|By ANN HINCH
RUTLEDGE, Tenn. — The bracing chill of the air-conditioned kitchen is a welcome respite from the late summer humidity of Labor Day weekend in Grainger County.
Nancy Ritter leads a circuit of the modest-sized septic white and stainless-steel room. Here, a 40-gallon steam kettle for cooking tomatoes grown in family greenhouses not too far down Highway 11W; there, food processors that can chop scores of the fruit (vegetable?) in minutes.
The Ritters make spaghetti and barbecue sauces, tomato juice, chili sauce and, of course, salsa – “Anything we can squeeze out of a tomato,” Nancy said.
Their on-farm kitchen abuts the family barn store, and was finished in mid-July at a cost of $39,227 – $10,000 of which came from an Agricultural Growth Initiative (AGI) grant through Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA). Though it’s only been in service about two months, the Ritters are projecting a three-year income increase of $75,000 from being able to offer more and diverse products.
“This was just a dirt floor and shed on this side of the barn,” Nancy said of the spotless kitchen.
Before this, the Ritters sold several foods made elsewhere but private-labeled by them, though they did grind various flours on-site and cooked apple, peach and other sweet butters in copper kettles.
In addition to tomato products, they now bake bread, fry fruit pies and this winter, will be taking a course at the University of Tennessee to be certified for pickling.
Nancy and Jack started farming in the early 1970s. By the 1990s, they had 350 acres and were wholesaling tomatoes for distribution to supermarket chains Ingles, Food City and Wal-Mart.
They still sell to Wal-Mart, but have scaled back operations to about 60 acres and nine greenhouses in which they grow tomatoes and start seedlings of other crops for outdoor transplant.
“People kept stepping in and asking, ‘Do you sell to the public?’” Nancy said of the large red barn, which is now the store where they do sell to anyone. “We’d tell them it’s just a packing barn, but they’d say, ‘I just want a few tomatoes.’”
In 2000, the couple put the farm in the name of their middle son, Stanley, and his wife, Tonya.
He is the only one of three boys who farm, which he does full-time most of the year; in the winter he drives a truck, and in the summer, hires a driver to keep his contracts year-round.
“Jack and I are retirement age,” Nancy, a former teacher, explained. “We need to be doing this for enjoyment, not for work.”
“We sell everything we make every day,” Stanley said, adding customers seem to like the friendly atmosphere and the Ritters’ occasional hires of gospel and bluegrass musical groups to sing onsite.
He admits to skepticism of new things – “I had my doubts about the kitchen, but it’s turned out pretty good,” he said – but is game to try them sometimes. For example, part of the kitchen’s charm is it allows the Ritters to make use of bruised and overripe fruit and vegetables for canning, whereas before food would have been wasted because it could neither be sold nor transported.
Too, the family raises hogs to be slaughtered elsewhere, but is looking into gaining USDA approval to eventually sell sausage and related meats.
Open April through November, the family holds four major weekends through the year, beginning with Strawberry Weekend over Mother’s Day, which coincides with the “Battle of Bean Station” Civil War reenactment.
This year, they also let the local 4-H use their property for National Dairy Month activities in June.
In addition to their own products – canned butters and vegetables, fresh corn, seven kinds of green beans, many apple varieties, peppers, tomatoes – the Ritters still sell jar-canned goods purchased from Mennonite friends (such as tomato juice cocktail, comparable to V-8), and veggies from neighbors both in- and out-of-state.
“It’s not like big farm operations,” Nancy explained, pointing to some fresh okra as an example. “Just neighbors who have overflow in their gardens.
“We’re always looking for new and interesting things.”
The farm also provides income to friends in other ways. Cathy Gilliland from nearby Blaine, Tenn., and her husband Tommy raise horses, which they rent out for carriage rides and other tourist activities in seven counties. But Cathy also enjoys experimenting with homemade ice cream, and events such as the Ritters’ weekends provide opportunities for her to set up a horsepowered churn onsite.
“I believe in supporting your area and local farmers,” she said, explaining the peaches and strawberries she uses come from the Ritters. In a large-event weekend, she can sell as much as 140 gallons of ice cream.
Like any sensible businessfolk, the Ritters are always marketing. Nancy designs the business’ website (www.ritterfarms.com) and works PR with media. They host a Back to the Farm hour Monday through Friday from 12:30-1:30 p.m. on local radio WCTU-105.9 FM, complete with humor, gospel and bluegrass music, recipes (Nancy on Fridays) and Biblical teachings (Jack, an ordained minister, on Thursdays).
Ostensibly retired, it seems Jack and Nancy will always be working the farm, both out of knowledge and love. “This is our ministry,” Jack said, gesturing through the barn store and the fields visible out beyond it.
This farm news was published in the Sept. 13, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.