From the Ground Up: Jim Knieriem of Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm
“And on the 8th day God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker!” So, God made a farmer!”
“It’s a great life,” Jim Knieriem says with a satisfied sigh after moving some old, partially rotted lumber that will be reused to make the base for a future hoop house, home to the tomato crop this year. It’s a life that he has known for all of his 54 years. Knieriem is one of a shrinking community, the Cape Cod farmers. He and his wife Susan own and operate Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm on Route 6A in Yarmouthport.
Born and raised on an Illinois farm, Knieriem looks right at home tromping around the place in his mud-caked boots. The layers of clothing he wears to brace against the chill March air only make for a more imposing figure. His intensity is never far from the surface. He can laugh, he can tease, he can have fun with his crew and all the while, you never doubt that he still means business.
Jim ran the Homestead Farm in Marstons Mills for fifteen years. It was during this time that Miss Scarlett’s began as a small farm stand in Sandwich in 2000. When Homestead was sold, it was time to expand the Miss Scarlett venture to the seven-acre operation it is today. Located at the corner of Route 6A and Weir Road in Yarmouthport, Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm has been operational since 2010, after a full year of Knieriem painstakingly gathering all the permits and regulatory sign-offs that it takes to get a farm up and running in this day and age. Just that fact alone tells you about this man, this farmer.
It’s the doggedness with which Jim pursues things that is most impressive. The tireless effort he puts into not only maintaining but growing the farm to realize its full potential. The growth of Miss Scarlett’s is truly staggering. In just a few short years, the farm is now producing 105 types of tomatoes, over 20 varieties of peppers, 15 different lettuces and eggplants, over 10 flavors of basil, and the list goes on and on. You can find Miss Scarlett’s bounty at some of the finer restaurants on the Cape like The Brewster Fish House, Fin, Lyric, The Ocean House and Pain D’Avignon. Jim and Susan also have booths at four local farmers’ markets in Harwich, Hyannis, Orleans and Osterville, along with their own stand at Miss Scarlett’s that opens for the season the first week in May. Undoubtedly, there’s no shortage of opportunities for you to enjoy the vegetables of their labor.
Then, there is their pork and poultry production. This year, Miss Scarlett’s will produce 2500 birds—turkeys, chicken, ducks, geese—for consumption. Upwards of 40 pigs will be available for purchase, either by the half or whole animal. Five lambs will be ready for Christmas and two cattle will be offered. Just when you start to wonder about the partridge of pear tree fame, we move to the aviary of exotic birds. Nope, no partridge there, but Miss Scarlett’s has a collection of over 40 stunning creatures: East African Cranes, Impian Pheasants, Burmese Pea Fowl, and beautifully unique swans and geese that are there for customers to view and appreciate when they stop by to shop at the farm stand.
If you are exhausted just thinking about the care and feeding of such a menagerie of living things great and small, you’re not alone. Then again, you’re not a farmer. Up and on the farm by 6:30 every morning, Jim might put in a mere 10-hour day…in the dead of winter. In the spring, it’s more like 12 hours a day. And the summer? Try even more hours. What truly makes this an exhaustive line of work is the fact that there is no day off. Seven days a week for 365 days a year. It took six weeks of preplanning and preparations to be able to go home to Illinois to see his 95-year-old father for Thanksgiving last year.
No man is an island, and Jim is certainly not alone on the farm. Along with his wife Susan and their daughters, 23-year-old Alex and 10-year-old Rebekah, Jim has three part-time employees who help out with all aspects of the farm. Ann Austin (former owner of Gracie’s Tables), Seth Pelegrin and Steve Forrett are there to dig in and do whatever it takes. Planting hundreds and hundreds of seeds at the start of the season, feeding and tending the animals, harvesting throughout the summer and fall. In the spring a big task is assembling more hoop houses to help extend the growing season or repairing those damaged in winter storms. There is never a shortage of things that need to get done around a farm. There’s “Stormin’” Norman, the well-seasoned handyman, who can repurpose just about anything. Another friend of the farm is Jean who’s there to offer a timely muffin and a smile to make the day just a little bit better. Genuinely, it is a menagerie of a different sort. Good, caring folks who contribute to Miss Scarlett’s success.
As if running a successful farm isn’t enough, Jim is just as driven to grow and improve the entire Cape Cod agricultural community as he is about cultivating his own plot of land. Knieriem is also the president of the Cape & Islands Farm Bureau. The bureau represents 700 farmers of all types (vegetable, cranberry, oyster, horse, etc.) and uses its knowledge and expertise to lend advice to any group or person who cares about preserving the prudent use of the land and waters of Cape Cod for generations to come. The Bureau assists the general public as well as farmers. Whether dealing with other farmers’ concerns or lobbying local and state officials on behalf of the Cape Cod farmer, Jim’s responsibilities go far beyond attending the monthly meeting in the conference room at the Hyannis Stop & Shop. Now, hosting a meeting of local farmers at a chain grocery store may seem akin to holding it in the belly of the beast, but Jim disagrees.
“We need the Stop & Shops. We need the large grocery stores for so many of the things that farmers can’t supply,” he said. “We’re just trying to get people to think about and ask, ‘Where is my food coming from?’” When one starts to think about the distances that fruits and vegetables travel to get from far-flung farms to your local grocery store, as well as the chemicals used to make sure they get there looking good, one would do well by looking into the local options. Not only is it better for your physical health, but for the local economic health as well. If it’s a lack of awareness about the options that are available to shoppers, then Jim is working on that too.
“Meet Your Cape Cod Farmer” is a local access cable show that’s hosted by…wait for it… Jim Knieriem! On the show, Jim travels the Cape interviewing not just Cape Cod farmers, but also the people that work closely with them. One episode is an interview with chef Toby Hill of the restaurant Lyric, and in another, Beth and Todd Marcus from Cape Cod Beer sit down for a conversation with Farmer Jim. You can also catch the shows on YouTube.
Not that there isn’t work left to be done at Miss Scarlett’s. “People say, ‘But it’s ugly. Can’t you clean it up?’ and I tell ‘em I’ve got to make this place profitable first. Then I’ll make it beautiful,” Jim says of the occasional passers-by who would like something prettier to look at for those scant few seconds it takes for them to speed past. This is the year when Jim is planning to turn his eye toward some steps in improving the appearance of the farm. Jim seems to be cut from the same cloth as elite artists and athletes. In working to be the best at what he does, his ears tune to the one protest in a hundred praises. That provides just a bit more motivation to be a better farmer, a better neighbor, a better conservator of the Earth.
“What I really love is the educational side of farming,” Jim says. “I love it when I can put two-day old chicks into the hands of seven-year-olds and watch them squeal with delight.” Education is a driving force in his career. Jim cites the revolutions in the packaging industry back in the 1940s and 1950s for further distancing the end users from the farms where the goods were produced. “Kids today don’t know where their food comes from. People, adults don’t know where their food comes from, and the problem is they often don’t care. Kids think milk, meat and vegetables come in plastic containers! That’s as far as they think about it. Milk, meat and vegetables only arrive in plastic containers! They come from cows, goats, sheep and the earth!” Jim howls.
Local meats and produce are not only fresher, but also healthier when grown naturally. “We’re a completely organic farm. We don’t pump our livestock full of growth hormones and other chemicals to plump them up.” The “slow growth” method where the animals are allowed to develop at their own natural pace makes for more flavorful meat as well. “If a chicken gets sick, we’ll remove it from the others and give it medication so it recovers.” Jim goes on to stress, “But that bird does not go back in with the others once it recovers. It’ll be used for our family’s consumption only.” This is the level of integrity with which Jim operates and, when you’re dealing with dozens of pigs and hundreds of chickens, ducks and geese you need to have that high set of principles. In order to be the largest growers and producers of pork and poultry on Cape Cod, it is critical for Miss Scarlett’s to maintain high standards in the management of manure as well as in sterilization requirements. To Jim, however, it’s not just the correct way, it’s the only way of doing business.
It is a business in the end, and Jim needs to make sure his is profitable. He always needs to keep an eye on how the land is used, how the crops are rotated, which plants will be grown to produce next year’s seed. Producing for today while planning for tomorrow. Constantly searching for the best way to squeeze out the most profitability with the most responsible approach. It’s a delicate balancing act, and one that Jim deftly walks. While assembling that hoop house with the old timber base and old steel ribs that will become the tomato house, Jim does the math: the square footage of soil inside, the number of pots that will fit in that space, how much money that each pot can generate. “I figure this house can get me about five grand in tomatoes this year,” Jim declares after working his calculator. A decent amount of cabbage to be sure.
Creativity doesn’t end with crop management. To be a farmer in today’s world, you not only need to produce great products to sell, but you have to be inventive with the ways in which you sell them. A growing trend is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. CSAs offer customers a chance to buy a “share” of the farm’s yield. In Miss Scarlett’s case, it promises the consumer weekly produce that’s the “cream of the crop”, poultry and pork (depending on the share level purchased). It goes beyond that, however. It allows the CSA member to know their farmer and know exactly where and how their food is grown. In return, it provides the farmer with a source of financial security.
Working co-operatively with other Cape Cod businesses and organizations goes a long way to help keep costs down. Jim trades out seedlings to the Harwich Food Bank in return for harvest labor through the summer. He takes in old stale bread from stores and spent grains used in the brewing process at Cape Cod Beer to feed to his pigs. To close that particular loop, Miss Scarlett’s is growing hundreds of hop plants this year for Cape Cod Beer’s various brews. After which, they’ll return as fodder for the hogs.
“You don’t have to like me. You don’t have to respect me. You do have to appreciate my sense of integrity,” Jim says. Intense. Driven. Gruff. Passionate. Jim knows he may ruffle a few feathers within the community, and he may be unapologetic about it. One thing is for certain, however. You’ll be hard pressed to find a man who is a more devoted and compassionate advocate for his family, farm and friends than Jim Knieriem. According to Paul Harvey, God made the farmer on the eighth day. Not exactly sure on which particular day Jim was made, but the mold was certainly broken shortly thereafter.