Follow the Teachers
High-speed, low-drag learning at Renaissance Farms
There’s never a good time to visit a farm. There are no fall breaks, no summers off. Holidays? No. So, it’s no surprise that I end up at Renaissance Farms on Labor Day. Between bringing in new cows, selling at markets, and jury duty, it’s the only time that farmers Cris and Sandy Watson have for a visit.
The hour-plus drive from the city takes me through Moscow and Rossville and quite a few speed traps. The land is still the green of summer, but there are numerous fields of rolled hay, ready for winter feeding.
Renaissance Farms lies in Saulsbury, Tennessee, a teeny place in Hardeman County — population less than 100. Several years ago, Cris and Sandy purchased 50 acres to create a weekend retreat and an extensive garden. The plan was set to go into motion as soon as their youngest son headed off to college.
Cris spent 30 years in the chemical sales business. All those big words on the back of processed food packages? Cris is one of the few who knows what those chemicals are. Selling an antimicrobial to the industrial food system, Cris was able to see what actually goes on in mass-scale animal operations. And what he saw hit home.
Though Cris and Sandy had always stayed away from processed food, seeing films like Food, Inc., reading Michael Pollan, and seeing slaughterhouses and feed lots firsthand caused them to rethink what they were eating. Unable to find clean proteins and organic vegetables, they created a ten-year plan to grow their own.
Stick to the plan
The land was bare — of buildings, fences, and nutrients. Pitching a tent on weekend visits, the couple started a massive garden. Truckload after truckload of aged sheep manure enriched the soil. And the garden grew.
With ample produce for their own needs, Sandy thought it might be a good idea to sell the extra at the Bolivar farmers’ market. Though they heard plenty of nay-saying that the folks in Bolivar wouldn’t have any interest in organically grown vegetables, Sandy and Cris sold out every Saturday. And they had a ball doing it.
Cris is a born salesman. With just the right mix of dry wit and sly humor, he loves to share practical farm knowledge and cooking expertise, along with the reasons clean eating is important…scratch that….crucial. Cris wants you to know why, but he also wants you to like what you’re eating. It’s gotta taste good.
You can’t help but be drawn to Sandy. She’s quick with a smile and quicker with a laugh. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. She doesn’t shy away from the constant work of the farm. But don’t mess with her. She doesn’t put up with that.
“We had a nasty pig once, and a cranky ram,” says Sandy. “They ended up in the freezer.”
Time at the market required a revision to the plan. The ten-year plan was revised to a five-year plan.
And then they bought four head of cattle, a pig, and some chickens.
The five-year plan was revised to a two-year plan. Selling both produce and protein was too daunting, so Cris and Sandy decided to focus on the clean meats they wanted and figured others would, too.
It’s been said again and again — farming is hard, hot, never-ending, patience-trying work. Effort and practicality have to supersede everything else. There just isn’t energy to spare to lament everything that goes wrong.
“Seventy to 80 percent of our time is spent ‘not farming,’” says Cris. “One full day each week is spent taking animals to and from the processor. Two to three days are spent at markets. A day is spent just running errands, such as picking up cows or feed. At least one day is spent on the business end — invoices, ordering, inventory. That leaves just two days a week for ‘farming.’” Of course he’s quick to point out that he doesn’t consider the daily chores farming. The stock has to be fed and watered. Newborns have to be cared for. Repairs have to be made — every day.
No trouble with the curve
Neither Sandy nor Cris come from a farming background. Trial and error; an extension agent who is now a friend; expertise from neighbors, suppliers, and other farmers; vast amounts of reading and studying; and tenacious spirits have contributed to Sandy and Cris coming up to speed in record time. “And if all else fails, there’s probably a YouTube video to show you how,” says Cris.
Don’t tell them it can’t be done.
“We’re high-speed, low-drag,” says Cris. “You can read to learn to do anything, but you have to put the work in. You learn by doing.”
Just call me grasshopper
Cris is full time on the farm. Sandy still works as a bookkeeper in Memphis four days each week, but the two take care of everything on the farm. They built the fences, barn, and deck. Their grown children enjoy the farm for short visits “and love the food,” says Sandy, but the lion’s share of the work gets split about 70/30 between Cris and Sandy.
As self-described disciples of Joel Salatin — the alternative farmer from Virginia who vocally advocates for grass-farmed livestock — Cris and Sandy probably have nearly 1,000 animals on the farm — cattle, sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys, Tamworth hogs, and seven dogs. Grass is important here. The cows roam through pasture. So do the sheep. The ducks waddle in the orchard. “And the chickens go wherever they want,” says Sandy. As we go to visit the hogs in a nearby pine grove, I spy a group of piglets rooting around the backyard. “Those are free-range pigs,” jokes Sandy, using the term that more frequently describes chickens. At our approach, the piglets duck under the low fence, back into the woods with the other hogs.
If you want it done right
Though the cattle, sheep, and hogs are processed at Yoder Bros. in Paris, Tennessee, the nearest poultry processing facility is in Kentucky. So the Watsons recently built an on-site processing facility for poultry. Last year, the state of Tennessee changed and clarified rules for on-farm processing. Renaissance Farms was one of the first to go through the new process and help work out the kinks.
Undeterred by the bureaucratic red tape and warnings of a “two-year process,” Cris and Sandy had their poultry processing up, permitted, and ready to go in less than a year. They can process up to 20,000 birds, raised on their farm, each year.
Is it worth it? Just ask their loyal customers who line up each Saturday at the Cooper-Young Community Farmers’ Market. Yes, you can taste the difference in a chicken that’s been allowed to roam on fresh grass, that hasn’t been fed antibiotics or hormones, that hasn’t been crammed in a cage for its entire existence.
Just two years into the process, the tables have turned. Cris and Sandy are now the mentors and teachers.
After a downsizing at his job, Glen Ring came to Renaissance to help them process chicken. Ever the idea generator, Cris suggested a food cart for selling cooked Renaissance Farms sausage and helped Glenn get set up. Farm 2 Cart was born and is a popular fixture at the Cooper-Young, Memphis Botanic Garden, Church Health Center, Germantown, and Collierville farmers’ markets.
Another farm volunteer, Seth, worked on the farm during the most miserable time of year, winter, and still fell in love with farming. Under Cris’s tutelage, Seth saved up and started his own farm in South Carolina.
The Watsons love seeing people learn. “You can see it on their face,” says Cris. “They’ve physically accomplished something that isn’t a spreadsheet.”
Reopening people’s eyes to what’s right in front of them is now part of the oft-revised plan. In the past year, the Watsons have held several workshops on their farm, including chicken processing and foraging. Their goal is six workshops next year.
Teaching customers to cook, mentoring volunteers on how to farm, and incubating other small businesses — doesn’t everyone do this in addition to running a 120-acre farm? Well, no. The Watsons have definitely stepped it up.
Come and see and ask
Cris and Sandy want you to be a part of their farm. They are not just farmers behind the market table. And in an age when people don’t cook much, they love hearing how their customers cook with their meats. They want to change your life through food.
Start with trying their meat. Go easy at first. Pick up a roast or pork chop. Listen to what Cris says about how to cook it. Enjoy.
Next, ask questions. Ask more questions. Perhaps visit the farm. Sign up for one of their on-farm classes. Repeat. You’re on your way to learning more about your food. Don’t worry. Cris and Sandy are with you every step of the way.
Melissa Petersen is the editor and publisher of Edible Memphis magazine. Some chef always beats her to the Renaissance Farms sweetbread supply, but she cushions the blow with their farm eggs and some of the best bacon she’s ever had.