The name of Lester has long been synonymous with the food industry.
Kenneth “K.O.” Lester built one of the largest food distributing companies in this part of the country with K.O. Lester Foods.
When Kenneth Lester died, K.O. Lester Foods merged with Performance Foods. So in 1989, Lester Foods ceased to be a Lester family-owned business.
Then about 20 years ago, Kenneth and Lynn Lester’s son, Kevin Lester, and his wife, Teresa, gave birth to two sons, Kason Lester, in 1989 and Mitchell in 1993. Kason came into this world with a talent and passion for music and songwriting, and a love of fresh food was secondary.
But, Mitchell Lester was a different story. His family and most who know him will swear he came out of the womb with an enhanced knowledge and passion for agriculture and growing produce. At 21, Mitchell Lester is the one who keeps the whole Lester family and many other friends and relatives working and paying their living expenses.
Mitchell admits his love of growing food was with him from his earliest memories. He remembers digging in the dirt and planting things when he was 5 or 6. At 6, his family moved to a farm on Coles Ferry Pike from the family farm, which the Lester family later bought in 1996 when the two brothers named Brother died and the property was auctioned off. Mitchell grew up in that house on that farm, attended Coles Ferry kindergarten and then went to Friendship Christian School, where he attended school until he graduated.
His mother said Mitchell was making change at their food stand at 7, before he was even old enough to count change. He remembers he was doing some form or another of agriculture since he was 8 or 9.
“Lee Foutch was our neighbor, and he got us into farming by teaching us to grow gardens.” said Mitchell Lester. “We started out by learning with tomatoes, squash, green beans and sweet corn.”
Kevin was born in Lebanon and met Teresa when they were 15 and high school students at Friendship. They were married in 1985 and had their two boys. Today, the whole family works for Lester Farms.
“We own two farms which are composed of 12 acres. We farm those, plus lease adjoining properties and others to grow our produce,” said Mitchell Lester. “We have a farm on the Cumberland River, where we grow our blueberries, strawberries, red and black berries and red and black raspberries. On another property we grow squash, beets, cabbage, kale, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, okra and all kinds of lettuce. On other properties, we have corn, specialized Bermuda hay for horses that is square baled, etc. Some crops we rotate, whatever the soil tells us we need to do.”
“Mitchell has been an entrepreneur his entire young life,” said his mother, Teresa. “He is constantly searching, learning and trying new things and methods. All of his accomplishments have come as a result of this drive and need to improve and promote the food industry and to get more young people interested in agriculture and farming.”
“Sometimes it pays to reach out and try an old method which we did with our CSA program,” said Mitchell Lester. “The concept of a community supported agricultural club started in the early ’70s, but we didn’t get into it until 2012. No one else was doing it around here, but the concept made total sense to me because you create your market first and then fill it with your produce instead of producing all the product and then scramble around trying to find your market. In the case of the latter, your food is no longer fresh picked by the time it gets sold. The way we do it, the customer gets the produce the same day it is picked and once you’ve tasted the difference between fresh picked and not fresh, you’ll never go back.”
He explained the basket club works on the basis that the customers pay an up-front fee in February based on whether they subscribe to a small or regular size, depending on the number of household members. The small feeds one to two people, and the regular feeds three to four. Some households go in together on baskets.
Starting May 9, they receive a basket a week of whatever crops are ripe for picking that week.
“Then, they receive a basket a week for the next 22 weeks through October,” he said. “Cold crops are the early-spring crops, so the customers may get broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, green onions and lettuce of all kinds in that early basket. Or it may be fruits. We do more fruits than most clubs do.
“In our baskets are also recipes. Those recipes are from Tara Beard and feature ones for whatever produce is in the basket that week. Others can be found on her website at taracooks.com. The customer also swaps the actual basket they received the week before for the new one for that week.”
Lester said they have right at 200 club members currently and four pick-up locations for the weekly baskets. One location is the Lester Farms on Coles Ferry Pike where they are available Fridays from 2-6 p.m. The second is Moss Garden Center in Mt. Juliet on Fridays from 2-5 p.m., Saturdays at Lennox Village in South Nashville and Tuesdays at the Stone Bridge Community from 4:30-6 p.m.
He said they have gone from planting less than 4,000 strawberry plants in the beginning to planting 50,000 per season in less than five years.
“We Lesters grew up eating absolutely fresh produce off our grounds, but not that many people were that lucky,” said Lester. “But today, with the whole world preaching healthy eating and people are so into juicing and blending, they are realizing fresh picked food is so much better tasting and good for you. They know produce in the stores is at least several days old because it maybe has been shipped half way around the world.”
He cited Michael’s Cafe on Castle Heights Avenue as a prime example. Customers rave about her squash casserole. She said not only is it her recipe that’s so good, it’s also mainly because she is a CSA member, and her casserole is made from squash picked that morning, and the freshness of it makes the difference.
Teresa Lester said Mitchell is a pretty good cook himself and – speaking of squash – he makes a yellow squash muffin that is so good and so moist, you want to make a meal out of it alone.
Oh, and has it been mentioned this good-looking, 21-year-old entrepreneur is single? And, he cooks, too.
Lester said they have no animal products at this time, although they have had chickens in the past and may do so again in the future. He starts his own plants in January and February and has a second High Tunnel under construction that will enable them to plant in the soil and extend their growing season. They are going to build a washing/packing facility and getting ready to make that part of their business more efficient. This year, they had between 42-47 acres of produce, including hay. They aren’t selling plants for people to start their own gardens yet, but that is in the plans for the future.
He hopes next year to have a pick-your-own area of strawberries.
“We will be planting them in the next six weeks (starting mid-September) and baby them until late April or early May,” said Lester. “This year’s crop was produced a month later than usual and came from 50,000 plants.”
He partners with various other sources so they can offer a variety of things. For instance, a partnership with Margaret Cantrell gives them honey to sell. Other partnerships with a farm in Kentucky give them sweet pickles, pickled beets, jams and jellies to sell and others with local artisans that grant the sale of pottery, coffee mugs and such.
“We’re combining the passions in our family with others, so we’re all working together,” said Teresa Lester. “In fact, this weekend, July 25-26, we’re having a Field Day at the Farm here at Lester’s Farms in conjunction with Jackie Chitwood of Antiques on 231 and co-creator of the original Mile-Long Yard Sale in Watertown, where we’re setting up an antique and collectibles weekend. We’re planning on having another in the fall. Everybody is invited to come.”
Mitchell Lester said he has always loved the farm life, and he intends to do everything he can to preserve it and get more young people interested in it.
“Who is going to continue growing the food for our masses of people to eat if young people of today don’t get interested in preserving the growing of food,” he said. “As we get more and more health conscious and people learn to appreciate the taste of freshly picked food compared to that which has lost its nutrient value by growing too old between pick date and consuming date.”
Lester admits, “farming is hard work but besides all the attributes of good fresh food, it gets you outside in the fresh air, forces people to try new things like recipes and products and when someone comes by, you manage to slow down at least a moment to meet and talk with what might well become a new friend.”
Kevin and Teresa Lester are heavily involved every day in so many aspects of Lester Farms. Brother and son, Kason Lester, organizes, mans and oversees operations of the six or more stands the farm has going each year. Next week, he’s going into the studio to lay down tracks on several new songs he’s written.
Every year they hire dozens of young people who show an interest in agriculture and genuinely show an interest in working to pick products, man stands, wash product and pack baskets, etc. When they find good workers, they call them back season after season.
How does a young man of 21 years of age get to the position Mitchell Lester is?
“A lot of teachers and administration personnel at Friendship Christian and around Wilson County were supportive of my early days in the business, as well as my family. I couldn’t have done any of it without them,” Mitchell Lester said.
Mitchell is available to speak to groups and clubs about agriculture, growing food and his plans and ideas for the industry.
More may be learned about Lester Farms by visiting lesterfarmstn.com. Mitchell may be emailed at email@example.com. They may be physically found at 2822 Coles Ferry Pike or call them at 615-564-0871. He is also on Facebook.
Their stand at the farm is open five days a week from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. They are closed Wednesdays and Sundays.