“Farmers?? Where are you going to find any farmers?” – In the middle of the city, my friend was implying.
And on the 8th day…God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker,” so God made a farmer, begins Paul Harvey’s well known monologue.
Anyone aware of the local food movement is probably familiar with the phrase, Get to Know a Farmer. It’s not just a cliché, and the best place to find farmers – your local farmers’ markets.
East Tennessee is home to many farmers’ markets, but the Market Square Farmers’ Market in downtown Knoxville is the largest. In 1854, land was donated to the city of Knoxville for the specific purpose of building a Market House, a place to bring farmers together with the general public looking for fresh food. Through my Food Tours I have met many people who remember going to the Market House when they were children. “Oh you could get anything you wanted” “The fish was right at the front door” “They would pull the trucks up and sell right off the truck” “They made the best hamburgers” Fast forward 150 years, and that notion is going stronger than ever in the form of an outdoor farmers’ market. Big trucks still pull up on Market Square, their cargo – life itself.
“Well I would shop at the market but it’s so expensive,” I’ve overheard folks say. I recently got some great ideas about how to eat locally on a budget from Market Square vendors JEM Farm and Greenbriar Farm & Nursery.
God said, "I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bails, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets”…so God made a farmer.
John and Elizabeth Malayter, the namesakes of JEM Farm, began farming part time in 2004 because they wanted better food for their daughter. With 20 acres in the rural area of Rogersville, TN, they have become a powerhouse in the local food movement of Knoxville. They raise pigs, cattle, goats, meat chickens, egg chickens, turkeys and duck along with vegetables and herbs. By 2011 they were both working full time on the farm. The Malayters sell at 3 farmers’ markets a week, supply to the local food co-op Three Rivers Market, along with providing product to local restaurants. JEM Farm is a Certified Organic, Non GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) farm. “We wanted to set the standard,” says John. Although being Certified Organic is an expensive and time consuming task, involving thousands of dollars, piles of paperwork, and the invasiveness of an inspector walking through their property, Elizabeth feels that the certification adds value to their product and adds insurance to the buyer that, “We are not just telling you a tale.”
“Our prices for meats are in line with the Fresh Market,” John tells me. And I smile at Elizabeth’s observance, “If the chickens could just eat air, we could bring the prices down.” It’s expensive to run a farm. But that would never stop a farmer from having a giving heart. At the end of a day at the market, a fellow comes by and John tells him to, “Take it. Just take it all”. I assume he has made a deal to sell him all that is left of the greens and herbs. “I’m from the Society of St. Andrew,” the fellow tells me and tries to explain. “Ohhh, yes I know what that is,” I reply, remembering the organization named for the Apostle Andrew. They glean food that is left from the harvest and deliver it to needy organizations such as food banks or shelters. “John is very generous,” the fellow tells me. John Malayter, in humble farmer fashion, acts as if nothing has transpired at all, when all three of us know that his remains of the day will fill hungry bellies tomorrow.
God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop in mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor's place. So God made a farmer.
In order to eat locally on a budget, the first thing John suggests that people should do is, “Learn how to cook.” When I relate the number one item on John’s list to Elizabeth, she giggles in a way that makes me instantly think that she must have been the one to teach John how to cook. “The practical knowledge of knowing how to cook can help people spread products out over a number of meals,” John continues. He also emphasizes, “Making a commitment to cook,” in order to stay on budget.
“Having access to local food is a really, really big deal,” Elizabeth relates. So important, that she encourages using creative tactics, imagination, thought, and thinking outside the box to work out a way for it to be affordable. “Approach local farmers and ask if you can work a share,” she suggests. This might include offering not only to do work on the farm, but working at the farmers’ market booths, making a delivery, bookkeeping, updating a website, writing a blog, hauling trash, sewing, cleaning or even doing laundry. “See if you can take a farmer’s seconds, and go on the halves with them with canning,” she continues. Going “On the halves”, splitting the goods for doing part of the work, is an idea that has been around for a long time. I’ve known folks to go “On the halves” with entire fields of crops, in order to get them in and saved from ruin. “Buy products in bulk seasonally and divide them among friends,” Elizabeth suggests. “Ask if you can get a discount for buying in bulk.”
Elizabeth notes that eating locally is a lifestyle that does take time, organization, and commitment, and that, “The way people are looking at local food and health is changing. People’s values are changing.” It is apparent that Elizabeth Malayter is very passionate about raising quality, local food, and sharing it with as many in the community as possible. “Everybody eats, and it matters to everybody. Local purchasing also keeps money in the local economy.” Her “absolute fantasy” would be to have a program where a truck would pick up produce from farmers all over, including ones who don’t have a way to a local market, and deliver to various places around town to sell and then take whatever is left over to be sold at a discount or given to the needy. That’s the thing about a farmer…they are always looking out for others.
“I’m trying to make my way through this subdivision,” I say over the phone. “Why?” My friend responds. “I’m going to interview a farmer.”
"I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to wait lunch until his wife's done feeding visiting ladies and tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon -- and mean it." So God made a farmer.
Eating local is even more affordable if you decide to take on more of the work yourself. “We always say, there’s no more local than your front yard,” says Glenda Ross who runs Greenbriar Farm & Nursery for Edibles, and Blueberry Hill blueberry farm in Norris, TN with her husband Paul Baxter. Although their farm is in Norris, Glenda invited me out to their house in West Knoxville to see her edible yard concept. The entire yard is filled with edible flowers, vegetable plants in containers, and raised beds, but no grass. Glenda surprises me by saying we are going to pick the strawberries, which make up a large part of the front yard. The berries are at their peak, bright red and warm from the afternoon sun. There is no greater culinary delight in the world than a just picked, sun warmed berry.
We go back inside and Glenda tells me to have a seat at the dining room table. I sit down at an empty spot and she says I can just sit at the end of the table. I suddenly realize that there is a place set especially for me and Glenda is making tea for us. I am also mindful that I only met her a few days ago for less than a minute at Market Square, but a farmer is a nurturer, and Glenda Ross embodies this quality. I really enjoy this uncommon hospitality, from a farmer, in a subdivision, in West Knoxville. Our afternoon tea consists of muffins, tea, fig jam made from figs from her yard, candied ginger, and those fresh, just picked strawberries. “And this…is eating your yard,” Glenda says.
As we take tea, Glenda expounds on her business. Her background is in education and Paul’s is in agriculture. “I always had this idea of the edible yard in the back of my mind,” she says. At Greenbriar they sell edible plants such as blueberry, blackberry, bush cherry, currant, elderberry, fig, grape, gooseberry, kiwi, mulberry, muscadine, papaw, persimmon, and raspberry. They don’t do installation, but they offer something even better – workshops so you can learn to do it yourself.
An affordable way to have an edible yard would be to do it incrementally, Glenda tells me. “Add new beds, edible flowers, vines, shrubs, hedges, and trees as you are able.” She adds that, your yard can be a major food source. If you live in a small place or apartment, you could plant in pots on balconies. “We usually get 1 or 2 things out of the yard to eat every day. We freeze things like berries and peppers and give away extras.”
Greenbriar Farm has set up at farmers’ markets for 6 or 7 years now. “There is a lot more interest now, more vendors, more customers,” says Glenda, noting that there is a complexity of personalities of people interested in local food that covers all education levels, ethnic groups, and segments of the population. She echoes the sentiments of John and Elizabeth from JEM Farm concerning local eating, noting that when you buy local, “You know that farmer. There is a nationwide change in eating,” Glenda adds. “People are realizing how important it is to have fresh and local food.”
A fun day out would be to Glenda and Paul’s Blueberry Hill U-Pick blueberry farm in Norris. The blueberry farm has been in business for over 30 years now and has 6 mini seasons so that blueberries are available to be picked from Memorial Day in late May to Labor Day in early September.
Glenda tells me that she and Paul will soon be retiring from their farm work, but never fear, the business will be continued by their family – Holly Jones, a horticulturalist and organic specialist who already works with them, her husband Michael Smith, Mindy & Jason Wells, Kristen & Tyler Cunningham, and B.J. & Brian Baxter are some of the 4 generations who will continue the work of Greenbriar Edibles and Blueberry Hill.
"Somebody who'd bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life 'doing what dad does.'" So God made a farmer.
Alright now, go get to know a farmer. This is East Tennessee, and as long as there are caring, giving, nurturing hearts, and a bit of dirt, you can always find a farmer.