published Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

Side Orders: Meet farmers on their own turf

Crabtree Farms volunteer Karen Biles works in the greenhouse.
Crabtree Farms volunteer Karen Biles works in the greenhouse.
Photo by Dan Henry.

Ever wonder where your food is grown and who grows it? Here's a chance to learn.

The first-ever TasteBuds Farm Tour is coming to the Scenic City, and it will give you the opportunity to meet local farmers on their own turf while supporting TasteBuds Local Food Guide, a regional guide for finding local foods, grown or made within 100 miles of Chattanooga. The guide is now in its fifth year and is produced by Chattanooga's Crabtree Farms. It's a free publication and, in order to keep it free, organizers are hoping the farm tour will raise needed funds.

"Many people pick up the TasteBuds Local Food Guide and read through it and learn about the farms listed in it but, for most of them, the experience ends there," says Andrea Jaeger, programs coordinator at Crabtree Farms. "By putting on a TasteBuds Farm Tour, we are hoping to bring the guide to life for our readers. The goal is that not only will the visitors have a great time visiting the farms, meeting the farmers and seeing where their food is grown, but they will also gain a new appreciation for the value of buying locally grown foods."

Chrissie Plew, an urban farmer at Crabtree, thinks it's important for folks, particularly those who live in the city, to visit the farms.

"It takes us out of our technology-dominated world and reminds us of the fundamentals in life, in a way," she says.

A 2008 study found that less than 2 percent of the food purchased in our area was produced in our foodshed, says Jaeger.

"With the TasteBuds Local Food Guide, we try to help people connect with local food producers through a listing of farms and farmers markets in our area and also with restaurants and grocers who carry their products. The guide also has an in-season produce chart that tells what is available and when, as well as seasonal recipes that highlight the produce grown in our region.

"The farm tour takes it a step further by making it easy for families to visit farms and purchase the freshest local food on site," Jaeger adds. "This is a great opportunity for our community to learn what's available and to take the first steps to incorporating local food in their diets."

The TasteBuds Farm Tour will take place Sept. 21-22 from noon to 5 p.m. A $20 car pass allows you to take as many as will fit into your car -- safely -- for a self-guided road trip adventure. The pass is good for both days. While at each farm, you'll get a 30-minute to 1-hour guided tour by your host farmer, learn about where your food is grown and even see a few farm animals. Their farm stands will be open, so come prepared to stock up on fresh, locally-grown products.

Participating farms include Cloudcrest Farm, CoLyCo Farm, Crabtree Farms, Eagles Rest Ranch, Erma's Bees, Fresh Green Farm, Lamon Farm, Lavender 'N' Rust Herb Farm, Lookout Mountain Sustainable Homestead, Morris Vineyard and Winery, New Norm Farm and Red Clay Farm.

Car passes are available at www.crabtreefarms.org or by sending a check to Crabtree Farms, P.O. Box 2250, Chattanooga, TN 37409.

Jaeger hopes the farm tour will attract visitors from outside Chattanooga, too.

"It's estimated that agritourism brought in more than $54.2 million in 2012 nationwide," she says. "By having a weekend dedicated to bringing people to our local farms, we hope that visitor spending will support small businesses and benefit jobs in rural Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama."

While the height of the summer growing season has passed, many farmers markets continue to bring in local produce. And a new trend is shaping up. Farmers markets once were a seasonal business, but now, many are staying open year round, including Main Street Farmers Market, the Brainerd Farmers' Market, Mentone Market, Signal Mountain Farmers' Market and the St. Alban's Farmers' Market in the Hixson/Lakesite area.

"Our farmers are able to offer meats, honey, cheeses and cold-loving veggies like collards, beets, carrots, lettuce, potatoes and squash -- even in the winter time," Jaeger says. "If more customers demand local foods in the cooler months, our farmers markets will be able to stay open year round to meet their needs.

"Traditional grocery stores do some purchasing of local food, but they certainly could do better," she says. "A lot of times there is an increased trend in supporting local farmers in these stores, but their definition of 'local' can be more liberal than ours, and thus be confusing or misleading to customers who are trying to find food from our farmers. Visiting a farmers market or a farm stand is great place to start to get to know the farmer who grew your food."

And speaking of farms, TerraMae Appalachian Bistro has started its own farm and, while it's not here in Chattanooga, the produce comes in fresh every week, straight from Nashville. While many restaurants pride themselves on sourcing local and regional ingredients, TerraMae takes it a step further by growing much of its own produce. Sharon Oldham, wife of TerraMae owner Mark Oldham, is the farmer.

"I've always had a garden and, when Mark opened the restaurant, he told me to expand," she says.

With more than 15 years experience in growing vegetables, she quickly filled several acres with heirloom tomatoes, beans, sprouts, squash, watermelon, peppers and even a special variety of purple corn. She grows everything as organically as possible, although it isn't certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Once a week, Mark Oldham brings the latest crop to TerraMae Chef Shelley D. Cooper, who uses it to make many of her dishes. The menu changes frequently, depending on what's coming in from the fields. Cooper says almost half all the vegetables and herbs used at TerraMae come from the Oldham's farm.

As summer's produce wanes, Sharon Oldham will be replacing it with fall crops such as lettuces and spinach for dishes that include Chicken Marbella and creamed greens to pair with steaks and fish.

TerraMae is located in the StoneFort Inn at 120 E. 10th St.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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