New farmers sometimes spend months debating what to name their farm, but Jon and Brittany Kimstra knew that TK Family Farm was right for them when they were in the maternity wing with their daughter and newborn twins.
“The doctor came in to check on them and as he came into the hospital room he said, ‘How are the knuckleheads?’ So when we moved back here and started the farm, we quickly arrived at that name for the name of the farm. TK Family Farm is three knuckleheads,” Jon says.
Those three knucklehead kids are now seven and nine-years-old, growing up on the family farm in Polk County, North Carolina where they can wander through the orchard’s 3,000 apple trees.
Jon and Brittany started the farm in 2014, after leaving suburban Maryland where Jon was a waterfowl biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Brittany graduated NC State with a degree in food science and microbiology, and works as a food scientist.
During their first few years of farming, they raised pastured pork and laying hens while they waited for their freshly planted apple orchard to grow to maturity. Rows of apple trees heavy with fruit were a familiar sight for Jon, who grew up in Henderson County, the largest apple-producing county in North Carolina. His family didn’t have their own orchard, but his dad was and still is an orchard consultant for growers in the area.
While neighboring Henderson County is the top producer of apples in the state, apple orchards are a rare sight in Polk County. TK Farm is one of just a few orchards in the county, and the only one with 3,000 trees on two and a half acres – Polk County’s first high density apple orchard.
“It looks much different than what most folks are used to seeing from an orchard,” Jon says. “The trellis kind of looks like a vineyard trellis on steroids. Everybody’s seen vineyards and knows what that looks like with the wire and the posts, but ours are much taller. The posts are about ten or eleven feet tall and the wires are there to support the trees. It’s really about getting the most amount of production off of a limited amount of land.
They chose Polk County because land was more affordable there than densely populated areas. Brittany says it’s also a community that really values local food and farms.
“Polk is focused on agriculture. We don’t have a Wal-Mart here. We don’t have a Target here. Mostly people want to buy from local farms and local people and their neighbors. That’s the kind of community we want to be involved in because we knew on 15 acres, which is what we have, we were never going to be a supplier to Wal-Mart. We were going to be a supplier to our neighbors. That was the kind of area we wanted to build this business,” Brittany says.
The business has grown a lot since 2014. They sell apples at farmers markets in Spartanburg and Landrum, South Carolina and to food relief organizations through ASAP’s Appalachian Farms Feeding Families program.
“We also have a self-service farm stand here on the property and that has become a significant part of our apple sales this year, which is exciting because we only implemented it in October of last year,” she says.
They have all the standard apples, including Gala and Golden Delicious, but they’ve also branched out into some new varieties, like Ludacrisp and Sweet Zinger.
“I’ve tried to get into some of these newer varieties with the hopes and kind of the gamble that people would really like them and that would maybe set us apart a little bit in terms of what we have to offer folks. I think that’s kind of working out,” Jon says.
Brittany says the transition from a pastured livestock farm to a newly planted orchard taught them too many lessons to count—especially patience.
“It’s funny, you plant trees and then even with the trellis system that Jon’s using, it takes three years until you really start to see a profit. You have to believe wholeheartedly in the work that you’re doing 365 days of the year for three years leading up to actually having a decent crop and knowing that there are consumers out there that want your product and that they love it and they support you,” she says.
“We’ve learned from that first orchard and have fixed our mistakes in subsequent plantings, but it’s really just different every year. So you think you figured something out one year and then if the weather is completely different or just something changes. Like Britney said, patience, which I don’t have much of a lot of times, is something I’m having to learn because you’re not in control. That’s what makes it interesting; that it is different every year,” Jon says.
While Jon focuses on growing the apples, Brittany works full-time as a food scientist. She says farming has given her a new perspective on the food industry.
“I think getting to be involved in the farm on evenings and weekends gives me a whole new appreciation for family farms and how many of us are out there trying to make the food system work and how much work goes into that, day in and day out. Rain, sleet, snow. It just never stops. I’ve worked in the food industry my entire career, and I really didn’t know how much went into growing our food, even though I just assumed that by virtue of proximity, I did. It’s been an incredible experience to see the ups and downs, the highs and lows and how incredibly gratifying it is to put something in the ground and then wait for three years to see the literal fruits of that labor. To watch Jon go from being a government employee and us living in suburban Maryland to now an extremely rural life. What we’ve offered our kids in terms of learning opportunities has paid for itself a million times over in terms of the hard work that we’ve done and what we’ve been able to experience here,” she says.
Find TK Family Farm and other farm stands open for business this fall in ASAP’s Local Food Guide: www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: November 9, 2020