Strawberry fields provided respite for teens on the run

Last updated: April 16. 2014 9:04AM - 1609 Views
By Kevin Boozer kboozer@civitasmedia.com

Shelby Lever tastes fruit of the vine on a Thursday afternoon the week before the stand opened.
Shelby Lever tastes fruit of the vine on a Thursday afternoon the week before the stand opened.
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POMARIA — The four Tennessee teenagers who kept law enforcement at bay for nearly 10 hours on April 3 didn’t know that the strawberry farm they chose to stop at was founded on a deep belief in God’s plan but its owners — Todd and Lynette Lever — are firm believers that God is what helped lead them there.

When the teens were finally apprehended, several had pockets full of the season’s first berrries, a bit underripe but full of sugar and nutrition for the four.

As the Levers look back on that afternoon, he and his wife, members of Morris Chapel Southern Methodist Church, see providential timing at work.

Lynnette, a school nurse at Pomaria-Garmany Elementary School, said she believes fatigue and dehydration set in.

From the edge of the field, the four teenagers saw an irrigation well and a strawberry field, which Todd said must have looked like an oasis on such a hot day.

They had made their way through hilly, swampy country and up a woods trail and from tracks he saw later, Todd realized the teens positioned a ladder from an old deer stand to scale the garden fence and drink from the spigot.

Just before Todd spotted them, he was out on his four-wheeler turning on the timer switch on the well. That gave the teens access to water.

Lynnette believes that with mouths no longer parched and with a cool place to stop and rest, the teens had a heaven-sent opportunity to decide to surrender.

“With that manhunt (conclusion),” Lynnette said, “it shows a greater being is in control with the way the pieces fit.”

As the teens and Todd Lever encountered one another, their daughter Shelby was on her knees in her fifth-grade classroom praying that her daddy would be kept safe.

Little did she know that Todd had just spotted the SLED helicopter — the first time he had seen it all day — then spotted the teens and called 911. Within minutes the helicopter changed course and appeared overhead.

“Our farm gave law enforcement a landmark to use to direct the helicopter,” he said. “They were looking for a way out (at that point) I think. I don’t think they were looking to hurt anyone else.”

Sacred space

The family farm, sacred space to the Levers, is a landmark in the community and draws people from North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to buy berries.

A family trip to a Beaufort strawberry farm when her daughter was just a year old was a defining moment for Lynnette. As she knelt in the field and picked berries, she said she felt God was calling her and her husband to farm strawberries themselves.

They researched the agri-business with Extension agents from South Carolina and with faculty like Barclay Poland at N.C. State. It turned out their family land, much of which has a heavy base of sandy soil, is perfect for strawberries.

The more they learned about the high value crop, the more Lynette had faith that a still, small voice was leading them.

Todd clear cut four acres, and within three years, the Levers had picked up every rock and big stick that would impede strawberries.

The family sold its camper to pay for the supplies for the first planting of berries, including extensive drip irrigation and plasti-culture, a layer of plastic that cuts down on the amount of weeds that grow among the berries. They learned to use row covers for frost protection. The farm grew and they began selling berries.

They buy 3,000 plants each year from Eric Hunter at Hunter Farms Strawberry Farm in Easley. They plant three varieties — the standard Chandlers, Camarosa, and a few hundred plants of Benecia, a new variety.

Planting takes at least six people — four people riding the tractor with the transplanter machine, one person walking behind to check the rows and one person driving.

It’s a risky business. Plants are vulnerable to too much rain or not enough. Hail can destroy crops as can cold.

If the temperature drops below 35 degrees and the plants have blooms, the plants must be covered. If they have not bloomed the temperature must reach the teens before the ground and plants need to be covered.

At 8,000 linear feet per acre, Todd said it is about one and half miles to walk all the rows to pull off winter kill plus the weeding between the plants must be done by hand.

They also plant around 800 tomatoes, including heirloom, Amelia and another variety suited for canning, and other garden vegetables, double crop strawberry rows with cantaloupes after the berry season is done and have blackberries and blueberries for sale.

He plants rye grass between the rows to prevent erosion in the off season then sprays the grass to kill it in preparation for berry season.

“We work for nine months and then have about six weeks to earn our living,” Todd said. “The flavor is the main thing, especially for a small farm.”

Lever Farms is also a member of Certified SC Grows, a movement to encourage people to buy local produce from local farms.

Only workers in God’s field

All labor is supplied by the Levers with Todd’s parents lending a hand from time to time. Most of the 92 acres were owned by his great-grandfather, though only about eight of those acres are currently farmed.

“We are only the workers in this field. We can plant it and water it but we can’t do anything to make it grow,” Lynnette said. “The Lord gives knowledge but this is His field.”

Some work happens at the county career center where son Will takes an agriculture and natural resources course. As part of that course, taught by Josh Waters, Will started the farm’s tomato plants in the career center greenhouse.

Will also is doing a school project comparing the yields from 25 strawberry plants of each variety, which he picks every other day.

Will insisted they expand into peaches so they are trying five varieties now on a patch of land that was not suitable for strawberries.

With his father’s help, these peach trees should be ready to produce by the time he graduates Mid-Carolina High School. He plans to complete that coursework and study the agriculture program at Piedmont Technical College.

Lure of the berries

Lynnette said the manhunt hit close to home since the teens were about Will’s age.

“We have spent time in this field kneeling and praying as a family,” Lynnette said, “praying over the field to give thanks, too, not just to pray for rain. We truly are servants in the Lord’s field. He uses us to accomplish His will and His glory.”

She said the family was praying for the families of the fugitives that Thursday as well as the four teens.

Their flight reminded her of an old Cherokee legend. According to legend, strawberries were a gift from the sun that so enticed the first man and first woman to resolve their first argument. The woman had run away but stopped in a field to gather berries. Her husband found her there and they reconciled over berries.

Now Lever Farms has its own legend of sorts about the lure of the berries.

Though Todd Lever is quick to credit law enforcement with doing all the work, who knows how April 3 might have ended without the lure of Lever strawberries?

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