of Pops Co-owner and Founder Steven Carse continues to grow azaleas, ferns and marigolds like the Daniells as well as fresh produce to make popsicles. Strawberries, mint, basil, lavender and thyme are among plants currently growing.
“That’s where we’re growing produce for the pops,” Carse said pointing to the farm, which is nested past three ponds at the rear of the property. “But even that initially will be a mixture … You can’t snap your fingers and start growing fruit, so these are things that you can grow more quickly. The emphasis will be on fruit, long-term, but we’ve kind of got to work up to it.”
Made in the company's main production kitchen in Atlanta’s Inman Park, most of the popsicles are made of about three to five natural ingredients which are either muddled, mashed or blended together and sweetened with agave, cane sugar and honey, Carse said. The milk-based and fruit-based treats come in an assortment of exotic flavors such as tangerine basil and blackberry ginger lemonade.
“(The popsicle flavors) are inspired by cocktails or different deserts around the world or any old thing,” Carse said. “We have these large freezers that freeze them in about 30 minutes instead of six hours, so we’re able to make them a lot quicker.”
King of Pops currently buys its ingredients from dozens of local markets in the South, a practice Carse said will continue and be supplemented by the produce yielded by the company’s farm in south Douglas County.
OLD LAND, NEW LAND, SAME LAND
About eight part-time and full-time employees work at the nursery and farm at 6960 Post Road in Winston including 29-year-old Russell Honderd.
“I like to call myself a popsicle farmer,” Honderd, the farm’s production manager, said with a chuckle.
Honderd said it was no easy task to condition the soil, which has less than 2 percent organic matter — something not needed for nurseries.
“Running a nursery and running a farm are two very different things,” Honderd said. “In a nursery, everything’s grown outside of the ground. In a farm, we’re trying to grow everything in the ground.”
To create nutrient-rich soil, waste from the company’s kitchen is transported to the farm for composting. In addition to gathering horse manure from local farms, King of Pops uses leftover grains from Second Self Brewing Company to help with the process.
“(Composting) is a great way to take what is generally considered a waste product, something that might be going to a landfill, and turning it into a rich soil amendment to help get that soil organic matter up and make the microbes happy that grow our food,” Honderd said. “It takes a while, but that’s valuable soil that we’ll be creating and that’s something that we really need.”
Some produce grown on the farm is sold to Atlanta area restaurants. Honderd said the company is looking to potentially sell some to restaurants in Douglas County, too.
Honderd, who has been caring for the farm since January, said he gets something more for doing his job than a paycheck.
“Farming can be a very productive act of healing and … I think this property is a really great example of that in terms of what we’re going to be doing and focusing on,” Honderd said. “(We’re) bringing life back to the soil and making sure that we’re developing and building and creating a property that’s free of poisons (and) free of synthetic chemicals. It’s a way we can produce something that we can sell or share that people need (and) that’s healthy for people (and) healthy for the community economically, physically, environmentally.”
Decades ago, when McKinley was a student at West Georgia College, she said she’d grown tomatoes in the same soil.
“I had a little route and a truck with a camper top on it, and I sold one gallon tomato plants to help with my college,” said McKinley, who retired after 34 years of teaching kindergartners and first-graders at South Douglas Elementary School. “Every summer for years I worked at the nursery ... because I was off and poor.”
McKinley, who still lives in Fairplay just a few lots away from her old stomping grounds, still visits the farm to check out what’s growing, reminisce and chat with some new friends.
“I go down there frequently to look what’s been done,” McKinley said. “(My dad) would be pleased to see that someone took over and is going to continue the legacy that he and (my brother) Tim started.”
McKinley said her favorite popsicle flavor is chocolate sea salt.
“I could eat those continuously,” she said.
YESTERDAY'S GARDEN TODAY
Along with its fresh produce for pops, greenhouses plants and fresh cut flowers, King of Pops is currently working with the University of Georgia Extension Office to grow what are called a edible landscapes.
“It’s basically people making ornamental vegetable gardens in their backyards,” Nursery Manager Peter Calabrese explained. “Instead of planting a hedge of privet, you plant a hedge of blueberries. They’re a gorgeous plant (with) beautiful fall color and you get buckets of berries off of them. So, that includes fruit trees. … Turn everyone’s yard into a foraging station.”
Eventually, Calabrese said King of Pops will offer designs and plants for people to take home and build their own do-it-yourself edible garden.
The nurseries are currently stocked with plants typically found in greenhouses but Calabrese said King of Pops will gear toward heirlooms and hearty native varieties in the future, like, “The good ole plants that you found in your grandma’s yard,” Calabrese said. “'Yesterday’s garden today' is how one person at a similar nursery put it.”
Folks come by the property throughout the day, buying Knockout Roses, Zinnias and more without knowing it’s no longer Daniell’s Nursery. Carse doesn't seem to mind.
“A lot of people still think it’s Daniell’s Nursery, for sure,” Carse said. “Which is fine. It doesn’t really matter. I’d like for them to come and then eventually become our customers, you know?”
Carse decided to go into the popsicle business with his two brothers about five years ago after he’d been laid off from American International Group, Inc., according to the company’s website.
“We kind of wanted to be an example of vertical integration and a commitment to sustainable farming,” Carse said of his company. “(The farm/popsicle idea) is a way to kind of get the community more involved in seeing how their food is created. It’s pretty important to us. We have a unique way of doing it because, a lot of times when you go to a farmer’s market, if you’re not necessarily in that scene it can be kind of intimidating, I guess. But the people who buy popsicles, that’s just an easy and fun thing. We kind of can build their trust that way and then they come out and have fun and they learn and see what we’re doing. It’s more of sharing this with the community (and) having everyone get involved and, also, growing great fruit for our pops as well.”