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Bill Freehling is a business writer for The Free Lance-Star and Fredericksburg.com. This blog is on Fredericksburg-area business. Send an e-mail to Bill Freehling.
Engineer turns talents to Caroline blackberry farm
Starting a business always carries some risk of failure. But for Brent Elam, the worst-case scenario for his Caroline County venture doesn’t sound so bad.
“If the whole thing fails miserably, I’ll have plenty of blackberries for jam and cobbler,” said Elam, who owns and operates the Moss Mill Berry Farm with his two grown daughters.
Elam is a civil engineer who has worked in public works for Caroline and Spotsylvania counties for more than 30 years. He is director of the Spotsylvania utility department’s engineering and construction division.
During his long career Elam has designed, built and reviewed a large number of projects involving water. So in 2007 when Elam had the chance to buy an 18-acre property across Rozell Road from his home of three decades, he couldn’t resist.
The property, which is a couple of miles from where Stonewall Jackson died, fronts a 30-acre pond named after a former owner, Dalton. For centuries the water powered mills that processed corn and grain. Civil War surgeons used to have picnics by the pond.
Elam saw an opportunity to apply the skills he had learned on the job toward restoring one of the property’s long-abandoned mills. By rebuilding the mill and installing a steel water wheel he could generate electricity to be used on the property.
A closer examination revealed that the water wheel would probably generate only about four horsepower of energy, which wouldn’t result in enough savings to justify the installation cost.
Elam started thinking about what else he could do with the property, which he called Moss Mill after one of the former owners. What he came up with was blackberries, a fruit he loves. Power from the mill would be enough to pump the ground water to irrigate the crop.
Since then Elam has been slowly adding blackberry plants and branching into other fruits. Moss Mill Berry Farm now has about 40 rows of blackberries, 10 rows of raspberries, 60 blueberry plants and some apple trees. He plans to plant strawberries next year.
Last summer the crop had grown to the point that Moss Mill began opening to the public for pick-your-own berries. Elam and his daughters, Lindsey Chase and Kari Elam, also sell their berries during the summer at a farmers market in Ashland.
Kari staffs the operation from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, as well as picking and maintaining the berries. Lindsey, a second-grade teacher at Hugh Mercer Elementary School in Fredericksburg and an aspiring photographer, works on marketing the farm and bringing in groups.
Elam, who built his own house and handled much of the preliminary work on the mill, plans to also install the water wheel himself this fall. He plans to make raspberry and blackberry wine at the rebuilt mill that will be available for purchase or tasting, and stock the small adjacent body of water with catfish that visitors can catch. He’d like to convert the rental house on the property into a small bed and breakfast, and build a facility overlooking the mill for special events.
Elam won’t take out loans to develop the property. Improvements will be added slowly from money generated by the berry operation.
And that will keep Elam’s risk confined to having a large supply of blackberry-related products.