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To get to Melissa Rebholz’s River House Farm you drive through rolling green hillsides in the agricultural heartland of rural Appalachian East Tennessee. Pulling up to the old yellow farm house she rents, you can hear the rush of the Nolichuckey river running alongside and the wind ripping through the trees. In New York City, Melissa ran three different farmers markets and worked as a chef. She yearned to be closer to nature and live in a place with windows and space to breathe so she decided to leave the city and move to California to learn to farm. After a few years of farming under her belt, she found a job running a non-profit CSA in Greeneville, Tennessee whose mission is to supply low income families in rural Appalachia with fresh produce. Although she works over 75 hours a week farming, she still lives below the poverty level and receives food stamp benefits. She supplements her income by occasionally renting out a room of her house to vacationers and putting together farm-to-table dinners through her new venture the River House Supper Club. Her home is warm and inviting, decorated entirely by treasures she found at local thrift stores and rummage sales. She doesn’t think she will ever be able to afford to purchase her own home or land, but she doesn’t feel driven by the need to own something to love it or to take good care of it. In the sweltering heat of Tennessee’s summer months, she prefers sleeping in a tent along the banks of the river or dragging a sleeping bag out into the yard and looking up at the stars. Melissa couldn’t imagine living back in the chaos of the city again and feeds her soul through hard work, friends and good meals. (Click here to jump to their interview)
Did you grow up growing your own food, keep animals, etc. or was it something you came to on your own when you were older?
I grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. My mom would drive 20-30 minutes to the nearest grocery store that sold any worth eating. The only reference I had growing up to anyone taking care of their own food were my Mexican and Latina neighbors who were growing vegetables, fruit trees, or had chickens.
I started growing food as an adult after many years of killing house plants. I knew nothing about plants for the longest time. But I got some herb starts from a nursery, read books and watched videos. Maybe by the third year, I was feeling confident enough to germinate seeds.
What made you decide to get into farming?
I spent a lot of time working in food service. I did some variation of cooking, baking and serving coffee for almost 10 years. Sometimes, I would worked with fruits and vegetables I’ve never heard of. I wanted to learn more about where food comes from and eliminate this disconnect combined with wanting a change of pace when it came to what I was doing for a living. Farming has really taken down my work stress level as compared to working in restaurants or making sure someone’s latte is perfect.
So, after three or four years of growing herbs and vegetables in my yard, I started thinking about the possibility of starting an urban farm when I lived in Oakland. I watched a lot of YouTube, I still do. The videos I came across on SPIN farming seemed the most applicable to start while living in a city. I was either going to do that or take over an abandoned lot down the street from me.
I’ve always wanted to have my own business. Farming seemed like a crazy choice to make being that I live in an area where land is at a premium but it seemed like a good, relatively low-cost business idea if it’s done on a smaller scale.
And I get to work outside.
How did your family and friends react to your decision to farm?
Well, no one has come out directly and say that they think it’s a bad idea. The most negative thing I’ve heard from family and friends is that it’s going to be tough. My city friends are more supportive than I initially expected. Maybe a want do something similar. Overall, my family has been very supportive. They’re of the mindset-yes, go do your own thing.
What has been the hardest part of your journey thus far? What has been the most rewarding?
Being patient is the hardest thing ever. I wish I had land to farm right now. The most rewarding part has been all of the great people I’ve met. I’ve run into a lot of friendly people. The farming community is filled with people who want to see everyone succeed.
Do you think there is a movement underway of people wanting to learn to grow their own food?
I think more people in general are interested in learning how to grow food. More people want to know where their food comes from and what goes into it. As more people learn about environmental health and climate change, more is known about the beneficial and detrimental impacts agriculture produces. This might inspire some to bring about positive changes.
Do you have any advice for people interested in growing their own food or starting a farm?
My main advice would be to learn as much as you can first. Read a lot of books and talk to as many people as you can. If you’re completely new to growing buy a couple of starts at a nursery and transplant into pots or the soil around your house. Volunteer, intern, or get a job on a farm similar to one you’d like to have. Do that for at least two or three years. Then, start small. Start off your first year or two with less growing space than what you really want to have.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
That’s a hard question to answer because there are so many influences. I’m so obsessive about farming that I think about it all day. I want to be able to feed myself, my family and many others with healthy, nutrient-dense food. I’m also driven by seeing that I get a little closer to my goal everyday. Working outside and getting dirty keeps me coming back.
What hopes do you have for the future of farming in America?
I hope that more people start their own small farm. I hope that farming is recognized as a public service. Student loans are keeping a lot of folks from getting started and those without generational land access may find it harder to get started. Farmers should be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Unfortunately, that whole program might be on the chopping block. It is doable to start farming with student debt. Just start small. We need more small farms and those farmers need access to land. And I hope there are more programs with greater advertising to link land owners with land seekers.
Are there any books, mentors, podcasts, farming heroes that you would recommend to people wanting to start growing food?
There are a lot of really good books out there. Start with The Market Gardener by Jean Martin Fortier and The Urban Farmer by Curtis Stone. The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman is excellent. He has a new book that I haven’t checked out yet. You Can Farm, by Joel Salatin is good if you want to raise livestock. Also, Growing for Market magazine is a great resource. Also, Richard Wiswall’s The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook is good for the financial side of farming.
I love watching YouTube for gardening and farming videos. There are a lot of people on there putting out great content. If you’re just getting started in gardening, I would recommend MIgardener, Charles Dowding, and John Kohler of Growing Your Greens puts out really good long format videos. Also, watching Justin Rhodes will give you a lot of great ideas.
For farming, I don’t think anyone other than The Urban Farmer, Curtis Stone is putting out high quality videos on a consistent basis. Richard Perkins from Sweden has a dreamy permaculture farm working with crops and animals. Diego Footer makes videos on farming topics that don’t get talked about as much-scaling an enterprise, marketing, the work/life balance and time management.
There are a couple of podcasts I would recommend. My professor for a class called Cool Season Crops made the Farmer to Farmer Podcast required listening. I had never heard of it prior. But I felt like I found a gold mine of information in the interviews with farmers from all over North America. This was back when there was about 60 episodes. So, I went back and listened to all of them. Now, there’s about 150 episodes and I’ve heard every one. Also, I really like Diego Footer’s podcast called Permaculture Voices. But I think he changed the name to Creative Destruction. Still good and you should be able to find it under either name.
What are some common misperceptions about farming that you would like to dispel?
There is a perception for some people that you have to have a tractor tilling the soil to be a successful farmer. I don’t know if I can personally dispel that perception. However, there are plenty of examples of no-till farmers with excellent per acre incomes, paying employees good wages, and aren’t up to their eyeballs in debt.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
In five years, I am the owner and operator of my own farm. Not only am I farming myself, I’ve collaborated with others to inspire tons of people to start their own farm. And Oprah and I sometimes garden together.
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