Modern Farming: Q and A With Whitton Farms

Jill and Keith Forrester of Whitton Farms and Trolley Stop Market.

photography by Justin Fox Burks

Old McDonald might have had a farm, but I doubt he made it look as in vogue as the Forresters. Keith and Jill, and their son Fox, own and manage Whitton Farms, the Trolley Stop restaurant on Madison Avenue, and Whitton Cannery. They have taken the whole concept of “farm to table” quite literally with Trolley Stop serving up pizzas, salads, hoagies, lunch plates, and desserts all from the fresh produce grown at Whitton Farms. With recipes as delicious as theirs, it’s not surprising that their history in Whitton, Arkansas, runs deep. Keith’s great-grandmother settled in the Arkansas Delta and began sharecropping to earn a living for her children. Three generations later the farm is as successful as ever, and they have no plans of slowing down. So whether they’re growing it, baking it, or canning it, the Forresters are proof that modern day farming is alive and well.

How and why did you make the transition from being farmers to also controlling the method of distribution, with the restaurant and farmers markets?

Jill Forrester: Initially we transitioned from selling at a farmer’s market to a restaurant because we wanted to find other ways to serve our food and we wanted to do a city wide CSA [community supported agriculture]. Then the space became available, and we wanted to actually grow food for a restaurant. Once the idea manifested, lightning struck. It’s been a hit since the doors opened. To my knowledge there’s not another restaurant that has it’s own farm in town. We’ve tailored the menu to be what we grow seasonally, and what we don’t grow ourselves — catfish, ground beef, grits, honey, coffee — we get locally [from other farmers]. We bake our own breads and desserts and create everything from scratch; so, if we aren’t growing it at least we’re making it ourselves. We let our customers dictate what we do. They tell us what they like, we see what they buy, and we know what we like to eat. Sometimes we have great ideas and sometimes they don’t work out so well, but it’s definitely been a learning experience.

What other ways do Mid-Southerners eat Whitton Farms foods? Grocery stores?

JF: Pretty much Trolley Stop, but during our peak season you can find our produce at Felicia Suzanne’s, Rizzo’s Diner, and Restaurant Iris. Primarily we grow for our farmer’s markets — the Memphis Botanic Garden Farmers Market and Downtown Memphis Farmers Market — and this restaurant. Our CSA produce subscription service serves about 75,000 customers here in Memphis and we also have one in my hometown of Jonesboro. For those who don’t know what a CSA is, it works like a magazine subscription, where you prepay and received a product. For example you sign up for 27 weeks worth of produce. We use the farmer’s markets as our “pick up point,” and depending on the time of year, bags can include extras like floral bouquets, eggs, or bread. If you’re part of the CSA I send out a weekly email with pictures and recipes. It really establishes a direct relationship between the customer who’s eating the food and the farmer who’s growing your food. I think people would be surprised how many CSAs are available in Memphis.

What does “farm-to-table” mean to you?

JF: I probably have a different perspective because I’m a farmer, but to me it’s getting my hands dirty, my back sore, sweating a lot, but knowing that I know where the food on my table that night came from makes it super delicious. For someone who’s not farming, it’s more of a comforting feeling of you know who grew your food, where they grew it, and how they grew it. It’s a way of life. That aspect is probably the most romantic part of the whole farming thing, because you’re not actually out there. Anyone who’s ever picked okra knows what I’m talking about, but it’s worth it.

How is farm-to-table defined by how you operate Trolley Stop Market?

JF: For the customer it’s totally manifested. We can’t grow everything that the restaurant serves, but we try our very best to grow as much as we can that’s within our budget. Our whole menu revolves around what’s being grown or what we can source from others, especially the pizzas. We make the dough from scratch every day. All the tomatoes, all the basil, a lot of toppings for pizzas, sandwiches, and wraps are from our farm or another farm. We have really worked hard to tailor our menu around what we’re actually growing not simply just what people would enjoy to eat, which is how a lot of restaurants operate.

What is Whitton Farms Cannery and how does it fit into your overall mission?

JF: It’s basically an incubator kitchen. Keith and I have always wanted to produce our own food line. So when the space opened up two doors down from Trolley Stop, we just wanted a space to make jams and jellies and things of that nature. People we had gone to market with also needed a place to operate their own small business — businesses like Raw Girls, Ultimate Foods paleo delivery service, Nouriche, and a couple of doggie treat vendors — who use our kitchens to manufacture their products. It’s really a community kitchen of sorts, and Trolley Stop bakes its hoagies and cookies, etc. there, too. We rent it out by the hour and make it affordable to give others a jumpstart to earn their own money to lease their own kitchen somewhere and take their business to the next level.  

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