Media Day Event
BY BOB HURLEY
When the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) called Phillip Ottinger, of Dodd's Branch Road, near Cedar Creek, a few weeks and asked if he would like to showcase his pick-your-own berry and apple operation with a "media day" on his farm, he said he would have to think about the question.
"But I didn't have to think about it long," Ottinger said.
He says he probably thought about the question for at least two seconds before smiling into the telephone and answering with a very positive, "Yes, we would be honored to host a media day here at Buffalo Trail Orchard."
With that answer, the wheels were set in motion for Pick Tennessee Products, a website marketing directory within the TDA, to invite media representatives from throughout East Tennessee to Buffalo Trail Orchard to report on how things are going down on the farm this summer.
The media day that was staged at the Ottinger farm on Thursday of this week is one of three to be held in the state this summer, according to Pamela Bartholomew, agritourism and farmers markets coordinator for the TDA.
Other media days at pick-your-own operations have been scheduled for Middle and West Tennessee, she said.
"We are delighted that we were asked to host the media," Ottinger said following this week's event at his family's farm, "and we are thrilled that it went off so smoothly."
Two area television stations, WJHL in Johnson City and WCYB in Bristol, sent representatives to report on the Ottinger operation and to ask questions about how the growing season is going thus far.
"We've never had this kind of coverage before," Ottinger said, "and to say that we are grateful is putting it very mildly."
Ottinger explained in some detail to media representatives and local elected officials that "everything is late this year" because of the rainy spring and summer thus far.
"The rain makes the bugs worse, of course, on the fruit and berries, and we were late getting most of our vegetable crops in the ground," he said.
In addition to more than 15 varieties of apples, and several varieties of blackberries and blueberries, the Ottingers also offer sweet corn and some other vegetables and melons through the course of the growing season.
The other major venture on the farm is a beef cattle operation that requires a sizable chunk of Ottinger's time, especially during the hay-harvesting seasons of the year.
"We put our first fruit trees and berry plants in the ground in 2009, and this will be the first season we will be able to welcome visitors to the farm to pick their own produce," he said.
"We had planned to open last year, but the late freeze of 2012 wiped everything out and knocked us out of business for the whole year."
This summer, the days are stretching from daylight until well after dark.
"We've been picking blueberries late most evenings," Ottinger's wife, Jean, said.
"We quit when we can't tell if the berry in our hand is blue."
A good number of the people who have visited the farm this year have told the Ottingers that they learned about it at the Pick Tennessee Products website.
"The Pick Tennessee Products program has been one of the most positive initiatives to come along in my lifetime," Ottinger said.
"This is the computer age, and a lot of people, especially the younger generations, are using their computers more and more to find places like this one."
To better serve the new generations of consumers, the Ottinger family is going all out to make a visit to their farm something very special.
"We want young people, especially young families, to come and become familiar with an example of where their food comes from," Ottinger said.
"We want it to be a fun experience, one where they can sense how special it is to pick an apple fresh from the tree.
"That might sound a little simple for those of us who grew up under apple trees, but we've got to remember that a lot of the young people who now live in East Tennessee have never known the joy of picking an apple from the tree."
Another example of the seriousness that the Ottinger family brings to their operation is a farm store in the center of their operation.
It is here where fruits and vegetables in season will be available over the counter for those not hankering to pick their own.
APPLES AND BERRIES
For Ottinger, the apple crop for this year looks good.
"We have taken some hail damage, and the hail has left some defects, but there will be a lot of good apples here this summer and fall," he said.
While the hail does nothing to the taste of the apple, he says the defects left by the hail are always detrimental to the value of the crop.
"We will sell as many of the apples as we can here and at farmers markets, and those that we can't sell will go for juice apples," he said.
As for the blueberry crop, he says there should be several more weeks remaining in the picking season, but he adds that the blackberries will soon be gone.
"Folks wanting blackberries need to think in terms of sooner, not later," he said.
SWEET CORN AVAILABLE
The sweet corn should last close to another month, he adds, depending on the weather and demand.
In addition to on-farm sales, the Ottingers also sell their products, especially the berries, at both Greeneville farmers market locations and the farmers market in Jonesborough.
"The cantaloupes and watermelons should be in by around the first of August," he said.
If the rains continue at the pace of the past couple of months, he fears the fall pumpkin crop will be the hardest hit of the crops the family grows.
"The mildew on the pumpkins will just drive you crazy in rainy weather," he said.
WEATHER A CHALLENGE
It is "the weather," in fact, that Ottinger lists as his biggest challenge of this year and perhaps any year.
"When you can't get favorable weather conditions, or close to them, you can't manage a crop, no matter how good a manager you are.
"If you can't get in a field to put a crop in the ground, you're in trouble. The weather determines what we do out here on the farm every day."
Another challenge that Ottinger cited was, especially in his family's situation, "getting our name out there.
"We went with a pick-your-own operation to avoid at least some of those labor problems we all hear so much about in agriculture.
"By allowing folks to pick their own and by doing just about all the rest of the work ourselves, we hope to bypass some of those problems. But in order to be successful at it, we've got to get our names out there.
"That's why we jumped at the chance when the TDA called and asked us if we'd like to have a media day on our farm."