By Lauren Stepp
Unlike most Polk County horticulturalists, Jon and Brittany Klimstra of TK Family Farm can’t trace their agrarian roots back to Antebellum Carolina. Circa 1800, forefathers might have settled the Howard Gap Valley and matriarchs may have reared Jerseys, but the Klimstras of today are relatively new to farming.
“We had raised garden beds in D.C.,” says Brittany. “But this is a whole other level.”
In July 2014, the couple left suburban Maryland to provide daughter Natalie and twins JJ and Rylie with an upbringing grounded in dirt rather than asphalt. “Bottom line, we wanted them to grow up how we did,” says Jon, a Hendersonville native. “Space for kids to be kids.”
The 15-acre Green Creek holding certainly affords a down-home lifestyle. The farm specializes in pastured pork and free-range broilers and layers, so the children collect still-warm eggs and watch sows nurse spring litters. But it’s not all kitsch and kale pesto (a savory spread Brittany is famous for). Farming takes grit.
This year, they’ve been met with unseasonably warm weather. “It’s the middle of summer in February,” says Jon. Trees are budding, veggies are sprouting and regional growers are waiting for the other shoe to drop. “We’re waiting for a cold snap to kill what’s bloomed.”
Last harvest, the family held their breath when rainfall waned. Drought can get the best of experienced agronomists, says Brittany.
“There’s an understanding between farmers that so much is beyond our control, we need to help one another.” Which is why seasoned growers rallied around the Klimstras back in 2014, bringing their tractors to prepare a pigpen. In what felt like an obliging barn raising, farmers rolled up their sleeves and got TK Family Farm off the ground.
Though their centuries-old wisdom hasn’t been lost on the younger generation when it comes to animal husbandry, apples are a different story. Jon’s high-density trellis system—similar to grapes growing on a vine—is unprecedented in Polk County. Typical orchards require elbowroom, but with only 15 acres, he’s growing upward instead of outward. The compact design doubles yield per acre, and it ramps up fruit quality. Almost every apple falls into the “extra fancy” category, which means top dollar.
Senior farmers are meeting his orchard with curiosity rather than advice. Patrick McLendon is right there with them, but what he lacks in cultivar counsel, he makes up for in unyielding support. McLendon established Growing Rural Opportunities, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting farmers and promoting local food, to preserve a dying agrarian tradition. Since July 2015, that’s meant advocating for young growers like Jon and Brittany.
“I believe cohesive communities include the farmers and the farmland,” says McLendon. He’s stood by that mantra since TK Family Farm’s beginning when he drove the Klimstras around Polk County to find an affordable parcel. But as McLendon points out, “it’s easier to save a mountaintop than it is working land.” Fundraising for agriculture is tough, so you might as well stoke the coals and chill some beer.
On Saturday, April 15, at 5 p.m., McLendon will put on the inaugural GRO Fest at Harmon Dairy. Mountain BBQ & Deli will be serving farm-to-table nosh, and musicians like Americana vocalist Aaron Burdett will take the stage.
“Food is intrinsic to us all,” says McLendon. “And our region, made of small-scale farmers like Jon and Brittany, can lead the way in quality food production.”
Harmon Dairy is located at 335 Harmon Dairy Lane in Columbus. General admission tickets to “GRO Fest” are $25 each, with VIP tickets available for $65. For more information about GRO and to reserve tickets go to growrural.org.