Shae Keane of Johnson City, TN, has volunteered to blog while going through the Field School program. Here is her post “Out of the Classroom and Onto the Farm” about the 5th session held Saturday March 19th at Rural Resources, Greeneville.
Crop Production Organic/Conventional/”Natural Process” with Melissa Rebholz
“Melissa is certainly a farmer with clear values, and someone who I believe everyone could entrust with the production of their family’s life nourishment. “
The most recent Field School landed participants on an organic farm— Rural Resources in Greeneville — who kindly welcomed the activities and lessons.
To begin our day on the farm, we were introduced to some of the background of Rural Resources. Karen Childress, an original founding member and now Executive Director of Jonesborough Locally Grown, shared with us her role and initial vision of revitalizing the farmland as a place to educate and provide communities with access to locally grown produce. After working diligently and committedly for three or four years, Karen carefully handed the project over to Sally Causey in 1996, who is, almost twenty years later, still the Executive Director of Rural Resources.
Rural Resources is clearly a place with meaning woven both into their work and the structures where they work. In her introduction, she let participants know that we were the first to ever meet under the roof of the pavilion where we sat. Though the pavilion is newly constructed, they’d incorporated a piece of the old barn that had been torn down. Sally shared with us the deepest seed of vision for Rural Resources: “To connect farms, food, and families.” Though simple in sound, it is a mission, we could see throughout the day, that requires immense focus, attentiveness, and commitment to maintain.
Rural Resources tends to a full-fledged farm with two primary growing fields, a greenhouse, chickens, two dairy cows, eight cats, and half a dozen pigs. After introducing us to the farm, Melissa Rebholz of River House Farm then stepped in and took us under her wing as our primary guide for the day. Melissa had previously worked at Rural Resources and now her business of running her own CSA, along with selling to restaurants and hosting farm-to-table dinners at her home on the Nolichucky River, is being “incubated” on Rural Resources land.
Melissa began by sharing threads of her journey of becoming a small organic farmer. She points out that many people don’t understand that when you want to be a farmer, “…you actually [also] need to be a carpenter, electrician, and a plumber— because there are a lot of other things involved.” [Here is an story article on “Urban Exodus” about Melissa.]
She spoke of farming as more accessible than people make it out to be when they imagine loans, cultivating machines, and expensive equipment as absolutely necessary. “Honestly,” she states, “I just think you need seed, soil, and a willingness to work — alright, I’ll throw a shovel in there too.”
Melissa then led us out to the greenhouse, which she herself had wrapped in plastic. She showed us the young plants growing from seed and spoke to the transplanting process that must happen afterwards as a process that she believes, when done the right way, is root-strengthening rather than detrimental to the plant. Pigs talked to each other just outside the greenhouse, reminding us that we were indeed on a farm.
Melissa spoke to the trials of a life of organic farming in this region— in particular, the difficulty of finding consistent support from local restaurants and individuals. Challenges she meets include unwillingness to pay for quality products, people’s expectation that a farmer’s market booth will look like the grocery store shelves, an inundated market for produce like tomatoes, and certain farmers who under-price their products, making it difficult for other farmers to make a living from their sales. She hopes, most of all, to be supporting her own local East Tennessee community with the foods she grows. However, at this point, it is not yet financially sustainable for her, and thus she currently sells much of her produce to restaurants in Asheville, NC, as she continues to seek ways to sell closer to home.
She then invited us to the River House and land she farms, just down the road from Rural Resources. Here, we saw first hand the attentiveness and hard work she pours into her garden beds and plants. She is certainly a farmer with clear values, and someone who I believe everyone could entrust with the production of their family’s life nourishment. She doesn’t use chemicals or pesticides, even those that are classified as “organic.” She does not use plastic mulching for her garden beds, as she prefers not to buy into petroleum-based products that will contribute to landfills already full of them. She is a do-it-yourself woman with a fierce commitment to quality, organic growing.
Closing out our farm visit for the day, Annette Wszelaki, Vegetable Extension Specialist from UT Knoxville arrived to speak with us about “integrated approaches” to managing pests and weeds organically. She opened with an Aldo Leopold quote, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” She then went on to share various techniques on organic pest and weed control, plant disease prevention, restoration of native pollinator populations, beneficial insects that deter bad pests, building soil, creating natural windbreaks for erosion control. With all techniques and approaches, she encouraged to “work with nature, not against it.”