Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Owensboro, Kentucky: Harry Young

We spent a few days in Kentucky visiting a friend of Trav's named Ana who is spending a season at Mammoth Cave National Park. We hiked and looked for ginseng and toured a cave that is part of the 400 miles of the underground cave system in the park. It was awesome.

Just before we left Kentucky for Illinois we stopped in Owensboro to meet 83 year old soybean and tobacco farmer Harry Young. Mr. Young's story is vastly different from any other farmers we had met; he has a twisted tale of loss and racism, and his story seems unbelievable and definitely tragic. The story starts with the town he grew up in, which he describes as a place riddled with race discrimination and power struggles. There was the story about the white drunk driver who hit and killed a black child and got off with 30 days in jail, compared to the young black man who hit and destroyed a telephone pole and got 3 years in jail.

Harry said he has been a farmer since he was 4 and farming is in his blood. He had accumulated 289 acres that he farmed soybeans on until 2005 when everything changed. The government called in a loan that Harry said he already paid off and even had the receipt for, which he showed us. He has a copy of it blown up and posted on signboard in his front yard to advertise his unfair treatment at the hands of the government. The government insisted that Harry had an outstanding bill due and foreclosed on his property and assets.

Harry's brother was able to buy him a house, so he has at least something to his name, but all the farm equipment was confiscated and, according to Harry, undersold to friends of the local police and politicians. The legal battle to prove that he had paid his bill has been an ongoing nightmare for Harry, and his loss has been extreme. Signs decrying the local government adorn his front yard and inside his house the table tops and bookshelves are totally buried under stacks of papers, all legal documents. His wife left because "this has been trying," yet Harry continues to fight to get his farm back. Last year he spent 3 days sleeping on the floor of the local jail for making "terroristic threats" to a government official, and even though he was cleared for those charges at his trial he says he is still treated like a criminal. When we asked Harry if he ever thinks about leaving the area he looked at us incredulously and said "where would I go?"

There is an steadfast optimism to Harry despite the mess he has been through. He signs every letter (and he writes many letters to congressmen, senators, NAACP, the Obamas, etc, daily) with the phrase "God is forever good" and he recognizes that at least God and nature aren't prejudiced- his neighbor needs rain just as bad as he does.

There is another positive note to the story; while Harry does not have land of his own to farm anymore, he does farm his brothers 75 acres close to town. When asked what he would like to have happen in this situation Harry sighed and said that he would of course like to have his land back, but until then he would like people to tell his story so that maybe one day someone who can do something about the injustices will be listening, and be able to help. May it be so.

Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee: Jeff Poppen, Long Hungry Creek Farm

We heard of Jeff Poppen as "the Barefoot farmer" when we were in Asheville and were told that we should really try to meet this amazing man. We stepped onto his front porch and let ourselves in to find Jeff in the kitchen teaching his girlfriend's son to make pickles. Jeff's appearance is worth describing; he wears large round glasses and has long hair tied back in a ponytail with an equally long beard on his face that culminates in one massive dreadlock. Jeff seemed reluctant to talk at first and it felt like we were questioning him without much success until after a fine supper of corn, salad, and beets. An aside: at one point during the pickle making Jeff very adorably excused himself from the kitchen telling us "I'm going to go kiss my girlfriend."

So, while Jeff was very generous and hospitable, it didn't seem like we were getting too much information from him with his monosyllabic answers to our questions until he started talking about his compost and the quality of his soil. Like many of the farmers we have met, Jeff displayed his love for dirt by crouching down and lovingly picking up a handful, then crumbling it out through his fingers. His face looked radiant as he beamed up at us and told us that the dirt is what its all about; healthy soil equals healthy plants. When asked about issues in farming today Jeff replied that "there are no more farmers" because dumping chemicals on the ground doesn't count as farming.
What's your background? How'd you get into this?

I've been a farmer all my life.

In Chicago?

Near Chicago.

I'm guessing, but was it corn?

My dad had a horticulture operation; he was a nursery man. But it was in corn country.

And what do you do here? Seems like everything.

I've been running a small farm here since 1974.

Just produce?

It's a beef, a cow/calf operation. And gardens.

Do I understand it's a biodynamic focus?

I make biodynamic preparations and use them on my farm.

Is that something that your family did or something you got into yourself?

The latter.

Why do you choose to do it that way?

I don't use the calendar. I do it because it treats the soil as if it mattered and makes good quality vegetables. I like the way the vegetables taste. this a farming community?

Back in the old days it was. When I moved here. There is no farming in America anymore to speak of.

What do you mean by that?

Probably because I don't travel. I have a narrow definition of what farming is.

So what kind of changes would you like to see in the ag system to fit your definition?

There's only one thing that needs to happen in my opinon, mainly. And that is we have to return the cows to the farm.

You don't think people are doing that?

No. Most of our livestock are in confinement operations. And it's a way to concentrate wealth. Because when humans are allowed to live, they will have animals and crops in rotations on pieces of land. Agriculture is free. And there is no selling of produce. Produce has never been sold. And it shouldn't ever be sold. The fruits of agriculture are to be free, and this is the way it's always been. And wealth is relatively new. It wasn't uncommon a hundred years ago for people to inherit a lot of money and just say, "we don't want it." Why would you want a bunch of money? That just entails responsibilties...cause there's no place to spend it. It required...well, it was a lot of trouble. When food can't be sold, starvation ceases.

Do you see the importance of the cow on the farm as the nutrient cycling? Is that why you think it's important, to close your circles?

Well, the way I look at it, the dawn of civilization and the domestication of animals, arose hand in hand, and humanity can't live without ruminants. Mainly because a ruminant can live off a couple acres of land but make twice that much land per... So this necesitates every community having cattle and moving them around in such a way that fertility increases, and consequently there is a possibility of crop production, and then when crops are removed from the community, you're simply removing carbohydrates, staches, sugars, and proteins in a form that are basically carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, that all come free from the air and the water. And there's no expense whatsoever except nature and human labor. Other recent usurps of agriculture by the great pirates and the commodification of agriculture.

So how do you fit yourself in as a farmer? I'm assuming you have an income in some form through it.

Well, what I do is I have a farm budget of about a hundred grand a year and I have 200 families that are willing to give me 20 bucks a week for 25 weeks and they have all the vegetables that they need and I give everything else away and there's a sort of a free flow...I just load vegetables up every few months and send them down to Nashville and they take them home and have to give them to their neighbors and distribute them. It's a way of distributing food freely. And then, if at the end of the year I have money in the bank, then I do it again. People are pretty anxious to keep me in business.

You said you're a cow/calf operation. Are you selling your cows as well?

I sell a little bit of organic beef on the market. I believe that cattle are there just to inrease the fertility, not to make money.

There a lot more CSAs popping up all over the place. Do you think that's a good thing?


How many acres are you working here?

The farm is 300 acres. I have about about a 100 ares of pasture and a couple hundred acres in forest, and maybe 8 acres of produce.

So you've been doing this how many years? 35?


So did you start with that same view on CSAs and cattle or has it changed?

No, I was a truck farmer most of the time. I started the CSA in 99 or 2000, somewhere around there, and it arose out through the biodynamic movement. And as insight of the different roles that farmers and nonfarmers play in a community. A farmer {?? with the forces of nature and PROduction. These forces of nature are dealt with in a way that requires a farmer's attention and intuition and spiritual insights. The rest, after the produce is cut, it's all a matter of REduction, and these are forces of humans taking the produce and distributing it, transportation...

So these forces are generally human forces and the farmer should have nothing to do with it. Whenever a farmer takes stuff to the market, they ruin the whole thing because there's all this produce there. And the farm should be looked upon as a self contained individuality, where everything that's needed for agricultural production comes from within the farm's borders, through the rotation of crops, and animals, and pastureland and this kind of stuff. When it's viewed that way, you can sort of see that the farm itself really just runs on itself and just excess carbon, all this free stuff leaves it; nothing changes. And that way you have "farming" because you're making something from nothing. And then you have wealth created in a given area. And this is the way civilizations have built up. And this is the way destroying that you just destroy civilization. And this is what is happening right now.

So, if people are growing things, removing them from the farm and selling it elsewhere do you think it's possible to close loop some farms? Because even if the majority of it is carbon and things, there's all the other nutrients.

Well, it's impossible not to.

So do you think everybody should be farming then?

I think one person can farm enough for, I don't know, 50 or 100 people. Not all of them have to be a farmer.

You kind of told me what the role of the farmer is with the land...what do you think the role of the farmer is in society?

Well, the farmers are priests. And they're responsible for the incarnation of material.

And what kind of farming are other people doing (in this community)?

Nobody farms. There's no farming anymore. I don't call buying chemicals and Monsanto seed and throwing it out there and shipping feed to Texas feedlots, I don't call that faming. I think that's a blatant ripoff.

So how would you encourage more people to farm?

Blow two bridges up in St. Louis, I think would do it. I think to outlaw any corporation over 150 people. Close down all the WalMarts, that kind of stuff. Just have general depression.

Think that'll inspire more people to be more individualistic?

Well, you know, you can look at the model of Russia. 20 years ago we thought they were all gonna starve and the government said, "we're not gonna take care of you anymore," and they gave people land...and 90% of potatoes grown in Russia are never on the market, they're just grown in home gardens. If you don't sell food, people will grow it. They're not going to starve to death. They're smarter than that. And if they can't get chemicals, they'll figure out how to have animals and do it. So the way to encourage people to farm, the only way, is to get the animals out of the feedlots and back onto the land and then shut down the interstate system. And that, I assumed would have happened by 1975, 76, but is hasn't. That's why I don't prophesize much.

I like what you say, that people will know what to do, and they're smart enough...

Oh they're totally intuitive and everybody knows how to farm. It's just a generation or two back. Gotta get that soil humus; got to get that soil nice and fluffy, keep it healthy.

Are you happy with how things have worked out on this farm for you?

I'm generally a happy person.

Do you want to get any bigger?

I decided a few years ago that getting bigger was not what I needed to do; what I decided to do instead was to start other farms. Made no sense burning myself out and really there needs to be more farms. So I have a focus of raising farmers. I've taught a lot of people how to farm.

Do folks come and stay with you here and learn off this land or do you go stay with them and teach them there?

I do both, I mean I start farms when people pay me. I charge money, and then they take my tractors and make compost.

Those that you've started, do you think that people like and stick with the model that you set or do they want to get more commercial with it?

Um...I'm pretty outspoken about the noncommercialization of agriculture and it seems to be fairly popular with the people that I'm dealing with. I don't know, that may be just lucky. But there is's foolish to try to make money in farming. Farming is for the lifestyle that allows a whole lot of people to live on the land as in a welfare system, where they don't really have to do anything. They can just lay around and smoke pot and drink beer and jump in the creek and meditate and read and, you know, play guitar, and just kind of hang out. I mean that's what farms are for. And most people need to do much anyway. And then every now and then the farmer rounds them all up and you plant a big field oryou harvest a big field; we don't need all those people most of the time. But the corporate model necessitates unemployment, poverty, starvation, and then a very extensive welfare system, prisons, and all that.

I know you say you don't prophesize, but can you see that happening, the shutting down of the corporate structure?

There are more prisoners today than there are farmers. Unbelievable. If you told me that when I was a kid, I would have just said, "no way." I have no idea what's going on.

What do you do for fun around here?


How many head of cattle did you say you have?

I didn't say. There's about 50. Well, that's including calves. About half of that would be the correct answer, I suppose.

Are you able to manage that yourself?

I have two hired hands. And I have a lot of community support. Again, what I do is I come off of my hills with vegetables every day and I go through town, stop to get beer or whatever, and anybody, neighbors or friends from around here, is welcome to have anything off the truck that they please. Becasue I feel like it's my job to get money from the city to bring it in to Red Boiling. And then that makes me popular. And it makes it so that if I have any troubles I just go ask people and they're like, yeah, sure. And that's the way that communities work and farmers are always...sort of a typical way to run a farm. You don't try to make money, you just try to keep it going every year.

When Jeff was 19 he and his brother went in on Long Hungry Creek Farm together. He still is at it with his cow/calf operation and his vegetable CSA. He has several helpers who are around college age and Jeff likes to talk about the idealism of the farming lifestyle. His helpers get to swim in the river and lay in the hammock and take care of the vegetables when they need it. It is a beautiful way to live a slow paced life in this case. Jeff often drives through the town of Red Boiling Springs giving away his vegetables out of the back of his truck because he thinks everyone should have good food even if they can't pay for it.

He practices biodynamic farming, based largely on Rudolph Steiner's classic writings. To Jeff, the presence of the cow on the farm is tantamount, as they complete the cycling of nutrients from soil to food to soil again. His 300-some acres are mostly wooded and pastures, with 1-acre patches of vegetables scattered about in fences.

He has very stong beliefs about the capitalistic systems in which we live.

We walked down the long rows of lettuce that were unfortunately flooded and unsalvagable to the potato/squash cave on the left. Jeff and a little girl who was visiting disappeared inside and came back out with arms full of yellow squash to load into her mom's truck. It feels like it's about 50 degrees inside the cave, perfect for root storage.

The barefoot farmer has at this point turned downright friendly and, as it was evening, he invited us to stay the night on the farm so we wouldn't have to navigate in the dark. It's a tempting offer with the fireflies flashing and the bubbling clear stream, but instead we take Jeff's picture and head on down the road with him calling out "peace and love!" after us.

Grassy Cove, Tennessee: John Kemmer

Our next visit was with John Kemmer in his general store in Grassy Cove, Tennessee. Like any rural area in this country, where decedents of pioneers and settlers still populate the land, many people share last names and are distant cousins here. There are a lot of Kemmers in this county and their presence here goes back hundreds of years to when the area was first settled.
The inside of the store conjures up a bygone era; shelves stacked with dusty green glass bottles, old fashioned bristle brushes for shaving, Liberty overalls and hats, hunting gear and yellowed pictures hanging on the wall of the first Kemmers in the area. John himself is seated in a comfortable-looking chair behind the counter surrounded by haphazard stacks of books that he reads as he waits for customers.

He is quiet and seems mildly inquisitive about the two of us poking around his store, asking him questions about his farm. John tells us he doesn't really like being a farmer- he much prefers the store. He has downsized his operation from 200 head of cattle to 80, and if his daughter isn't interested in taking it over, he will happily sell the cows and quit farming. Government intrusion is an issue that has been rough on John; even in his store he has felt the tightening of the governmental leash in areas like the ability to sell food (We had hoped for some ice cream, but found only a non-working freezer).
John was the first farmer we talked to who was really "over" farming and ready to get out of it. He's ready to sell it all, buy an RV and wander the country, but his daighter's interest in inheriting it keeps him there. The general store seems to be less a business and more a place to keep the physical records of a fading history. One mile down the road, his cousin, George Kemmer also keeps a similar store, with an equal amount of antiquities and artifacts.

Before we left, we bought an Italian bristle brush and I caught sight of an arial photo of the Kemmer farm tacked up to the wall where only John could really see it from behind the counter. It made me think that even though John is ready to be done farming, he retains a love for the land that has been in his family for so long.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cookeville, Tennessee: Hector Black, Hidden Springs Nursery

I grew up in New York City. In Queens. And we had a back yard about the size of our living room and I was growing stuff there. And then we lived on my uncle's farm in the summertime. That's what gave me my taste for the country, for growing. Actually, as a little kid, my mom told me that I just loved plants and growing plants. So I started really young with that. Then I got into World War II, for two and a half years in the army and that turned me into a...well, I guess I got a sort of a save the world complex and I became a Ghandian pacifist, nonviolent...of course very interested in Martin Luther King and social justice.

I wound up living communally for about seven or eight years in a religious Christian community. I always had plants, no matter where I was. We lived in the ghetto in Atlanta for two and a half years and the backyard was just nothing but cinders, and so I fenced it and started planting flowers out there. Little kids from the neighborhood watching the bees pollinate the daffodils, they were absolutely fascinated. They'd never seen anything like that before.

I've never been without plants around me.
I've sort of been pulled between social issues and agriculture. We worked for about two and a half years in a poor neighborhood in Atlanta and then we moved out into the country. My wife was in a wheelchair; she was just getting out of the hospital after surgery. We would either have to hire somebody to take care of my wife and our two children or I'd have to stay at home and find work at home. So we put together a couple of greenhouses and I started growing ornamentals and then herbs and all kinds of plants. We were there for about eight years and it just seemed...we knew the guy who worked in what was the "hippie" neighborhood of Atlanta in the '60's, and he told us about a young couple who'd been thrown off their place in rural Georgia because they were hippies and they were smoking pot and he asked if I could take them in. So we took them in and that was the beginning of a hippie farm there in Georgia. We had the nursery and supported ourselves with it.

Everybody helped out in the nursery in one way or another and all kinds of other stuff, a vegetable garden, a vineyard, blueberries, all manner of stuff. That was when I started growing organically, in the late '60's, something like that.
Then the city of Atlanta bought 600 acres half a mile away for an airport and we didn't want to spend our old age under the jet lanes. So we started looking and we found this place here. It was unbelievable just to get into a place like this; the taxes were low, the land was wonderful, the best soil I've ever had to work with. It's bottomland down here on the creek. Compared to that Georgia clay its amazing!

So we moved here with the nursery business and built a solar greenhouse there. I think it was the first commercial solar greenhouse in Tennessee. It's a big one; passive solar. And I wanted to do everything organically that I possibly could. I was very concerned about chemicals in agriculture and the way in which soil gets depleted of organic matter with the use of chemicals. I guess my basic idea was that I wanted to leave the land better than I found it, and not follow the pattern of taking everything out I could possibly get, squeezing every last drop of nutrient out of it.
And that seems to be what happens a lot, because of corporate farming; you don't have that incentive. Your incentive is to pay your shareholders the maximum, and so you're driven to extract the maximum from the ground. You don't think about who's going to be farming that place a hundred years from now.

Eventually we turned the greenhouse into organic; that was very hard to do because in those days...lordy, that was thirty years ago or more...there weren't all these predatory insects and there wasn't very much experimentation in organic growing, especially in greenhouses, where you have a protected environment, very few predators, and the doggone bugs and diseases, oh they go crazy in there. So we started with that and eventually got it into organic.
I had this nursery, and then I had this orchard, twelve acres. The idea was the nursery would feed me in the wintertime, it was edible landscaping. I sold the herb and fushia business and just concentrated on edible landscaping. And then after a few years I had the nursery for income in the winter and I had the orchard for income in the summer and I was running crazy. It was just too much, so I was trying to find somebody to take over the nursery and my daughter and her partner decided they'd like to move up from Atlanta. They took over the nursery.

We've managed pretty well.

I am a member of North American Fruit Explorers. It sort of fit in with my anti war stuff. I organized a couple of trips to Russia during the Cold War. Those were great; I brought back plants from those trips which were growing out there in the orchards. It was a great experience to get other growers into Russia, and then we hosted the Russians here. 'Course the FBI visited me. Oh man! It was crazy; they thought these fruit growers might be double agents or something.

I never would have guessed that the joyful, thoughtful, serene farmer we are talking to has a lengthly FBI file documenting his doings starting in the 50's. Hector Black is as welcoming as a brand new sunrise as he ushers us in to the modest and comfortable home he shares with his wife Susie and her sister who helps the Blacks with daily chores. The Blacks own a blueberry orchard and tree nursery that their daughter now runs and she does a great business sending trees all over the country. They get an income in the summer from the "U-pick" berries and in the winter the nursery becomes the providing business. There is also a huge yard garden featuring a glorious canopied fig tree and all kinds of food crops.
Hector grew up far away from rural Tennessee in Queens New York. As a young man he spent two years in the service during World War II in what he calls a "save the world complex." Now, in his 80's Hector describes himself as a Ghandian Christian pacifist interested in nonviolent anti-war social justice issues and agriculture.
Besides their small farm in the Atlanta area, the Blacks took in a lot of the neighborhood kids who didn't have families to look after them. Hector told us the story of one such child he and Susie adopted as their daughter who was murdered in Atlanta 10 years ago.

His emotions alternate between happiness as he describes his daughter to deep sadness as he talks about the loss of her life. As angry and sad as Hector was about losing his daughter he traveled to Atlanta to oppose the death penalty for the young man who murdered her. Now Hector goes monthly to the nearest prison in Tennessee and visits the inmates on death row with a friend of his and they lead discussion groups. That side of his story has been featured on NPR's StoryCorps and can be found here:
Hector has a knack for seeing humanity where I believe most of the rest of us would have already given up on what we would deem a lost cause.

I mentioned Hector's FBI file- it began with his involvements in peace movements after the war, and proceeded to his participation in the Civil Rights movement and he is also part of a Russian food justice initiative that fell under Uncle Sam's critical eye. Hector tells us all this with a smile and a shrug, as if to say "what can you do?" Later on Hector's helper Patrick also mentions that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. bailed Hector out of jail once in the tumultuous race demonstrations of the 60's.

As for farming, Hector has a philosophy of leaving the earth better than he found it. His neighbors are curious about this exception living in the community, and Hector reminds us that folks are mainly conservative around here in the "buckle of the Bible Belt." Despite possible different ways of seeing things Hector says there is a "live and let live" philosophy practiced in this community, and no one is hostile.
In Hector's opinion there is a real need for the citizens of this country to change the way we view food and the planet. The dead zone in the Gulf is a testament to human wastefulness and nonchalance, and it should be a big fat wake-up call. The toxic trash we generate will soon kill our food and water sources. "Everything that's alive wants to live" and we need to start caring about where all our waste goes. One partial solution would be for as many people as possible to start growing their own food on a small scale. Our priorities could stand to change- the farm is a social occasion in with people gather to get food and visit and remember who their community is. The public has to care less about the cost of things over the quality.
We ate lunch with the Blacks and Patrick, then Patrick took us on a tour of the property which has 3 beautiful waterfalls on it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Crossville, Tennessee: Reggie Rowell, Rowell's Orchard

My dad was in the army during World War II and there was a prisoner of War camp here on the outside of Crossville and he was stationed here. My mom was born and raised in Grassy Cove down here; that's on highway 68. They met and ended up marrying, and went dad originally was from Wales River, Vermont. And his father owned a creamery up there; they processed milk, made cheese, and stuff. So they moved back up there and they stayed about two or three years. Well then they moved down here. And this place here was originally part of the homestead project that Roosevelt started. See, there's an old homestead house. There was four homestead houses on this side of the road and one where my mom and dad lived and it went back that way. So they bought twenty acres here. Just on this side of the pond and they built this motel. And they run this motel to, well, we finally just...I'd say it really quit doing business in the early '70's. And what happened to it, was, when they built Interstate 40, that took all the traffic off this road, so, hence, what you got here you didn't want. I mean it was mor etrouble than it was worth.

So when I went away to the service...Uncle Sam sent me on my senior trip during planted the first apple trees. And he started with fifty reds and fifty golds. And then I come back and I spent thirty years working for the department of energy over at the nuclear plant; worked the night shift the last twenty five. And I helped him during the day; we all just kind of built this thing together. And we started with a hundred trees and I probably got...well, about 2500 now. And I've got three acres of peaches; I've got about 300 peach trees now. We just kept chisling away, building...mainly it was a family operated thing, you know, mom always run the salesroom and dad done the work, and my kids...I got two girls...they help some. And then we've all older and mom and dad got real old, and I'm no spring chicken now, and I've had to hire a little help along the way; we used to do all the picking and everything and I get Mexicans now to help me pick and stuff.

Basically, that's how we got to where we are today. I had another job and everthing we made we put back in the farm...we bought tractors, we bought equipment...and I'm to the point now...I don't know, I'm gettin' slower and slower. I got two daughters; one's married. Got two grandkids. And they live in Farragut and Knoxville. And then I got one that lives on the farm with me now. She's a county deputy. She's been really helpful, and if she takes to it, I'll just let her have it. The bad thing about it is, it's a awful risky business now, I mean I put a ton of money in this crop and this dry weather's just killing me; you see what it's done. You can spend a whole lot of money real quick and you hope that you get it back. I don't know, sometimes I get a little disgusted with it. I get a lot more help from the government than I ever needed in the way of inspections and rules and regulations. You know, I'm just a one horse operator and I really don' know...

So, I don't know, but it's one of them things that when ya get to doing it ya just can't hardly let go of it, you know, I always, you say, "well, next year'll be better, I'll have a bigger apple next year, I'll have a bigger peach, or they'll do better next year." You know it's just kind of can't quit. That's it in a nutshell alright.

When you left, went off to the service, were working other jobs, did you think you were going to be coming back and being a part of this?, not really. It just all kind of happened. I went away...I spent three years, eleven months, and twenty nine days in Japan, I was an aurcraft electrician I really liked it over there, I stayed over there, and then when I got out I come back and I went to work in Montgomery, Alabama at Maxwell Airforce Base as a civilian electrician and that's where I met my wife. I stayed down there about a year or so, then I got an opportunity to go to work at Y12, they were hiring and I hired in there. I lived in Kingston, that's about thirty miles from here, for, I don't know, four or five years, and finally I bought this other piece of land behind us, bought another 40 acres back there and there was a place that wasn't fit for nothing, had trees and rocks, and I said "well, can I build me a house there?" and he said, "oh, sure." So I cleaned it off and built a house there and one thing just led to another and I'd come in, I'd change clothes, and go right to work. I mean I just kind of ended up, you know, I never really aimed to do it. I'm just one of them guys that I say "I'm tired of working, I ain't gonna do nothing"...that lasts about 30 minutes and I want something to do. I just kind of fell into it, you know. And I just can't hardly let go of it now. It just gets to you.

Over your time working with the orchard and with food, other than this dry weather, what are the biggest issues you've had to deal with?

Well...the biggest change over the last couple of years is prices in stuff I have to buy like diesel fuel, all the spray material, everything's doubling. It's awful hard for me now to keep up. The EPA will take this chemical away and then you've got to have something to replace it. Used to we had about three, four basic chemicals, you know, just like a shotgun effect, it just kind of done it all. Well, we done away with all that now and you've got to target pests, you've got to figure out which pest you're targeting and then you buy that chemical for that. And if you spray it at the wrong time it won't do no good. It's getting way too complicated for a feller like me. And the cost is enormous. Like spider mites. You get mites this time of year when it turns hot; it's a little red...spider mite they call it, and it eats on the leaves of your trees. What it does, it bronzes the leaf over, and that way the photosynthesis can't work and the sun don't feed the tree. Well you have to kill them little fellers. Well I bought some stuff the other day to spray for them, a 14 ounce jug, $315. It takes two jugs to spray this orchard. Like I said, you can put so much money in so quick and it's awful hard to get it back. But now having said that, when we first stared, we was selling apples for 6 and 7 dollars a bushel. Now the cheapest apple I've got's 20 dollars a bushel. But in retrospect I believe we were doing better back then than I am now. I mean, in money that you had left and what it would buy.

Are those chemicals your biggest input?

They are for me. That's where all your money goes and you'll have all these people tell you, say "we want organic stuff." You know, they'll say that. I had one lady come in here...I put bags in half pecks, pecks, and bushels. I musta had 20 half pecks of the variety she wanted...she went through every one of them. And you know, and apple, if you have a little stem on it, and I run them through a washer, well that little stem sometimes will roll against another and it'll make a little hole like you jabbed it with a pen. She would cull them. She finally got one bag that suited her, paid me $5 for it, and then wanted to know if they was sprayed with anything. Well anybody know, if you don't spray them you can't hardly tell it's an apple. It'll have sooty blotch all over it and, consequently you've got to use a certain amount of chemicals and that's your biggest cost right there.

Second biggest thing, I guess, is diesel fuel. We used to run all year here on about $600 worth of diesel. One fillup of the fuel tank now is $600. We used to pay 40 and 50 cents a gallon for it...I bought some the other day and it was $2.59. So you can tell.

We got that...and then the labor problem. I've had a ton of white folks help me here and most of them, they can't cut it. I mean, this apple picking, you put that bag around your neck and you work all day runnin' up and down that ladder. The only ones that really stay with me is Mexicans. And of course everybody's down on the Mexicans, but they'll work and they'll stay with you.

If I've got a worker, like if I hire you today and we're over there picking peaches, [the EPA guy] comes up, he's gonna want to see you health card. It's not really a health card, it's stuff like your mamma taught you, you know...before you use the bathroom you wash your hands, after you get done you wash your hands, you don't lick the peaches, you know, it's just simple stuff.

Them's the three biggest problems I've got.

What are the major outlets for your produce now?

This right here. When we first started, what really put us in business, we had a local owned grocery chain here. It was called White Stores. They had about ten, fifteen stores. Had one in Crossville, some in Knoxville, they were all within a 200 mile radius. And they had a central warehouse in Knoxville. We got to know the man and he told us, he said, "look...I'll buy anything y'all can raise if it's number one, and I'll pay you market price for it. But," he said, "if it's not number one I don't want it for any price." We honored that. We never took him a thing that wasn't just what he wanted. And back in them days we didn't have the cold storage, you know, you didn't have apples all year round like you do now; you didn't have cold storage. So we would come in early and we would wash and grade the apples...he'd give us an order: red delicious, golden, we'd box, bag 'em, and haul 'em up there, and he'd pay us market price, which was god money back then, eighteen, nineteen dollars a bushel. See we were earlier than the northern apples in Washington and Oregon...we was right on the front and we'd get the premium price. And that's really what got us rolln'. And then as time went on what happened to the White Stores is like everything else. Food City bought it out. Well, Food City is gigantic, you see, and that just shut all that off. Little guy like me, I can't sell to them. They want a tractor trailer load and they want it on Tuesday morning, they want it delivered in Virginia someplace. You know, this guy I ould haul a hundred, two hundred bushel up there on my old ton truck. That's how things is changing. All we do now, I just try to raise enough that I can retail out the door. I can't make it wholesale. These fellers that's got hundreds of acres they just cut the heart out of the price, I just can't survive wholesale. I just retail what we do right here and that's it.

Reggie Rowell was sitting at a picnic table under a big shade tree in front of his apple and peach orchard. On the same property there is an old one-story motel that used to be run by his parents before they got into orcharding. The motel is now just a testament to the past and has not had a guest since the 70's. There is also a warehouse that functions as the farm store where people come from far and wide to buy their apples and experience the farm.
Reggie is kind and humble. He's got a John Deere cap and overalls on and looks like he just quit working to talk to us. He's got 2500 apple trees here and 3 acres of peaches- something relatively new that he's experimenting with but the public seems to adore. As for the big issues he deals with as a farmer he tells us about government regulations that are set up with good intentions to protect the consumer as well as the farmer's investment, but end up backfiring much of the time. There are so many universal regulations that apply to every farm operation and it doesn't matter if you have 2,500 acres or 25,000 acres, you still have to jump through the same hoop. Most conglomerate farmers have more money than the one-horse operators so to speak, and can jump the hoops with less stress and financial loss. The little guys face bankruptcy when the government intervenes. And some of the regulations seem inane and ridiculous- like selling food that you process yourself to your neighbor. That is how business used to be done, however nowadays no matter how much your neighbor trusts you and wants to buy directly from the source to legally do that has become very difficult. With a non-processed food like apples Reggie can still sell them directly from his farm, but if he were to turn it into apple butter, enter the government and a slew of restrictions. This begs the question, why is government a necessary third party in personal relationships? Can't we support our neighbors anymore?

Reggie has noticed an interesting trend in the sales of his apples- people no longer buy apples by the bushel or peck; they buy what they think they will need for a day or two. Thoughts as to why this may be include the fact that not as many people know how or care to preserve the summer bounty through canning or freezing. And there is a real shortage of money in this strapped economy. Also, importing apples has really hurt the apple market here in the States.

Another number that doesn't compute well for the future of farming in the States is the number of farmers in our society and the age of those farmers. At an apple growers conference Reggie recently went to he looked around the room and realized every one of those farmers had grey hair. The more or less official statistic is 2 percent of the people in this country have farms, and the average age of those farmers is 58. Pretty close to retirement for most folks.

Labor is a difficult issue as well. Reggie says that though he would like to hire local folks they simply can't keep up with immigrant labor. All the issues that come with immigration are present on this orchard.
For all the hard things Reggie has told us about, there are really good things as well. After an episode of heart trouble a few years back his doctor told him he should find a relaxing hobby. Reggie thought about it and searched for something he would like and he finally decided that he'd "play with John Deere tractors." We were thinking he meant so that he could use them in his orchard, but in the true fashion of a hobby they are not for business. Every once in a while Reggie brings them all out of the barn and just fires them up for the pure pleasure of hearing them run. He smiles just talking about it, and before we go he gives us two peaches for the road, delicious and juicy.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Crossville, Tennessee: Chris Hughes, greenbean farmer

Chris Hughes sounded tired when he agreed to meet with us and we found out why when we showed up at his bean processing facility. During harvest season he works so hard that sleep just doesn't fit into his schedule and so when we arrived he was going on 40 hours of straight work with no nap scheduled in the near future.
Chris has been no stranger to hard work since he began in the bean business shucking with his future father-in-law's operation. Now Chris has 3,000 acres of his own green beans and 300 acres of butter beans with a crew of 100 people working during the harvest. There has been a big heat wave this summer that has dried up many of Chris' competitors' beans, which means that Chris can charge more for his if they survive the heat. He gets a hopeful look on his face as he tells us there's a chance it will rain tomorrow.
"You have to be an optimist to be a farmer" and Chris seems to really take that to heart. He has invested 2.5 million dollars in his bean fields (for one crop) and there are so many elements of growing that are out of his control. It's not just summers that see Chris working night and day; in the winter he and his wife and a skeleton crew head down to Florida to custom harvest other farmers' beans. The last 3 winters have had a lot of freezes in Florida and so Chris has taken a financial hit there.As we interviewed him inside his office within his new barn, filled with state-of-the-art sorting and separating equipment (another massive investment), he constantly checks the TV screen that flashes through scenes around his property. We talk about government regulation (a popular topic) and how it affect farmers on so many levels. He will soon have to get rid of the wooden boxes he uses, in favor of plastic ones due to new vegetable regulations. Boxes don't seem like much, but on the scale that most farmers in this country work, they add up to a lot of worth. But he loves this life, as he must to dedicate 14 months out of the year working with beans on some level.

The day after our interview with Chris it does in fact rain, just when he needed it most.

Strawberry Plains, Tennessee: Curtis Blake, Blake Dairy

I forgot to mention what a shock it is driving into Pigeon Forge, Tennessee from the Smoky Mountain range: it is a shock. The lush wilderness disappears into another kind of wilderness 8 lane neon tribute to extreme tackiness and tourism. Trav made me turn around and drive as slow as possible so he could take pictures... we fit right in with all the tourists that way. (On the other hand, Dolly Parton has created thousands of jobs and dumped tons of money into services for her home community of Pigeon Forge, enabling the town to survive economically). A tour guide we saw described "the 3 miles of neon-powered lunacy that is Pigeon Forge."
We met up with Curtis Blake, his children, and his mother, Donna, in Strawplains, TN on their dairy farm. They are a holdout in Knox County where 100 dairy farms used to exist; in the last 60 years it has dwindled down to the Blakes and 2 others. Curtis is the second generation who is running the farm and he believes that part of the reason for the severe drop in the dairy business is the terribly low milk prices farmers have been getting for the last few years.
Curtis also told us about some unforseen building costs he is facing personally; in 2003 the government offered a deal to farmers who needed to upgrade their lagoons in order to comply with EPA standards. The government promised to pay 90% of the cost but then backed out and Curtis has had to take out a huge loan to finish the construction he had already started. In addition, a new barn was built recently, but the contractors did not understand the nature of cows and many alterations had to be made.
Curtis is an interesting case in that he decided to change the farm into a dairy farm, a risky business, after years of the land growing other crops. They are now milking 120 cows and have the pastures broken up into 15 2-acre paddocks.
The Blakes are considering bottling their own milk and opening their farm up for agritourism as a way to add income as well as educate folks about what farmers do. It's a wonder to Curtis that many folks not living around farms don't seem to know about how food is grown before it reaches the shelves at the grocery store. Many farmers have made the comment, word for word, that "people think food comes from the grocery store! Kids think chocolate milk comes from brown cows."