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Son at helm of Garst family farm

Ever since he was 15, Andrew Garst has been fitting farming around his schoolwork, first as a student at Daniel Boone High School and now at Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Elizabethton.
In December, he will graduate with a degree that certifies him as a diesel technician, but he has no plans to stop farming. The investment, planning and years of experience are something he just can’t walk away from.
“Once you get farming, you just keep going,” he says.
Garst has been accruing that experience all his life.
His family’s Jonesborough Valley Creek Farm combines a commercial business raising registered Simmental cattle with a half-acre produce garden supplying the family’s stand at the Jonesborough Farmers Market.
All of the family — Andrew, parents Shirley and John, and sister Kimberly — have been involved at some point. Garst has had a part in all aspects of the farm, including such tasks as showing cattle at area fairs, hauling cattle to market in Knoxville or Pennsylvania and planning and planting the garden.
“We got started at the market years ago because we had all this extra produce and found ourselves giving a lot of it away,” says Andrew’s mother, Shirley. “A friend was selling his vegetables at the Kingsport market, and Andrew went to work for him part time. He gave us some tips, and we realized we could sell at this market on our own.”
The Garsts are in their fifth year selling at the Jonesborough Farmers Market. Homegrown farming techniques are also part of the family’s secret of success. While the farm’s land is from John’s family, Shirley brings her legacy, as well, to the operation.
“We always start our seeds in a water bed,” Shirley says. “And years ago my dad came up with a simple idea to make planting easier.”
The water bed is a foam tray that floats in a few inches of water. Traditionally used to start tobacco plants, the tray has 288 small square compartments, each with a pinhole in the bottom and a small amount of soil. The key to the success of this technique, they realized, is to plant each seed at a uniform depth.
“So my dad came up with this idea: a piece of plywood cut to the same size as the tray, with 288 marbles glued to it,” Shirley says. “Each marble is positioned to press into the center of each square of soil, making an identical indentation where every seed can be dropped.”
This method helps the Garsts start a wide variety of garden produce, including tomatoes, squash, zucchini and okra. They also grow potatoes, green beans, mixed lettuces and raise free-range chickens for eggs.
In addition to learning from his family, Garst also learned much of what he knows from high school agriculture classes and the mentoring of a family friend.
That background gives him the expertise to lead the process of mapping out the season’s work. Over the years, Garst’s leadership on the farm has increased, and he now plans all the planting on his own.
“You’ve got to really plan your garden,” he says. “And as the season goes on, you need to know what needs to be done right away, and what can wait.”
Garst also spends time getting to know the “personalities” of his crops and animals.
“What many people don’t understand is on a farm, your cattle or your vegetables or whatever, they’re your employees,” he says. “You figure out how to get them to work for you for the best production you can get.”
Garst enjoys the self-directed nature of farm management. “And it’s rewarding to be able to make a living doing this,” he says.
The money he has made helped him get a vehicle in high school and is helping with living expenses while in college.
Garst says he might have to cut back a little on farm work once he starts a job that uses his degree, but he would never stop farming all together.
Garst plans to sell through the end of the season at the farmers market, and on Oct. 5, when the Saturday market is closed for the National Storytelling Festival, Valley Creek Farm will sell its kale, collards and curly mustard through the market’s online ordering system.
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