Story by Carol Humphreys
Photos by Mark Boehler
For Crossroads Magazine
Color, freshness and variety are the impressions people are likely to get as they walk along the rows of produce being grown at Rose Creek Farms. Even those who are not salad eaters may change their minds once they see the mouth-watering greens and vibrant baby root vegetables.
This was the inspiration behind Ray and Ashley Tyler’s decision to revolutionize their farming technique five years ago. It was part of their plan to begin a healthy nutritional lifestyle for their young family. It was especially important because their oldest child had been diagnosed with stage four cancer.
At the time, their farm near Selmer, Tenn. consisted of livestock and two acres of vegetables.
“We had several thousand broiler chickens, several hundred laying hens, a couple hundred turkeys, 60 hogs, a few cows and a large vegetable garden,” said Ray. “It was wild.”
The couple had to figure out how to make a living off the land and a way to stay competitive on the crops they wanted to grow. They also wanted to be able to spend more time with their growing family. This meant reducing the amount of work they were doing by fine-tuning and specializing in a particular crop instead of being overwhelmed by too many.
“We had to make hard decisions and lifestyle changes,” said Ray. “We sold all our livestock, dropped the use of the tractor and went from two to one acre in vegetable production. We found a much more balanced lifestyle, and financially, made more profit because of the quality of produce we were offering.”
He now specializes in growing different varieties of lettuces, baby root vegetables and leafy sprouts.
“My family has always eaten a lot of healthy food but we also ate processed foods and foods with a lot of sugar,” he said. “Sugar is an unhealthy addiction but especially for anyone with cancer. I was someone who was completely addicted to sugar. We did a 90-day raw food diet which jump started the way we ate by eating vegetables that were delightful to the whole family. Before I wasn’t a big fan of salads but suddenly found I enjoyed eating loaded salads twice a day prepared in a way that was delicious.”
Through trial and error, the farmer learned how to even out the growing season so he could produce specialized vegetables 52 weeks a year. He utilizes protected cultivation and varieties of specialty vegetable seeds. A lot of attention is paid to the soil biology and keeping microbes alive and healthy.
“We are big fans of the earthworm,” said the agriculturist. “Everything we do to the soil is to make sure there is life thriving in our soil. What we found over the years is if we kept our soil happy, our plants are happy as well.”
His farm is situated on five acres consisting of woods, roads, a shed and his home. Rows of caterpillar or “cat” tunnels sit side by side as habitats for nutritional plants. Inside, tens of thousands of pounds of compost are applied to the garden beds each year. Walkways between the beds allow for the enrichment of the soil as needed.
Ray reaches down and lifts a head of crisp, chartreuse-colored lettuce from the rich soil.
“The advantage of being able to provide fresh produce is it lasts longer. This lettuce will keep in a refrigerator two weeks,” he said.
In addition to the 20 low-tech “cat” tunnels, Ray grows vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in a larger, climate-controlled “high” tunnel.
All the produce in the tunnels are watered from a well through drip-tape and overhead misters as needed. Ray commented when the well water was tested, it was one of the cleanest waters in the country.
A huge help in his farm’s greens production has been an innovative farm tool invented by a 16-year-old. The quick-cut harvester has a razor-sharp blade that gives a cleaner cut than harvesting by hand.
“Instead of harvesting just 10 pounds a day, we can harvest hundreds of pounds,” said Ray. “It allows us to offer large quantities of greens at a competitive price and able to enter markets we weren’t able to before.”
Ray is in charge of production and sales at the farm, while Ashley is in charge of the harvesting list, the pack shed, orders and bookkeeping. She also manages the online store. The other main farm help includes Judah Hobbs, farm manager and Job Green. Green has been at the farm as an intern since October. He is learning Ray’s farming techniques so he can go back home and start a farm in Missouri. Ashley’s sister, Nicki Pennington, also pitches in during the week to help with packaging the vegetables.
So far, the farm’s primary customers are restaurants and markets in the Memphis, Jackson and Nashville areas. Rose Creek Farms also has an online store, www.rosecreekfarmstore.com. The list of vegetables being offered depend on what is in season. Tomatoes will be ready this April with eggplant, cucumbers and peppers following in May.
The farm’s produce is also sold at Gardner’s Supermarket in Corinth and Food Giant in Selmer. Ray is considering sending a crew to the Selmer Farmer’s Market this summer. He is also looking for people who would be interested in having a drop off point in the Crossroads area.
“I would rather deliver food locally. Hopefully, there will be more pick-up locations available as awareness for eating local organic food grows,” said the McNairy County farmer. “We hope to become part of feeding our local communities good locally grown organic food.”
“Rose Creek Farms will deliver to a place of business or home as long as there is a group of at least five customers,” he continued. “It could be like a local farm food club where people get together, share recipes and pick up their vegetables from the local farm. All they have to do is contact Rose Creek Farms to have their host business or home added to our list of drop off points.”
After placing an order on-line, fresh produce can also be picked up at the farm near Selmer. The farm store opens on Thursdays and closes at midnight on Sundays. An email reminder will be sent to customers about new produce, pick up times, etc. Orders need to be placed online by midnight on Sunday which give time for vegetables to be harvested and packed. The order can be picked up from a walk-in cooler in the pack shed Wednesday-Sunday. An online map details where the pick-up location is located on the farm.
Though there are no signs in the area pointing the way to the farm, new customers can call for directions. Since the farm is located near a neighborhood, there will be people willing to give directions.
The Tylers’ daughter, Asha, 11, is now healthy and well.
“My wife and I thank God every day for her life,” said the devout farmer.
The couple have six children, ages 11-1. They built a 32-foot yurt to live in on their farm so their children could be a part of day to day activities.
“Our children are a part of our farming lifestyle even though it sometimes means little ones jumping in and out of the lettuces,” Ray said with a smile.
Asha and her sister, Ahava, 10, often help their mother in the pack shed. Asha also helps to plant and harvest. Both girls help with the cashier’s box at markets. The children are not payed for house chores but are paid to do light work on the farm to make extra money.
The Tylers’ risk five years ago to grow a specialty crop has paid off. Ray can be proud when he sits on his deck in the mornings overlooking rows of tunnels filled with health-enriching crops. He’s not only feeding his family, but offering others a chance for a healthier, delicious lifestyle.
“All of this took a lot of risk, sacrifice and failures to where we are today,” he said. “I am a blessed man. I am grateful and do not take this gift for granted.”
(A resident of Corinth, Carol Humphreys is a freelance writer and contributor to the Daily Corinthian, Crossroads Magazine and Pickwick Profiles.)