FARMER & CHEF
New York City to Greeneville, Tennessee
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)
What inspired you to move to the country?
Working as a Farmer's Market Manager with GrowNYC and visiting so many of the farms that sold at my markets and wishing I lived in a room with windows.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
The hardest part initially was that I didn't have a car. I lived in two really rural settings without my own transportation. Later, I was challenged by moving out of a communal environment to living alone and realizing how much work I was taking on to maintain an old county home alone.
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
I am constantly amazed by how much I love throwing food. Scraps, of course, like banana peels and apple cores and stuff I'd have to find a trash can for in the city. Anything I know that can compost is fair game out here. It's the ultimate lunch time food fight with nature.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
The hardest thing to get used to initially was the quiet. I like white noise: traffic, sirens, air conditioners, etc. So complete and utter silence while sleeping freaked me out. Living on a river now helps, I have that rushing water sound without a sound machine. I miss FOOD. Ethnic food - Indian, Sushi, Chinese and PIZZA! I'm lucky to have my culinary background to cook these foods myself, but sometimes after 11 hours on the farm, good take-out would be nice.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
What do you appreciate the most about life in the country?
Fresh air, hill top picnics, wild berry picking....the fact that my city friends and airbnb guests consider just being at my house a vacation.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
If you care about having a cup of coffee on a porch overlooking the river in the morning and don't care that you won't see amazing live music or eat interesting food unless you drive and hour and a half, do it. It's not for everyone.
When you go back to visit the city, what are the first three things on your to-do list?
Pizza, Sushi and Korean BBQ.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
Bob Cannard, my farming mentor from California. Although I interned for farming under him because of his 40-year-relationship with food and restaurants I was inspired in the kitchen by him as well.
Have you noticed a change in yourself and/or your work since moving away from the city?
My cooking has become simpler. More about fresh, just picked, quality ingredients and cooking techniques and less about trends or spices. I've always been a hard worker, even when I didn't like a job I did it well. Difference is that now I love it and work hard.
Walk us through a typical day in your country existence?
I wake up slightly before it gets light out most of the year. I have become a sunrise kinda gal. In the city it's all about sunsets, happy hour and night time. I'm all about the morning here. I do whatever needs to be done on the farm everyday. In the winter that's a lot of cleaning, in the spring it's planting, in the summer it's weeding and in the autumn it's harvesting.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before moving from the city?
ALL THE TIME! I've learned how to drive a manual transmission and a tractor. I use equipment like power saws, weed eaters, chainsaws and rototillers now. I would have never wanted to mess with any of those in the city. I have to learn to fix things that break because there is no one else to do it. I watch a lot of DIY YouTube videos.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
In Northern California the Eel River I lived on for two seasons was a great inspiration and in Tennesse I live on the Nolichuckey River. Must be a water sign thing.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
I hate the word "redneck" it implies that people that are "county" are trashy or ignorant. It doesn't matter how much NPR you listen to or how many degrees you have out here, there is an illiterate dude that can fix your car, plumbing, tractor and teach you how to put up preserves, hunt, fish and forage.
Also, I am dirt poor. Monetarily. I mean I feel rich in vegetables, vitamin D, neighbors and fellow farmers that would do anything for me, but I noticed a common theme in moving from the city to a charming country house seems to be wealth and I don't fit in there. I get full food stamps benefits even though I work 75 hour weeks, trade CSA shares from my plowing and mechanical work and get firewood through a ministry that distributes to low income homes with solely wood heat. Because I feel a lot more able that some people in Appalachia that take advantage of these "benefits" I volunteer a lot, give food away, cook lunch for the firewood ministry crew, etc.
I just wouldn't want people to get the idea that farming alone in a depressed county in Appalachia is lucrative, because it's not. I'll leave nothing to anyone I love. I will care for someone else's house and land my life entire life. It's ok, because I don't feel the need to own something to love it. Just want it to be clear, nothing is "mine" I'm a temporary resident taking care of something because I want to leave it better than I found it.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
To build up the non-profit farm I manage. To try and make the vegetable garden a source of income to help support the outreach programs we have in place. It's gonna take baby steps here, but if I can get a few more families and teens each year excited about local, seasonal foods I'm satisfied.