By Bethany Anderson
In the winter of 2017, based on the availability of fresh produce from his hoop houses, local farmer Richard Calkins, owner and operator of Harbin Hill Farms was instrumental in establishing a Winter Farmers Market held indoors at the Johnson County Welcome Center in Mountain City.
The Farms is now offering an open house farm tour focusing on daily operations as well as four-season farming.
By using double row covers within the Hoop Houses, Calkins was able to keep his crops alive despite a rather harsh winter and even through two bouts of minus 0-degree temperatures.
“It’s amazing what you can grow through the winter these days, with a simple structure and some six-mil plastic,” Calkins said.
This past year, and despite the twelve inches of snow that fell at Harbin Hill Farms in December, Calkins’ crops including lettuces, spinach, and other greens, along with carrots, onions, broccoli, and turnips are still happily growing inside his three hoop houses. The outside gardens are also still in full production, with the snow providing some insulation against the cold temperatures.
The benefits to area residents are obvious as Calkins can continue supplying his customers with fresh produce each week. He is also encouraging other farmers in the county to consider the use of hoop houses to join him at the market because hoop houses can benefit from “cost sharing” arrangements through the local office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Calkins and his wife Kathy bought their 42-acre property located on Harbin Hill Rd in 2013 as a retirement home. His original intention was just to “grow a few tomatoes, maybe raise a few chickens,” Richard said. “But just for personal consumption.”
He has planned to spend 3-6 months out of the year hiking on the Appalachian Trail, but just when he was ready to retire fully, he suffered a knee injury which pretty much ended his
long-distance backpacking career.
Looking around for something to do that would prove “sufficiently challenging,” he explored various farm models to see if the conventional wisdom he’d heard, “everybody knows you can’t make a living in farming anymore” was really true.
According to some leading proponents (including Elliot Coleman in Maine, and J.M. Fortier in Canada), an approach called “Market Farming” seemed to hold considerable promise.
“The model is based on four key elements,” Richard said. “First, it’s organic – which is the fastest growing segment of market demand for produce and brings a higher price. Second, it’s intensive (generally less than two acres), using mostly hand tools, with close plantings, succession crops, and intercropping methods, rather than extensive, requiring large investments in both land and equipment. Third, it’s “four season” which relies on “hoop houses” and row covers to extend the fall season through the winter and into spring. Fourth, it focuses on direct-to-consumer marketing – through farmers markets, on-farm sales, and CSAs (Consumer Supported Agriculture, a summer-time subscription arrangement where local consumers sign up for several months of weekly boxes of fresh produce, paid for upfront by
the customers). Direct sales cut out the “middle-man” and allow the consumer to know exactly where their food comes from, as well as how it is grown.”
Since in the spring of 2016, Harbin Hill farms have expanded continually and now includes three hoop houses with plans for a 4th this coming spring. Further plans include outside garden areas, along with a small apiary for pollination and honey, and laying hens for fresh eggs.
Products can be found at the Johnson County Farmers Market (where he is currently serving as President of the Board) as well as the Abingdon, VA farmers market and the Boone Street Market in Jonesboro, TN. Products of fresh produce are supplied to La Cucina restaurant located in the nearby Doe Valley area of Johnson County.
For those interested in knowing more about the farm’s operations as well as the possibilities of four-season growing, an Open House Farm Tour is scheduled during the Martin Luther King holiday on Monday, January 21 with tours starting at 10 am and 2 pm. The event will serve as a “Kick Off” to a series of Open House Farm Tours of the vendors of the Johnson County Farmers Market. All events will be free and open to the public to attend with more information to come as soon as formal announcements are made.