In 1850, when the Cureton Mill in Rising Fawn, Ga., was built, there would only be one other family acquiring the farmland before the Persingers would purchase it in 2007.
Splendid with history, the 600-acre farm is contained in the natural boundaries of Lookout Creek and the base of the western slope of Lookout Mountain. James Cureton had a mill along the creek that was used as a grist mill. After the Civil War, Cureton came back and used it as a lumber mill and a textile operation.
The Dyer family purchased the farm in 1937 and the mill stood until it burned down a few years after the Dyers acquired it. Seventy years later Steve and Karen Persinger bought the beautiful property that holds so much history now called Rising Fawn Gardens. “We find a lot of arrow heads in the fields that date back several thousand years,” Steve claims.
Karen says, “The creek is very unique - in that it flows north and when it floods, you’d be amazed at how high it rises.” Being in the northern hemisphere water typically runs south and winds around.
Steve explains, “There are two creeks that come off of Lookout - one that comes down the side of the mountain and two that come in from Alabama and they all join to form Lookout Creek, but the water runs north. It goes all the way into the Tennessee River and goes behind Reflection Riding and the Nature Center. We are more in the head waters of the creek. It is great water - clear and clean.”
At this time, the couple produces on 13 acres, but they are open to new ideas. Steve recently sold his roofing business, Lookout Supply Company to a national roofing distributer. After twenty years with the business he and Karen decided to leave the corporate world for something a little more peaceful.
When you step onto the property you are surrounded by the beauty of the mountains. They still reside on Lookout Mountain 30 minutes from the farm. Their intention is to eventually move onto the farm.
When asked whose desire it was to begin farming, Karen says, “Oh - no brainer…” and points to her husband.
Steve laughs and says, “There is just something in your blood to work in the soil. Friends of ours, Curtis and Letty Smith, were instrumental in helping me learn the aspects of doing things organically and sustainably – so yeah, she is my mentor.”
Karen adds, “She is probably the most experienced in growers in my opinion and she is so forthcoming in sharing what she knows. It is something that you are constantly learning. She is always trying new stuff in her garden to see what will work.”
“You make lots of mistakes” Steve interjects. “Some things work and some things don’t. You learn from that and try to do something different in your plan for the next year.”
“Steve probably spent about a year helping them on a very regular basis after Lookout Supply sold. That’s when we started going to Curtis and Letty’s farm - pretty much daily,” Karen says. “Steve always had a green thumb as far as just growing. We always had a little garden so this has just been kind of natural, but it has been a slow learning process.”
Steve explains how he began before taking on the garden and selling. “I’ve been planting in the fields, whether it was just food plots for the deer or plots of corn - just different things. We have grown whole fields of sunflowers before. We have been learning how to use equipment, how to care for the land the correct way. We have been finding out what it is we want to be involved with, in the organic movement.
“We are taking it a step at a time. We put in the orchard and built the fence and then we grew the garden last year. We have expanded the garden and have more products of the items that have been most popular at the market and a little more resistant to bugs and damage. We do companion planting and rotate the crops.”
Though Steve and Karen talk about taking things slowly, it is apparent they have put a lot of time and care into the garden that is abundant in the produce they take to sell at the Wednesday Main Street Market. Though taking their time and feeling as though they are just getting started, it is easy to see how well the garden is flourishing and you would think they have been doing it for years.
Steve says, “Karen is the big pusher in eating right - not just eating organically but preparing food right. Her interest had been very instrumental in our approach on this from an organic standpoint, instead of conventional farming, where you use the herbicides and fertilizers.”
The couple works the farm themselves except when their sons offer their assistance. “We have three sons,” Karen says. “Our middle son, Thomas, has been here half the year and in Alaska half the year as a fishing guide. When he is here, he has been a really good working partner.”
Steve interjects, “He is my right hand man. He has an interest in it but I think he does it mainly to help me, because there is so much labor involved when you do organic growing and he has just been outstanding. Our youngest son, Joseph, has been real helpful last summer quite a bit – he is at Auburn so I am kind of missing out on him!” he laughs.
The couple’s four dogs roaming the property hang around for a little petting. When mentioning ‘empty nest’ Steve points to his pets and says, “Yeah, these are my babies.” Karen laughs and says, “Our four-legged critters that are easy going and don’t talk back!”
The garden is full of seasonal vegetables right now as well as fruit and flowers.
Karen states, “We have a pretty sophisticated group of shoppers that come to market and people will always tell us about things they do. A lady once told us about a French sorrel soup and I thought, ‘Wow we need to look that up and do that!’”
Steve adds, “We grow items that are higher-nutrient type foods. We have several varieties of spinach and lettuce mixes - they are starting to fade out now but the beans are coming in strong. Tomatoes, potatoes, squash, zucchini, herbs, beets, carrots and the sunflowers are starting to come on strong now.”
“I built the hoop house last winter and put a crop in there last March. The arugula sorrel, lettuces and green beans we had kept warm enough that we were selling beans at the market early. About two months ago,” Steve attests.
Sunflowers are Steve’s idea. “There is just something about sunflowers. I grew them last year - it is a floral grade sunflower,” he says.
Karen, proud of her husband’s success with the project said, “He started out just growing a field of sunflowers - just to do it… and, those weren’t a floral grade but they were so beautiful and they were so tall! That’s when he started learning more about the floral grade.”
What is the difference?
“They are pollen free,” Steve claims. “They don’t drop pollen on the table or anything like that. Different varieties have seeds more edible… these flowers are more of a hybrid so they tend to not generate a full seed. These are all for the florist.”
The four florists that the Persingers sell to are The Claypot on Hanover Street owned by Joe Jumper, Flowers by Gil and Curt on Tremont Street owned by Gil Cartwright and Curt Hodge, Making Arrangements on St. Elmo Avenue owned by Sue Solteau Wright and Gloria Mendonsa and Poppy on Taft Highway owned by Laurel Powell.
“We thought we would just give it a try but when the sunflowers came on – they did unbelievable! We almost got into a panic mode and we started talking to some of these florists; they were so welcoming. I was able to establish relationships with them and they purchased flowers and gave us ideas of other things we can plant,” Steve said.
Nasturtium is a companion plant Steve uses to keep bugs away. He planted them in between the eggplant. It is also edible to use on salads and it has a sweet flavor.
“One day our hope is to have animals on the farm, but they require 24-hour care and until we live here, that isn’t a possibility,” Steve says.
Karen adds, “It’s a good idea …the full cycle - chickens helping to eat the bugs and fertilize… our hive is the same idea - to have for pollination. Bees are under such stress; it is our responsibility as a steward of this land to help them out.”
Karen was a teacher at Fairyland Elementary. She says, “Another aspect of stewardship is sharing it. There is so much to share with kids – teaching them where our food comes from. In the future, I think we will do things toward education here. We will be able to address it more when we have a bridge… and a bathroom!” she laughs.
“I talked to one of the science teachers at Bright about even doing Skype with the kids to let them see what goes on. There are a lot of educational opportunities now especially with computers,” Karen says.
Steve had tried to grow lavender. He discusses trying out things and learning what works. “It’s just a matter of commitment of time,” he says, “as to what is the most difficult. Probably tomatoes… you spend a lot of time tying and training your tomatoes to grow up right.”
With regards to crop rotation, Steve will alternate corn and wheat in his fields. “Red Winter Wheat is a variety of wheat you’re able to plant in the fall. It comes in after the corn crop and we’ll be rotating the crop because next year we’ll do the winter wheat. My first year to plant a large field came out great. We planted just six acres last year and ended up with about 240 bushels of wheat and close to 500 bales of wheat straw. I was able to sell the straw and we took the majority of winter wheat to the mill last year,” Steve says.
CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) was a new venture for the couple. “Things have been going really well with the market and we picked a small group as a trial run with a CSA but they will get great product. They will ‘grow with us’. We are very positive about how the crops are growing. We have a lot of sweet corn coming in, tomatoes, sunflowers, beans, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, and okra,” Steve says.
Do they partner with other farmers regarding the CSA?
“We were able to establish that kind of relationship with two farms this year, where they had CSAs and I had a lot of good things coming in but they were a little short on some product. So we were able to supplement them and that got the ball rolling with me thinking, ‘Yeah, I think we can do this’ but I wanted to start out really small with just a few people that are familiar with what we do and how we are trying to learn.”
Karen says, “We have some really good relationships with farmers and, if we have a need, I think they will be willing to reciprocate if they have an abundance of something we might be short of. You just can’t have a guarantee with your crops - you never know if there is going to be a bug or blight or something.”
The Persingers' house is on the market and they hope to begin making the move to their farm soon. Steve’s future project will be building a bridge over the creek so the access to the farm is easier.
“This is a great community of people,” Steve says of the growing local movement.
“Going from working with people in the corporate business world and having competition, to working with people that are trying to help you and give ideas… it’s just a real regressive industry to be involved in. And I think there are a lot of opportunities,” Steve says. “It’s a growing movement and we want to be a part of that movement.”
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