Farm Story: Finally, I’m A Farmer!

A Tennessee woman raised in the city but with a farming heritage eventually returns to her home state to proudly carry on her family tradition.

by Karen Shaw
PHOTO: Karen Shaw

I grew up in the big city of Nashville, Tennessee, which was not exactly the place to acquire farming skills. However, I had roots in the country, and I knew it: The Shelby County, Illinois, 1865 census declared that my great-great-grandfather, Rezin Whitlatch, “went to farming on land he purchased.”

I discovered pictures of my two grandfathers, one plowing behind two mules and the other casting seeds on the land where my mother grew up in western Kentucky. But when she married and moved to the city, she wanted her four daughters to be cultured, which meant piano lessons, ruffled dresses and classical music. However, there was a bit of a problem with that. I liked to climb trees, collect bugs and salamanders, keep pet mice, and catch crawdads in the creek—and I hated piano lessons.

While my mother was busy making us into ladies, we still took trips back to my grandparents’ farm. I have memories of my aunts gathered in the kitchen to put away freshly picked produce, the clucking of chickens, climbing trees in the apple orchard, and the outhouse down the hill. I ate homemade biscuits, strawberry preserves and smoked ham and bacon, and drank from tin cups. Yet it bothered me to know that mine was the first generation in our family not to grow up on a farm.

I took the dream of a log home and chickens to college and Southern California and everywhere else I lived in between—the longing buried in my heart.

I subscribed to a country magazine and envied the lives of the women featured in their boots and jeans. Eventually, I wasn’t able to look through them at all because it made my heart hurt and my mind resent all the concrete, people and noise around me. Yet I moved forward with my career in the world of square office spaces and artificial lighting, pretending that was what I wanted.

Then, life changed: My husband’s career took us first to Colorado and then back to the hills of Tennessee, where we were able to afford a bit of land and a log home. I now have a rabbit named Sunshine that makes lovely manure for my gardens and greets me with spinning hops. I have lots of beautiful chickens that lay eggs we eat and sell, and I feel like a kid at an Easter-egg hunt every time I go to the coop.

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farmer farming tennessee goats

I tend vegetable and flower gardens, compost, collect rainwater and maintain a worm farm; Daddy would be proud. I can and freeze whatever I grow, and cook up Southern foods that remind me of my childhood. The addition of beehives has given me honey in the summer and increased the productivity of my vegetables and flowers. I’ve won ribbons at the state fair for my homemade soap and my artwork depicting country living. I’ve become a certified Master Gardener through our state university’s extension, with the goal of killing fewer plants in the process of learning how to grow things in Tennessee soil.

One of my greatest joys is becoming a farmer at Trevecca Nazarene University’s Urban Farm and Garden in Nashville. I help tend the large organic gardens; raise miniature Tennessee fainting goats, heritage chickens, andAmerican guinea pigs; and care for the tilapia in our aquaponics system housed in the campus greenhouse. I help tend the beehives and teach soap- and salve-making using our goat’s milk, beeswax and herbs raised in the gardens. In the summers, I help run the farm camps for local middle and high school students and try to pass on the knowledge other farmers have patiently taught me.

farmer farming tennessee

While moving rapidly toward the age most women retire, I feel like I’ve just begun to live. I find my 90-year-old mother chuckling when I take on the task of making my own lye from ashes and rainwater or when I declare that I plan to render lard from the pig we had butchered last year to make soap like my great-grandmother did so many years ago. But I can tell she’s proud of me, and she’s always willing to lend a hand when I’m not sure how things should be done.

Can it really be that I’m truly a farmer at age 58? Why, yes! And I can’t wait until the next census comes around and I can proudly write “farmer” on the occupation line, just like my great-great grandfather did so many years ago.

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