Mike Burnette has lost his farmer’s tan these days, but he draws on his years in the field as he picks out produce from the Finley Avenue market for his family’s market in Pelham. To select something like sweet potatoes, he says, you have to know about the soil and the rain. In a drought everything will be smaller and more flavorful. If there’s been a lot of rain, fruits and vegetables are bigger and less flavorful. “Ninety-nine out of 100 people buy with their eyes, not their mouth,” he says. “But nine times of out 10 the smaller peach is sweeter.”
The key for him is an almost innate understanding of what produce looks like, naturally. “I know what a tomato looks like on a plant, I know what beans look like on a vine, I know what a peach looks like when you pick it off a tree,” he says. “When people come to see our produce, they see a difference.”
And that’s just what you’ll see at Burnette Farms Market on Helena Road in Pelham. When we visited in May to write this article, Chilton County peaches and strawberries fresh from their family’s fourth-generation farm were ripe for the picking, and squash, cucumbers, zucchini and more were coming right behind them. In the winter, local produce is limited to staples like potatoes and onions, so they bring in more outside vendors’ crops. The family has also learned convenience is key to their shoppers, so they sell corn already shucked and squash already cut up—whatever will get it to the dinner table quickly while staying fresh.
Surrounding the produce sit a selection of jarred goods, McEwen & Sons grits and even pickled peaches, which the Burnettes say no one makes like they used to. “I will tell you it’s better than something you can get at the grocery store but not as good as your mom of grandmom will make it,” Mike says of their jarred and packaged food items.
Mike traces his family farm’s roots back to when his granddaddy first came to Chilton County to help construct the Lay Lake dam and ended up settling onto 100 acres of land in Thorsby. Back then they mainly grew collard and turnips greens, sweet potatoes and field corn—a starchier corn used to feed livestock. He taught his son to harvest just as he did, and his son taught Mike, and Mike taught his son Jared, who now runs the farm while the rest of the family is the backbone of daily business at the market in Pelham.
For decades the farm had exclusively sold to wholesalers, but then came Pepper Place Farmer’s Market in downtown Birmingham two decades ago. Each week, the Burnette family would bring fresh fruits and vegetables up to sell, and with that they learned about the increasing popularity of crops like peaches and squash in the Birmingham area. But as the market got more competitive with more and more vendors, the family started to think about their own venture. That’s when the market in Pelham was born in 2017. “Mike would always say, ‘I wish we had a Pepper Place every day,’ and this is our Pepper Place every day,” Mike’s wife Mary Charles says.
The market is a family affair, with their daughter Jenny running the restaurant in it she dreamed up and Mary Charles involved in all sorts of operations. One of Mike’s many other roles draws from growing up with hand-turned ice cream. “Vanilla and peach were all we ever had, and the only time we had peach was in the summertime,” he says. “I can only remember having chocolate and strawberry once or twice.” But not as his market. You name an ice cream flavor, and he’ll make it: cantaloupe, banana pudding, buttermilk, even dill pickle and silver queen corn. “I put the raw corn straight in the machine,” he says of the last one. “It was a good seller.”
You’ll find staples like vanilla, peach (any time of year since they freeze the summer crop), strawberry and chocolate too that you can get in a cone or cup or take home in a pint, half pint or quart, along with Mike’s craziest flavor. “I wanted a real hot ice cream, like places that have real hot chicken wings,” he says. “I finally found the right ingredients, and a small amount it can hurt you. I have only found two people who could eat a whole serving of it, and one of them took 30 minutes and he was sweating.”
Speaking of ice cream, you can also pair the flavors with the markets’ cobblers, which Mike makes too. Peach and blackberry are their specialties. In the restaurant area where it’s served, some days you’ll find fried pork chops or fried chicken tenders for lunch, and on the days where they want business to pick up, they put chicken and dressing on the menu, made just like Mike’s mom, Jenny’s Mamaw, did it. In the summer they cook up squash and zucchini from the market, and you’ll also find their new green tomato casserole and their staple peas, beans and sweet potato casserole.
During the COVID-19 quarantine the restaurant had to temporarily shut down, but the Burnettes quickly found their foot traffic for the market itself doubled as people were trying to stay out of the grocery stores just as spring produce was coming in. The family also saw that staple items like flour and yeast were hard to come by, so they stocked up on those for customers too. With extra time on their hands at home, more customers were asking questions about how to cook the produce, and they were selling more of the produce boxes with assorted items they sell for $25. “We just walked by faith,” Mary Charles says of a season they’ll certainly never forget.
We can’t make any predictions on just what the rest of 2020 will bring. But like usual when colder temperatures hit this fall, there should be pumpkins and Christmas trees at the market, and then come spring, you’ll find ferns and flowers for sale. But for now, peaches are king, coming straight up from the family farm where Mike learned his trade.
Burnette Farms Market is located at 8551 Helena Road in Pelham and open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Learn more at
burnettefarmsmarket.com or reach them at 205-730-9170