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Largest Hamilton County Farm To Get Barn Mural

  • Friday, May 17, 2024

Farming and education go hand in hand at Smith Farm in Ooltewah, making the popular 800-acre farm northeast of Chattanooga a fitting backdrop for the mural campaign.

The 60-foot mural is scheduled for paint Monday, on the roof of a barn that doubles as an outdoor classroom for school field trips and children’s activities in Hamilton County. Hamilton is the 50th county to receive a campaign mural.

The farm’s connections to UT run deep, and farm owners Aubie Smith and Michelle Bettis Smith say they wanted to honor the legacies of their families’ roots in teaching that now extend to their farm. They are both graduates of UTC and work for Hamilton County Schools while running the farm. Mr. Smith worked closely with UT Extension to help guide the direction of the farm toward the value-added product enterprise it is today. 

“We’re grateful for the opportunity. We think it will bring positive attention to the farm,” says Ms. Smith (Chattanooga ‘96). 

The Smiths’ farm is a hubbub of activity nearly all year. In the spring, cars line up to buy strawberries picked each morning, selling between 400 and 1,100 gallon buckets a day. Visitors come to the farm to take pictures in their fields of tulips in the spring and sunflowers in the summer. Autumn events coincide with pumpkin season. The 800 acres of the largest working farm in Hamilton County also are home to a herd of Black Angus, land for dove hunting, and fields where Mr. Smith (Chattanooga ’95) cuts silage to sell to other farmers and bales hay that’s even been used in the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival’s grand prix racecourse held downtown. 

In addition to farm visitors, the mural will be seen by more than 1,000 travelers a day on Ooltewah Georgetown Road.  

Education Meets Agriculture at Smith Farm 
Mr. Smith is a third-generation farmer. His father, Wallace A. Smith Sr., was a school principal at Birchwood School and assistant superintendent and namesake of Wallace A. Smith Elementary School in Ooltewah. The younger Smith’s passion leaned more toward farming. “When I was in high school and school was out, I drove out of the school and turned left to go out to the country and everybody else turned right. Nobody wanted to come out here,” Mr. Smith says.  

Now people can’t get enough of farm-fresh produce and other products. Ms. Smith says they added a blank on each employees’ daily timesheet to put the “question of the day” from customers.  “People are fascinated with agriculture,” she says. 

The Smiths’ farm has evolved over many years. After he inherited his farm as a young man, Mr. Smith had a few stops and starts in his education and farming. To supplement his income, he drove a school bus, which he has done for 30 years now. With a goal to start a dairy farm like his grandfather, he contacted UT Extension, and David Perrin, who was stationed in McMinn County and serving as a farm management specialist at the time, visited the farm to provide advice. They worked together using the MANAGE (Measuring, Analyzing, Navigating, and Achieving Goals Effectively) program, which is available statewide for all farmers and conducted through UT Extension. “(David) came and punched on his computer and took me to all these dairy farms. He told me not to do it. He said, ‘You won’t make it. The time is not right,’” Mr. Smith recalls. This was heartbreaking news, but Mr. Smith followed the advice.  

Later, Mr. Perrin connected him to Ray Tidwell, a strawberry farmer in Rhea County who needed someone to drive his seasonal pickers, hired through a government program, to go shopping every week. He did that for 19 years, getting to know the workers and some about strawberries along the way. During this time, Mr. Smith’s farm was gaining attention in the area as a place to take pictures in a sunflower field he planted for a dove hunting club. He eventually planted a separate patch to allow people to pick the flowers, and they came from all over to take part. Then the strawberry farmer decided to not plant one year. Worried that the workers would have nowhere to go, Mr. Smith decided to give strawberries a shot. “I knew I could make the strawberries work. If they’ll come out here for sunflowers, they’ll come out here for strawberries,” Mr. Smith says. 

The 2024 season is his seventh, and he increased his plantings from 12 acres to 16 acres, selling out what they pick every day. In addition, many of the same seasonal workers come back every year, and four second-generation pickers worked this year. Thinking back to the initial advice decades ago to not start a dairy, Mr. concludes, “If it wasn’t for UT, David Perrin, and Extension I wouldn’t be where I’m at.” Mr. Perrin, who retired in 2023, agrees: “I think he’s made the right decision.” 

Promoting the Accessibility of a College Degree

With all the attention on the farm throughout the year, the Smiths believe the barn will stand out. But it’s the UT in the mural that the Smiths want children to see and realize they don’t have to go far to get a college degree. 

“This will be a great conversation piece for school groups,” says Ms. Smith, who is a technology integration coach for Hamilton County Schools and co-founder of Gig City Girls, a nonprofit that encourages girls to get involved in STEM fields. “Our favorite groups to host on the farm are schools,” she says, adding that all Hamilton County kindergarteners took a visit to the farm after the pandemic. She creates lessons for school visitors around whatever is happening during the season, and there’s a beekeeper they partner with at the farm who also talks to students. 

The Smiths naturally gravitate toward education. “Aubie’s dad was my elementary school principal. His mother was a high school teacher,” Ms. Smith says. “My background is middle school, and my twin brother was a first grade teacher for 10 years.”  

On Teacher Appreciation Day in Hamilton County this spring, the farm sold smaller containers of strawberries that customers could give to teachers. Ms. Smith worked with students at the nearby Harrison Bay Future Ready Center, a vocational and STEM-designated school, to use a 3-D printer to make decorative apple containers complete with worms for teacher gifts sold at the farm stand with proceeds going back to the school. The farm and Gig City Girls serve as community partners of the center. “There’s a lot of overlap between education and farming,” she says. 

Attending UT is a Family Tradition

The Smiths have several family members who hold UT degrees: Ms. Smith’s brother, Michael Sheets (Chattanooga ’08, ’12), and sister, Bliss Sheets Welch (Chattanooga ’15), and uncle, Tom Sheets (Knoxville ’74). Ar. Smith, who admittedly took nine years to earn his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, is among several family members with UT degrees, including his daughter, Whitley Smith (Knoxville ’17); sister, Danna Smith McWilliams (Knoxville ’87); and cousins Beverly Smith (Chattanooga ’78), Katie Smith Welch (Chattanooga ’07), Emily Smith (Chattanooga ’02), Scott Smith (Knoxville), David Smith (Knoxville), and Betsy Smith (Knoxville). 

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