All in the Family

(Above) Photo Courtesy of Lake Majestik Farms

Local farms, the backbone of American life, persist as more than a tradition – they’re a vibrant link in the supply chain of fresh food for the family table.

 

Owning and operating a family farm is a daily adventure. Come rain or shine, farmers are hard at work to produce quality fruits, vegetables, and meats for our tables. They not only strive to please our taste buds, but they also endeavor to grow food packed with wholesome nutrients. Mother Nature and the industry at large can present challenges for farmers, but they dig in with passion.

Here, five family-owned and operated farms within the Chattanooga area share the hurdles and rewards of tending to the fields that fuel us.

 

By Holly Morse-Ellington

A Cattleman’s Call

Lake Majestik Farms

 

Nic Cornelison credits his grandfather for teaching him the ropes. At 10 years old, he spent the summer building a fence with his granddad to enclose a cattle pasture. His payment? The purchase of 42 bottle baby calves that he’d be responsible for raising to sell. “He didn’t pay me money. He said, ‘I’m gonna buy you a job,’” Cornelison recalls. “I’m so thankful today because of it.”

In 2005, the Cornelison family purchased a group of Brangus cattle and started Lake Majestik Farms in Flat Rock, Alabama. The family-owned farm began with 140 acres and has since expanded to more than 6,000. Today, day-to-day operations are focused in two distinct areas. Folks interested in farm-fresh beef can purchase it on the farm, online, or through their Chattanooga office. On the commercial side, they raise and sell cattle to cattlemen. “We get a premium price for our product because we know how great the quality is,” Cornelison says. “We ultrasound all of our cattle yearly for ribeye size, intramuscular fat and marbling, plus back fat.”

But as well as he knows his cattle, there are certain aspects of the job that are hard to prepare for or study. “There are so many environmental factors and outside influences that change the value of cattle daily,” he says. “It moves more rapidly than the stock market!” For example, he remembers a fire at a beef processing plant in Kansas that created ripple effects. “People couldn’t move cattle, and it essentially knocked the bottom out of the price.”

Lake Majestik Farms utilizes rotational grazing practices to preserve land nutrients, even when weather interferes. “In the last month, we’ve had to move every single cattle we own to the mountain because the valley pastures are flooded from rain,” he says. “Typically, it’s good to pull your cattle off to let grass grow, but it won’t grow if it’s under water.” 

The ranch is also a registered supplier of seed stock (high-pedigree breeding cattle) and embryos from their Brangus herd. “Our mission with the seed stock industry is to create bulls for the commercial cattlemen that they can’t find anywhere else and that will better their herd every time they use them,” Cornelison says. Lake Majestik Farms conducts national and international breeding business with countries including Argentina, Thailand, and Australia. 

For Cornelison, extending family traditions brings joy. “We talk and work side by side, seven days a week,” he says. “As soon as my son gets home from school, he is on horseback helping check baby calves. I don’t see any lifestyle I would want for me and my family other than living and working on a farm.”

 

Photos Courtesy of Lake Majestik Farms

Room to Bloom

Everlee Farm

 

Everlee Farm began as a 20-acre farm that produced seasonal vegetables within the Chattanooga city limits. “We bought the farm about six years ago and started with a vision, then went all-in on our dream to expand what we wanted to do,” says Jennifer Clay, who settled in Chattanooga with her husband, Philip, after traveling around in search of an area that fit their needs. “We saw what great resources the city has, and that all these farmers can participate in markets in the area.”

In addition to local farmers markets, Everlee Farm sets up a farm stand at the edge of their property that runs on the honor system. “People can swing through to grab veggies, put their cash in the slot, and head home,” she says. Besides vegetables, customers can also find 15 varieties of tomatoes, 12 varieties of figs, fresh eggs from their 50 free-range hens, and sunflowers.

The Clays welcome visitors, and many even opt to stay overnight in one of the three Airbnbs that overlook the farm’s lake. “It’s a unique opportunity because we are so close to town, but it feels rural,” Clay says. “We’ve had guests help pick tomatoes and make fresh salsa, gather eggs, or just sit on the dock for a peaceful respite.”

For the Clays, running a
farm while maintaining “day jobs” makes for a busy but rewarding schedule. “The feedback we get from our neighbors is that it’s a fun way to connect. We see it as a way to provide for our community.”

Given the nature of agriculture, categorizing a typical day is difficult, but the Clays roll with the punches. “Every season in Chattanooga for us has been different as far as going from extreme drought to extreme wet,” Clay says. “We’re not farmers by trade, and we’re not too humble to ask for help when we need it. Everybody’s willing to lend a helping hand, whether that’s materials or advice.”

They’re currently growing their dream as they prepare to launch a flower truck for pop-up markets around town. “People are like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you really going to take on another thing with this flower truck?’” Clay says. “To them I say, ‘Yes, it’s going to be awesome!’ Our little boy is going to peddle it around with me – we’re going to have a great time.”

 

Photos Courtesy of Everlee Farm

Acre by Acre

White Oak Valley Farm

 

Their grandfather planted the idea for brother and sister Jonathan and Rachel Otto to start a farm. “We grew up listening to all of his stories about how they farmed with mules and the old methods for farming in the ‘30s,” says Rachel Otto. “I don’t think we would have done this if we hadn’t had the opportunity to spend so much time with him.”

Instilled with a love for agriculture, the Ottos began building White Oak Valley Farm in 2008. “Our parents have been really encouraging instead of trying to discourage us from a career that can be unpredictable,” she says. “They helped every way they could because it’s hard to get going when you’re starting from zero and working up.” 

White Oak Valley Farm has grown from 16 acres to 90 total acres, seven of which are designated for crop production. Among their crops are fruits such as strawberries and blueberries, plus just about every vegetable one could expect to grow in Tennessee. They sell their produce at area farmers markets and also offer a community supported agriculture (CSA) program where folks can sign up to receive regular boxes of the farm’s crops from one of several pickup locations. “Our goal,
constantly, is to produce the absolute best quality we can produce, the most nutritious and most flavorful,” Otto says.

A lot of behind-the-scenes work goes into cultivating these healthy and tasty products, especially since weather can be uncooperative. “In the springtime, we work late into the night because we’re expecting solid rainfall for the next seven days, and we have to get certain crops planted before the summer heat sets in.”

That means soil management is vital to success. “We spend a lot of time trying to learn and work to balance the nutrients in our soil,” she says. “Without taking care of the soil and treating it as a sustainable resource so that you can have it for years to come, you don’t farm for very long.”

The additional acreage is currently conserved as a future resource and buffer from development. “It’s a big concern for us to see our food supply become more and more dependent on the commercial factory farms,” Otto says. “Many heirloom vegetables are being lost because it’s not cost-effective for big farms to grow them. We want to be here for the long-term and do our part to preserve small family farms.”

 

Photos Courtesy of White Oak Valley Farm

Attaining Farming Zen

EdenThistle Land Stewardship Co.

 

Chattanooga native Marshall Teague graduated from high school and set out for adventure. The quest landed him in New Zealand, where he lived with a couple who owned 1,500 acres – and 800 sheep giving birth during a 30-day lambing season. “We hit the farm before sunrise, and the farmer said, ‘Go catch that sheep right there,’” Teague recalls. “I didn’t know what I was doing or which sheep to catch, so I’m like, ‘The white one, right?’”

Teague gained farming insight in New Zealand followed by a stint out West, where he and his wife, Katherine, met horsemen. These transformative experiences guided their passion for the outdoors into a career. “We observed one horseman in particular train a horse with such little input from him and so much output from the animal,” he says. “This man approached training techniques by observing how this horse operates in the wild. It changed us.”

Marshall and Katherine resettled in Chattanooga, where they launched EdenThistle in 2013. “We started EdenThistle from a growing conviction that there’s a design to animals and to the land. If you study that design and allow it to dictate how you care for animals, wonderful things occur and flourish.”

EdenThistle is a sustainable farm that specializes in shipping grass-fed beef, foraged pork, and pastured chicken and eggs. “Starting your own business is not completely risk-averse,” Teague says. “Every time we add a species, the learning curve is expensive as far as time and attention go, but we run pilot batches and take every metric we can to figure out what we can correct on the next batch.”

These learning curves present opportunities to tailor production. “We’ve transitioned a couple of times, starting out producing all of our product to now working with partner farms too,” he says. “What we found is it’s more important to our customer base that we have consistency and trust in the product.” Most of their customers are individual families, but they also sell to local restaurants such as Main Street Meats and Easy Bistro.

As a couple, they explore ways to nourish communities through healthy land and animals. “I wouldn’t want to be doing this without Katherine,” Teague says. “We love it, and we would mourn not doing something this meaningful together.”

 

Photos Courtesy of EdenThistle Land Stewardship Co.

Heart Land

Chili Pepper Ranch

 

We’re firm believers in the idea you are what you eat,” says Jim Osborn, physician and co-founder of Chili Pepper Ranch. Started in 2012, the boutique ranch, which specializes in Wagyu cattle, consists of 130 acres that straddle the Georgia-Tennessee line in Apison. “Wagyu, or Kobe, is higher in omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, so it’s more heart-protective than other beef,” Osborn says. “Everybody needs fat in their diet – there’s good fat and bad fat – and this is actually a healthy type of fat.”

Animals need a proper diet full of nutrients too. “Some folks are against grain feeding, and some people are for it,” he says. “We took our grain recipe to a nutritionist, and that nutritionist added the minerals and different contents to make sure they have a balanced diet for our cattle.”

The Wagyu breed originated in Japan, where traditional Japanese handling and feeding practices have been credited for the beef’s rich, juicy finish. “In Japan, they like more of the barley and hops taste,” Osborn says. Chili Pepper Ranch conducted a Coke/Pepsi-like challenge with focus groups as they honed their product. “We raised different animals on different grain combinations and found out what flavor was the most appealing. Americans typically prefer a different flavor than the bitterness of barley.”

Like many other local farms, Chili Pepper Ranch practices quality over quantity. “We don’t feed the animals antibiotics or put steroids in their ears to make them bulk up. We try to raise them naturally.”

To maintain their business model, Chili Pepper Ranch sells directly to the public. “Customers can buy whatever volume, a pound of ground beef to a quarter or half of steer,” he says. “Since we do sell by the pound, if there’s a family who has a limited budget, they can still have good quality meat without wrecking their finances.”

Ultimately, the product begins with care for the animal. “These are God’s creatures just like all the rest of us,” Osborn says. “We see that each one of these animals has their own personality and attitude, and we respect that in them.” CS

 

Photos Courtesy of Chili Pepper Ranch

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