Heirlooming for the Future

“We’ve got a backyard grocery store,” says Tj Olvera, right, with her husband Luis. She’s referring to all the heirloom produce they grow on a portion of their 10-acre farm.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Tj Olvera never intended to be a farmer.

“We got tired of what we were handed at the grocery store and decided to grow our own — that way I knew what was in it. We started out growing for ourselves, but it really snowballed bigger and bigger until we had to do something with it,” she says.

Though it’s been a staple at local tailgate markets for decades now, Misty Mountain Berries & Beans in Henderson County took root when Olvera was working in kitchens at an assisted-living facility. “I was baking for 125 people every day. It was huge, and I loved it, but I just wanted more,” Olvera recalls. “One day I woke up and I just said, ‘I want to be a blueberry farmer.’ I think I just wanted to do something on my own.”

She and her husband Luis started by planting 12 Rabbiteye blueberry bushes, which she has cultivated over the years into more than 200. “It’s an Eastern variety,” explains Olvera. “We’ve had several pruning classes come out from the Extension Service to show other people how to prune them up and get them productive.” But that pruning can be tricky. A Rabbiteye can grow as tall as 15 feet: a massive shrub compared to most blueberry bushes. 

“You’d have to pick them off of a ladder if you didn’t prune them. I just prune them to my height and it works out pretty good,” says Olvera.

Rabbiteye blueberries and greasy beans are the top crops at Misty Mountain.
Photo by Karin Strickland

As the bushes grew, so did the enterprise, eventually turning into a family business. While Misty Mountain Berries & Beans may sell a lot more produce than their name implies, their indigenous blueberries and greasy beans are a testament to the traditions of Appalachian farming passed down through her family line. “My parents were from here,” she says. “We’re actually on my grandparents’ [property] that they got back in the ’40s, and we’re carrying on what they did and being self-sufficient.” She adds, “If the food truck doesn’t come, I don’t care. I’ve got a backyard grocery store.”

A Western North Carolina heritage crop, the greasy bean is a snap bean without the fuzz on the pod — “the only bean we’ll grow, so we can keep the seed pure,” explains Olvera. 

Photo by Karin Strickland

“You kind of have to babysit it,” she adds. “If you plant [greasy beans] with a bunch of other beans, it could cross pollinate, but we’ve had the same bean for over 20 years. They were handed down to me by my mother-in-law a long time ago. We started selling them at the market and they became our top seller, and we like them, too, so we just kept growing them.”

Despite covering just one-fourth acre of their 10-acre plot, the garden — which also yields squash, zucchini, all manner of greens, and other summer staples — produces enough for the family and for two tailgate markets. Misty Mountain has even functioned as a test garden for the local Extension Service when they want to try out new varieties of tomatoes. “We’ll take seeds that [the extension agent] is wanting to introduce to the market and do field trials in our gardens,” she says. 

Tj is shown in the blueberry rows (Rabbiteye bushes grow unusually high).
Photo by Karin Strickland

And the bounty continues: The Olveras are also beekeepers whose product won first place at the Henderson County Beekeepers Association Black Jar Honey Contest in 2019. In 2020, their honey was a finalist in the “Carolinas” category of the international competition sponsored by Asheville’s Center for Honeybee Research. 

“It started out as my son’s senior project. His mentor gifted him a 5-frame nuc [established colony], and then he went off to college and we became the beekeepers,” she says. 

“The yield of our garden has doubled since the bees have been here,” Olvera goes on. “All of what we grow is organic, but we aren’t certified. Because the bees are pollinating everything, we have to be really careful of what goes on around here.”

Though the Olveras are known for their standout crops, they’re willing to share their multigenerational skills with visitors. “I think you need to be passing on that knowledge, because we aren’t going to be around forever.”

Misty Mountain Berries & Beans vends at the Etowah Lions Club Farmers Market (447 Etowah School Road) Wednesdays from 3-6pm, and at the Henderson County Tailgate Market (100 North King St., Hendersonville) Saturdays from 8am-12pm. For more information, e-mail tj.olvera@gmail.com or see “Misty Mountain Berries & Beans” on Facebook.

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