Abingdon: Meet the Locals is a new monthly blog created by Sarah Laughland of Sarah Laughland Photography! Visit her website for past entries and a description of this project.
Fog clung to the fields as I drove down the dirt road to the high-tunnel greenhouse up ahead. I stepped out of my car and was glued to the muddy location I was standing in. After a few minutes of silent struggling, which no one witnessed—thankfully, I turned the corner of an aging barn to see spinach and lettuce being gathered before the morning sun rose too high.
Meet Tamara McNaughton and Tony Barrett of TNT Farm N Greenhouse. Farming together since 2012, they’ve created an astonishing operation that was born out of love for their work and each other. Greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, garlic, cauliflower, and beets are just a few of their offerings, in addition to ground beef and potted plants to start your own garden.
Talking to Tamara that morning, I immediately felt her grounded and true spirit. A woman who works for what she believes in as a part of the collective, she’s forged her own path. She met Tony in the process, and together they built upon a farm that brings fruits to all its customers, literally and figuratively. (Strawberries, blueberries, ‘maters, oh my!) Tamara grew up in Maryland and relocated to North Carolina for college, but has hopped around at Penland School of Crafts, Greensboro, Mountain City, etc. Tony was born and raised in Meadowview and continues his family’s footsteps of farming on the same land that made him.
Raking, planting, pulling, washing. It’s all a careful science and watching the women work with such intention that morning was inspiring. Having just recently planted my first garden with tomato plants from TNT and strawberries from Wolf Farm, my respect grows daily for the women and men who grow our food.
Below is from my interview with Tamara, walking around the farm as the bugs chattered and the sunlight grew. You can find Tamara and Tony selling at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays!
T: It’s Tony and I that have been doing this for…this will be our 6th year. It is important that he’s included because this is his family’s property…this is property his family has leased for fifty years. So, he’s been farming this property his entire life. We have a quarter acre over there, an acre up front, this high-tunnel, an exact same high-tunnel at our place, and a greenhouse over there also.
S: Is the high-tunnel mainly where you grow the greens?
T: Careful, that’s a hot wire (which I, in fact, leaned up against during our interview–new experiences every day). Yes, everything that’s here and that’s at market came out of the greenhouse. Last week we pulled the collards and planted those cucumbers and squashes in there for the summertime.
S: When did you have to plant all the greens?
T: I plant them in September/October so that they’re large enough to continue producing through the winter. We had a really mild winter so that made it nice. This wire is not yet hot…it will be. (thank you) So, what we’ve got planted right now is just in here amongst the weeds. Strawberries, garlic, kale and chard, cauliflower, the yellow and white, and then a row of stuff that’s not gonna make it. Tony has fifty cows and calves here and this is his herd and then we have thirty cows and calves at our place, and the bull we transport back and forth.
S: So, there’s one bull for all of them?
T: Mhmm. Right now, yeah.
S: How old is it?
T: He is two and a half, three years old.
S: I keep picturing this older bull who has all these ladies.
T: His harem?
S: Ha! Yes, his harem of cows. So, how did the frost effect you guys?
T: Not too bad. Right now it’s more the rain. Not being able to get in and get the weeds out. It compacts soil. “Work it when it’s wet” and you can, destroy is a big word, but you can destroy the structure of the soil by working it when it’s too wet and you can destroy it for years.
S: Really? That’s crazy.
T: Yes. It’s hard to get it back. And also, this soil is unlike any soil I’ve ever grown in. Most of my growing experience has been in Western North Carolina…Boone and Spruce Pine is where I spent a lot of time…where the soils are loamy, dark, mountainous. The terrain isn’t as flat and conducive in that way but the soil is so much more friendly. This clay, it’s either muddy or like concrete. The greenhouse right now is what is rocking. That’s what we’re taking to market pretty much. Plant-ies.
S: You said Tony takes care of the cattle here?
T: Well the cattle here are his, yes, and that’s his main thing. He takes care of them here and I take care of the one’s at our place. He has a full-time job so he’ll come at lunch and feed the cattle here and count them and check them.
S: So, how did you and Tony get started with this? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?
T: Well that’s just what he’s always done. He is one of four children, and he’s the one child that stayed on the farm. I mean, they all worked on the farm. It was a requirement of living. Up to twelve acres of tobacco in a given year, three acres of peppers. This front acre is kind of what he calls the acre of gold. Tobacco has been produced here, strawberries, beans, snap beans that they would pick and snap. So, their family pedaled produce. His father was born and died a farmer and Tony’s just continued that legacy. My story is, my grandparents had a garden and produced most of their food. I did not participate in that, but I went to ASU (Appalachian State University) and studied Applied Anthropology. And when the sustainable development program was very new I just stumbled on it. Agroecology. I apprenticed on a twenty-five-acre certified organic farm out of college and then another one. And then Tony and I met, and I was living in Mountain City, and he had a greenhouse where they grew tobacco and they had this property and I was relatively unemployed. I’d done contract work for about ten years consulting farms and nurseries. I say I’m a greenhouse nursery grower by trade. So, consulting greenhouse nursery operations, their production and strategies and stuff. I’ve grown flowers and native Rhododendrons and Azaleas, aquaponics, Boston ferns, Poinsettias. I used to operate a four green-house range, with four shade houses. It was a lot of work, very rewarding. So, (in the “acre of gold”) these are potatoes and onions right now and we smacked some sunflowers in there. And that’s our super fancy wash wagon.
S: I’ve heard the term GAP-certification (Good Agricultural Practices) over my time blogging the past year. Is that something you’ve done too?
T: GAP Certification? If you wanna sell wholesale, you have to do it. So, we did for the first four years we were here together. Tony, his experience was grow peppers and then run around the country peddling them to restaurants at back doors. He has a full-time job and that first year this was my full-time job and I wasn’t really into running around. We discussed it at length and that’s what we ended up doing. It’s a lot easier to load two hundred cases of peppers and know they’re going somewhere every week than to try, you know, put a hundred cases of peppers on the back of a truck and not know if they’re going to be all sold by the end of the day. And then we spent three months talking about whether we were going to be conventional or organic before we made that choice.
S: What went into your decision for that?
T: I mean I was on the organic side because that was my background. My background is, you know, certified organic twenty-five acre farms outside D.C., and then my personal farming and market gardening experience was bio-intensive. Our style of farming is also a kind of meeting of the two, conventional and organic, bio-intensive sort-of styles. But ultimately for Tony, it was a matter of the price premium for being certified organic. So really, in January of 2012 we decided we were going to be farming together and by March we were seeding peppers and this was planted in the beginning of June. And we were growing an acre of peppers, certified organic. So, we got GAP certified and organic certified between I’d say…in July/August would be kind of standard. I’m the paperwork person, you know, and he’s the tractor man. Even though we don’t grow for Appalachian Harvest anymore we continue to maintain organic certification which makes sense for us for a number of different reasons. We both continue to learn. I’m learning the benefits of having tractors, which I didn’t have before.
S: It was all hand work?
S: I wonder, do you think that if everybody started organically farming, would we have enough food?
T: There’s a report that the UN put out some years ago. There are two teams absolutely, and I try to settle in the center. But I’m on the team that says small sustainable agriculture is what’s going to feed the world. Not mono-crop, genetically modified. I mean I do understand from a farmer perspective some of the benefits of genetic modification of corn, for instance…you don’t have to spray as much and there’s less work and time and energy of the person that goes into it. Now the environmental implications scare me tremendously, but from a farmer’s perspective I understand, but I’m definitely on the team that everybody needs to grow a garden. And that even a little space grows a lot of food. Tony and I have investigated beyond organic approaches. We plant by the signs and he always planted by the signs…so, other kind of environmental dynamics that affect the farm organism.
S: Listening to the land more?
T: Mhm, and the rhythms of the moon and all of this kind of stuff. Studying sustainable development at ASU, we learned about Mexico and the whole cultural devastation with corn subsidies and what they do to a whole culture. I don’t think that the kind of agriculture that’s subsidized in order to undermine people’s self sufficiency is going to save the world. Might pad corporate pockets.
T: But it’s not gonna feed people.
S: It’s the short-term solution versus the long-term.
T: Well, you know the issue of food supply is not production. There is a ton of food that is thrown on the ground. On the certified organic farms that I first worked on, there’s a tremendous amount of food that we would throw on the ground. Sometimes we wouldn’t even pick it off, it would just stay hanging on. It’s not production. Production is not the issue. It’s capitalism. It’s distribution. It is not in your capitalist interest to harvest or even to allow people to glean because then you’re undermining supply and demand. You’re undermining the price you can command if you give it away. That’s just capitalism. But, you can have all of these philosophical, rightfully righteous reasons for farming in an environmentally friendly way. If you’re losing money at it, it doesn’t make sense that you’re farming. People who depend on agriculture for a living, I’m just happy they’re still farming. And it’s not my place or really anybody’s place to judge how you do it. We want people to come to the more sustainable approaches but telling them they’re doing it wrong and making them feel like they’re wrong is not going to leave the door open for them to walk through.
S: How did you and Tony meet?
T: A-ha-ha. And there’s silence. We met through some friends is the easiest way to explain it. And we just made a connection over farming. I mean, I’ve never grown tobacco but when I worked in North Carolina in the nursery I worked with a lot of tobacco growers because there’s also a lot of nursery growers who were also tobacco growers. A lot of the work I did in North Carolina was to transition after the buy-out and the settlement. I worked with growers investigating native Rhododendron and Azaleas as an alternative because they already had nursery experience, a lot of them. When tobacco was a big part of your life it’s something you talk about a lot.
S: So, you didn’t necessarily choose this area, it kind of chose you in a way. Is there anything about Abingdon and the local community that stands out to you?
T: It’s interesting that you say that because Tony and I as a match are a curious couple, yes? And so Tony being from around here…I mean, I’m a pretty far-out person and the community I did plug into was Tony’s family. Very old school, very traditional, very ‘from here’. It has been interesting to me because if I had come here of my own volition I would probably be more deeply connected to a different community. But I think it’s better for me this way. I like to spend time on the farm by myself in the silence where I know that I’m living a good life to the best of my current abilities. I can’t control what happens on the farm really, I’m not in control here. I just try to play along and help it out.