After 82 years of farming, last year Blake Wilkins gave up working the Colonial Beach farm that has given him life, love and plenty of vegetables.
Born in 1922 on this farm in Maple Grove, Wilkins has never moved and has never stopped being a farmer. “It’s in my bones,” he said.
When his grandfather, also a farmer, died in 1926, the 167-acre farm that had been in the family since 1886, was divided up between his father and his uncle. They worked the farm together for a few years. As a young boy, Wilkins would tag along on the farm with his father and uncle. He said things on the farm were the same year after year and farming “got in my bones when I went on the wagon with my Uncle Roy.”
Eventually, his uncle bought the entire farm and when he died in 1960, Wilkins bought it and that’s when he got his start farming on his own. Since that time, Wilkins increased his acreage to 284 acres. More than half is woodland, but at least 100 acres is workable.
Starting out, the farm was used mostly for raising cattle and growing hay and grain. At the time, he only grew a few vegetables that he sold from his house.
In 1979 he started focusing on raising vegetables and opened his stand on Route 205, which remained open until last year.
According to his wife, Lorine Wilkins, from the time her husband started the vegetable business, he “lived and breathed vegetables.”
He remembers with fondness his years as a young boy working on the farm and said it was those experiences that led him to a life of farming.
“It’s hard work,” he said. ‘You have to know right much about it to get into it. It’s not something you can jump into.”
Since he was eight, Wilkins has raised cattle, planted and picked vegetables, and run the stand. He said there isn’t much he hasn’t done on the farm.
“To be a farmer,” Lorine said, “you have to like playing in the dirt, and we like playing in the dirt.”
The two spent many years working hard in the dirt and even when there were distractions, they never let it interrupt their work. One such distraction occurred in 1990 when an oil well was dug on their property. Lorine said they never went onto the site, but instead just worked in the field right beside it picking tomatoes. She said the oil diggers would always watch her and when she asked why, they said it was because they had never seen a woman work so hard.
The well was eventually closed, but Wilkins said there has been talk about the oil company coming back and that they might even be interested in buying the farm.
When asked if he thought local farming was a thing of the past, Wilkins shook his head and said he thinks it is still something people look for, but that young men now would have a hard time being successful with a local farm. He said he would hate to see the role of small farmers go away because that was the way it always was when he was growing up.
“I’d be out there right now if I was able,” he said, reflecting on how he had to close the farm in 2012.
Lorine explained that they didn’t want to have to stop farming, but were forced to because of Wilkins’ declining health.
Wilkins said he misses farming a lot and that his long-time loyal customers miss his farming too.
“I had customers all the way from Northern Virginia that would come down to get corn to freeze, and I had customers that would call for cantaloupes before they ever even bloomed.”
Lorine said one of the rewards of farming was the opportunity to meet people and to make real friends who still come by to visit and check up on Wilkins. One such friend even stopped by during the interview.
Wilkins emphasized the hard work that farming entails. He said sometimes he would pull over a 100 dozen ears of corn by hand in one day.
As for spending his whole life devoted to such hard work, Wilkins said, “You are doing something that helps people. You are feeding people. It’s a life. It is a good life, but it is hard work, so if you didn’t enjoy it, you wouldn’t want to get into it.”
He said it was rewarding to receive compliments from customers. One of his favorites was when someone said they had never seen a farm come to life like this one did.
Wilkins said while he was proud of his farm, he was even prouder of himself because it was a poor farm when he took it over, and he made it something great.
Wilkins said farming had given him a good life. He turned to Lorine and asked if there was anything she would like to add.
“It’s your story and it should be your story,” she said.
“Yeah, but that story’s got a lot to do with you,” he said.
Wilkins said his first wife was there for him at the beginning, driving the old hay bailer and picking the tomatoes that he carried down to the Leedstown cannery that gave him the start for his farm. Later, Lorine, who was born in King George and used to come to Colonial Beach to clean houses, came into his life. She explained that she knew the rest of his family but not him, but because she “did every kind of job under the sun” she sometimes came and helped him out on the farm. In fact, helping him pull weeds on the farm was how they met.
“We were working the watermelon field when I first asked her out,” Wilkins said, breaking into a smile.
The two were married in 1987 and have been working side-by-side on the farm for almost 26 years. In the early years, they even cut wood together.
As his health started to decline, Wilkins wasn’t able to work in the fields as much.
“It wasn’t the same when he couldn’t go out in the fields with me,” said Lorine.
Wilkins has one daughter and his wife has six children, but no one in the family will continue the farming business. Wilkins said he will keep the house and the few acres of land where he has spent all 90 years of his life, but will sell the rest of the farm. He said farming has greatly contributed to his long life.
“Farming kept him going,” agreed Lorine.
Wilkins said he misses it every day.
“I wouldn’t mind picking beans right now if I could,” he said.