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Interns, hoop houses help regional couple operate organic farm

JEM Farm stands for the names of its owners, John and Elizabeth Malayter.
Their partnership began in Atlantic City, N.J., where John worked as a mechanic at a casino and Elizabeth was a chef. Their meeting was “predestined,” John says.
Their establishment of an organic-certified farm in rural Hawkins County was not as obvious of a destiny.
John, who grew up one of four children in a middle class family in New Jersey, had no interest in gardening as a youngster.
“My parents were from that World War II era, and there wasn’t a lot of money,” he recalls with a laugh. “I remember my father always grew a garden, although I didn’t help because I hated it. Elizabeth grew up in Maryland. Same kind of thing. Her father was a lawyer. I don’t think they did very much farming… Again, a typical middle class upbringing for the time.”
But the Malayters changed their minds about gardening, and in 2003 established JEM Farm when they bought a house in Rogersville.
The couple hoped that the farm would “give [them] the opportunity to work [there] as opposed to working an outside job,” John said.
But that didn’t happen immediately. “It took us a few years to get settled and those kinds of things,” he says. “We started with some goats and we started to grow a large garden.”
It was while planning for the arrival of their first child, Emma, when the Malayters finally committed to organic gardening.
“Having Emma and getting more educated about what the food system is doing to the populace — all the chemicals and herbicides that are being put into our food system — we didn’t feel that was a good way to raise a child,” John says. “When Liz became pregnant with Emma, we decided that if we were going to grow anything, it would be good to start the organic certification process.”
Between 2004 and 2005, they began to grow organically under Appalachian Sustainable Development’s organic label.
Later, they decided to become certified on their own. During this time, John and Elizabeth were both working jobs away from home in addition to running the farm.
Two years ago, they decided to work full-time on the farm.
“We were at that place where the farm couldn’t get any bigger,” John explains. “We couldn’t raise any more chickens or anything else. With one person on the land all the time, you can only do so much work. So we decided to go ahead and go full-time.”
It’s more than full-time, of course. The Malayters have enlisted help from farm interns or “woofers” (from a farm program called WWOOF, or Willing Workers On Organic Farms).
This year’s intern, Dustan Stafford, is from Colorado Springs, Colo.
“Dustan is the fourth intern or WOOFer we’ve had, and we really couldn’t do all we do without this kind of help,” John said.
On JEM Farm, all produce is certified organic and all meats are non-GMO.
After finding and having success with non-GMO feed, they decided to give all of their animals non-GMO feed.
Their animals include goats, ducks, broilers (meat chickens), turkeys, laying hens and pigs.
They grow their produce year-round, using hoop houses, which are greenhouses without heaters, so in the winter and the spring they grow all their greens.
During the winter, they keep their plants in the hoop houses, which are heated by the sun.
“The hoop house gets up to, depending upon the sunlight, around 70 degrees in the coldest season of the year,” John says. “It goes down in the evening, but during the day it heats right back up. The plants do wilt a little bit in the evening, but they always come back to life when they heat up. Unless there’s a really hard frost, and then we always have to cover them. We make special arrangements when we know that it’s going to be cold for an extended period of time.”
JEM Farm offers a variety of meats and produce, along with herbs, edible flowers and eggs. In addition to selling in Jonesborough, they sell twice a week at farmers markets in Knoxville.
During Jonesborough Days, JEM organic and non-GMO fed eggs, chickens, kale, collards and herbs will be available through the Jonesborough Farmers Market online ordering system.
To order, or for more information, visit