VOL. 8 | NO. 39 | Saturday, September 19, 2015
Karlen Evins Finds Her ‘Most Authentic Self’ in Farming
COLLEEN CREAMER | The Ledger
A diminutive Karlen Evins walks from her vegetable garden to the reassembled church in which she lives, her arms full of just-picked corn, tomatoes, herbs and okra, and drops them on her kitchen counter.
“I am not sure if I knew it was going to be this hard,” she says, of her venture into farming in Wilson County. “Still, I don’t think I’d change a thing.
“I’ve learned so much not only about growing and farming but also about the kindness of the people here.”
Evins cuddles one of the pygmy goats on her Wilson County farm. Her goats, which are neither milked nor slaughtered, provide vital fertilizer for Evins’ crops.
(K. Rose Publishing)
With the struggles of a new farmer as fodder, Evins’ aim three years ago was to blog a la Julie Powell’s challenge to cook all of the recipes in Julia Child’s first cookbook.
However, “Karlen’s Garden” has become more of a blow-by-blow account of witching for water, selecting the right seeds and the quirks of planting.
And it could evolve even further.
Evins has been approached about turning her adventure into a TV reality show on newbie farming. She is talking with a specific group of producers but won’t name them because they, and she, are of trying to define what the show might actually be.
“Let me put it this way,” she says. “There are discussions of a reality show. I have talked to more than a couple of networks.
“The challenge is what is reality and what is a show? What I am learning here on the farm can’t be scripted nearly as interestingly as it actually happens in real life.”
Evins (of the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Evins family) came to be known as the producer and co-host of “Teddy Bart’s Round Table,” the little kingmaker of a Nashville radio show that took political events and issues, seated people along a variety of spectrums and then just turned on the rock tumbler.
More often than not, the show was profound, funny and revealing. And, though the “Round Table” had feisty moments, it was so civil, it would often be referred to as an anomaly.
Creating the farm had another purpose for the Southerner.
Her third cookbook, still in the works, will be about garden-to-table cooking. She wanted it to be authentic: No roadside stand or farmer’s market produce.
Evins wanted to grow the food and find ways to make healthy meals out of her yield. It wound up being a spiritual journey of sorts.
“What might work for some people is to just turn it over to people who know gardening. At the end of the day, my goal is how can I get to my most authentic self? That is where I am,” she explains.
“I really do believe something right now is happening on this planet. There’s a momentum of folks wanting to come here or bring their kids out. I guess it’s just enough of my spiritual belief to say whatever is happening, I am kind of the canary in the mine. I am OK with that.”
The farm-to-table cookbook will be a contrast to Evins’ two previous cookbooks. “Southern to the Core: An Evins Family Cookbook” and “Put A Lid On It: Casseroles, Comfort Foods & Things We Take to Funerals” were both hits.
If Evins can do anything well it’s dish out comfort food. But this book had her take a swift turn onto a dirt road, and it all started with a challenge.
“At one point a friend double-dog dared to me to write a Southern cookbook that is healthy,” she says. “What happens to the food from the ground to the table belongs to you. That is yours to decide, and that’s why this is so hot. You have control over the entire process.”
Evins’ beloved father, Edgar “Eddie” Evins, a prominent political figure and president of the DeKalb County Bank for 30 years, died in 2010 (she still has a hard time talking about him).
Evins is the author of two cookbooks, with a third in the works about garden-to-table cooking and her farm experiences.
(K. Rose Publishing)
It was then that she got serious about the farm. She later took a master gardening class from UT’s Agricultural Extension Service.
She knew she wanted to do a Southern cookbook literally “from scratch,” so she put the word out to her uncle, Danny Evins, and word traveled quickly to Thurman Bennett, Karlen’s neighbor.
“He just fell out of the sky,” Evins explains.
“The very next day, my ground was turned and ready, and I was committed whether I wanted to be or not. The day after that, I get a knock on the door.
“I had never met Thurman before, and this nice farmer with a cowboy hat out of central casting was at my door. He said, nodding toward the way of the garden, “I’m Thurman Bennett. You OK with that?’”
Bennett, who would take no money from her, became her mentor. Evins ascribes most of her success to the neighbor who would not “do the job for her” because she wouldn’t learn that way, but would inform her, often with more than a little bemusement, such as her insistence on planting lavender instead of produce on perfectly good farm land.
“Thurman has never been to a restaurant, never,” she says.
“He doesn’t feel the need to spend good money when he has a meal waiting at home for him. There is something about his kindness that reminds me of my dad.
“It was like my dad said, ‘Sorry I had to leave you, hon, but I am sending you an angel.”
On her farm, Evins grows okra, beets, corn, snow peas, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes and cantaloupe.
By far, the most famous residents are her pygmy goats, the ones she calls “circus ponies.’’
She is well known as a lover of critters. That the baby goats are swoon-worthy is just one part of their job, she says. All the goats are comically entertaining, but she needed them for compost, too. The goats are neither milked or slaughtered.
“Everybody around here has a job,” Evins adds, also referring to her four Great Pyrenees dogs that protect the pygmies.
“The goats are in charge of entertainment and fertilizing, and I have to say, after the first year of using them, my garden looked like something out of Martha Stewart.”
After her 20-year stint with Teddy Bart, Evins finished up her master’s degree at Vanderbilt Divinity School in 2004.
In its own way, blogging on farm life would prove at least as difficult and rewarding, she says, but eventually a sidebar to the lively farm life that would take up a massive amount of her time.
There would be unexpectedly long lessons, mostly learned at the hands of unexpectedly friendly neighbors, and there would be the curious.
“The No. 1 thing I did not anticipate was how many would physically want to come and touch a goat, dig in the soil or just learn something from here,” Evins explains.
“The best interpretation I have of it is that it’s not about me; it’s about them touching something inside themselves. They want to do something like this, and they don’t know where to start.
“I am sensitive to the fact that I am hitting a nerve.’’
It didn’t help keep the curious away that Evins operates out of a small, beautiful former Presbyterian church that she’d found in DeKalb County.
“The second we drove past it – it was falling down and there was a brand new church sitting right next to it, suggesting to me it was not long for this world – I’m like “Stop the car! Stop the car! That’s precisely what I’ve been looking for!”
She bought the old church and, over the years, had it reconstituted and remodeled on her land.
As it turns out, the church was from just outside Nutbush, the hometown of Tina Turner, and had sat past the city limits sign and directly next to a cotton gin house.
“I’m a country music fan, so it was years before I heard the opening lines to “Nutbush City Limits.”
A church house a gin house
A school out outhouse
On Highway Number Nineteen
The people keep the city clean
They call it
Nutbush oh Nutbush
Call it Nutbush city limits
“I was a little wigged out when I put two and two together,” says Evins.
In encouraging her to begin new adventures, Evins gives much thanks to Bart, even in helping her find her way from co-host to farmer.
Karlen Evins takes a turn behind the plow under the watchful eye of neighbor, mentor and ‘angel’ Thurman Bennett.
(K. Rose Publishing)
Bart, who died in December of last year, was a huge presence in the broadcast community and is a member of the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame.
Before “Teddy Bart’s Round Table,” the two also hosted “Beyond Reason” a radio show that managed to bring in heavyweights like Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra and Thomas Moore.
When Evins does get around to blogging, the posts are generally related to an issue of the moment.
“Bee Still My Heart” was about her first honey harvest; “Feral Cats I’m Trying Not to Love” is self-explanatory to those who know her.
“Cracking the Alpha Code” was about helping her dogs establish a pecking order. “No ER This August” relates to her being bitten by a brown recluse during the first yield.
The second year it was the flare up of an old enemy, Crohn’s Disease, and then last year, the emergency room trip was due to exhaustion and a lack of iron.
“I think that is when I am my weakest and when I stress the most when the harvest comes in,” she points out. “When you have really great stuff coming up, and you can’t pick it fast enough, it gets very stressful.
“You don’t want to see anything go to waste.”
Making a living from the selling of produce, she knew, wasn’t the point. What she came away with, though, was a profound respect for farmers like Bennett.
“If I could do anything at all with this chapter of my life, or my whole life for that matter, it would be to finally give credit where it’s due,” she says.
“Farmers never get credit. When you see a soldier, of course, you salute them. I do that with farmers, too, because we just go to the grocery store and expect our produce to be there. But let that not happen one time.”
When Evins asked Bennett what she should do with extra produce, he told her pretty much what she had already been doing (something that seemed obvious to Bennett) to give the overflow to her friends and neighbors.
She also needed to add freezing, pickling and canning to her farm skills.
“Otherwise, you are eating in season,” she says. “But, you can absolutely do this on a smaller scale.
“I didn’t enter this game in case Armageddon happened, but you would be amazed if you look at it from a television standpoint. Those ‘prepper’ shows are a big thing right now.”
Evins is referring to the popular “Doomsday Prepper” shows. Though she isn’t by nature paranoid, she understands the urge, given the chaotic state of the world.
“If the grid goes down, you know how to grow things. You have milk, you have meat. People are thinking it whether or not they are speaking it,” Evins says.
“I do believe that the meek are going to inherit the earth, and I believe that they are going to look whole lot like Thurman, because those are the only people who will know what to do.”