Most would agree that locally grown foods offer numerous benefits – from flavor and nutrition to food safety, preservation of the environment, and more. What is not always known or understood are the sacrifices made by local growers to pursue their love for agriculture. Here’s a look into the lives of five area farm families and their methods to provide delicious, home-grown foods.
By Camille Platt
Keith & Katie Bien
Location: Wildwood Harvest in Wildwood, Georgia
Claim to Fame: 900 chickens, all named Penny, who will chase a truck on the property hoping for treats.
If you have a problem in a farming system, you add more life rather than take life away. That’s the premise behind Keith and Katie Bien’s agricultural efforts 10 miles south of downtown Chattanooga in Wildwood, Georgia. Slugs in your garden? Introduce ducks. They will eat the slugs without eating the plants, Katie says, and you will avoid the need for a chemical pesticide.
After graduating from Girls Preparatory School in 2002, Katie studied modern dance in New York City before returning to the Chattanooga area in 2008 to live on a 150-acre piece of land that has been in her family for four generations. As a farmer, she started out small with a vegetable garden and a few goats, fueled by memories of the farm’s original intent – her great-grandfather used it to raise cattle and racehorses. When she married her husband Keith, they spent their honeymoon in California becoming Certified Permaculture Designers.
“We feel like we’re not only doing this because we want to be connected to the land and grow our own food, but because we feel like we have a mission to show people that you can produce food in a way that does not harm the land and does not harm animals,” Katie says.
The Biens currently sell their eggs – known as Pastured Penny’s Free Range Eggs – at Pruett’s Signal Mountain Market, Earth Fare, and the Mountain Market, in addition to making them available for pickup on the farm. They also grow organic turmeric and ginger, available in the fall and winter, and raise bees and Red Wattle heritage pigs. Their “add life” view applies to the entire operation, chicken and eggs included.
“Chickens have a lot of predators,” Katie says. “Instead of going out and shooting coyotes – or a lot of farmers will put out poison – we introduced new life to the system. We have five livestock guardian dogs. They have made the farm their territory. They’re also in tune with aerial predators – so if there is a hawk in the sky, they will bark and alert the chickens, and the chickens will run and hide in the woods. It is all instinct.”
Photos by Med Dement
The McSpadden Family
Location: Apple Valley Orchards in Cleveland, Tennessee
Claim to Fame: A new strain of Gala apples was discovered on site in 1996.
The bakery’s fried pies have been named among the “Best Pies in the South” by Southern Living.
Chuck McSpadden remembers a field trip he took to a local apple orchard while in fifth grade at Oak Grove Elementary in Cleveland, Tennessee. It was winter, and after the class got a lesson in agriculture, they helped plant new trees. His peers loved every minute of it. Chuck, on the other hand, was a bit annoyed. Apple Valley Orchards was his home. And the farmers were his parents. “I thought it was the worst field trip of the year,” he remembers with a laugh, “because all I did was come home and work.”
Despite his misgivings in that particular moment, Chuck grew up captivated by his parents’ trade and the slow, beautiful life cycle of the fruit tree. When the air was chilled and frosty, the trees were bare, seemingly dead. Then change crept in. “The buds start to swell, the blossom opens, the bees come to pollinate – and the next thing you know you’ve got little apples on the tree,” he says. “It just always fascinated me watching that apple grow.”
Chuck’s father started tending apple trees as a hobby in the family’s backyard while working as manager in the garden department at Sears & Roebuck in Chattanooga. Living on the farm his wife grew up on as a child, he began selling apples in 1972 and went into full-time farming in 1979. While Chuck attended college for a time, he always knew he’d come back to the farm.
One of the best things about working in agriculture, he says, is that the job changes from season to season. In late summer, he rises early in the morning to help pickers with the harvest. In winter, he prunes broken branches and water shoots so sunlight can reach the middle of the trees, which results in larger apples. In spring, he checks insect traps, puts down fertilizer, and keeps an eye on the weeds, which can steal moisture and nutrients from the ground.
With 40 acres and approximately 14,000 trees – he takes out aging trees and replants each February – Apple Valley Orchards provides apples and cider to Village Market in Collegedale and Food City in Ooltewah. Harvested Here Food Hub distributes the product to restaurants, grocery stores, and institutional kitchens in the region.
The president of the Bradley County Farm Bureau, Chuck says many of the family orchards in business in Tennessee when he was a child are no longer operational. Whether that is a result of financial pressure, long hours, or lack of interest from the next generation, he can attest that the job isn’t easy. “You have to love it,” he says. “It’s a calling.”
Photos by Med Dement
Nathan & Padgett Arnold
Location: Sequatchie Cove Creamery in
Claim to Fame: In 2012, Sequatchie Cove Creamery’s Dancing Fern cheese, inspired by the raw milk Reblochon cheese in France, won first place in the American Cheese Society’s Annual Conference and Competition in the Farmstead Soft category.
It was a trip to Italy that first got Nathan Arnold, Padgett Arnold, and Bill Keener of Sequatchie Cove Farm bent on cheese making. Already experienced in produce and pasture animals, they developed a vision for adding a creamery to the farm as they toured the Alpine region. “Cheese just seemed to strike a chord with us,” remembers Padgett, who is now the creamery’s sales director. “Also because we really like cows, the idea of making something truly unique with milk that reflects the place we are – the grass, the soil, the animals – was really exciting.”
For Nathan, a graduate of Chattanooga Christian School, it was the unique blend of art and science that made cheese making so appealing. Inspired by what he tasted in France as well as the Swiss and Italian Alps, he slowly molded his Southern take on traditional alpine cheese. He traveled to Vermont, Wisconsin, and France to learn the trade. Today each of the seven handcrafted cheeses is made from non-pasteurized milk and aged for a minimum of 60 days.
In 2014, the Arnolds purchased the creamery from Sequatchie Cove Farm. They continue to work side by side with the Keener family, using milk from the farm’s cows in cheese production and returning the whey byproduct to livestock for its nutritional benefits.
Because each is so unique, it’s tough for the Arnolds to choose just one standout among the popular Sequatchie Cove Creamery cheeses sold at the Main Street Farmers Market and used by area chefs at restaurants like St. John’s and St. John’s Meeting Place, Urban Stack, 212 Market, Beast and Barrel, Hennen’s, Easy Bistro, and Main Street Meats.
Two of the most unique varieties include the Gruetli and Shakerag Blue cheeses. Gruetli is a semi-hard cheese aged on Southern white pine for at least 10 months. It is firm and nutty, a nod to cheese found in the French and Swiss Alps. Shakerag Blue is cloaked in fig leaves soaked in Chattanooga Whiskey.
Located 35 miles northwest of the Scenic City, Padgett, an alumnus of Baylor School, says the creamery’s success wouldn’t have been the same without Chattanooga’s support. “It’s our hometown, foundational community, customer-base, and support-network – everything goes back to Chattanooga,” she says.
Photos by Luke Padgett
LETTUCE, HERBS, AND MICRO GREENS
The Jones Family
Location: Lee and Gordon Greens in Chickamauga, Georgia
Claim to Fame: An above ground hydroponic greenhouse system that can support more than 8,000 plants at a time.
As an assistant manager with the Chattanooga Market, Gib Jones spends his weekends coordinating crews and logistics at the Cambridge Square Night Market on Fridays and the River Market on Saturdays. But come Sunday he’s working double duty – he helps run the Chattanooga Market while his mother, Joan, and fiancé, Katie Bass, represent their farming endeavors as a vendor. The owners of Lee and Gordon Greens, they sell more than seven different kinds of lettuce grown in a climate- and UV-controlled greenhouse that nearly runs itself via computers.
Inside their greenhouse off Lee-Gordon Mill Road in Chickamauga, the family grows romaine, bibb, red and green curly leafs, spring mix, and red oak lettuces as well as basil in plastic trays suspended at a two percent grade. A pump supplies a constant recycling of water and nutrients to the root systems. A double layer of plastic on the exterior includes an air cushion to act as insulation. Specialty shades and lighting allow for successful growth year-round.
Each week, Joan’s mother, who is 80 years old, plants 1,400 to 1,800 new seeds, and Katie transplants over 1,600 seedlings. “Instead of soil, we place the seed in a spun volcanic rock (rockwool),” explains Joan. “The nice thing about rockwool is it lets the roots breathe. It will hold moisture but it doesn’t hold it to where it will drown the root.”
Harvesting on Monday nights, Thursday nights, and Saturdays, Gib and Katie prep the greens for sale at weekend markets and also deliver to Alleia, Public House, Yellow Deli, Root, and Chattanooga Golf & Country Club.
While the mechanics at Lee and Gordon Greens are impressive, Gib notes that maintaining the business with his mother, who works full time at Capital Bank, hasn’t been without its frustrations. Since the business became theirs alone in 2013, he has taught himself to fix any plumbing or electrical issues. Joan runs a Facebook group called Hydroponic 911, where she swaps stories and encouragement with hydroponic farmers in Pennsylvania, Washington, and Cartersville, Georgia. For both, the end result of this modern farming method is worth all the hiccups in technology they’ve had to overcome.
“Farming is not easy, no matter which method you choose to do. But we don’t have to worry about drought. There are no insects. Because it’s an enclosed environment up off the ground, you have no risk of any kind of soil or animal-borne diseases. We don’t spray any kind of pesticides. It’s the cleanest lettuce you’re ever going to eat,” Gib says. “You see all these veins and contrast in color and vibrancy? That’s because it’s the perfect nutrient blend. The roots are pure white, which means it’s a perfect plant. And you can taste that too.”
Photos by Andy Mitchell
Rachel & Jonathan Otto
Location: White Oak Valley Farm in McDonald, Tennessee
Claim to Fame: Sixty varieties of heirloom tomato seeds for sale online. The siblings also harvest and sell seeds from arugula, beans, cowpeas, melons, okra, peppers, radishes, squash, turnips, watermelon, six different kinds of herbs, and more.
Vernon Calloway used to talk for days about his upbringing on a large farm near Gadsden, Alabama. He tended corn and cotton. He used mules and hand equipment. He eventually gave it up for a life in Chattanooga, raising his family in Collegedale and passing on his stories while teaching his grandchildren – who lived next door – how to stake tomatoes and pick beans. He prided himself on his personal collection of seeds, which he garnered from a variety of vegetables and unique trees.
When Vernon died in 2014, he passed his seed collection on to his granddaughter, Rachel Otto. She was determined to carry on his tradition. “He really inspired me. He loved not just farming; he loved the land and nature,” she says. “He always dreamed of having a farm again and doing it as his profession. I inherited his dream.”
Today Rachel and her brother Jonathan live with their parents on 16 acres in McDonald, Tennessee. They plant throughout the growing season on a staggered calendar. In the fall, they transition from planting, weeding, and cultivating to saving the seeds.
At times, however, much of their success is at the whim of Mother Nature. “Last year we lost 90 percent of our crops because there was so much rain. Our property that we are farming is along a creek, and it flooded several times,” Rachel says. “That actually is a very real part of – and our least favorite part of – farming. If nature brings you a bad year, it’s just a bad year.”
This year, however, has been fruitful. And customers who swear by the benefits of planting seeds grown in their region have 60 different tomato varieties to choose from including the brandywine yellow, giant Belgium, Sioux, and Cherokee purple.
“Many people want seeds grown and produced in their region,” Rachel explains. “So many diseases can affect tomatoes, and if seeds are produced in your region, they build up tolerances to certain weather and conditions and even diseases. People swear by the fact that seeds grow so much better when you buy them local.”
Photos by Jonathan Otto