Once a stand for garden extras, this roadside produce stand in Durham keeps the farming community thriving
by Miranda Evon | photography by Joe Pellegrino
At 4 years old, Donovan Alexander Watson would watch his grandfather carry cucumbers and tomatoes from his garden up to a row of wooden shelves at the end of their driveway. There, passersby could take what they wanted and drop a donation in a box.
“I remember the joy I felt as the kid at that fruit stand,” says Watson, who’s now in his 20s. “I’d come home from school and help customers at the stand in between homework assignments.” The Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Perkins first opened his fruit stand as a hobby, a way to pass along excess produce. Dr. Perkins served as a pastor at the historic First Baptist Church in Apex and founded the Apex School of Theology. His wife, Dr. Carrie Perkins, worked as an educator.
The fruit stand was an extension of their ethos: to share their bounty with those around them. It was also a bit of an anomaly. Located off Barbee Road in southeast Durham, about a mile off I-40, the stand marked the edge of a wooded lot in a neighborhood of modest homes on cul-de-sacs, a bit of rural living sandwiched in the suburbs.
But over time, the fruit stand became a destination in itself. Dr. Perkins expanded his garden, planting fruit trees and grapevines. He created an orchard that wrapped around the house; it bore apples, pears, cherries, and plums. And as the stand’s popularity grew, so did Dr. Perkins’ relationship with both his customers and nearby farmers; soon, he began offering overflow fruits and vegetables from other growers, as well. But even with its growing inventory, the produce stand ran on an honor system for 42 years.
Watson took over managing the stand when he turned 10, stocking produce, collecting money from customers who had arrived while he was at school, and tending to the orchard. “I learned the importance of making locally grown and sourced produce readily available to the community,” he says.
As Watson grew older, so did his responsibilities — along- side his ambitions for the fruit stand. At 14 years old, he got a tax ID so he could write and sign checks to the farmers who sold their produce there. When h graduated from C. E. Jordan High School in 2012, he relocated and expanded the produce stand, moving it to an area deeper inside their property, near the house, where there was more space. The Perkins fruit stand became Perkins Orchard.
Since then, Perkins Orchard has grown into a thriving business that supports 300 farmers from 12 states (most of them are inside North Carolina). “If you support Perkins, you support local farmers as well,” says Watson. He tracks what people buy and ask for, and passes that information on to his producers.
“They don’t grow the entire alphabet hoping we buy every single thing —this is more sustainable.” Today, dozens of wooden stalls live within an airy fretwork of lattice and wooden panels painted a chipper lime-green. Depending on the season, piled-high bins greet customers with countless varieties of apples, peaches, mushrooms, and more. In the summer, you’ll find yellow and orange watermelons, peppers, and zucchini; come November and December, they stock Christmas trees.
There are four large stands surrounding the main shopping area, and palm trees shade the open-air market. “Perkins Orchard is a hidden gem in Durham,” says employee
Angel Duff. “It’s an excellent place for customers to mingle and take advantage of great deals while shopping locally.” Last year, Watson expanded even more, creating an indoor area called the Orchard Club to house farm-raised meats, eggs, local cheeses, and jams, plus fish, coffee, and baked goods. Watson loves bringing all types of vendors together under one roof.
“All of this beautifully co-exists with the fruit orchard on the west side of my house,” says Watson. Perkins Orchard is one of few farmers markets open daily with extended hours. And there’s the fan-favorite $20 bag deal,
which allows customers to fill a peck bag to the brim with any produce on the stand. “As long as it grows, it goes,” says Watson, who often throws in a freebie like a pint of blueberries or a handful of herbs to top it off.
“Whenever I’m in Durham, I make sure to stop by Perkins for peaches or whatever’s in season,” says Tracey Evans, a regular to Perkins Orchard for years who still remembers Watson as a child, helping his grandfather at the roadside stand.
Dr. Perkins passed away in 2018, but he lived long enough to see his grandson turn his legacy into a business that supports both their family and the community. Watson’s grandmother says she is still “in awe” of the orchard’s continued growth.
Watson himself is proud that he’s been able to continue and expand the family business. “A day does not go by that I don’t think about that small produce stand in my driveway,” says Watson. “Simpler times and humble beginnings. That is how Perkins Orchard came to be what it is today.”