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The Good Earth

Doing business with "Tinker" Talley and his unusual produce.


On Monday and Friday afternoons in the parking lot of Tsunami restaurant in Cooper-Young, customers anxiously wait to see what fresh fruits and vegetables "Tinker" Talley has brought. Talley, a 52-year-old Ripley farmer, is changing the perspective of Memphis shoppers with his California-style produce.

That produce ranges from the common Ripley tomato to the unusual blue potato. Talley grows over 40 kinds of tomatoes in all (with heirloom tomatoes, he says, by far the ugliest) and offers 12 kinds of eggplant, including the long, slim Japanese eggplant, which is hard to find in the Mid-South. Some of his most prized vegetables: daikon radishes, starburst and zapher squash, butter beans, spinach, Swiss chard, white and gold beets, baby bok choy, Caribbean red peppers, corn shoots, yellow French beans, and Roma beans. In addition, he grows a variety of fruits, including canary melons, honeydew, watermelon, huckleberries, and more.

Talley's favorite? The red, green, and purple bell peppers.

"These things are the biggest peppers I ever saw in my life," Talley says with pride.

On Monday and Friday mornings, Talley picks a number of fruits and vegetables and loads his trailer. He travels across Memphis delivering orders to local restaurants and parks his truck at Tsunami from 5 to 8 p.m. to sell to the public. Lulu Grille, Grisanti's, the Plaza Club, Automatic Slim's, Erling Jensen's, Harrah's casino, the Grove Grill, and the University Club all put in weekly orders. Talley also donates some of his produce to food banks and other charitable organizations around town.

Talley grew cotton and his brother grew soybeans. He is a fifth-generation farmer and he's been driving a tractor since age 11. But three years ago Talley realized he could no longer make a living farming cotton. It was a hard thing for him to come to terms with. "I like being a farmer and I could work the tail off of anybody," Talley says.

Instead of giving up, Talley looked in a different direction. He read seed catalogs, he searched the Internet, he made trips to California, all to learn more about growing fruits and vegetables. And it wasn't long before the research turned into a hands-on project that kept Talley busy every day -- and still does.

He works his 30-acre farm seven days a week. He chain-smokes and drinks one Mountain Dew after another (for the caffeine). He wears loafers instead of heavy boots and holds out his oversized T-shirt to substitute as a basket when he's out picking produce.

Talley says he's learning daily through what he calls "on-the-job training," and each vegetable and seed comes with a story. The hot peppers he picks wearing gloves because they're so hot, and the corn shoots only grow at night. Talley buys seeds from 14 states to keep up the variety. "I found that I can grow things that people don't even know about," Talley says. "There are people willing to try them, though, and that's what makes this thing work."

Customers often ask Talley the best way to cook his vegetables, and he just as often tells them with a blank face, "You don't have to grow it and I don't have to cook it." In fact, Talley claims to rarely eat his own produce, much less cook it. But he does admit with a grin, "My wife did make a fine huckleberry pie not too long ago. "

As Talley prepares to plant for the next season, he says he'll be tickled to death if he breaks even at the end of the year. "It's still a risky business and I'm paying for my own mistakes."

But he's not ready to quit. "Being on the farm is what makes me happy," Talley says and then reveals that one day he wants to have a commercial kitchen and sell salsa made from his own fresh ingredients.

"And when I'm dead, I'm going to stop worrying about the farm. But until then, I'll keep doing what I love the most," he says, as he laughs and picks more bell peppers.

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