[Grower Profile]

Dillehay Farm: The Road to a Life of Seasonal Quality By Roben Mounger

On Interstate 40 East, between the Linville and Carthage exits, thereâ€TMs a billboard among wild overgrowth that poses the question: If you died today where would you spend eternity? Continue to Exit 258, and a rebirth amid the storybook beauty of Defeated, Tennessee might be considered for an answer. Better still, as the road hugs the water, one might ease onto the Kempville Highway, magnetized by the Dillehay Farm. Folks there have made a stand, and not just the vegetable type.

Mary Kasel Lee Woodard Dillehay, a bright-eyed 77-year-old beauty, was born in the Conditt Holler of Elmwood. One of eight children, Kasel reminisces about shelling corn. “Weâ€TMd throw it into a zinc tub and then load up a white sack on our mule, Henry.” The local gristmill returned ground meal for their Mamaâ€TMs cornbread. “We made everything for ourselves except sugar and salt–hard, but good work,” says Kasel. “And we loved each other.”

Through 52 years of marriage, Kasel and her husband, Jack Dillehay, were a team. Jack has passed away, but even today, Kasel relates that she sees him everywhere on the farm and hears his voice. “It was fine,” she says. “He was a good man, the best. The secret is working together, loving one another and telling each other so, every day.”

The Dillehays bought their farm in 1965 and worked side by side growing tobacco, selling milk and cheese, and trading hogs. The self-sustaining circle provided a steady life for four children. In 2006, before farmers in the area realized that their ability to sell tobacco was diminishing, Kasel and Jack happened to put in some Bradley tomatoes. Jack was ailing when the crop came ripe, and his cousin Raymond came over to pick. “Why, a lady came by and asked him if heâ€TMd sell her a few,” pipes Mrs. Dillehay, “and thatâ€TMs the way it started.” She masterminded the design of a produce stand, and the vegetable became king.

The Dillehayâ€TMs son Jackie “wrastled” with the question of farming, and after 21 years with Averitt Express, he came home at harvest time in 2007 and began reaping produce with his folks.

Athletically built, with a quick smile, Jackie has a work ethic that brought the farm to a second generation, and he investigates farming practices both old and new. Christy, his wife, is a school cook who is keen on quality product and growing herbs for the public.

Dillehay Farmâ€TMs on-site market is poised between two recreation areas around Cornell Hull Lake, and camper traffic brings a steady flow of customers. Jackie also sells in Carthage, Hartsville, Red Boiling Springs, Cookeville, and Lafayette.

They remember a red-letter day when Tiffany Howard of the Tennessee Farm Bureau asked if they were aware of grants that were available for small farms. The greenhouse that nurtures a variety of plants, including broccoli, herbs, and multifarious tomatoes, has since benefited from funding for a roof, and they have made irrigation improvements as well as enhancements to the on-site market.

Elsewhere on the farm, the devastating flood of early May took a toll. “We lacked one row on Friday to have finished planting,” says Jackie, looking toward the field that had been inundated. “No two years are alike.” Much work is required to start planting again, but Jackie maintains that his goal of 4,000 cantaloupes and 5,000 watermelons will be reached, and theyâ€TMll have crops such as butter beans, cabbage, cucumbers, green beans, Irish potatoes, broccoli, peas, squash, sweet potatoes, and, of course, tomatoes. Lessons drawn from the 1982 flood guided them to build their home in a place that remained dry. Kasel Dillehay recalls her husbandâ€TMs voice: “Now Kas, weâ€TMll put it in a high place and build it two blocks higher.”

As I take my leave, I acknowledge that, though contrasts occur, this indeed might be heaven. Jackie walks me to the car and positions newly purchased plants in the front seat, bestowing a Dillehay blessing. “Theyâ€TMre yours now, talk to them on the way home.”

Roben Mounger develops relationships with area farmers and cooks year round with the bounty of CSAs and farmersâ€TM markets.She writes in celebration of food and people on her blog, Ms. Cookâ€TMs Table, which you can find at www.localtable.net.