One of the first people I met when visiting the Kingsport Farmer’s Market at the beginning of the season was Luther Kite. He was seated behind a row of tables that were covered with bushels of tomatoes, onions, greens, potatoes and other early crops. The “cash register” was set up for business in the back of an old farm truck, resting on the tailgate. Another gentleman, also attired in overalls, stood beside him. They looked like they were up to something. But I never found out what, because there were so many customers in a hurry to buy their produce.
Luther Kite was a salesman for Pepsico for 31 years when he lived in Annapolis, Md. When he retired in 1991, he returned to this area to take care of his mother.
“I have always had a ‘green thumb,’” says Kite, “so I built a couple of greenhouses and grew tomatoes, beans, and cucumbers.”
His “green thumb” has served him very well over the past two and a half decades: He is a Master Gardener and a familiar face at local Farmer’s Markets.
“I started selling at the Rogersville Farmer’s Market, but soon joined the Kingsport Market,” he explains.
Over the past 22 years, Kite has seen a lot of change - some good, some not so good.
“It’s a shame that small farms are being phased out because they can’t compete with the big farms that have a lot of land, and a lot of money,” he says. “It used to be that all a good farmer needed was to be able to read, write, follow directions - and have some common sense. Of course, there’s always one big strike against farmers: Mother Nature. Irrigation systems are key to the survival of farms.”
He takes a break from our conversation for a few minutes to talk to the many customers that are lining up with bags and baskets of his produce. Those green beans are quickly disappearing, along with the okra, tomatoes and peaches. It seems he is on a first-name basis with almost everyone. He returns to breaking his beans and resumes our interview.
“One of the best things I’ve seen over the past 10 to 15 years is how popular Farmer’s Markets have grown to be. They are everywhere! People want fresh food, to know how fruits and vegetables are supposed to taste.”
As with so many of the farmers at the market, Kite believes in the importance of his life’s work. And it is that enthusiasm and passion that has resulted in Kite becoming a member of the board of directors of the Kingsport Farmer’s Market, serving in “almost every capacity” over the years. He served as Market Manager from 1996 until 2005 and, last year, was awarded a Lifetime Membership by the board. But he believes in giving credit where credit is due.
“The City of Kingsport has done a good job of promoting the Farmer’s Market,” says Kite. “Mayors Blazier and Phillips have really worked with us and supported us. The late Dan Dillon was instrumental in getting us moved out of the Shelby Street parking lots, and Jim LaFollette (current Market Manager) and the board of directors have worked to get us this new market, building and signage.“
“When people start working together, it’s amazing what gets done,” he adds with a grin.
Oh yeah... back to that second “mystery man.”
Most regular visitors to Kite’s produce stand are used to seeing another man working alongside Kite: Arvil Salyer. Salyer is an Eastman Kodak retiree, but was looking for something to keep him busy after retirement.
“Arvil is one of my best friends in Kingsport,” says Kite. He is recovering from surgery and was replaced this particular day by a taller young man, Joey Baldasano. Kite has known Baldasano almost all his young life and was gracious in his praise. “Joey is a good guy, an Eagle Scout, and will soon be starting back to college.”
Baldasano was doing an admirable job of juggling multiple customers, bags of produce and the cash drawer, but he (wisely) referred questions to Kite. Baldasano earned his “market cred” at the Kingsport Farmer’s Market, working with his mother who is also a vendor.
The baskets of broken green beans have dwindled down to three, so I quickly choose, bag them and pay Baldasano. Get well soon, Mr. Salyer, and yes, Mr. Kite, I will keep my kitchen windows closed when I cook the beans - because I sure don’t plan on sharing them!