Meet East Tennessee Farmer Renea Rogers
The Dirt on the Farm
Farm Family: Renea Rogers; her parents, Carl and Sue Jones; and their longtime partners Buck Church (who passed away), his wife, Charlene and their sons, Greg and Mike
Crops: tomatoes, field corn (grown for livestock) and hay
Farm Legacy: Third generation
Farm Location: Unicoi County
Farm Trivia: They incorporated the community into our brand because they are such a part of who they are, so they grow Green Mountain and Buffalo Mountain tomatoes since the farm is nestled under them.
Farm Bureau Membership: Renea was born into a Farm Bureau family, so 50 years!
Q: What makes your farm special?
A: It’s really about family for me; this farm gave me the opportunity to work with my dad and pass on his legacy, to raise my kids with the values I was raised with – to love the land and be good stewards of what we have been blessed with. I also love that I can bring my kids to work with me. That’s a unique opportunity you don’t have in every work environment.
We have 600 acres where we grow fresh market tomatoes to ship all over the Eastern United States, Puerto Rico and to cruise lines. We package, on average, 900,000 25-pound boxes of tomatoes a year. It is very labor intensive; we hire 230 folks seasonally to plant, maintain, harvest and get ready for the next season. But while it is very hard and long hours, it teaches responsibility and how to think on your feet, and we are able to provide a high-quality fresh food product to consumers.
Q: What is a favorite memory you have from your farm?
A: I have a favorite moment that happens about once a season – when all the trucks are coming in from the field and you see them lined up to get to the packing area. Our guys are so efficient we hardly ever get to see them lined up at all, but when it does it is so gratifying for me to see all those tomatoes coming in and know we have so many people that love to eat tomatoes!
It’s the bigger picture – we are employing these people, which allows them to put food on their table, and allows us to be a huge part of our community. It is rewarding to see the impact all signified by that line of trucks waiting to be unloaded.
Q: Being a woman in agriculture is still somewhat of a rarity. How does that help you tell agriculture’s story?
A: It’s slowly changing but is still a struggle. Sometimes it’s hard to be taken seriously, but I embrace my role and try to make a difference for women in agriculture with the little piece of the puzzle I have.
Most farmers have children, and I think we use that – we all want to preserve agriculture for our kids. Everyone has a role that deserves to be shared.
Q: Labor is a huge part of your farm life. How does your farm keep the labor it needs to survive?
A: Since we don’t get a lot of migratory workers in upper East Tennessee, we use the guest worker program. It allows us to have a legal workforce, even after harvest to get the fields clean and ready for winter. It’s been a good alternative but is very expensive (the cost goes up every single year) and a huge amount of paperwork. I think reform is vital, but since agriculture is such a part of our country and labor is an issue everywhere, I think a package reform nationally will probably be the only way we can make positive change happen.
Q: Why did you choose to carry on the tradition of farming instead of working off farm?
A: When I was in sixth-grade, we had an insect infestation, and the lady who came to scout the fields was a horticulturist who identified the insect and how to fix the problem. That had a huge impact on me and from that point on that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to protect and preserve the farmer’s livelihood.
That is what I started off doing, and got my masters because I knew education was important and no one could ever take that away from me. However, when you get away and get some perspective, you realize what a treasure you have and what a blessing it is to farm and have that lifestyle – so when I got married and started thinking about kids, I decided to come back.