Poplarville, Mississippi is small in size, yet big on flavor as entrepreneurs produce mouthwatering delights that are Genuine MS.

The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce’s new branding program, Genuine MS, puts a stamp of authenticity on products grown, raised, crafted, and made in the state.

Pearl River Tea Company

Pearl River Tea Company is a newer development for JDfarms.us blueberry farm, established in 2004 in Poplarville. Sparked by a conversation on Felder Rushing’s “Gestalt Gardener” radio show, farm partners Don van de Werken and Jeff Brown bought 250 Camellia Sinensis (tea) plants from North Carolina at the outset.

William Evans prepares freshly harvested tea leaves for processing at Pearl River Tea Company in Poplarville. Photo courtesy of Don van de Werken.

“We started growing tea plants back in 2006,” says Brown. With a greenhouse start, they moved to raised beds and then planting in the field. The first tea growers in the state, they’re now steeped in it, with about 10,000 tea plants.

Pearl River Tea Company has about 10,000 tea plants and adds more annually.

“We keep adding about 500 to 600 a year,” van de Werken says. The slow growers can be plucked in three to four years, but typically take up to six to seven before they’re suited for mechanical harvest. Bonus: “They grow very similar to a blueberry bush, and they take the same acidic soil.”

With the help of a Mississippi State University visiting professor with tea plantation connections in China, Brown and van de Werken learned, from the ground up, how to grow and process tea.

“You can make tea many, many different ways. There’s Korean style, Japanese style, Chinese style, Kenyan style and then there are twists to each one of these, too — the technique of rolling, the technique of drying, the technique of fermenting and steaming,” van de Werken says. To be practical and suit their market, “We’re doing our tea the Mississippi way, the U.S.A. way.”

Pearl River Tea blends stick to basics plus a few unique offerings, loose and bagged — traditional black tea, green tea, Green Tea & Ginger, JD Earl Grey, Gingerbread (black tea with orange peel and cinnamon) and Black/Blue (dried blueberries blended with tea).

Entry into the “ready-to-drink’ realm brings sweet tea, blueberry black tea and blueberry lemonade to market. Public interest prompted the addition of a tea room and tasting room as they expand the restorative, refreshing beverage business.

Robicheaux’s Specialty Candy

Robicheaux’s Specialty Candy, incorporated in 1992, makes the small town of Poplarville, Mississippi sweeter. Once retirees, Laura and Francis moved from Louisiana to their weekend getaway in Poplarville where they built a house, and Laura contemplated what was next — with an eye on that original weekender abode.

“I asked my hubby if I could just have that little building. So, here I am. I’m 51 (at the time), I’m retired. I’m a busy-type person. I cannot just hang out and do nothing,” she says. She wanted to start a business. “I started this idea, well, everybody likes sweets, why don’t I make candy?”

Mississippi Specialty Foods helped at the outset. She’d made pralines when the kids were growing up, and they’d give them out at Christmas. “Everybody loved the pralines. And, guess what? That’s what I started with — the pralines.”

Robicheaux’s Specialty Candy’s Praline was the original candy that started the business.

The pecan turtle became their best seller by far in a sweet stash that now includes gourmet chocolates, caramels, glazed nuts, sugar free candy, decorated Oreos and pretzels and seasonal candy. Wedding and corporate gifts are a specialty.

“We just grew and grew,” she says, doubling the building’s size, then expanding the production facility again in the early 2000s. Robicheaux’s Specialty Candy employed 18 and devoted about three months of the year to travel and shows at its height. “We have a facility that’s a little over 2,000 square feet. All we do is just make candy,” Laura says. “We were busy bees over there!”

Robicheaux’s Specialty Candy’s Pecan Turtle Valentine Heart is love at first bite.

Laura, now 77, has scaled back on trade and selling shows recently, but still says “I love my little business. It’s just perfect.” Before the candy business, she’d had a 30-year career in education. “I loved the kids and everything, but I’m now known as the Candy Lady,” she says with a happy laugh.

With products made for the order, Robicheaux’s Specialty Candy is flexible enough to accommodate small orders and special requests. “One thing’s for sure,” she says, “whenever a customer gets something from us, it’s custom-made.”

“It’s definitely a hot ticket during the holidays,” says chef Whitney Miller, another part of Poplarville’s claim to food fame. As the Season 1 winner on FOX Network’s “MasterChef,” Miller, now of Franklin, Tennessee, recalls the gift traffic in Robicheaux’s Specialty Candies to teachers, family and friends, growing up. She has a taste for it, too.

Chef Whitney Miller, winner of Masterchef Season 1 on FOX. Photo is courtesy of Whitney Miller.

“I’m a chocolate girl, and I like anything that’s covered in nuts!”

These days, Miller’s focus is recipe development, food styling (including an episode of “Big Food Truck Tip”) and private specialty dinners. Pride in her hometown’s strides, as the state’s blueberry capital with an active farmer’s market, is evident as she recalls fond memories of blackberries as well as pecan and persimmon trees. “I was always foraging for things in my own back yard,” she says. “The area is a great place for growing things.

“Knowing we have a tea company — that’s just awesome to see how Poplarville is expanding.”

By Sherry Lucas
Sherry Lucas is a Jackson writer with an appetite for iconic foods. This story was produced in partnership with Eat Y’all and Genuine MS.