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Jill Forrester, 20 years of farming food and flowers

From seed stock to farmers market, agriculture is a fulfilling way of life.

Whitney Haigwood, Staff Writer

April 5, 2024

7 Min Read
Woman farmer wearing large straw sunhat holding an armful of pink peonies.
Jill Forrester has spent the last 20 years as a woman in agriculture, growing food and flowers for folks throughout the Delta region of northeast Arkansas. Her unequivocable love of flowers is seen through the many varieties blossoming throughout the season on the farm. Jill Forrester

“It is a passion. That is the best way I know how to put it,” said Jill Forrester of her 20 years spent as a specialty crop farmer in northeast Arkansas.

From the fields to the high tunnel greenhouses, Jill works alongside her husband, Keith growing food and flowers on their operation, Whitton Farms in Mississippi County.

There, they grow all sorts of vegetables, from arugula to zucchini, and Jill specializes in cut flower production, herbs, and garden transplants.

Farm fresh offerings are sold at either their roadside storefront in Whitton or distributed through their attendance at regional farmers markets from Jonesboro, Ark. to Memphis, Tenn.

This past year, Jill even launched a seasonal business in residential and commercial landscaping, yet her talents clearly span beyond having a green thumb. She also teaches monthly floral design classes creates custom flower arrangements, helps Keith with his canning operation, and hosts tours of the family farm for school aged children.

Jill describes her work in agriculture as both challenging and gratifying. “What I love about farming is, your ground is your palette,” she said. “You can grow whatever you want, and the possibilities are endless. That’s what makes this line of work so enjoyable to me.”

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Woman and man holding bouquet of hot pink peonies.

A kaleidoscope of colors

Jill’s unequivocal love for flowers is seen through the many varieties of annuals and perennials blossoming throughout the season on the farm. Blooms of tulips, Iceland poppies, and daffodils break open each spring, which merge into the florescence of delphinium, dianthus, lisianthus, snapdragons, and peonies.

The season then folds into 250 flowering shrubs of hydrangeas along with blossoms of zinnias, marigolds, asters, celosia, gladiolas, and a variety of sunflowers in different shapes and sizes.

“It is like a kaleidoscope of colors out here in the summer,” Jill described.

While some of these flowers are sold as hanging baskets or garden transplants, others are cut for fresh bouquets and floral design. Jill’s custom arrangements include everything from special occasions and centerpiece bouquets to wedding packages complete with floral arbors, corsages, boutonnieres, bridal bouquets, and floral crowns. 

She also sells buckets of fresh flowers to those who want to make their own arrangements for weddings and special events. “Occasionally I have brides who want locally grown flowers, because we grow varieties you cannot find wholesale, or at a floral shop,” Jill said.

In addition, she offers seasonal floral design classes at the Whitton Farms Cannery and Floral Studio on Main Street in Tyronza. Jill welcomes anyone to attend these classes that are fun for all, from friend groups and mother/daughter outings to couple’s date nights.

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One particularly popular class is the Peony Party which takes place late April to early May as 3,000 peony bushes are coming into bloom on the farm. Class attendees choose from a variety of peonies to design an arrangement they can take home and enjoy.

Roadside stand at Whitton Farms

The month of April also kicks off market season, when Jill and her husband open their storefront in Whitton, known as the Cabin. This charming roadside stand was once a sharecropper’s home, built in the early 1920s. 

Jill and Keith have transformed the old home into a market brimming with all sorts of locally sourced goods. The market draws in locals along with tourists passing through to visit nearby attractions like the boyhood home of legendary country artist, Johnny Cash in Dyess.

The porch of the Whitton Farms Cabin is adorned with hand painted signs and filled with a myriad of seasonal produce. There are baskets of asparagus, peppers, purple hull peas, beets, lettuces, carrots, tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers. 

Roadside market in Whitton, Arkansas that was once a sharecropper's home built in the 1920s.

Inside are shelves stocked with locally made products like soaps, honey, baked goods, and pickled goods. Of course, they offer Keith’s line of pickled products, “Keith’s Kickin’ Pickles” all grown and canned with his recipe in their cannery where Jill lends a hand in the process.

A floral section in the shop displays Jill’s premade bouquets and arrangements. Plus, there are plants, garden transplants, and hanging baskets available for purchase. Jill noted that retail offerings go beyond their own products to include goods from other regional vendors they have met at local farmers markets over the years.

“In these 20 years of growing food and flowers, the relationships we have built throughout northeast Arkansas and even the tri-state region are amazing,” Jill said. 

Farmers market season

Spring also kicks off farmers market season, which is very dear to Jill. It is a wholesome experience providing customers with the opportunity to connect with the farmers who grew their food. It also gives Jill the chance to connect with friends while making a living and feeling accomplished in her work.

“We start all our own seed stock, so we see it grow from a miniscule seed to the plant,” she said. "Then we harvest it. We clean it. We distribute it. And we set up a display and watch what we grew go home with somebody.”

Throughout the season, Jill and her team set up at regional farmers markets. On Saturdays, Whitton Farms is stationed at several locations like the Judd Hill Farmers Market on the campus of Arkansas State University, and in Memphis they attend both the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market and the Downtown Farmers Market.

On Thursdays, Jill sets up shop at the Main Street Osceola Farmers Market on the city’s historic court square. This location is particularly special to Jill, because just last year she assisted in restructuring the market to bring the space to life for vendors and customers alike.

The vision started with a need, as Jill and other local vendors were struggling to find a market where they could move their products during the week. Osceola had tried a weekend market with little success, so Jill connected with Mayor Joe Harris and pitched the idea of a mid-week market.

“We started last May, and it has gone off gangbusters,” she said of the well-attended market open each Thursday from April through October.

There are food trucks, bread and pastry bakers, and upwards of 15 regional vendors. Jill said, “It is great for vendors like me who need a place to move their homegrown goods, because the garden doesn’t stop growing and it doesn’t hold all week long.”

She said activating the beautiful Osceola town square has been a magical experience. “It has been beyond what we expected it to be, and we are gearing up this year to make it bigger and better.”

Growing and learning

The full production season at Whitton Farms would not be possible without a dedicated team. Everyone shares responsibility, including the Forrester’s 12-year-old son, Fox who is learning the family business and is paid to work the farmers market with his parents. 

Jill said Fox has taken to it like a duck to water and can even count back change to customers. "I want him to understand the value of his time, what it means to make a dollar, and how important it is to create relationships with people and maintain those, especially in terms of being a good businessperson.”

Boy working farmers market stand, bagging vegetables for a customer.

For Jill, farming is about growing just as much as it is about learning, and none of it feels like work. She enjoys being outside, trying new things, and learning from mistakes or the occasional crop failure. “If it teaches me something within that season and the next year I have incredible success with it, that is the whole point,” she said.

“We work so hard out here. We are so passionate about local food and finding that one plant that might ignite someone’s love of growing, or love of eating local, or love of sourcing local flowers or starting a garden. That is what I want to spread when I interact with people either at the farm or the market,” Jill said. “It is a very fulfilling way of life.”

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