July 8, 2017 10:08:41 PM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
They are unlikely pioneers on an unusual journey: a lawyer, a retired church administrator, a stay-at-home mom, a landscape architect and a classically trained chef.
They are not so much exploring new territory as rediscovering an old one, the way we produce the food we eat.
One by one, they arrived in the Golden Triangle, each setting their own course. For some, it was a carefully planned and deliberate effort to change the way we think about food. For others, it was more or less an accident. Some started small and grew big. Others stayed small and are content with that, focusing on perfecting the niches they have found.
For the past 20 years, as each arrived in the Golden Triangle, they have contributed to returning the community to its food roots.
"It's always been odd that what we grow, we export, and what we eat, we import," said Starkville restaurateur and chef Ty Thames. "That's never made any sense to me."
The push for healthier, locally produced food has been going on for years but is relatively late arriving in Mississippi.
Alison Buehler, who moved with her dentist husband, Mike, to Starkville from Knoxville, Tennessee, 10 years ago was stunned by what she found.
"There wasn't even a farmers' market in Starkville and there were only seven in the whole state," she said. "Everything came in on trucks. I just couldn't believe it. Mississippi is an agricultural state, but where was the local food?"
A mom on a mission
Suddenly, the stay-at-home mom had a mission.
"That's why we founded Gaining Ground," Buehler said.
Gaining Ground Sustainability Institute of Mississippi is an education, research and outreach center dedicated to helping Mississippians rediscover what Buehler calls "the lost arts" of self-sufficiency, not the least of which is food.
"We've lost about two generations of knowledge," Buehler said. "Our parents went to college, got office jobs and forgot so much of what earlier generations knew about food. They went to the grocery store. But the trade-off was that we lost the ability to know what our food is, how it's produced. We know our food system isn't healthy. We have to do something different."
Over the past 10 years, Alison Buehler has seen what she calls an explosion in locally produced food.
"We went from seven farmers' markets in the state 10 years ago to 63 now," she said. "It's not just fruits and vegetables, either. I can get every bit of meat from local sources now. I couldn't find anything like that when we moved here 10 years ago."
A visit to farmers' markets in Columbus, Starkville and West Point reveal that most of the vendors are small, family operations. Some, however, have started small and grown large, at least by local standards.
Attorney turned farmer
Mayhew Tomato Farm is a classic example of a small, family operation.
Twenty years ago, M.C. Ellis retired from his job in Tupelo and moved to Mayhew to live on land his wife, Frances, owned. They started raising tomatoes and a few vegetables, selling them to their neighbors.
"It was a pretty small operation, just selling tomatoes off the back porch, raising them on about a tenth of an acre," said Mel Ellis, M.C.'s son.
That changed a few years later. Mel Ellis and his late wife, Shelley, who were both attorneys, abandoned their law practice and joined M.C. and Frances Ellis in Mayhew.
Mel Ellis has never looked back.
"Out here, everybody's happy," he said. "The customers come happy, they leave happy and we're happy. When I was a lawyer, everybody came into the office mad at somebody and left mad at their lawyer. I've never regretted to move. It was the right thing for me."
With his arrival, the farm took off. Today, Mayhew Tomato Farm is far more than tomatoes.
"We sell 12 different items and probably 25 varieties," Mel Ellis said. "We work 25 acres, have 10 full-time workers and everything we pick is out the door in 48 hours. In the early years, we sold about 85 percent of what we produced here on the farm. Now, with the advent of the farmers' markets, that number is down to about 60 percent. What we don't sell, we can. And we've pretty much reached our maximum capacity for canning."
Making a living on two acres
On the opposite end of the spectrum, at least when it comes to size, is Sam McLemore, whose Bountiful Harvest Farms in Starkville is just two acres.
Even so, McLemore and his wife, Isabel, make a living off the farm using a Community Support Agriculture model.
"It's kind of like a co-op," McLemore said. "We sell memberships and each week, our members get a box of what we produce -- usually six or seven items, whatever's ready to be picked."
McLemore, 33, who had worked as a landscape architect prior to opening his farm in 2011, has watched his business grow from 10 customers in 2011 to 80 this year.
Aside from his business model, McLemore's operation is unique in another respect: the diversity of his produce, many of which are rarely grown in the state.
"People are always amazed that we have celery -- that it can grow here, for example," he said. "We do grow some of the typical stuff -- tomatoes, peppers and stuff like that. But we also grow some stuff you might call on the fringe -- different varieties of squash, lettuce you don't normally see, kale, beets, different kinds of carrots, micro-greens. It's interesting to see what works and doesn't. We're always experimenting."
'Raising good dirt'
Johnny Wray is raising grass-fed beef and lamb on his 38-acre farm in west Clay County. Wray, a West Point native and retired church administrator, and his wife, Deb, moved back to the area eight years.
"We came back to build a life," he said. "It's been great. I'm 66, but I feel like it's a young 66."
The Wrays started raising steers and sheep for sale in 2015. Typically, their stock will include about 25 young steers and a similar number of sheep.
"It's pretty much a word-of-mouth operation," he said. "We sell mainly to individuals, along with one restaurant, Restaurant Tyler, which buys lamb from us.
"I'd call it more of an avocation than an occupation," Wray added. "Deb and I both really were really encouraged when we first came back and met people like Alison (Buehler) who has done so much to bring everybody together. There are so many people who are really into buying local and are concerned about where their food is coming from."
The Wrays have a guest lodge on their farm and provide internships for young people who are interested in ranching and farming.
"We want to show young farmers that, even on a smaller scale, you can still make a decent income," Wray said. "If we're really going to have a viable source of local food in the future, it's going to depend on these young farmers and ranchers."
Johnny Wray said he's learned something important about raising healthy beef and lamb.
"At first, you think you're raising good steers and sheep," he said. "Then you realize you are raising good grass. Finally, you realize what you are really raising is good dirt. Good, healthy food always goes back to the basics. That's what you learn."
'How can anybody do anything?'
The emergence of a diverse, health-conscious, local source for foods has been precisely what Ty Thames envisioned when he returned to Mississippi to open his first restaurant, Starkville's Bin 612, in 2005.
Thames, a Mississippi native, earned his culinary education back east and in Italy, and worked at highly touted restaurants before returning home with a clear vision of what he wanted to do.
"From the start, I was determined to use locally sourced foods," he said. "At the restaurant in D.C., where I was at before I came to Starkville, every day I ordered one day and prepared the menu based on that order. When I first got here, I found out I could order only twice a week, and finding local sources is extremely difficult. I wondered, "How can anybody do anything?'"
Thames, who now operates Bin 612, Restaurant Tyler, The Guest Room and City Bagel, beat the back roads looking for sources. When that didn't work, he started his own small vegetable garden. Before long, Thames and others dedicated to local food began to network and momentum began to build.
"It's been really amazing, just in the last four years," Thames said. "It's really cool to see what Sam is doing, and we communicate regularly about what he's doing, what I'm looking for. And I love that I can get lamb from Johnny. You don't see lamb on many menus around here and to have a local source for that is great.
"When I started, it was hard to find local sources for almost anything. Now, there are more and more," he added. "And our philosophy has been if we can't find it, we'll make it ourselves. This week, we started milling our own corn meal for our grits. Having our own mill will allow us to use all sorts of different grains from the local area. We're pretty excited about that."
The past is the future
Buehler said the younger generation of consumers are beginning to make locally sourced, healthy food a top priority.
Mel Ellis said his business is not necessarily reliant on those younger consumers.
"It will probably start to impact us in about 10 years," he said. "Right now, most of our customers are the older generations. They are the customers who come to the farmers' market and buy what we have ready. They understand how the seasons work. These younger people, though, they wouldn't know how to get around a hoe without directions. They're the ones who want peas in May and watermelons in September. It will be a challenge."
For his part, Thames sees the future in the past and recognizes the essential role local growers play in it.
"The food our grandparents made was different," Thames said. "It's not just nostalgia; the food was different, the flavors were different. Somewhere along the way, our food supply shifted to mass production. We lost so much when it went that way."
Earlier generations did not care much about how the food looked on a shelf, how long it would keep before spoiling or how easy it was to package and transport, all of which meant making some serious concessions.
"What our grandparents cared about was the flavor," Thames said. "That's what we're trying to get back to. I'll pay more for the flavor. That's what I want and I think that's what most people want. More and more, people are demanding it. That's exciting to me."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]