gamut (2006-15)

Downtown on the Farm

Green Ring Around Knoxville

When I gave up trying to be a blue-collar hero back in the ’70s to get a journalism degree, I never would have thought that in the future—stove up and superannuated—I’d finally join the “Back to the Earth” campaign.

It was a movement I’d heard of as a schoolboy in the late ’60s. For someone of my background, raised in the rural exurbia of the small-town South, such a thing seemed redundant. My people had always been the salt of the earth, give or take a little iodizing.

Now here I find myself having crossed not only the cusp of a new millennium but the straits of middle age. The past fertilizes the future.

My white collar past is so distant it seems like a dream. Did I ever commute to a job in the city that required wearing a tie, answering the phone and being courteous? Nowadays, my boss yells at me by way of the Weather Channel. Instead of the AP Stylebook , I regularly consult the Farmers’ Almanac . I pray like Joshua for the sun to stand still or, like a slaving tenant farmer, to hurry it down. I study moon signs, which sometimes requires staying after school. Certain jobs are held off for Ember Days, those calendrical blips set aside at the change of the seasons for fasting and reflection. And which by some divine mystery, also rule phases of plant life.

I know the catechism of Troybilt, which includes certain Gnostic texts, like the secret some fellow told me long ago to keep the act of plowing from killing you dead in the traces. Which it will, if you try to fight the machine like John Henry. “You’ve got to let the plow find its level,” he advised. Eventually, many gardens ago, I figured out how to find that spatial place. It’s like a musician finding “the pocket.” It is a maxim that applies with Zen clarity to everything in life.

It’s that real old-time religion, man. And I am a true believer, as are many hereabouts. Just go downtown during the summer on Wednesdays and Saturdays and see the revived farmers’ market. Alongside the vendors of local produce and breads, soaps and salsas, free-range meats and eggs, you’ll find me with my specialty—organically grown culinary herbs. If I find the time to swing over to my pal’s place in Maryville and harvest some bamboo, I’ll be selling homemade didjiridus, too. Free lesson with each purchase.

There was always a garden in my childhood backyard. My wife and I have gardened everywhere we’ve lived. But until we bought our own place with acreage, the idea of growing more than we could can, dry, freeze or eat fresh ourselves seemed out of reach.

Contending with illness and aging led to an intensive lifestyle reappraisal. Something had to replace the fat and salt of the hillbilly food we were enculturated to love.

A lot of backsliding occurs, but now I lust for cilantro, garlic and infusions of Scoville pepper heat units over that good ol’ deep-fried and smothered fare. It is probably my 15th year growing habaneros, tomatillos and such—doing my part for the Hispanicizing of East Tennessee, I suppose. But it started with simply trying to contend with the weight gain that followed getting cigarettes out of my life. Doing so called for replacing fatty, salty foods with herbed flavors—basil, oregano, tarragon, rosemary, marjoram, stevia, fennel, dill, chives, lovage and so on.

This is only my second summer of selling on Market Square. I’m an amateur compared to Jerry Baird and Gary Van Cott, the big dogs among the farmers’ market’s organic growers. Those dudes share their full line of vegetables on Market Square. And the father-daughter team of Donald and Wendy Perkins—though they may not be into organic—bring a little Tennessee Gothic, old-school farming to the program.

Me, sitting on my tailgate with my bachelor’s degree in communications and 25 years’ experience as a reporter, editor and freelance writer—I’m selling $2 baggies of nouveau cuisine flavorings. I’m the worst dilettante in the world. “Farmer” seems like overkill. But, I’m not sure what to call what I do. Perhaps, at this strange juncture of my life, I have become…an herb-monger?

Downtown on the Farm As with so many things about Knoxville that work—unlike government and infrastructure—it’s the little clutches of visionaries and pioneers who keep pushing downtown toward a hopeful future. 

Like Charlotte Tolley, an unflappable young woman who somehow doesn’t sweat even as she sits in the blistering heat alongside us codgers with peach baskets of produce splayed out around our trucks. More than any other single person, Tolley keeps the farmers’ market up and running in a semblance of what it used to be on Market Square, as Joseph Mabry mandated when he deeded the space to the city 153 years ago.

She does so at the behest of the Market Square District Association, a nonprofit alignment of businesspeople dedicated to making the only truly lovely part of Knoxville an attractive place to live, visit and do business.

The volunteers who help—Sarah Bush, John Schmid, Kristen Faerber and Art Carmichael—are crucial.

Green Ring Around Knoxville There’s work to be done so let’s do it little by little. —Bob Marley , “Wake Up and Live”

For my part, I would hope the little farm my wife and I are developing so gradually at our property in north Knox County can become a pixel in a slowly developing larger picture: a green ring of small farms surrounding and sustaining Knoxville.

Regardless of what type of people we are and what brought us here, the big thing we have in common is support for the concept of the region being able to feed itself, at least, more than it or any part of the country does in this era of global agribusiness.

As a replenished version of the old “Back to the Earth” movement melds with a new urbanism, we recognize the value of preserving surrounding rural areas for food production. Along with improving diets, we conserve greenspaces and slow down the decline in metropolitan air quality. It is utopian, of course, but self-reliance would provide a hedge against the vagaries of the transportation industry. Our dependence on foreign energy sources could decrease, as would our need for chemicals to keep produce “fresh” for long trips to distant markets.

Farming—market gardening, as I prefer to call my microcosmic agriculture—is wretchedly hard work. But there is great joy to be had from the labor and from the results.

Sometimes, there’s even excitement. When you’re barreling down the highway in a pickup truck so overloaded with compost that the front end lifts up like a drag racer— whee-eee!— I think you could call that fun. “X-treme Farming,” perhaps.

To be sure, there are days when farming seems like digging holes and then filling in those holes—very demanding holes, at that—more than communing with the saints. But you know you’re grooving with the ancestors when you prep those beds for new plantings and the tiller kicks up a perfect purple ruby of a turnip from the fall garden. And you reach down and grab it up and thrust it skyward, emoting like some scenery-chewing Vivien Leigh, “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again!”

And even at the most doubtful “what-the-hell-am-I-doing” moments, like when you haven’t sold anything for an hour, there is an ineffable delight to be had from sitting on your tailgate in the middle of what looks like a Frank Capra movie set and tooting your didjiridu.

The Farmers’ Market will reopen Saturday, May 6, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Market Square, continuing on subsequent Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Saturdays thru November 18.

It is thus with farming; if you do one thing late, you will be late in all your work. —Cato the Elder

It doesn’t seem possible it’s that time again.

Time to figure out what we’re going to grow and where to put it this season among the array of raised beds and traditional plots strung out along our typical East Tennessee hollow farm.

Time to be sorry I didn’t till the garden one more time last fall, or at least scrape off the resulting groundcover weeds and then till again during the rare winter dry spell. That I didn’t get a few loads of manure from the stockyard and offload it where it could compost until ready to broadcast, assuming I also had the resources to put a little wire mesh fence around it so the dogs wouldn’t turn it into an all-we-can-eat veterinary nightmare. 

I’m impossibly behind, and it’s not helping that Bermuda grass and crabgrass are metastasizing throughout half of the cultivated plots. Thistle sprouts where it never has before. A wispy but tenacious sweetpea-looking thing has moved in as well. All this unanticipated prep work is slowing me down. At least I know what my mistake was—buying topsoil on good faith.    

Next spring, when you’re not down on your knees using needle-nosed pliers to pull unwanted invaders out of your garden by the root, you can thank me for what I’m about to tell you. It took these invasions for me to realize the obvious—that the topsoil bought through classified ads and from reputable nurserymen and greenhouse suppliers is simply that—the soil scraped off the top of land being developed. Which, even sifted as many vendors brag, contains thousands of varieties of seeds, spores and roots of whatever was growing there in the first place.

And those are the benign hitchhikers.

My calls around the county to locate compost and topsoil that I could apply to an organic garden came down to a very short list. Only one or two compost outlets seemed promising, providing reasonable pedigrees for their uncompromised wares.

The best advice I can give you urban victory gardeners is to make your own compost. Your plots are small enough that you should be able to save all your kitchen leavings and grass clippings and rake your leaves up into piles to rot and convince the odd KUB chipper crew to leave you some of their clippings. If you can’t or won’t do that, it’s caveat emptor. Buyer beware. 

by the dirt beneath my nails, I guess he knew I wouldn’t lie… “Motorpsycho Nightmare,” Bob Dylan

Ask your own questions. Ask the dealer where they obtain their topsoils and composts. Ask what’s in the compost. If they get pissy with you, go to the next listing. If they can’t answer your questions, don’t buy. Find out if they use materials dredged from river bottoms. If they do, consider the witches’ brew upstream—Tennessee Eastman, Magnavox and the nameless thousand other sources of heavy metals, toxins and dioxins. Do they incorporate compost that comes from the Sevierville Composting and Solid Waste Facility, which disposes of a wide variety of unsavory materials to make compost, including sewage sludge? You might appreciate knowing that one major soil merchant is described as “strip mining” his property in South Knoxville for topsoil, much to the ire of his neighbors and local environmental watchdogs.

A couple of compost dealers use only leaves and horse manure. That’s the good stuff. If you have a pickup truck, go to the Monterrey Mushroom plant in Loudon County and get a load of their famous byproduct.

Otherwise, the search for soil amendments that are not only safe but guilt-free makes it hard to tell where one kind of bullshit ends and another begins. Environmental rollbacks and sweetheart dealings tend to put a lot of gray areas into the balance between the human right to know what’s safe and corporate need for profit.

Just remember—you have to eat the difference.