Tara Stainton set aside her teaching degrees to pursue a passion in organic farming
By Dwain Hebda
As hard as it is to imagine, Tara Stainton managed to grow up in Iowa with no concept of how to grow anything.
“My mom said she had a garden up until the time I was 3, and I work with little kids around so I understand that,” Stainton said. “And then they had a garden again the year I left for college. They had no garden in between. My parents’ place [in Iowa] is four acres carved out of thousands of acres of corn and soybeans, but I had no experience growing vegetables growing up.”
“I tell my parents they could’ve saved a fortune on my education, because I have two degrees in teaching—a bachelor’s and a master’s.”
In fact, Stainton didn’t first break ground until 2005 when she and her husband, Jonesboro native Robert Stainton, settled onto a 40-acre spread near Vilonia. Working for the Core of Engineers took Robert out on the road for extended periods and with no family nearby, Tara was looking for ways to fill the time.
“He was gone for six weeks once and during that time, I walked through Barnes and Noble and found a book ’Harvest for Hope,’ by Jane Goodall,” she recalled. “That was the first time I heard the words ‘organic’ or ‘sustainable’ or anything like that. And I really, for the next six weeks, really fell down the rabbit hole of the Internet researching organic gardening.”
“When my husband came home, I said, ‘I know what I’m going to do! This is what I want to do, and this is how I want to do it!’ And he thought I was absolutely crazy.”
Stainton’s first plat didn’t do much to change her husband’s mind or give anyone a glimpse at the highly successful agricultural future that was ahead of her.
“My first garden had 12 tomato plants and it was so pathetic,” she said with a laugh. “I had no idea what I was doing. I dug holes and planted 12 tomatoes in the middle of our yard. My mom came about two months later and said, ‘What are those?’ I said, ‘Those are my tomato plants.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, no.’”
Stainton didn’t yet have a green thumb, but she did have persistence, and she read everything in print or online she could find to improve. Neighbors didn’t fully understand what the budding operation, dubbed “Rattle’s Garden” after a beloved dog, was out to accomplish.
“I learned a lot about gardening from neighbors, but a very common theme was, a lot of people use household pesticides. And that wasn’t the way I wanted to grow things,” she said. “We’ve been Certified Organic for eight years now. We were the first-and we’re still the only-certified organic farm in Faulkner County.”
Marketing the crops, something that started in 2008, was another study in trial and error. Stainton schlepped produce to multiple farmers markets before finding a home at the Hillcrest version in Little Rock. As farming techniques were refined, so was her inventory.
“Something that I learned and was a big transition for me was how to not just have a whole bunch of food, but how to have a whole bunch of food consistently week after week after week,” she said. “That transition from, ‘I’ve got a whole bunch of zucchini for two weeks,’ to having zucchini for 14 weeks in a row standing at a farmers market was big.”
Refining her growing processes also ushered in a new revenue stream through Rattles Garden’s Farmshare program. The program, which acts like a subscription service for produce, has grown to 100 families and led the farm to grow food practically year-round.
Another boon to the business has been the support of Little Rock restauranteur and grow-local food advocate Scott McGehee whose company, Yellow Rocket Concepts, includes Little Rock’s Lost Forty, Zaza and Big Orange, among others.
“Scott’s been a huge, outspoken supporter of our farm; he’s been fantastic,” Stainton said. “In his series of restaurants, he’s found a way to buy up almost any extras that I have, which is so important. Waste is the death of a farm our size, you just can’t afford to let anything go to waste or not be sold.”
Stainton said she’s as curious as anyone about what the future holds for the operation. She’s reached this level with two small boys dragging at her heels, and now that Milan, 8, and Gus, 4, are old enough to go to school, she wonders what the farm can do with her undivided attention.
“I’ve been saying this for a while now: If we’ve been selling for 10 years, eight years of that I have been pregnant or had a small child at my side,” she said. “So while it’s really hard to stand here alone today, I’m really excited about the capacity I feel like I have moving forward.”