A Farmer at Fifty-six


I grew up in the city, not exactly the place to acquire farming skills.  But I had roots in the country and I knew it.  The Shelby County, Illinois census declared that my great-great grandfather, Rezin Whitlatch “went to farming on land he purchased in 1865.”  I discovered pictures of my two grandfathers, one plowing behind two mules and the other casting seeds on the land where my mother grew up.  But when she married and moved to the city, she wanted her four daughters to be cultured which meant piano lessons, ruffled dresses, and classical music.  However, there was a bit of a problem with that.  I liked to climb trees, collect bugs and salamanders, and I enjoyed pet mice and catching crawdads in the creek…and I hated piano lessons. While my mother was busy making us into ladies we still took trips back to my grandparents’ farm.  I have memories of aunts gathered in the kitchen to put up freshly picked produce, the clucking of chickens, climbing trees in the apple orchard, and the outhouse down the hill close to the trash pile.  I ate homemade biscuits, strawberry preserves, smoked ham and bacon, and drank from tin cups.  Yet it bothered me to know that mine was the first generation in our family not to grow up on a farm.


I took the dream of a log home and chickens to college and Los Angeles and everywhere else I lived in between - the longing buried in my heart. I subscribed to a country magazine and envied the lives of the women featured in their boots and jeans.  And then I refused to look at them at all because it made my heart hurt and my mind resent all the concrete and people and noise.  So I moved forward with my career in the world of square office spaces and artificial lighting pretending this was what I wanted all along.  And then life changed. 


My husband and I moved back to the hills of Tennessee where we were able to afford a bit of land and a log home.  I now have a rabbit named Sunshine who makes lovely manure for my gardens and greets me with spinning hops.  I have lots of beautiful chickens whose eggs I eat and sell, and I feel like a kid at an Easter egg hunt every time I go to the coop.  I tend vegetable and flower gardens, maintain a worm farm (my Daddy would be proud), compost, and collect rain water.  I can and freeze whatever I grow and cook up southern foods that remind me of home. The addition of beehives has not only added honey to my summer harvest, but increased the productivity of my vegetables and flowers.   I’ve won ribbons at the state fair for my homemade soap and my art work depicting country living.  I’ve become a certified Master Gardener through our state university’s extension with the goal of killing less plants in the process of learning how to grow things in Tennessee soil.

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But one of my greatest joys was becoming a farmer at Trevecca University’s Urban Farm. I help tend their large organic gardens, raise miniature Tennessee Fainting goats, heritage chickens, American Guinea hogs, as well as care for the tilapia in our aquaponics system housed in the campus greenhouse.  I help tend their beehives and teach soap and salve making using our goat’s milk, beeswax, and herbs raised in the gardens.  In the summers I help run the farm camps for local middle and high school students and try to pass on the knowledge other farmers have patiently taught me. 


While moving rapidly toward the age most women retire, I feel like I’ve just begun to live.  I find my 90-year-old mother chuckling when I take on the task of making my own lye from ashes and rain water or when I declare that I plan to render lard from the pig we had butchered last year to make soap like my great grandmother did so many years ago. But I can tell she’s proud of me and she’s always willing to lend a hand when I’m not sure how things should be done. 

Can it really be that I’m truly a farmer at age 56?  Why yes!  And I can’t wait until the next census comes around and I can proudly write “Farmer” on the occupation line, just like my great-great grandfather did so many years ago.

Karen Shaw