Owner of giant strawberry hopes fight isn't fruitless

By JOSH SHAFFER Raleigh News and Observer Published:

ELLERBE N.C. -- With wooden beams, Sheetrock and foam, Lee Berry built the world's largest strawberry here, about 90 miles southwest of Raleigh-- a 20-foot monument to his homemade ice cream business, a red-and-yellow beacon so garish and eye-catching that the beach traffic couldn't help but stop for a lick.

Then state government shut him down, took his land by eminent domain, wrote him a check for his life's work -- and evicted his 16,000-pound, fruit-shaped building for the sake of a new highway bypass.

So this is the story of a berry farmer named Berry and how he persisted, jabbing a finger in the eye of The Man.

He hoisted his strawberry onto a flatbed truck and hauled it one mile north, taking up both lanes of highway along the way. He plunked it down on a new patch of land and started back churning out triple-scoop waffle cones.

Then he sued the state, seeking $1 million for lost business and giant-strawberry-moving expenses.

"I had 1,000 feet of road frontage," said Berry, 41, who has three children. "They condemned me. I didn't want to leave the old strawberry down the road and build a new strawberry. My customers would be like ... what?"

This drama takes place in Richmond County, N.C., not far from the famed Rockingham Speedway and the South Carolina border.

Stop into the Food King on Main Street, show anybody there a picture of Berry's strawberry, and they'll point down the road to the right. It's pretty much Ellerbe's landmark.

He built his spotted octagon in 2003, topping the structure with a long green stem, measuring its circumference at 80 feet. Today, you can buy sweet potatoes, watermelons, pickles and peach bread at The Berry Patch, along with boiled peanuts and a blue vanilla cone.

To this day, there's a town in Iowa that boasts about having the biggest strawberry on the planet. But it's only 15 feet tall. Berry called the Iowans to quibble. They weren't too thrilled. To his mind, Ellerbe wears the world's strawberry crown.

But situated on the side of busy highway U.S. 220, Berry knew change would come someday, forcing his big fruit off the roadside. He'd always been assured that a new highway wouldn't come through until 2017.

Plans changed.

"Obama money," Berry explains, none too happy about the windfall from the economic stimulus.

Last year, the state Department of Transportation ordered him off the land by December, and Berry figured he would have to scrap his 8-ton beauty.

Then in January, he opted to save it. State troopers escorted him to a new spot nearby on Cargo Road. Gawkers lined the road with cameras. Cars honked their horns. You can see the procession in photographs on the Berry Patch's wall, looking like a one-man Macy's Parade.

But even with the new berry in place, plumbing attached, a cruel accounting left Berry reeling.

Final check from the state: roughly $450,000, he said.

Expenses thus far for buying new land and moving the big strawberry and other buildings there: more than $500,000.

Plus, his strawberry farm lost its pond in the deal, and he had to draw county water to keep the fruit fed. So far this year, Berry said, business is off between 8 and 10 percent.

He has inherited the strife of a crash victim given just enough insurance money to buy himself a new car -- and a new load of debt to go with it.

The courts will decide whether DOT has paid him enough.

Roads get widened. Bypasses get built. Progress steamrolls over country charm, even when it takes the form of red vegetation.

But a 20-foot strawberry deserves respect. So does a farmer willing to haul it a mile down the road rather than surrender it to the callous hand of highway construction.

So do the rest of us, who only want a little something to look at on the way from here to there.

(Contact Josh Shaffer at jshaffer@newsobserver.com.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

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