By Celeste Baumgartner
MAYNARDVILLE, Tenn. – Farming is unique. It allows you to do and be and grow into whatever you want. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it, in the opinion of James “Rick” Riddle.
“Limitations are self-imposed,” he said.
Riddle grew up on a farm. After retiring as a colonel from the Air Force in 2006, he and his wife, Donna, moved to the run-down farm they had bought two years before. Shortly after, their kids, Nikki and James Jr., raised as city kids, came home and joined the farm effort.
“I wanted a place with a pond and a fence and some cows,” Rick said. “Donna had a broader vision for the farm and started growing vegetables, getting involved with the farmers market. She started the Union County Farmers Market in 2011. She is the current president of the market.”
Rick was a practicing veterinarian before joining the military. While in the Air Force, he picked up a master’s degree in human resources and was involved in research at the Pentagon.
“Donna wanted a place where she could sell her products and bring in other producers to sell their things,” Rick said. “The kids got interested in different aspects of farming. They liked working for themselves. What I brought from the military was the research aspects of knowing how to be involved and execute a lot of government programs, how the government works.”
Rick founded The Winery at Seven Springs Farm in 2015. He built it with wood they cleared from the farm. Nikki began operating the winery in 2016. James Jr. runs the Farm-To-Table part of the farm. He has an all-natural Black Angus beef operation, market gardens, five hoop houses and a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
“Knowing the importance of business structure we established the farm as two limited liability corporations (Farm-To-Table and The Winery at Seven Springs) operating off the farm and a not-for-profit producers association,” Rick said. “All of these entities are eligible for a variety of government things. It’s important to understand those things when you’re looking at grant opportunities and grant participation.
“When I got here I said, ‘Agriculture is expensive,’ and after the first year or two I said, ‘My goodness! We’re going to need some help,’” Rick said. “So we got associated with our soil conservation folks and NRCS and with rural development.”
Rick and Donna both make use of grants. Rick obtained a grant which will secure broadband for all of Union County. Donna has gotten several for area farmers markets. Another helped them establish two lines of 100-kilowatt solar units.
“We feel that we’re harvesting sunshine,” Donna said.
They’ve received rural development business grants, value-added producer grants, grants for specialty crops, local food promotion grants, farmers market grants, and more.
“There all kinds of opportunities available for the small farmer to come up with the resources that are needed to expand and grow and diversify their operation if folks are watching,” Rick said.“This week we’ll turn in $1.25 million in grant applications. You don’t need to be Einstein to do this kind of stuff. You just need a little tenacity.”
Their kids inherited some of that tenacity. Nikki worked in a vineyard before coming back to the farm. She liked it. She left her biomedical engineering career and got a degree in oenology (the study of winemaking). She has a shelf full of awards for her wines, including the William L. Beach Award for the best Tennessee wine made with Tennessee grapes.
“We grow six varieties of grapes,” she said. “The American varieties, Concord, Catawba, and some French-American hybrids, the Chambourcin and Traminette, they grow well here. We press the grapes, ferment the juice and make wine. I like that I can take a product that I grow here on the farm and make it into something that people enjoy.”
Added Rick: “I like the wine business and a winery because it has a sense of place. You plant a vineyard to be here for a few years. Just two weeks ago we got approval for establishing the first American Viticulture Area in Tennessee. We wanted to create a sense of place and we wanted to be good stewards of the land.”
James Jr. learned farming from his parents, the internet and other farmers.
“I’m learning from experience, figuring out what works well for you and your farm, and building on that. I run a market garden and beef cattle operation. We sell to farmers markets, local restaurants, in the farm store, and direct to consumers (he has a CSA). We have 18 momma cows right now. We go through about 15 beef cattle a year.
“We specialize in heirloom tomatoes, and we try to grow a little bit of everything to have variety at our farmers market, just to bring people in,” he said.
James’ wife, Emily, runs the commercial kitchen, bakes fresh bread, jams and jellies, and makes sauerkraut from the cabbage that they grow.
“We are blessed that both kids decided to take up agriculture,” Donna said. “They were raised as city kids and then they came to the farm and both started businesses. I’m very proud of them.”
Added Rick: “I am a strategic vision person and I see value-added agriculture and agritourism for counties like this to grow and to be part of a greater portion of agriculture. To me, this is a quality-of-life business for this county.”