Keith Forrester always thought that someday he would eventually return to the family row-crop farm at tiny Whitton in western Mississippi County where he was raised.
Three generations of his family had farmed cotton and soybeans on their land just east of the Poinsett-Mississippi county line, so at some point, Forrester said, “I thought I’d probably farm a little. I thought I’d be 40, but it worked out a little sooner than that.” ‘
Much sooner, in fact.
Keith, a former Peace Corps volunteer, and his wife, Jill, a former Master Gardener, got married in 2001 in Jonesboro.
“We were both looking for a different way of life than city living,” after graduation from college at ASU, Jill said. “So, Keith reached out to his mother about the possibility of us living in the house (at Whitton, population about 300) that his grandfather Jess built many years ago.”
Soon, they packed up and moved to the house that sits on Highway 118, but neither quit their day jobs — his as a science teacher and hers as an algebra teacher — right away. In the spring of 2003, Keith asked Jill what she wanted for her birthday. She replied that she wanted “a big old flower garden” right by the highway where she and everyone who passed by could enjoy it.
Keith ordered a pound of zinnia seeds and bought a 50-pound sack of sunflower seeds, tilled up a quarter-acre of former pasture land and together they planted not just a one-time country flower garden but also sowed the seeds for the enterprise that has blossomed into one of the most well-known small specialty farms in the Mid-South: Whitton Farms.
By mid-summer of 2003, the Forresters had more flowers than they knew what to do with, Jill recalls. A neighbor, long-time flower farmer Lindsay Chandler, suggested they take his booth one weekend at the Agri-Center Farmers Market in Memphis, Tenn., and try their hand at selling the flowers.
“We took Mr. Chandler up on his offer,” Jill said.
That Saturday, they loaded their two vehicles and Keith’s mother’s car with buckets of flowers and headed to market, selling out on their first try. The couple made more money in that one day than they did in a week of teaching, Keith said. He decided he would make specialty crop farming his full-time job, while Jill kept teaching for two more years to keep a steady income flowing while they were getting established.
“I started out to be a produce farmer,” Keith said. “Produce is nice and dandy, but we love growing flowers. I like flowers more and more every year. I try to find ones that are easy to grow with high productivity. Then you establish your market and away you go.”
Though Keith makes it sound easy, specialty farming is considerably more difficult than it might appear. In those early years, “we were learning how to live life.” The Forresters didn’t take a vacation for the first six years they lived on the farm. “Once our son, Fox, [now 6] was born, we started to prioritize things.”
“There’s always something to do. You can work from daylight to dark and burn yourself out by August,” he said, or work smarter rather than harder. “In this kind of farming, you can spend all kinds of money. The trick is not to spend any at all. You’ve got to be innovative. They call it ‘driving out your costs’. That’s what they tell me in business.”
“Knowing your limits is important. Not everything’s chocolate-covered cherries. You have to find better ways and that can be a fun challenge,” Keith added.
For example, one of the farm’s three greenhouses is used for starting seeds in cold frames and it contains several homegrown innovations. The farm’s mechanic, Brian Dennis, devised a warming system that provides heat beneath the tomato seedlings in their cold frames. The cold frames are seeded with a precision seeder that Dennis devised using vacuum suction to place seeds properly in the frame rather than being placed by hand. A transplanter they developed is pulled behind a tractor, opening holes in the row and watering them for farmers who follow placing plants in the prepared bed.
Last year, Keith and Dennis tore down one of the farm’s tractors and replaced the clutch, saving a significant amount on repairs by purchasing parts only.
“That’s what farming’s all about — saving every penny you can,” Keith said.
The leaves that fall from the hardwood trees surrounding the Forresters’ farmhouse are gathered and added to the compost piles that are used to provide fertilizer for the crops.
“You’re gonna pick the leaves up anyway,” Keith said, so it makes sense to get some use out of them.
“We don’t use chemical fertilizers,” Keith said, adding to the compost only small amounts of farm fertilizer such as chicken litter when necessary. Along with labor- and time-saving devices, Keith said, a significant amount of planning minimizes idle time for the greenhouses. Carrots, for example, are started in the cold frame greenhouse and then transplanted to a second greenhouse.
“As the carrots come out, we put lettuce in so we never miss a beat.”
Starting watermelon seeds in the greenhouse also assures that melons are ready in time for the Independence Day holiday when customer demand is the strongest. Flowers are started in the greenhouses as well in order to maximize their availability.
The Forresters have approximately two acres of greenhouse space and they usually raise produce and flower crops on 10 acres of their production area in any given year with a rotation system so that not all the fields are in production every year. In 2017, the Forresters leased a 20-acre pecan orchard that Keith believes is capable of producing 20,000 pounds of pecans annually.
Jill said the farm grows everything “from arugula to zucchini,” supplying fresh fruit, vegetables and, of course, flowers to retail customers at three farmers’ markets — one in Jonesboro and two in Memphis — and to a community-supported agriculture program. During the summer, Jill takes produce and flowers to White’s Mercantile, a retail store owned by Holly Williams, daughter of country music star Hank Williams Jr. White’s Mercantile is located in nearby Wilson.
As their farm operation has blossomed, so too has the Forresters’ reputation for producing quality products the right way. In 2014, Keith and Jill were named the Mississippi County and Northeast Arkansas Farm Family of the year, exactly 40 years after Keith’s parents earned that distinction in 1974.
Whitton Farms supplies produce to a number of Memphis restaurants including their own farm-to-table restaurant, Trolley Stop Market in Mid-Town Memphis.
Operating the Trolley Stop, Keith said, provides a glimpse of the full impact of agriculture. Through the Trolley Stop, the Forresters can “grow a crop, harvest it, distribute it, cook it and watch a customer enjoy eating it. It’s the full circle.”