Beth Tillery is easy to spot at the Lexington Farmers Market. She's the vendor surrounded by jars and jars of zinnias, snapdragons, lisianthus and other flowers and fillers, all grown on her farm in Jackson County. She calls her business Home Pickins.
Every Saturday in season, Tillery leaves home at 3:45 a.m. and makes the 80-mile drive from McKee to Lexington. Because much of the route is a winding two-lane road, it's close to 5:30 by the time she gets to Cheapside. She has made the trip for 18 years.
"Lexington's been a lifesaver," Tillery says. "We probably wouldn't have the farm if it weren't for the market."
Freedom at a price
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Home Pickins' farm is a rolling mix of fields and timber, with long views across the hills and the Daniel Boone National Forest. Tillery's husband, Doug, grew up there, when the family farm was largely a mix of dairy, pork and tobacco. Doug was the youngest of 13 kids; as the others left, he decided to give it a go. He and Beth met while studying agriculture at EKU and moved there in 1979. Since then, the farm has produced a variety of crops and fed a lot of livestock. There were decades of tobacco and dairy farming, followed by beef cattle and chickens.
"Tobacco was hard work," Beth says. "I was the one on the cart loading every stick."
And for someone who grew up on Charlotte's Web, shipping the livestock off to market was hard work, too, but in a different way.
"Animals are not human but, ... it's always been a struggle, having to kill them," she says.
Beth Tillery came from "up north" by Jackson County standards, meaning Independence, Ky.
"My mother was an R.N. (registered nurse) and my dad was an undertaker. I think that's where I got my liking for flowers," she says. "I was always in the funeral home, and my job was putting flowers out."
Seeing her parents ruled by other people's schedules convinced her that she wanted a different kind of life, she said.
"I didn't want to be tied down to The Man," she says. "I knew I loved the out-of-doors and loved animals. I wanted to raise my kids myself."
On a farm, she admits, "You pay a high price for that freedom."
But there are unexpected benefits, like seeing your babies lulled to sleep by the sound of a milking machine.
Doug now works in Richmond. The livestock is down to 35 heifers and their calves, which he takes to market at about six months. The tobacco is long gone. In the growing season, Beth's focus is berries, pumpkins, gourds and flowers.
"Flowers are a lot prettier than tobacco, and they smell better, too," she says. Walking through a greenhouse that once held tobacco starts, she points out a flower. "Smell this; oh, this is my favorite: tuberose."
Wind in the curly willows
In mid-July at Home Pickins, the first thing a visitor sees are the blueberry bushes growing under netting by the driveway. The hydrangeas are just coming on in a plot on the other side of the house. Nearby are zinnias, cockscomb and marigolds.
"They make great cut flowers," Tillery says.
Lisianthus, snapdragons and more zinnias are in the greenhouse. Farther out are patches of pumpkins and gourds, a line of curly willow and even larger fields of zinnias and sunflowers in rows that the dogs weave through. They're wise to the electric fence that keeps the hordes of hungry deer at bay. The fence stops the wildlife, but nothing stops the weather.
"The wind has been unbelievable," Tillery says. "I'm lucky to have anything left here." Even so, many zinnia plants are 6 feet tall.
Tillery comes every Saturday to the downtown Lexington market, and often on Sundays to the Southland location. She used to come up on Tuesday or Thursday, but she rarely does now unless there are berries begging to be eaten.
When she says the market has been a lifesaver, she doesn't just mean financially.
"I love the farm, but I also love the city," she says.
Tillery starts cutting some flowers Thursday morning: "Things that keep well, like cockscomb, globe amaranth and fillers like frosted explosion." On Fridays, she picks the sunflowers and zinnias.
On a recent morning, the bumblebees are hanging off the sunflowers. They get on them and drink themselves into a stupor, Tillery says. It's hard to shake them all off.
"I'll go to Lexington, and there'll be all kinds of bees. They'll ride all the way in a kind of coma and wake up and they're in Lexington.
"I don't know how bees operate. I hope I'm not interfering with their family life."