Knoxville's All-Natural Farmers

In a tight economy, local couples are supplementing traditional jobs with a new lifestyle: natural farming

It's just 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, one hour into the afternoon farmer's market, and the 50-plus parking spots at Laurel Church of Christ on Kingston Pike are all taken; new arrivals grimace as traffic snarls. Anxious drivers stare each other down to determine who gets to assume the slots emptied by shoppers who already loaded sheafs of lavender, round whole wheat loaves, blistered crookneck squash, rainbow Swiss chard and such into mesh bags and cardboard boxes to take home.

The next day, Saturday July 11, neon-vested security guards are on duty at 8 a.m., quietly watching a crowd beginning to fill the sidewalks and closed side streets of Market Square downtown. Already the shoppers are eating giant snickerdoodles, sampling chow-chow, sniffing fennel and pondering peaches—and rubbing elbows. At day's end, the market will have drawn a modern-era record 60 vendors in one week,

That's how much Knoxville's interest in locally grown produce has grown in recent years and even recent months, spurred by the convening interests of environmental health, keeping food dollars in the local economy, and plain old fresher taste and more variety. But that's just the buyers' side of the story. As the national and local economy continues to stall, with the accompanying unemployment reaching 10 percent in Knoxville in this same Summer of Loving Vegetables, growing and selling produce has taken on a new allure for those looking to pay their bills while doing work they can feel good about, for an appreciative public.

Market Square Farmers Market director Charlotte Tolley says she's seeing many vendors who are returning to farming after a break. "And in this new era of farming, what we're seeing—and what's happening all over the country—is many young farmers trying to grow for the first time on family land, or buying farm land near family property to take up farming."

Working the earth sounds like a dream job for sustainable-living-era citizens, with the added benefits of no hiring manager to impress, no clients to charm, no dues to pay. For the price of some land, tools, seeds, sun, and water, the job is yours. But becoming a new natural or organic farmer brings pressures of its own, and as these two fledgling farm couples will tell you, the life is satisfying, but never easy.


It doesn't take much to make Jessica Hammonds happy. Thumb-to-pinkie size carrots, fresh-pulled with their tops still on, $3 a bunch at her Organicism booth at the Laurel Church of Christ farmer's market in early May. "They're so sweet and yummy, they just make me happy," she's telling a teenage girl in her quick-but-clear banter, a sincere ear-to-ear smile on her tanned, freckled face.

It makes her happy, she says, that she's going to Cincinnati for a domestic kitchen license class in July so she and her boyfriend, Ryan Carden, can add salsas and such to their produce offerings, and that they're growing Russian heirloom Moon and Stars watermelons that will have yellow spots on purple fruits, and already have pretty dots on their dark green leaves, and that her half-dozen chickens will soon start laying eggs.

Mere months ago, Hammonds was not so happy. She and Carden were living in Nashville. Her job at an organic farm owned by Loretta Lynn's daughter Peggy came to a halt when the season ended. Carden lost his job as operations manager for the American division of a Korean guitar company, too, and couldn't find another.

"I was working in a restaurant," says Hammonds. "I hated my life. No, not really. But I hated my job with a passion."

Now, the 25-year-old Seymour native and graduate of Heritage High School has a new job. Inspired by a school project on organics Hammonds had done years earlier, and with her mother's support, she and Carden decided to move to Knoxville in January to start Organicism, a non-certified organic farm, this spring. Their consumer marketing niche includes online produce sales, with free delivery within a certain area of Knoxville, and they also sell wholesale to stores like Three Rivers Market and to restaurants like Sunspot and Crown & Goose when they can. Carden, who's also 25 and originally from Atlanta, and Hammonds rent a place off Sutherland and commute to their garden plot next to her mom's house in Seymour, on a scooter whenever possible to conserve gasoline. "My grandmother bought the land and it's been jointly owned by family members for 14 years—there's like 8,000 names on the deed," says Jessica.

But there's only two people toiling in the field, experimenting with organic seeds, unusual heirloom varieties like purple kohlrabi, and any number of natural farming methods Hammonds learned about at her last job—or just pointers they pick up here and there. On a hot day in July, Carden's in a music industry-issue plain white T-shirt and straw cowboy hat; Hammonds' wearing shorts, tank top, movie star headscarf, and over-size sunglasses. Mud oozes through her toes (with shell nail polish); she's barefoot. "It's been so muddy this year, sometimes we go out and pick and end up losing our shoes, so I just don't wear them," she says.

Carden does wear shoes, today at least, hip-guy Converse, as he wields a "shuffle hoe" with triangular pivot blade to slash a few weeds amidst the purple tomatilloes and Hopi pink popcorn in their experimental "no-till" bed. "I just basically baked the weeds and bugs out of it under heavy plastic for about six weeks," he says with a grin.

At the start, he envisioned himself more as the business and marketing heavy hitter. "But I figured I could get down and dirty, too," says Carden, who has done a bit of gardening but never worked on a farm. "There are pluses and minuses to both office jobs and farm work, but the only minus that really applies is that I'm not making nearly so much money as I did. But I wasn't happy sitting in an office all day long, so the move did take care of that disadvantage."

Nowadays he's almost never indoors, estimating that both he and Hammonds work about 50-60 hours per week, 6-7 hours every day. "We don't really take a day off," he says.

But profits are still a ways off. "One of my pressing goals is to get QuickBooks set up, and we've been saving receipts, but I haven't had time to see where we are," he says. "We might be close to breaking even, but I don't think we are breaking even. I understand that's normal for new farmers.

"We've got a little savings that we're living off right now. We're in expansion mode, so we can have the capacity to live off the money from what we sell. We're going to quadruple our no-till plots, and install several greenhouses. We don't want to become completely dormant in the winter."

Part of the learning curve has been throwing out a few lessons learned in the other city. "Coming from Nashville, we expected to be doing more retail, and while we love being out at the markets, we've been getting almost as good prices to sell wholesale or to restaurants, without all the time spent," says Carden. "A whole lot of the other vendors at the markets are not full-time farmers, so sometimes they're pricing stuff far below where we can sell it, because we have overhead."

There have been non-business adjustments for the two in moving here from Nashville, but they did both attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where they met six years ago in an English class. "There is a culture shock, but for the better, as weird as that sounds," says Carden. "In Nashville, hanging out, the people seem a little more pretentious, like an L.A. of the South. Here, we can identify with the people a little more. We can go out and see people we know. In Nashville, that didn't really happen or if it did, we were running into people we didn't want to see.

"There's something about Knoxville I enjoy... I can't believe I'm saying that!"

Mostly the two enjoy watching their flourishing patches of earth and tramping the thickets of just ripening blackberries. Three rows of their okra alone is enough to furnish Three Rivers Market and several farmers markets, too. Hammonds credits their pickled ramp juice and cayenne all-natural pesticide for the bounty, but other experiments haven't gone quite so well. "Beets were one hard lesson," says Carden. "We broad-seeded them and they were difficult to weed out. And the potatoes, we put them in cages with straw. The whole idea was that they would just pop out of the straw, instead of us having to dig them. But we used too wide of mesh on the fencing, so instead of popping out they grew out and spread all over."

Another disaster: Mexican bean beetles "were fiesta-ing on our crop," says Hammonds. "We didn't get a single one of the first planting. That's how you can tell we're organic."

But not certified organic. The couple says that certification in this area is just not practical or a value-add for them. "We adhere to all the standards. But in Tennessee, there is no organization that certifies for organics. So you have to go with someone from Florida, or Kentucky, and pay for them to travel down and eat on the way. We're just not going to do that."

The couple is just as determined to succeed in this precarious business. They both know they need to be breaking even by the end of the year, or their savings will be expended and Carden will be back in an office job.

"There's definitely a risk involved," says Carden. "But on the flip side, neither one of us has a car note or a mortgage. We don't really have to have a whole lot of dollars coming in to keep going, just more than we're making now. If either of us were going to look at it like, ‘Oh, we might have to get a job in the winter,' we'd never make it. We're treating it like there is no other option. We're working as hard as we can."

Luckily, neither one of the couple is seeking life's expensive luxuries, says Carden, and a minute later Hammonds demonstrates as she admires their okra patch. "Oh, I love these flowers," she says. "If a guy was gonna bring me flowers, I would want okra blossoms."

Carden eyes the dozens of plants with their hundreds of blossoms. "I think we have that covered," he says.

Hammonds pauses just a second. "No," she says, "Don't pick any!"

Movin' to the Country

It's a Sunday afternoon, social hour of the week at the farm, and Jana Graziano is wending her way through the vegetable garden with a visitor, a plastic cup of red wine in her hand and a muscular dog with a cut on his eyebrow, Angus, trotting at her heels. "See all these?" she asks, gently folding down heirloom Royal Purple Pod bean plants to reveal tomatoes, plant upon plant of hybrid Juliets, all laden with red fruit. "I'll have to pick all of these today, and then I'll put them all in the dehydrator. Or they'll go to waste."

To get the tomatoes to a kitchen, she'll drive back from this farmhouse on land she and husband David bought in December—way out on Emory Road in Corryton—to her house in Park Ridge in Knoxville. She'll sleep there, and wake up and put in a full day as a grower for Gregory's Greenhouses, where she's also a manager. After work, she'll drive back to the farm, maybe hoe the corn or pick the basil, and start the routine all over again the next day.

"I do get tired sometimes," says Jana, who's 50, deeply tanned and with a runner's physique. "Sometimes I come out here in the quiet and just throw a fit. But you have such nice spots, you just have to find them and enjoy them."

Transitions are like that. The couple and their 23-year-old son Levi have changes raining down upon them. David, a quiet man with a muscular frame and easy gait who describes himself at 57 as "old enough to know better," lost his job last fall. He's still getting used to the idea, saying he's "been in millwork, building materials, since '87," and only at the end of the sentence remembering to add, "Was in." Around then, Levi lost his mainstay job as a salesman at a flooring superstore.

The family reached a decision to buy Clear Springs Farm about the same time. "The economy does have something to do with this, it's a partial catalyst," says David in his deliberate way. "But we've always liked living in the country. We moved to the city, did it for four years, but that's as long as we can be city people."

Jana describes David as "Mr. Whatever You Want to Do, Honey," a steadying force, and also a very hard worker. He spent some of the early spring on landscaping and home-project contracting, and would like to delve further into edible landscaping in the future. But to keep up with farm payments, and to fund the cabin at the farm the couple plans to build to live in, David recently took work as a cashier for a small business. He spends at least two hours commuting most days. That leaves just evenings, and part of the weekend, for any of the Grazianos to trek to the land off Emory Road in Corryton, which boasts a spring-fed creek, a columned vintage farmhouse with crumbling porch, a screened solar shower, and about an acre of land first tilled in March. The soil's bolstered only by the all-natural Horse Hooch liquid fertilizer they make from water and horse manure.

Jana doesn't so much talk as she performs skits to relay the tribulations and triumphs on this patch. "A groundhog ate every single sunflower we planted," she says, scolding the row with a pointed finger. She throws her arms out wide and treads heavily down a row to imitate the day Levi accidentally mixed vats of Horse Hooch and Herbafear, Jana's natural pesticide of garlic and other herbs ("the smell also repels some customers," she says.) "He just hauled it down here," she recites, stomping like Levi, "and pushed it over on this row. Whoosh! And look at this corn! It's a foot taller than the next row over."

Like so many new to growing for market, the Grazianos go "all natural," but they're not inspired to become organically certified. "From what I've heard from everyone, certification is such a big deal—I have enough issues to deal with without that," says Jana. "People know I don't like Roundup or any of that junk. I've been in horticulture for 35 years. Any employers who asked me to spray in their greenhouses, I'd say, ‘Absolutely no.' That's at any place—‘You want that, do it yourself.' I would not subject myself to those chemicals. Or anyone in my family. Or my friends. Or anyone else."

The Horse Hooch is also their first moneymaking farm sales venture; they make it in giant barrels at the farm to sell through local vegetable stands, Three Rivers Market, and hardware stores. "We Dumpster-dive to get the plastic two-liter bottles it comes in, and I make my own labels," says Jana. "There's just no point in buying a lot of stuff to start a business. Especially not these days."

When Levi's not painting or doing the other odd jobs that pay his bills, he also peddles Horse Hooch, Herbafear, and heirloom vegetable plants at the local markets. "We're mostly just trying to get our name out there for right now," says Jana. "By spring 2010, we hope David can be our full-time farm representative, but right now Levi's the only one with any time at all."

If all goes well, this fall Levi can also sell high-profit margin berries from the three varieties of fall-bearing raspberry canes Jana is coddling.

"We didn't know we wanted to get into farming for profit at all in December, but I had noticed at the Gregory's Greenhouse stand how everyone at the markets wanted berries," says Jana, and interrupts herself to thunder, "Get off of there, Japanese beetle" as she picks off an offending bug. Then, back to a casual tone: "That's what got me on the berries, particularly really nice fall berries, because a lot have them in the spring, but not later."

Because of her greenhouse experience, along with some other entrepreneurial endeavors, Jana is the marketer of the group. "There are so many growers selling at the markets now, so many tomatoes, we need to get a little more specialized," she says. "Mostly we're just growing vegetables for our own use. I enjoy being able to take Peg at Magpies a bag of tomatoes for their lunches, or Greg at the greenhouse. I took beans to three neighbors last night. I just love to be able to share."

Jana also works through Magpies' certified kitchen to produce Tomato Topper, an organic herb/cheese mix she makes with a lot of her own organic herbs and sells through farm stands like Pratt's Market and Strawberry Fields. "I did it years ago and took it to the Grainger County Tomato festival—sold 75 bottles in one day," says Jana. "Then I put it on the back burner, gave away the rest for Christmas presents. It's a lot of work, kind of nickle and dime. But when we bought the farm, I thought, ‘It's time to bring it back.'"

Even with all Jana's marketing experience, the Grazianos have not developed any sort of five-year plan. "We're winging it," says Jana. "We might till more land—we'll expand on demand. We really want to have a berry farm. Maybe a sheltered area outside with a grill, where we can have a berry breakfast, berry brunch. And maybe campsites, for people who want to come and see and live like this for a while. If they don't want to work, they can pay a small fee for the site. Really, all of it is not so much about growing as it is having a place people can enjoy."

The move to the country brings the couple full circle, David reminds Jana. They've been together 30 years, Jana says.

"Twenty-eight," he says, a smile playing on the corners of his mouth, and shrugs. "That's pretty close to 30."

"Married 26, it took a couple of years." says Jana, her turn to smile, lowering her voice to imitate David: "‘There are three things I'm never gonna do. Go into debt! Get married! Have kids!'"

"Well when we first lived together in Union County, we had a cabin and 25 acres and no debt," David answers mildly.

Since then, the couple has moved back and forth to Vermont a couple times to be closer to David's family living there, until settling permanently in the Knoxville area in the mid-'90s.

Next, hopefully soon, they're moving to Corryton, to live on the farm full-time. "I can't wait to be able to just wake up and work," says Jana.