BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
With fall just around the corner, many agritourism sites across Greene County are gearing up for one of their busiest seasons.
Pumpkin patches and apple orchards are getting their final sprucing up, corn mazes are being shaped and developed, and farms are tidying up for the anticipated guests.
Agritourism is fast becoming a major industry across the state,
according to a recent study by the University of Tennessee.
With a fading history of thriving tobacco farms that are now seeking to diversify, Greene County is no exception to the interest in agritourism.
A number of the county's old tobacco barns now tout large, painted squares that mark their farm as an agritourism site participating in Tennessee's Quilt Trail.
One such barn stands just off the 107 Cutoff, at the Windy Hills Angus Farm, Apple Orchard & Quilt Trail site, owned by Russell and Frances Kinser.
The square's large blue star stands on a fading orange background that the couple plans to repaint this year.
Although commonly known as the "Eastern Star" quilt pattern, Russell Kinser said he grew up hearing it called "The Star of the East."
He still has the quilt that inspired the square -- a hand-stitched quilt that his grandmother, Maryann Fillers, wrapped him in when he visited his grandparents' home as a small child.
When the family settled his grandparents' estate, Kinser said he kept a close eye on the quilt, asking his mother to save it for him.
Today, the quilt square emblazoned on the barn honors the quilt he still holds and plans to pass on to his son. The square hangs high on the side of his old tobacco farm, which is now being used to store farm equipment.
His tobacco-farming days have passed. Now, he dreams of opening the farm fully as an agritourism site in his retirement.
At 67, he's still not certain when he and his wife will retire, but the five-year-old apple and muscadine orchards along the front of his property are quickly maturing.
With this year's substantial rain, the fruits are well developed, hanging heavily on the branches.
Since the Kinsers are not yet into their retirement and the fruits are already there, the couple have decided to take a unique approach to agritourism.
Rather than making a profit off their apples, they are giving them away. Friends and neighbors have come for a little "pick-your-own" this year, but the Kinsers will donate the bulk of their apples to Reformation Lutheran Church.
There, their church family will turn the Kinsers' apples into apple butter as a special gift to visitors and shut-ins.
Apples are also finding their way from the Kinsers' orchard in the form of apple juice and other products -- all as gifts to help a community Russell Kinser said he knows is struggling through difficult financial times.
"Times have been rough for people," he said. "We kind of looked at that as being something that we could pass on to our neighbors to help them out."
Many in the community may not be familiar with Greene County's apple orchards, but Kinser said apples can thrive here if planted in an area not prone to frost and where there is proper rainwater runoff.
It was a learning process that started with 300 "whips" -- small single-stem trees -- and now includes approximately 125 remaining apple trees.
Many of the young trees, he said, were lost to the wind in the orchard's second year.
"We could be a lot bigger, but I'm kind of tickled," Kinser said.
Last year, the apple orchard barely produced -- perhaps only a bushel and a half, he added.
This year, he laughed as he pointed to a limb curving under the weight of more than a dozen apples.
Those same weighted limbs also came as a surprise at Phillip Ottinger's Buffalo Trail Orchard, located on Dodd Branch Road.
He, too, is still learning, and decided to not allow pick-your-own in the apple orchard this year since the heavy, low-hanging limbs made undergrowth difficult to manage.
"I've got a pretty new operation," Ottinger explained. "This is the first year that I've had most of the crops actually produce."
Ottinger can often be spotted at local farmers' markets, such as Greeneville's Fox Park Farmers' Market.
"At the farmers' market, they know me as 'the berry-apple-pumpkin guy,'" Ottinger said, laughing.
His produce, which includes apples, raspberries, blackberries, pumpkins and more, began in 2009.
Last year would have been the first year for the fruits had it not been for an untimely freeze, he added.
OTHER FALL ATTRACTIONS
Ottinger's pumpkin patch survived, however, and has thrived as a popular pick-your-own attraction since 2009, he said.
"I do enjoy having the people, especially the young kids, come out," he said. "I leave the large pumpkins in the patch. They may go to the patch and try to find where's the biggest pumpkin."
Ottinger also adds a hay ride in the fall and, perhaps as soon as next year, will be able to host pick-your-own apples, pumpkins, and demonstrations of how to make apple butter and apple cider.
Numerous other such fall agritourism events -- several of them well established now, and widely known -- will soon move into high gear across the county.
Annually, these sites include pumpkin patches, corn mazes or other special attractions at Myers Pumpkin Patch, "Spooky Llama Trails & Tales" at Walnut Ridge Llama Farm, corn mazes and more at Fender's Farm, family festivities at Southerland Farms, a corn maze at Hartman's Corn Maze, and "Fall-A-Fair" at Still Hollow Farm.