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Farmers market is vital link to community for Wintergreen Farm

When Vonnie Smith talks about seeds, she’s more than enthusiastic; she’s reverent. “To start with a handful of seeds and see the final product,” she says—a tomato plant, a colorful display of ornamental kale—“it’s joyful.” The pleasure she derives from being the one to tend to that transformation is evident, in both the long hours she devotes to bringing her seeds to life in her Johnson County greenhouses, and the cheerfully detailed way she describes the process.
Vonnie and her husband Simon own Wintergreen Farm, a valuable resource for gardeners looking for seedlings this season. The two greenhouses at Wintergreen sit on a hilltop in Laurel Bloomery near Mountain City, but Vonnie points to the Johnson County Farmers Market, in its second year of operation, as a crucial link between her farm and the community. “Someone in a Cadillac might not want to climb our gravel driveway,” she admits with a chuckle, “and really, we’re so remote, so off the beaten path up here, it’s just difficult for many people. The market has been wonderful. It’s a great way to connect to the public.”
Vonnie started her farming life working exclusively with decorative plants and flowers before marrying Simon, who had purchased the Laurel Bloomery land and hand-cleared the lot for a Christmas tree business. In 1999, the two built their first greenhouse and filled it with flowers, while Vonnie continued her work planting gardens off-site. “Then we started to add the veggie plants. We came to find that there was a huge local demand for these vegetables.” That demand only increased with their participation in the Farmers Market. “It has really taken off,” Vonnie says. “And it’s bringing us one step closer to being able to sustain ourselves solely through farming, which has always been a dream.”
The list of vegetable plants the Smiths offer keeps growing: cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, squash, peppers, and nearly sixty varieties of tomatoes, which Vonnie taste-tests herself. “I love tomatoes, and I can’t resist a new variety!” Thirty of those varieties are available in significant quantities, and “the rest are really special, really unique heirloom varieties where maybe someone just gave me a small handful of seeds, and I don’t even put them on the board because I have so few.” Vonnie and Simon still offer a wide range of flowers, too, beginning with things like pansies and snapdragons in spring, then introducing particularly heat-sensitive choices for summer, such as zinnias and celosias, and a fall crop of long-lasting late-bloomers like violas and ornamental kale, before turning their attention to the choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm. Then comes January, and more seeds. “We never order plugs. Everything is from seed, one hundred percent. So we are busy year-round with every phase of this process.” Vonnie and Simon have an extra set of hands in Simon’s father, John, who helps with some of the many time-intensive tasks running a farm demands.
The Smiths are proud to maintain their plants using Integrated Pest Management, an EPA-approved strategy for keeping bugs at bay that is, at its heart, about “being in close contact with your crops. You really look, you look with a magnifying glass, to know exactly what bugs you have and respond in a pest-specific way.” This process does not rule out the use of pesticides, “but you use your knowledge of your plants and what they are vulnerable to, and what you actually see, in order to use as little as possible, and only when absolutely necessary, and with as gentle a product as you can. You can manage to use very few chemicals if you really know your plants.”
If you want to get to know Vonnie’s plants yourself, you can visit Wintergreen Farm, located at 223 Waddell Road in Mountain City, and open this spring Mondays-Saturdays from 10-7, and Sundays from 1-6. Learn more at the Wintergreen Farm profile on Facebook, or reach them by phone at (423) 727-2593. Starting in June, the Smiths will begin to phase out their greenhouse hours and do business primarily from the Johnson County Farmers Market, located at 212 Roan Creek Road in Mountain City, on Saturdays from 9-1, and beginning June 15th, on Tuesdays from 3-6. For more information about the market, visit www.johnsoncountyfarmersmarket.org.