​Panelists Discuss Farm Life and Challenges

by Kevin Cummings, Messenger Staff Writer

Protein was the main topic, but regional farmers also delved into environmental stewardship, healthy livestock and a variety of other topics in a panel discussion on Feb. 9 at the Sewanee Community Center.
Rooted Here, an organization that envelops the South Cumberland Farmers Market and Food Hub, sponsored the discussion. The panelists were unified in stating a desire to be good environmental stewards and raise livestock and produce without using hormones, pesticides or GMOs.
Lynn Blankenship of Dayspring Farm raises grass fed beef cattle and other livestock on 250 acres in the Skymont community near Altamont.
“We wanted to know exactly what we were eating and that’s why we got onto our farm,” she said. ‘We wanted to raise food for our family and that was our primary purpose.”
Leslie Lytle, president of Rooted Here, said there is a strong movement toward organic and sustainable farming, especially in the greater Sewanee area.
“We couldn’t have done this (panel discussion) 10 years ago,” she said. “We’re lucky to live in a community that will pay for organic.”
Wayne Diller and wife Margaret grew up on dairy farms and together with their three daughters and neighborly help, they operate Nature’s Wealth in Skymont. Nature’s Wealth raises meat goats and chickens using open-range methods.
“We decided to do this partly because we believe an occupation should be like the Bible directs us, ‘to maintain good works for necessary uses,’ and we wanted to provide a useful service to society,” he said.
Diller said because his chickens aren’t confined like commercial operations, they are healthier and tastier. He noted that two of his daughters and two women from the neighborhood can dress about 200 chickens in a day. Sewanee’s dining hall is the farm’s top customer.
Paul Spell and his wife own Humble Heart Farms in Elkmont, Ala., where they raise goats for cheese.
“Last year was our best year ever and it looks very promising for the near future,” he said. “My wife and I went into this feet first; I wanted three goats, she wanted 10 and we ended up buying 100 goats.”
Spell said some people complain about the prices of their cheese compared to big chain stores, but noted the amount of work that goes into it and the lack of fillers and other additives.
“We always joke that we only work half a day, from sun up to sun down,” Spell said. “Nowadays we go out there when its dark and we come home when its dark. People don’t know what it is to farm.”
Matt Sparacio of Cove Creek Farm in Tracy City stressed being environmentally friendly and raising healthy food, but also noted that small operations are as challenged by commercial farms with a larger volume who get the animals to market faster. But like Diller, he said his products are healthier for consumers.
“We raise our pigs for an extra two months to get them between 225 and 250 pounds, whereas a feed lot is feeding them out in five months at 300 to 350 pounds,” Sparacio said.
Caleb and Amy Rae of Solace Farm in Coalmont are utilizing reclaimed strip-mining land to raise beef cattle, meat goats, sheep, alpaca and other animals.
Like the other panelists, the Raes promote rotational grazing, moving livestock frequently to preserve the land, cut down on parasite cycles and concentrate the benefits of grazing.
“All of us are creating and maintaining ecosystems that support other species,” Caleb said. “Look at a big monocrop, with 200 to 300 acre pastures of soybeans; there’s an occasional deer that’s going to walk through there but the ecological diversity is incredibly low.”
Jess Wilson of Summer Fields and In Town Organics in Monteagle, raises a variety of livestock and produce, but she primarily discussed her sheep, which are raised for meat and wool.
“My goal overall in life is to put more carbon into the soil than I put in the atmosphere. That’s what we’re trying to do with our farm,” she said.
Wilson said part of her and her husband’s flock include the endangered Gulf Coast native sheep, which the Spaniards brought to this country in the 1500s. They bred the Gulf Coast sheep with larger varieties to increase heat tolerance, parasite and disease resistance and to have larger growing sheep, she said.
The wool that she sells is varied, Wilson noted.
“We found that people we sell wool to aren’t necessarily interested in it being super soft, but they’re interested in it being funky,” she said.
More information about these farmers and their products can be found at rootedhere.com and sewanee.locallygrown.net.