Johnny Cash covers a song written by Roy Clark in 1970, called “I Never Picked Cotton.” In it, the song’s protagonist proudly boasts that he died never having picked cotton, even though “my mother did And my brother did And my sister did…” It’s a good song that unfortunately says a lot about the poor nutrition and lack of healthy food access for many rural Americans who, in the last two generations, have associated farming with sharecropping and poverty.
In the song, the protagonist kills a man who tells him to “go back in his cotton sack.” The farm and its back-breaking work have been something to run from, to strive to leave for many rural people, especially in the South. Buying a Super Value meal at McDonald’s, for far too many rural Americans, means you’re not a hard-scrabble farmer anymore, regardless of the increasingly publicized health costs of a fast-food diet.
Rogersville, TN is Johnny Cash and June Carter country. They ran around these country roads together since June grew up in nearby southwestern Virginia. The Carter family lived in a tight, thin-soiled valley walled in by low, shaley ridges covered in birch, beech, hickory, and mountain laurel. A valley similar to the one John and Elizabeth Malayter decided to start farming in 2004.
The Malayters had been living in New Jersey, Elizabeth working as a chef and John with the state’s Air National Guard. They grew tired of the city life and its high cost of living. So they looked for a home and land where they could grow food and support themselves, a modern farm version of “living off the land” since they hoped their food sales could at least cover home payments and insurance. John and Elizabeth finally found a suitable piece of land. It began at a creek valley bottom and climbed up a rocky, second-growth-forested slope. They could move immediately into the 1970s house and use the one-hundred-year-old barn to store the farm equipment they’d need to buy. They wanted livestock.
“We ended up buying twelve goats at one time,” says John. “It was an accident. The guy just gave me too good of a deal. Then we bought chickens and turkeys.”
The Malayters didn’t really know what they were doing. Elizabeth heard about Appalachian Sustainable Development, based out of Abingdon (also a USDA's Community Food Project (CFP) recipient). She attended an intensive course in organic farming, everything from how to grow, raise seeds, and avoid pesticides organically, to general food safety issues. Through her part-time work in local restaurants, Elizabeth got to know some chefs and customers who wanted to buy her produce.
Soon after beginning the farm, the Malayters heard about the Jubilee Project, a faith-based non-profit with the goal of assisting farmers in transitioning from tobacco crops to more sustainable alternatives. Jubilee had begun a Farm-to-School program with five northeast Tennessee food districts and they needed local growers to supply the produce.
“So we started working with them and they had funding to support our efforts organizing and distributing the produce,” says Elizabeth. “But we kept running into roadblocks with school districts not being able to buy produce for just one school. We had to provide to all or none.”
Elizabeth tried her best to organize distribution routes and use existing truck distributors from the large-scale school-food providers, but no one was able to develop an efficient, sustainable strategy to get produce from a wide range of growers to a half-dozen schools. The small farmers like the Malayters didn’t have the transportation resources to deliver to so many locations and the large food providers had the trucks but not the time nor the willingness to assume liability for so much potential confusion with multiple producers and multiple products going to a variety of disconnected schools.
Elizabeth and growers like her can work with a single school, as long as it is small enough to avoid the laborious bidding process required for food service providers. The Rogersville School has less than 500 students and it’s close to the Malayters. “I can call up that food service director and show up with three cases of tomatoes,” says Elizabeth. “She just pays me $60 and we’re done. She doesn’t have to go through the bidding process of larger orders at larger schools. I could do the same at the little Clinch School of K-12 since it has less than 600 students, but the county won’t let me because their legal obligations state that they can’t pay for just one school. I’d have to provide for all the county schools and I could never operate on that scale.”
“One guy tried to do it with cantaloupes and watermelons. He even had trucks and workers, but he quit because he couldn’t keep up with the time required to grow and move so much produce to so many locations.”
It’s easy for the Malayters to sound like downers. Like they tried and it just didn’t work. But the thing is, they’re still digging in, figuring out ways to raise more chickens, to bring in pigs, to connect growers to consumers in the northeast Tennessee region. They are the only organic egg producers in Tennessee. Their 500 chickens produce over 100 eggs per day, most of which are sold at markets in Knoxville, eighty miles away. When they are ready to slaughter one of their pigs, they send out an email to those whom they know might be interested and they sell chops and sausage. Elizabeth thinks she could sell a goat a week at market if they got serious about it.
Despite their troubles within the school district, the Malayters and the original Jubilee Project work have lit a spark in Rogersville. A tiny, dim spark, but enough to begin some conversation about food and organics and a return to farming that doesn’t mean low-wage sharecrop labor. They might be facing tough challenges finding viable markets and consumers within their immediate community, but they’ve tapped into the Knoxville foodie scene, a typical rural-urban connection that can support projects like that of the Malayters as they figure out ways to engage their local communities with local, fresh food.
Elizabeth points out an old-timer farmer named Hugh whom she connected to Three Rivers Co-op in Knoxville. Hugh had been raising grass-fed cattle long before it was trendy. He’s now getting up to three times the price at Knoxville’s Three Rivers that he was previously getting for his high-end beef.
It’s no easy task to raise food and livestock on eight inches of soil atop shale bedrock. It’s not easy to find non-fast-food in the multiple counties surrounding Rogersville, either. Diabetes and obesity patients dominate the local health care facilities. They are the same problems that effect urban food deserts. But here, there’s land. Rough land, but land. Food can be grown in yards. Grandparents learned from their parents to grow and cook anything during the Depression. So the idea of buying an organic tomato from the Malayters for a price that reflects the costs to raise an organic tomato, is crazy to many local Rogersville residents. They say their grandmother grows those, why would they buy them. But the farming generation is dying. And it’s too easy to drive-through Hardee’s. The Malayters and their small, scrappy network, are working the thin soils as hard as they can so maybe Roy Clark’s song can just be a song again, not an explanation.