Dillehay Farm: The road to a life of seasonal quality

By Roben Mounger

On Interstate 40 East, between the Linville and Carthage exits, a person might note a billboard among wild overgrowth: If you died today where would you spend eternity? If the road continued to Exit 258 and headed through Carthage to Highways 80 and 85, a rebirth amid the storybook beauty of Defeated, Tennessee might be considered. 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. "My sister put that name Kasel on me," she says. Kasel, one of eight children, reminisces about chores and shelling corn. "We'd throw it into a zinc tub and then load up a white sack on our mule, Henry." The local gristmill returned ground meal used for their Mama's cornbread. "We made everything for ourselves except sugar and salt–hard, but good work," says Kasel. "And we loved each other."

Through their 52 years of marriage, Kasel and her husband, Jack Dillehay, were a team in this life. Jack has passed away, but even today, Kasel relates, her voice filled with emotion, 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, who return the favor today. "My two girls are nurses, one son works at the electric company, and Jackie gave up a good job to come back and run the farm with his Dad," she nods.

In 2006, before farmers understood that their ability to sell tobacco would diminish, Kasel and Jack put in some Bradley tomatoes. The crop came ripe about the time that Jack was faced with a span at St. Thomas Hospital, and his cousin Raymond came over to pick the fruit. "Why, a lady came by and asked him if he'd sell her a few," pipes Mrs. Dillehay, "and that's the way it started." She masterminded the particulars of laying out produce on large tables for sale and the vegetable became king.

The Dillehay's son Jackie "wrastled" with the question of farming, and after 21 years with Averitt Express, he came home at harvest time, June 29, 2007. He references the book of Hebrews, Moses, and a pivotal chat with "him" (saying, "You know who I'm talking about, don't you?") and began reaping produce for his folks that year, though literally, he worked there all of his life.

Athletically built, with a quick smile, Jackie is devoted to a work ethic that brought the farm to a second generation, and he is motivated to investigate old and new farming practices. Christy, his wife, is a K-8 school cook who is keen on quality product and growing herbs for the public.

The Dillehay Farm's 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–watermelon and cantaloupe, especially.

With appreciation, they acknowledge a red-letter day when Tiffany Howard of the Tennessee Farm Bureau asked if they knew about grants that were available for small farms. The greenhouse that nurtures a variety of plants, including broccoli, cabbage, herbs, and multifarious tomatoes, has benefited from funding for a roof, and they have also been able to make irrigation improvements and enhancements to the on-site market.

Their greenhouses are distinguished, swept clean with a tidy appearance sheltering strong plants. "We liked one row on Friday to have finished planting," says Jackie looking toward the field enveloped by the May flood waters. "No two years are alike," Lessons drawn from the 1982 flood enabled them to build the home place that remained dry. Mrs. Dillehay recalls her husband's voice: "Now Kas, we'll put it in a high place and build it two blocks higher."

Much cleaning is required before planting begins anew, but Jackie maintains that his goal of 4,000 cantaloupes and 5,000 watermelons will be reached, along with other seasonal produce such as butter beans, cabbage, cucumbers, green beans, Irish potatoes, broccoli, peas, squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.

After time with the Dillehays, one would take their leave, acknowledging that though contrasts occur, this indeed might be heaven. As Jackie walks one to the car and positions newly purchased plants in the front seat, he bestows a Dillehay blessing. "They're 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 farmers markets. At fifty-five, an internship venture at Arugula Star Farm on Leiper's Creek Road awakened her to life. She writes in celebration of food and people at www.mscookstable.com. [add her blog on LT?]