Organic offerings

Liles family farm is realization of a dream

Russell and Sheri Liles, owners of Liles Acres Organic Farm, hold a chicken and one of their angora rabbits as some of their llamas watch at their Blount County farm.

Photo by Photos by J. Miles Cary/ Knoxville News Sentinel

Russell and Sheri Liles, owners of Liles Acres Organic Farm, hold a chicken and one of their angora rabbits as some of their llamas watch at their Blount County farm.

Sheri Liles is not afraid to follow her dreams.

In 1970, the Maryville resident graduated from Appalachian State University and took a job as a high school English teacher.

It didn’t take her long to realize she wasn’t a good fit for that job.

“As much as I love to read, and I love books, teaching English takes a lot of time because you have to grade themes at the end of the day,” she said. “And I didn’t want to stay up every night doing that, so I quickly backed away from that and decided to try nursing,” she said.

She attended classes to become a licensed practical nurse while working as a nurse’s aide. After succeeding at that she continued her education and in 1983 became a registered nurse.

“I really liked nursing because it’s a way to help people,” she said.

She went back to school in the mid-1990s to become a nurse practitioner, a job she has held off and on for about 15 years.

All the while, she and husband Russell, who works for CMI Molding, raised two sons, Matthew, 34, and Andrew, 27.

About five years ago Sheri, 61, with the help of her husband, decided to pursue another dream.

“I began to think about how I wanted to spend the last 10-15 years of my working life, and I didn’t want to spend it all indoors, so I made a huge career change and gave up nurse practitioning almost entirely.”

This gave the couple the time to pursue organic farming on their seven-acre farm.

“We started with bees, and we put out an orchard,” Sheri said.

Then they expanded the garden area from eight raised beds they had used for their personal garden to 16 additional raised beds in which to grow fruits and vegetables.

“That was about the time I began to conceive the possibility of selling produce to actually help the farm create income,” she said.

Chickens were next, followed by two Angora rabbits named Chester and Tuck, and five llamas: Twizzler, Tal, Super Duty, Pagle and Copenhagen.

“I use the llama manure in the organic beds, and I also spin the llama fiber and angora hair into yarn,” she said.

Having a sustainable farm was important to them, so they created a water containment system to use on their plants and erected a solar panel system in which to harvest energy.

“The water containment system has been very helpful during this drought … (and) we produce about 25-30 percent of our electricity from solar,” she said.

They also created seven compost piles that they use to enrich their soil. Much of their compostable material is from Maryville’s Tomato Head restaurant.

“Every week we pick up 15 to 20 buckets of their prep scraps that we use for compost. We turn that compost into soil which grows really nice produce, that we then sell back to the Tomato Head. It’s a great little locally closed loop. I love how that works, and I think the folks at the Tomato Head like it, too,”” Sheri said.

A sampling of what was in the garden this year includes broccoli, lettuce, Swiss chard, leeks, squash, zucchini, cucumber, tomatoes, peppers, corn, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and grapes.

“We had strawberries coming in as early as May,” she said.

During this time Sheri accepted a part-time job as a teacher naturalist at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.

“They were paying me to hike and paying me to play in the stream. I love teaching and being outdoors. It doesn’t get any better that than, but I wanted to devote more time to the farm, and I found I could make more money working part time as a practitioner, so I went back to doing that in the evenings,” she said.

Liles Acres is a year-round operation with only one month in which they have little to do in the fields.

“The only month we don’t grow a lot is in January, but by February we are planting things in the greenhouse getting them ready to go out in March, and we oftentimes have produce to sell right up into December because we grow under some low plastic tunnels,” she said.

The couple sell their fruits, vegetables and fresh eggs at the Maryville Farmers’ Market every Saturday and most Wednesdays.

And, hearkening back to Liles’ roots as an educator, the farm is used as an outdoor classroom.

“We offer educational classes and tours for schools. I’ve got one school that brings their third-graders every year. And we have had Maryville College classes over here several times,” she said.

Some of those college students have actually helped the couple during the summer in order to learn about organic gardening.

“A couple of years ago I had a young man from the college who was going into the Peace Corps who was told he would probably end up in Peru. He called me at the beginning of the summer and said he needed to come volunteer on our farm to learn about llamas and farming because he was going to be working in agriculture and that’s not what he majored in. He came two or three time a week and worked hard.

“This year I have a young lady working with us who graduated from seminary and is interested in helping communities connect with local food sources,” she said.

While Sheri Liles oversees the garden during the day, her husband takes the evening shift.

“Neither of us have down time. He works during the day, and I tend to the farm, and then I work in the evenings, and he tends to the farm. In the summer time when daylight is longer, it’s not unusual for him to be out until 10 or 11 at night,” she said.

But they find time to be together.

“We flop down in front of the TV in the evening when I get home from work, and Russell is done with working outside, and we will have a snack together and exchange what’s been going on, plan for the next day and watch the news together,” she said.

When not on the farm, the couple lead hikes to Mount LeConte through the Smoky Mountain Field School operated by the University of Tennessee Extension Office.

“Russell is the soul of patience and good will, and I think they like the fact that I’m a nurse practitioner and can help out if need be, so they asked us if we would lead the hikes for them. It’s a little respite from farming,” she said.

When they can get away, the couple relax by hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail.

“We just finished the 42-mile section that put us over the Virginia border around the first of June. Some day we will take a break from the farm and find some enterprising young person to come and live here and take care of things for a few months while we finish doing that.”

And she’s even got a plan in place if their backs give out.

“We haven’t done near enough hiking with the llamas, and that’s a big ambition of mine - to go hiking with them and let them carry the weight. That’s the beauty of having llamas. When I get too old to carry my backpack, those darn llamas can carry the tent and sleeping bags up the side of the mountain. They can do the work, and I, who have fed and been kind to them for years now, will get a little return on my investment,” she said.

Following are recipes from Liles that use their garden to full advantage.

Gazpacho

3-4 medium to large tomatoes (may be peeled and seeded if preferred), quartered

2 cucumbers peeled and chopped into 1-inch chunks

1/2 to 1 whole onion coarsely chopped

1 green pepper, coarsely chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons vinegar (red wine or balsamic)

1 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt, red pepper and ground black pepper, to taste

Chop vegetables and place in blender. Process on slowest speed just until vegetables are finely chopped. Chill overnight for best flavor. Yield: 6 servings.

Pimento cheese

8-9 small or 4-5 medium pimento peppers

8 ounces mild cheddar cheese, grated

8 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, grated

1 cup mayonnaise

Paprika, to taste

Red cayenne pepper, to taste

Bring pot of water to boil. Carefully drop pimentos into boiling water for 2-3 minutes or until skins appear blistered and wrinkled. Drain water and cover pimentos with cool, wet cloth until peppers are cooled. Peel and chop. Mix cheeses, mayonnaise and pimentos together. Add paprika and cayenne pepper to taste. Yield: 6 servings.

Mary Constantine may be reached at 865-342-6428.

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