Progress 2024: Agritourism staple — Jones’ building upon Durbin Farms illustrious agricultural history

Published 12:32 pm Friday, May 17, 2024

This story was originally featured in Progress 2024.

Story and Photos by Carey Reeder

Just off of Exit 205 on Interstate 65 in Clanton sits an agricultural staple in Chilton County, and for tourists making the trip up and down the State of Alabama.

Durbin Farms Market, owned by siblings Colby Jones and Lindsey Labovitz, has been around since 1933 when Marvin and Mary Durbin decided they wanted to start fruit farming. The two opened a fruit stand on the side of Highway 31 in Thorsby, and Durbin Farms was born.

The Durbins and the Mayor of Clanton at the time were close friends, and the Mayor suggested they should buy land in Clanton because the interstate, what is now I-65 today, was being built, and it would be perfect for a fruit market. Marvin and Mary purchased land and built Durbin Farms Market in 1961 and opened its doors at 2130 Seventh St. S, Clanton, where it still resides today.

As the Durbins got to the age to retire and were looking to sell the business, they sold it to their peach farmer and partner Steve Wilson who ran the business until 2005, when the Jones family stepped in.

“My family was originally in Hayden, and we were familiar with agritourism and fruit markets, and it was what we grew up doing,” Labovitz said. “We worked in that market since 2005 during summers, in between college, our weekends, if we did not have something going on we were in that market working.”

Both siblings attended Auburn University where Jones majored in business marketing, and Labovitz majored in business management, all leading up to taking over the family business from their parents in January 2021 and running it till today.

Jones interacted with the late Fred Headley, owner of Fred Headley’s Food Marts across Chilton County, on a regular basis at his gas station next door to Durbin Farms. The two bounced ideas off of each other each time, and Jones said he learned a lot from Headley like being prepared and not thinking five to 10 years down the road, by 15 to 20 years.

“In retail and farming in general, it is a gamble, especially nowadays with more trends and what is in today. Give it two days and it’s last week’s news,” Jones said. “I think that is where we have learned after not only watching our parents, but those around us too.”

Durbin Farms under the sibling’s guidance was growing at a faster rate than before, and although there was a sandwich shop with the market before, the two wanted to lean more heavily towards the restaurant. In 2009, an extension was built off the market and it was filled with tables to accommodate the guests grabbing food. Now, it has translated into a partial restaurant, gift shop and full ice cream bar.

Just a year after the extension was built, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico ravaged the coastlines and beaches, and the traffic from I-65, especially during the summer, declined drastically with nowhere for beach goers to go. Eighty-five to 90% of all customers at Durbin Farms are tourists due to the location directly off I-65, and it took some adapting by the business to adjust to the struggles, but the siblings did.

“Colby and Lindsey both are marketing geniuses,” Rachel Martin, Executive Director of the Chilton County Chamber of Commerce, said. “When you go in and see things rearranged, you can see where it makes so much sense the way they are doing things. Them making the additions of the tables and murals just makes stopping by Durbin Farms an experience, more than just a stop on your way to wherever you are going.”

The sandwiches, paninis, soups and more that are served inside the Durbin Farms Market restaurant are made with locally grown produce, and if you enjoy it enough to buy the exact same fruits and vegetables, they are available in the market next door. Along with the restaurant and the gift shop with a bunch of knickknacks, Durbin Farms has a wide selection of inhouse items for sale such as ciders, jams, cobblers, ice cream and other foods created from their unsellable peaches.

The overripe or bruised peaches that Durbin Farms cannot sell are sent off to be turned into anything from salsa, cider, jam, jelly, syrup and more. They also provide local vineyards with their peaches for peach wine, and Durbin Farms is in the process of obtaining its liquor license to sell wine in the market.

“We do as much as we can because we have so many number twos that come through that are bruised, and instead of selling those we use them to produce all of the jams, jellies, ciders, preserves and more,” Labovitz said.

Approaching 20 years with Durbin Farms in their family, Jones and Labovitz said the interactions, stories and traditions the business has played in thousands of people’s lives is the biggest thing that has motivated them to continue building the business year after year.

“It is exciting to have customers come in and get excited about what we have,” Labovitz said. “This is the place they are going to stop, they know they are not that much further from the beach … They are just excited to see us, and it is one thing that has been a driver for sure.”

“What we have found out dealing with customers over the years since we have taken over the business is you see the generational carry over from people who had parents come here, and they had kids who have gotten older and they have come here,” Jones said. “We reach up into Ohio and Wisconsin, we have people from New York that call us and order peaches each summer and get peaches shipped to them every week that they give to friends and family. This corridor where we are in Alabama, I think the locals know how much of an impact it is because they see the traffic of Highway 31 and I-65, but this location’s agricultural impact in not only the county, but the state, is huge compared to anywhere else you might see.”

As Durbin Farms continues to grow, Jones’ and Labovitz’s children are itching to get involved with the family business, always looking to get into the kitchen or scoop some ice cream. The siblings are excited to instill the same work ethic in their children when they get to working age like their parents did with them.

“The most valuable asset we have is time, and you cannot print anymore of it,” Jones said. “If someone is going out of their way to talk to you … The people we get in here might ramble some, and (my) kids will say ‘Well that person just wanted to talk.’ They do not know their background but their husband might have died last year, or they just lost a child, and they are longing for that human experience, and we are able to provide that for them.”

Durbin Farms has recently added a pavilion with numerous picnic tables for seating and certain events. There was also a handful of acres purchased behind Durbin Farms that will be turned into a walking area for visitors as well in the coming months.

“We are not satisfied with where we are at right now, but we have an idea of where we are going and we are excited about that and the future,” Jones said. “I think we have such a huge potential to grow, and we are thankful for the support that we get from the locals.”