Keith and Jill Forrester named Mississippi County and District Farm Family

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Keith and Jill Forrester have been named the 2014 Mississippi County Farm Family of the Year and have been named the 2014 District Farm Family of the Year. The Forresters own and operate Whitton Farms in the Whitton Community near Tyronza.

Mississippi County 2014 Farm Family of the Year, Jill, Fox and Keith Forrester, of Whitton Farms. (Town Crier photo/Revis Blaylock)

Keith and Jill, former educators turned farmers, and their two year old son, Fox Edward, live in the 80 year old home built by Keith's grandfather.

The couple did some updating to the home and Keith hopes his son can have good memories of growing up on the farm in Whitton as he has.

Diversified would be a word to describe Whitton Farms as they grow 25 varieties of tomatoes; four varieties of melons; asparagus; strawberries; blackberries; 75 varieties of cut flowers; four varieties of peas; greens/lettuces/chard; okra, and 45 varieties of miscellaneous vegetables on 11 acres.

In addition to farming, they own Whitton Farms Cannery, Arkansas Antique Wood and Brick, Trolley Stop Market in Memphis, and their newest venture, Tyboogies Restaurant in Tyronza. They also travel to four farmers markets a week to sell their produce and flowers.

When the Forresters stated their operation a decade ago they rented an acre and owned 12 acres. Today they rent three acres and own 200 acres.

All 11 acres are irrigated by a small well or by drip irrigation systems they have personally installed. The couple promotes and markets their produce but enjoy being in the field with their hands in the dirt.

Irrigation was an issue when the Forresters first started farming. They had 2-4 inch wells dug to get the water efficiently over the crops. By trial and error they discovered which vegetables and cut flowers were best suited for the hot summers of Northeast Arkansas. They also did their research so produce could be grown year round. They have been successfully doing that for the past six years.

Keith said he had no idea planting sunflowers would lead to the operation the couple maintains today.

They moved to the farm in August of 2001. They mowed the property for the rest of the year and Jill asked Keith to plant a large flower garden. He tilled a quarter of an acre and they planted a 50 pound sack of sunflower seeds and one pound of zinnia seeds. The first week in July flowers were blooming. A friend mentioned cut flowers could be sold at the Agri-Center. The Forresters loaded three cars filled with flowers in buckets and sold all of them one Saturday.

That was the beginning of the realization they had the land and they could work together from home. Keith decided to give up teaching and farm full time, and Jill taught school another two years while they were building up their farming operation.

They have dreamed, worked and expanded their operation with additional businesses they own and operate. All of their enterprises work hand in hand with each other.

The couple opened the Trolley Stop Market in Memphis four years ago. The 6,400 square foot farm-to-table restaurant is located in the heart of the medical district in downtown Memphis. Farm fresh food is served daily to about 400.

Whitton Farms Cannery, a manufacturing facility, opened two years ago. It is 2,100 square feet for seasonal valued added product line of pickles, pickled okra, jams, jellies and preserves. Also, salsas and sauces are made from the produce grown on the farm. They also rent the cannery to other farmers' market vendors who need a certified kitchen to produce their goods and help grow their small businesses as well.

A side business, Arkansas Antique Wood & Brick, has been off and on for 10 years during the winter months. Here old barns and brick buildings are dismantled by hand and the goods stored to be sold or used for their own projects on the farm. The old Shawnee School was taken apart brick by brick.

The Forresters' latest expansion is opening Tyboogies, a farm fresh cafeteria style restaurant located in Tyronza. An empty grocery store (vacant for 20 years) was remodeled creating a family-friendly eatery for the community and tourists. Tyboogies opened in April and has been well received.

They have combined the old with the new restoring the older buildings and using new technology to promote their businesses through a website and Facebook. They enjoy direct marketing with their customers.

"If we have excess produce we can take it to the cannery or one of our restaurants to use," Jill said. "There is very little waste of goods at our farm. We can actually grow a crop, harvest it, distribute it, cook it, and watch customers enjoy eating it. We want people to think about where their food is coming from."

Much of the food served in the family owned restaurants is grown on the farm, beef is purchased from Nine Oaks Farm in Brookland, sausage comes from a farm in Tennessee, rice from Braggadocio, Mo., and catfish from Dundee, Miss.

The couple admits to being workaholics. They put in long days and many miles.

"We love dreaming and working together in the same direction," Jill said.

A chicken condo has been created in one of the buildings on the property housing 20-25 chickens. Nine stray dogs have found a home on the Whitton Farms. Keith has a miniature donkey just because they love it and it helps keep the grass down in the pasture.

They have three full time employees on the farm; 45 at the Trolley stop; 20 at Tyboogies; and three at the cannery.

When Keith left the farm he pursued a degree in education and did not plan to farm.

His dad Phillip Forrester was a lifelong farmer and was named Farm Family of the Year 40 years ago in 1974. Keith and Jill think it is an honor to be the next generation named as Mississippi County Farm Family following in his footsteps. The Farm Family plaque presented to his father hangs in their den. Keith's mother, Mary Forrester-Beall, retired as a school teacher and stays involved in church and other community organizations.

Jill's parents, Mark and Marie Arnold, own Midwest Rug, in Jonesboro. They also assist Keith and Jill at the farmers markets when needed.

Jill is a former Master Gardener and Keith was a Peace Corps volunteer (1996-1998) in Lesotho, South Africa. He volunteered for the Primary School Self-Reliance Program and worked with four schools teaching children how to raise their own food. He helped the village people with large scale gardens, built chicken houses to provide eggs and helped raise milk cows, all for the school lunch program.

The Forresters enjoy sharing their farm and host multiple tour groups a year including students from Marked Tree Public School and Health and Wellness and Environmental studies from a local charter school.

Keith and Jill want to be good stewards of the soil and do what they can to protect the environment.

Leaves are collected and used in raised beds and fields. Cover crops are used and coffee grounds from their restaurants are collected to take back to the farm to add to the compost piles. Anywhere from 75 to 500 trees a year are planted on their property to either aide as windbreaks or serve as a beneficial insect attractor (Vitex trees).

Water is used conservatively on Whitton Farms and seed saving is practiced.

Crops such as hydrangeas, asparagus, forsythia, pussy willow, rosemary, blackberries (basically perennial crops) allow them to till the soil less and less.

Keith has created his own organic fertilizer.

"We use very little and some years no synthetic herbicides or pesticides on our crops," Jill said. "We practice companion planting and believe our vegetable to flower crop ratio is the reason our crops flourish."

The couple is always looking at ways to expand and improve their operation. They recently took over a large farm shop headquarters and would like to turn that portion of the farm into a small-scale farming operation modeled after Wildseed Farms located in Texas.

"We want our farm to be open to the public daily during the growing season and we would love to become a tourist destination in conjunction with the Johnny Cash boyhood home and Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in the area," Jill said. "We believe Mississippi County and the surrounding counties have significant historical value."

The Forrester farming tradition was born in the Whitton Community when Keith's great-grandmother, a widow with four children, settled in the community and sharecropped to provide for her family. During the late 1960s his granddad, Jess, enjoyed raising quarter horses to ride and show in the Foxtrot class and allowed them to graze for 50 years on what is now used for the Forresters' specialty farm. Keith grew up chopping cotton and working on the family farm bringing him up to the unique farming operation of today.

The couple stays busy with Whitton Farms but make time to volunteer at the county and state level. They give back as much as they get. Jill and Keith served as Mississippi County Historical Society Secretary from 2007-2010; Jill served on the ASU Regional farmers Market Board of Directors, 2007-2010; Keith serves on the Memphis Farmers Market Board of Directors 2007-2014; Jill serves on the Victorian Village Board of Directors; and the Bring It Food Hub (tri-state local food distributors) Board of Directors.

On the state level, Keith served on the board of directors from 2010-2012 for the Arkansas Farmers Market Association. They were the key speakers at the SSAWG Conference in 2013 with "Our Story." They received the Governors Bootstrap Award in 2010; named the Arkansas Delta Byways Agri-

entrepreneurs of the Year in 2009; Northeast Arkansas Agri-Cultural Leaders of the Year 2009; and the Arkansas Delta Byway Hospitality Award winner in 2012.

They have been named Edible Memphis Magazine Farmers of the Year for 2008 and 2009; were featured in the U.S. Endless Feast, nationally syndicated show. The Trolley Stop Market won multiple awards for great food and service in Memphis each year it has been in business. Last year it was named Best Vegetarian Restaurant in Memphis by the Memphis Flyer and its readers.

Jill is easy to spot at market as she loads down the brightly colored bus with her cut flowers and enjoys serving her customers personally.

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