Keeping ‘truck farming’ alive
When Donny and Carolyn Hunter of Hill Valley Farm go to area farmers markets in the Georgia mountains, they know business is fixin’ to pick up when summer tomatoes come in. The couple, along with Carolyn’s father, Carl Hill, was asked recently what it was like working the markets.
“Carolyn usually has two tables full of tomatoes, and they line up around her to get tomatoes,” Carl noted.
“Everybody wants to know, ‘Why are my tomatoes not doing this and they’re not doing that?’’’ Carolyn said of her buyers’ efforts to grow the southern staple at home.
“Sometimes you know, sometimes you don’t,” said Donny.
“I don’t,” Carolyn said. “I say, ‘I don’t know, but the Master Gardeners have a big table over there. Go talk to them.’”
Donny was asked if there were other surprises at the market, like getting there and realizing they’d left some produce they meant to sell.
“That happens quite frequently, actually,” he said with a laugh.
“Or forgetting to bring change,” Carolyn added.
“It’s a lot of fun at the markets,” Donny said. “You kinda get burned out at the end of the season, but you meet a lot of people, and it’s a lot of fun. You really get to know a bunch of people you’d never know if you didn’t do this.”
“There’s a lot of good people in Ellijay,” Carolyn said. “I enjoy talking to them.”
The couple also works the markets in Jasper, Waleska and even Roswell. Carl likes to stay close by and sells potatoes, corn and okra in Ellijay.
How does what they do differ from what people used to call “truck farming,” in other words, selling produce out of one’s pickup truck with the tailgate down?
“A lot of people don’t know what that is,” Carl remarked with a grin.
“Some people call it market gardening now,” Donny said.
‘Piddling with it’
When asked how many collective years of farming they had under their belts, the trio couldn’t come up with an exact number. Turns out it numbers several decades.
After Carl served a hitch in the U.S. Air Force, he worked at Lockheed, the old Robert Shaw plant in Ellijay and drove a heating gas truck in the winter for 10 years. He and his son, Carl Jr., also owned and operated the Depot Feed & Seed off River Street.
“I been piddling with it about all my life,” Carl said. “I was raised on this farm.”
Donny, who grew up on a farm in Coweta County, said he and his father kept livestock, and the family “always had a garden.”
“I had cows at times, but we started growing vegetables and going to the markets around five years ago,” Donny said. “I’m from down there, and we moved back up here around five years ago. It’s getting like Atlanta down there now, so it was time to get out.”
The couple met at The University of Georgia, got married and raised their family in Coweta County. Carolyn was a teacher, and Donny majored in accounting.
“Both of us grew up gardening,” Carolyn said. “I hated it then! We had to do the weeding. Don teases me because I can’t hoe.”
“I had to teach her how to hoe,” Donny laughed.
“We always had a garden — and our kids hated it too!” Carolyn said.
“But that’s how it is with gardening,” Donny said. “If you have extra stuff, you can’t give it all away. So that’s when we decided we’d start selling some of it, and we enjoy going to the markets as much as anything.”
Carl said, “I’ve always had a garden on the side and would grow some stuff. I started growing potatoes to take to the market — they called me the ‘Tater Man.’”
Donny was told folks don’t often hear the term “farmer/accountant” as a description. How did that come about?
“You actually do something when you farm, if that makes sense,” he replied with a chuckle. “That’s the main thing, you’re actually producing something. But we’ve always done everything. We’ve got a sawmill and used to sell lumber. When I was in high school, I ran a route. I’d pick stuff out of the garden and take off to all the subdivisions.
“So I’ve always done all this stuff — and done accounting too.”
In the spring, the Hunters start out selling broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, chard and onion. Then it’s on to beets before the “summer stuff” — lots of tomatoes, corn, okra, squash, beans and other vegetables.
“We had 1,800 feet of okra year before last, and we about died,” Donny said of harvesting the prickly pods. “So we cut back a lot last year. It takes a lot of vegetables to go to that many markets, so you end up growing a lot.
“We don’t use chemicals. We’re not organic, but we’re chemical free.”
The couple also have laying hens, cattle and hogs. During the summer, life gets pretty hectic on the farm and at the market.
“He’s a workaholic,” Carolyn said of Donny.
“He works and doesn’t sit down much. Our son and daughter-in-law live in Chicago, so we like to go on trips. We try to go see them a couple of times a year. We have to just get away from it for him to relax.”
Why do some people prefer to buy at farmers markets?
“I think people are looking for quality,” Donny said of people buying local produce.
“A lot of them are looking for chemical-free food that’s not so expensive. We’re really close to organic. There’s just a couple of things we don’t do, plus we don’t go through all the hassle of getting certified (organic).
“So quality, freshness — I think that’s a lot of it. Some people just like to go to the market, it’s like a social thing. We see pretty much the same people every Saturday.”
Carolyn believes one reason is people are becoming more “food aware.”
“They do want things that are not raised the typical way, that are chemical free,” she said.
Donny was asked about production on big farms.
“Like a tomato you ship, that’s a different tomato,” he said.
“It has to have a thick flesh, and they’re picked green. So when tomato season gets here, a lot of people come to market then to get locally grown.”
“They’re pretty, and they taste good,” Carolyn said of their tomatoes.
“A lot of people are really good about telling us that they appreciate us doing that extra work. Because it would be easier to do it the other way (with chemicals). They’re good customers, they’ve been good to us and are very supportive.”
Farming back in the day
Carl remembers farming decades ago in Gilmer County.
“When I was growing up, we’d take green beans to the Atlanta market,” he said.
“One time I was down there and counted 29 trucks from Gilmer County with beans.
“My dad grew a lot of potatoes, and like Carolyn, I hated it. Now I love it.”
Carl recalled his father planting 1,000 – 1,200 pounds of potatoes each season.
“Where the Cartecay Thrift Store is now (North Main Street), that used to be the co-op,” he said.
“The county agent was Harold O’Dell when I was growing up and he really worked with the farmers.
“We’d dig those potatoes and store them in the barn loft till August or September, then we’d bag them up — take the little ones out and the cut ones (from the hoe) — and he had a potato grader down there.
“So we’d take them down there and he’d grade them. The county agent would sell the No. 1 potatoes to Florida for seeds. It got Dad a little more money out of them than he could have got otherwise, I guess.”
The family farm website is hillvalleyfarm.net. Donny is working on transitioning it to a hillvalleyfarm.com site.