Q&A: John Mitchell, Farmers Market Success Story
For the Mitchell family, who operate a beef and dairy farm in East Tennessee, farming isn’t only a way of life; it is a tradition that spans generations, dating back to before the Civil War.
John Mitchell, a sixth-generation farmer in Grainger County, is part of a family that has farmed the same land since the 19th century, a tradition he hopes the seventh generation (his kids, Harlan, 15, and Hilary, 13) will want to continue.
The family farms about 400 acres, where they raise grain for their Holstein dairy cows. The dairy is a fairly new venture, extending only one generation back to John’s father, David. The Mitchells milk 100 cows twice a day and keep a few steers each year to sell directly to the public as whole cow ground beef at farmers markets in Knoxville.
Q: What led you to continue the tradition of farming on your family’s land?
A: I knew I wanted to stay in agriculture, so when I started college at the University of Tennessee, I majored in Food Technology and Science. After graduation, I worked for Mayfield Dairy as a production supervisor for eight years. One day I got a call from my dad where he basically said, “We’re getting older and don’t want to work this hard all our lives, but if you are interested in coming home at some point to continue farming just let me know.” My kids were small and hadn’t started school, so my wife and I thought about it and decided being able to raise our children on the farm was a great idea. So, in 1998, we moved back and I started farming again. My kids are the seventh generation, and I hope one of them wants to farm, but it remains to be seen if they will want to or not. My dad still helps on the farm as well, and I rely on his many years of experience every day.
Q: Your family has been involved in Farm Bureau for a long time. Is it important to be involved in organizations that support the agriculture industry?
A: Absolutely. Farm Bureau is one of the loudest voices that makes sure agriculture is not forgotten, especially in the legislature. Personally, I don’t know any better organization nation or statewide that does a better job telling the story of agriculture. Politicians are probably an extra generation removed from the farm, and if Farm Bureau didn’t educate them there’s no telling what kind of laws they would pass.
Q: Do you think it’s important to share what you do on the farm?
A: It’s extremely important; we need to be spokesmen not just for animals, but on all aspects of agriculture. People need to know where their food really comes from and understand why we do what we do.
I think speaking engagements in your local community is the key to spreading the message. Go talk to your chamber or Rotary – talk to one person, they tell one person and it spreads out from there. A grassroots movement is going to be key: the local approach of talking to your neighbors to spread the message.
Even though Grainger County is still a rural county, it is growing a lot with people getting out of town for a taste of rural life; and it is definitely not as rural as it used to be. When I grew up here, everyone either lived on a farm or knew someone that farmed. That is not the case anymore. As a new venture last year, I started retailing beef from my steers to sell directly to people at farmers markets in Knoxville, and it is unreal what people think about what “really” happens on a farm or what their food is. It has given me a chance to not only have another avenue of income on the farm, but to also speak to non-ag people in surrounding communities about what truly goes on in agriculture. For example, a lot of people don’t realize that dairy cows are a part of the beef industry. I sell most of my steers to the stockyards, but keep a few back every season to finish out for direct marketing. I sell whole cow ground beef because I want people to have the best hamburger they’ve ever had – and I have people who say it really is! Typically when you eat a hamburger, you are eating the trimmings around the filet or prime rib, etc. but I wanted a leaner, better-quality, better-tasting finished product, so I put all of it into ground meat. I sell at three markets a week, all in Knoxville. This is also truly a family project, because if I’m in the field chopping silage, I can’t just drop that to go to the market during the week, so my wife and kids do that.
Q: It’s been a tough year for dairy producers across the nation. What keeps you going, and why is it important to continue?
A: It has been a tough year, especially since last year was a good year price wise. Last year we were getting $24 a hundredweight for our milk compared to as low as $12 this year, although toward December we did pick up a little. The ups and downs of the market have just been awful. And even with the good prices last year, the input costs were so high that the profits couldn’t be realized.
The thing about the dairy industry, really all of agriculture, is that all of the risk is on the farmer. The crops could get a disease, the animals could die, the weather could either have you in a drought, a flood or a sudden storm that could devastate your livelihood. When it gets to the processor, the price is set and if it changes they get to change their price, where we assume all the risk and have to take the price given. If we could have a more stable/guaranteed profit (reasonable compared to the risk) I think things would be a lot better for the entire industry.
Q: How do you explain how you care for your animals to someone not from an agricultural background?
A: My livestock are the sole means of my income; if I don’t take care of them properly they don’t take care of me. I have a nutritionist from the co-op who helps me figure out their food and diets. It’s just like a pediatrician with your kids: You do what the professionals say to take care of them. If my cows aren’t healthy and happy, they won’t turn a profit for us and keep us healthy and happy. Taking care of them is a lot like taking care of your children; when one of them gets sick you call the doctor and he comes out and diagnoses the problem accordingly. We vaccinate our cows just like our children to prevent them from getting diseases, and give them medicine if they do get sick to make them get better.
Where To Buy
Mitchell’s all-natural beef is available for purchase at the following locations:
Seasonal Farmers Markets:
• Tuesdays and Fridays from 3:00 – 6:00 at Laurel Church Farmers Market in Sequoyah Hills
• Thursdays from 3:00 – 6:00 at New Harvest Park Farmers Market in the East Town area
• Pratt’s Country Store, 3100 Tazewell Pike, Knoxville, TN (Fountain City area)
• Strawberry Fields Market, 3701 Sutherland Avenue, Knoxville, TN