Jim LaFollette is not your “average” farmer. He did grow up on a farm in Stanley Valley with a father who was a full-time farmer. He spent 20 years at Eastman Chemical Company as a fireman before his retirement in 2005.
“Along the way,” says LaFollette, “I grew some vegetables here and there, enough for the family to eat and some extra to sell. I actually put my daughter through college on the produce I sold.”
He currently lives on a five-acre farm - called J & J Farms - in Church Hill, where he raises pumpkins, heirloom tomatoes and bees for his wildflower honey.
“I started raising bees to help pollinate the crops,” says LaFollette. “Then I just kept adding to them over the years.”
Today, he has 15 hives as well as an apple and peach orchard. These days, he sells most of what he raises and has several family members as “partners” at J & J Farms. A niece sells fresh brown eggs and, later in the summer, Pink Tip Beans and Turkey Craw Beans. And there is a new grandson that someday may also join the family business.
While some might not be personally acquainted with LaFollette, many know his work with the Kingsport Farmers Market as both a seller and as president and market manager. It is the largest farmers market in East Tennessee and was voted the No. 1 Market in East Tennessee by Tennessee Magazine. There are currently over 100 members from Greene, Washington (Tn), Sullivan, Hawkins counties in Northeast Tennessee and Lee and Scott counties in Southwest Virginia, and even though he is in his sixth year as president, he has no office befitting a CEO.
“It’s out in the field,” he laughs. “I try to visit the farmers when they come to market and chat with them... I do a lot of the paperwork at home or in my truck.”
There have been some noticeable changes and recent improvements to the Farmers Market; the indoor market, for instance, and the availability of several new foods.
“We have fresh chicken, eggs and cheeses, in addition to the usual produce. Also some different varieties of vegetables,” he said.
There are also baskets of South Carolina peaches, watermelons and Grainger County tomatoes on this particular day.
“A lot of people ask about this,” says LaFollette. “We operate according to the state's guidelines for Farmers Markets, which say that 51 percent of the produce for sale has to be raised locally. The rest can come from out of the area. We try to keep things local over and above the 51 percent, but sometimes we can’t, and so to be able to offer a good selection of produce, we will go outside the area.”
His sincere wish is that more young people would try their hand at gardening.
“I think if young people had a small backyard plot and could grow some vegetables, they might very well try growing more. If you can raise your own food, you will never be at the mercy of a bad economy. A garden as small as 100 feet by 50 feet, or 100-by-100 could provide enough produce for a small family to live on over the winter, if it was preserved through canning or freezing. There just aren’t enough farmers around... It would be great if we had more local farms producing more variety and quantity. Maybe someday... ”
Some helpful hints to shopping the Farmers Market include to come early (7 a.m. or earlier), bring small bills and change, bring a bag or basket for carrying produce, and if you have questions about a food item, ask the farmer about it and how to prepare it. Be prepared to try something different.
The Kingsport Farmers Market is open Wednesdays and Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., April through November.
Fresh from the Farm is a weekly summer series featuring farmers and producers from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. To suggest a local farmer or producer, email Sunday Stories' editor Carmen Musick at email@example.com.