Al Henry likens the vegetable stand on the front lawn outside of his Warrenton real estate office to a homecoming.
Henry, 54, grew up in Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, at the elbow of his grandfather, who planted cantaloupe, sweet corn, pumpkins and more.
“It’s always been in my blood,” he said, explaining why he set up the stand at Waterloo and Sullivan streets, behind The Handyman and across from Waterloo Station shopping center. “It looks like in the last few years, I’ve gone back to my roots.”
In the summer, he sells four or five varieties of tomatoes ($1 per pound) and sometimes corn, and in the fall, pumpkins and squash.
Henry, who lives on a farm not far from Washington and serves on Rappahannock County’s planning commission, employs the “honor system” to peddle his produce. He supplies customers with plastic grocery bags and a galvanized scale, which hangs from a big sugar maple, to weigh the tomatoes.
Nailed to the tree , a handwritten sign on white foam board reads: “All Natural – No Sprays, 3-4 different types, $1 lb. Please put money in mail slot on front door, Thanks, Al.”
Henry, a founding member of Oak View Bank, began the stand last year.
He does no advertising or promotion but the idea took off, so he decided to try it again.
Last year, he put in about 50 plants and this summer about 120, considerably more than demand would necessitate.
“To be honest, I bought too many plants,” Henry, who worked for the Fauquier County Farm Bureau before launching his appraisal business , sheepishly admitted. “You go in to buy 12 plants, and they’re so beautiful and you end up buying a lot more.”
Because of popular demand, Henry said he might put in 150 plants next summer.
He displays the tomatoes in trays on a green wooden table and a small black wrought iron one. Red, orange, yellow, green and pale pink, they range in size from a tennis ball to a softball.
When he’s in the office, Henry occasionally will set aside his work and visit with customers.
Early one recent Friday afternoon, Carol Orr, a retired school teacher who lives in Culpeper, parks her car along Sullivan Street and makes her way to the stand.
Orr has known about Henry’s operation for a while. “I haven’t been able to stop” because the stand sneaks up on her before she can pull over, she told Henry, as he gives a quick inventory of choices, which include heirlooms like Yellow Girl and Cherokee. “I think it’s wonderful.”
Orr places a bag of tomatoes on the scale, which weighs in at two and a quarter pounds.
“Put a couple extra ones in, so nothing goes to waste,” said Henry, which gives Orr 2.75 pounds.
Orr gives him three singles.
“You gave me too much,” he tells her, returning a one dollar bill.
“Keep it, keep it, keep it, ” Henry implores her, adding: “We always round down.”
A few weeks ago, he took in about $120, his biggest week so far. Henry expects to gross about $500 in tomato sales for the season. Anticipating that revenue, he sent a $350 check to the Fauquier Free Clinic, a favorite cause of his. The other $150 will be used to buy next year’s plants and to build cages in which to grow them, he said.
What he doesn’t sell, he gives away. A friend asked him whether he worried about theft. “If people take it it’s because they need it, ” said Henry, who leaves the tomatoes on the tables overnight. “That’s okay. Very, very low loss to theft. I’m very happy with the people. They’re very honest.”
He takes a big-picture view of gardening. “One of my aims is to grow the biggest tomato,” said Henry, resting in a lawn chair next to the stand. “I’m kind of practicing for retirement.”