Richard Cummings, left, of Clovis shops for fresh peanuts and cider Monday afternoon at the Melrose Market, while manager Margie Plummer provides assistance. (CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks)
By Tonya Fennell: CNJ staff writer
The Melrose Fruit Market was ripe for the picking once the longtime owners opted for retirement.
The quaint country store, located on U.S. 60/84 in Melrose, was owned and operated by Delo and Ruby Stephenson for the past 40 years. With their advancing age and Delo Stephenson’s deteriorating health, the Floyd couple have turned over the cultivation of the produce business to Mark Balko.
Balko said taking ownership of the fruit and vegetable store is a dream come true. “It has been a 20-year dream,” Balko said. “From the first time I stepped into it (Melrose Fruit Market), I wanted it.” According to Balko, he asked the Stephensons to give him the first opportunity at purchasing the establishment when they decided to retire. “It was hard for them (Stephensons) to give it up,” Balko said, “but age takes a toll.”
Balko, a Portales resident, said everything just fell into place with the purchase. “I’ve been farming all my life,” Balko said, “and I’ve been growing and selling green beans, squash, okra and peppers at the Farmer’s Market for years.”
Margie Plummer, Balko’s business partner, said she and Balko plan to carry on the traditions Ruby Stephenson established at the store.
“This (Melrose Fruit Market) was her life,” Plummer said. “She was a special lady who worked hard to build this business.”
Plummer said travelers from across the United States stop in to browse the bins filled with fresh golden ears of corn, glossy red tomatoes and sweet-smelling cantaloupe. Jars of homemade sorghum molasses sit on shelves beside turquoise jewelry. Peanut patties and candy canes as big as a grown man’s forearm are also stacked on shelves. But the most popular item is the cherry cider, Plummer said.
Balko said the only major change will be the business’ name. The new owner plans to drop the word fruit and call it simply “The Melrose Market.” By January, Balko plans to expand the business by selling handcrafted barn wood arbors, benches and planters. Cucumbers and tomatoes will also be grown in the greenhouse and available to customers year round.
Melrose Mayor Lance Pyle said although the store has become a tourist attraction over the years, locals have always benefited from its presence in their small village.
“It (Melrose Market) has been great for our community,” Pyle said, “because the owners have always donated to the schools and the Chamber of Commerce.”
“I just want to keep it (Melrose Market) going,” Balko said, “but hopefully bigger and better.”