Back to the Land
Three young women return to their roots—and the family farm—and in the process find that the old ways are sometimes still the best ways
Jennifer Niceley will never forget the day she and her sister Anna taught themselves how to butcher broilers from a YouTube video.
“It was three years ago,” says the thirty-nine-year-old singer, her voice a slow syrup of a drawl. “My mother and grandmother knew how to do it, but I’d never been taught.” Nonetheless, it was harvesttime, and there were 150 chickens and three days to process them. So Jennifer and Anna streamed, learned, and got busy. It wasn’t exactly Slaughtering for Dummies, but it was close.
“I wasn’t a good executioner,” Anna, who is thirty-six, confesses, sitting at her sister’s kitchen table early on a recent morning, a basket of three dozen just-gathered eggs at her feet. “I was good at plucking the feathers. Peeling the feet. Making stock from the carcasses.”
“We butchered the birds humanely,” Jennifer stresses. “But it was still emotional. That moment is hard. That’s why every culture has rituals around hunting and killing. So it never gets nonchalant.”
The Niceley sisters, along with their friend Misty Travis Oaks, who is thirty-nine and whom they consider “close as family,” run their restaurant and event business from their home base of the Niceley farm in Tennessee, a place all three women were intimately connected with growing up.
“Jennifer and Anna were born and raised at Riverplains,” Misty explains of the centuries-old homestead. “And my father and uncles worked on the family land as day laborers back in the early sixties.” The young men were paid with watermelons and tickets to the drive-in theater, which the Niceley family also owned at the time. “They hardly cared,” Misty says with a laugh. “They just loved being on the farm.”
Originally a commercial dairy, Riverplains is one of those astonishing places so rich with beauty, simply laying eyes on it makes you feel a little drunk (and willing to work for watermelon). Located a thirty-minute drive east of Knoxville, the Niceley property is part of Straw-berry Plains—population around 4,500, and so named because in the 1800s wild strawberries grew plentifully enough in the fields that they stained the fetlocks of passing horses red with juice.
Riverplains has been owned and inhabited by the Niceley family for generations, four of which still reside there. The farm covers more than four hundred rolling acres, which hug both banks of the Holston River, and has remained so unaltered over the ages that the narrows still hold a primitive fish trap one visiting archaeologist dated back to before the 1500s. The trap is a simple stack of rocks that could have been easily moved at any point, and yet, there it sits as if frozen in some sort of Southern amber, a literal touchstone offering hope that no matter how messed up modern life becomes, there will always be pockets of the past we cannot destroy.
This comforting timelessness is, as much as anything, why the Niceley daughters chose to return from their wide-flung urban wanderings to settle and farm Riverplains, enlisting Misty as their partner in progressive agriculture. The three of them joined forces nearly four years ago to run an old-fashioned, one-stop, Southern food operation that includes select wholesale—local chefs snap up cornmeal, grits, eggs, raw milk shares, grass-fed beef, and pastured pork—a non-GMO food truck, cooking and butchering lessons focusing on historic methods of grain, meat, and dairy prep, and soon, a brick-and-mortar Knoxville restaurant called Mister Canteen. The trio tends every crop from soil to plate—call it seed to table—a food initiative they believe bridges the gap between farmer and chef.
“I love being able to bring our food to people in every form,” says Anna, a certified holistic nutritionist. “We are farming it, harvesting it, preparing it, and serving it.”
Originally intending to become a lobbyist, Anna spent her twenties working on various campaigns after graduating from American University in Washington, D.C. Her fascination with politics came from observing her father, Frank Niceley, a lifelong farmer and elected official who currently serves as a Republican state senator in Tennessee.
“I moved to New York City, which was amazing,” Anna recalls. Then, after bouncing around the country, trying to find a job she enjoyed and a place she could call home, she met her future husband, Dino. “We knew we wanted to marry and have children. And then, Dino got sick.”
He lost twenty-five pounds in six days. The eventual diagnosis was colitis. The scare instantly reprioritized their lives and reignited Anna’s curiosity about diet as medicine, something her family had ingrained in her and her sisters as children.
“I read The Maker’s Diet, dug into Michael Pollan’s books. We’d grown up with a practice of home cooking, everything being made from scratch from our farm. We never had anything out of a box, only fresh food.”
After Dino’s illness, Anna thought, too, about how robust her parents seemed to be compared with other adults their age, something she attributed to their lifestyle and diet.
“My father always says he eats ‘the way his daddy did,’ and Granddad lived to be ninety-four and never used a cane,” she says. “At sixty-seven, our father is so hale and hearty. He doesn’t take any medicine. He doesn’t need a doctor all the time. Dino’s dad has this whole bag devoted exclusively to his pills: blood pressure, heart stuff, cholesterol. My folks don’t have any of those issues.”
The path seemed clear. “It just dawned on me one day, instead of casting about for a healthy place to raise our family, why don’t we just go back to the farm?” Anna recalls, widening her eyes, the epiphany still a bit surprising even now, years later. As a girl, she had been so eager to leave, certain the city would bring her the type of stimulation and challenge she craved. “But after years of roaming around, wondering why nothing fit, I figured out I’m not supposed to be anywhere else.”
The week they settled at Riverplains, Dino started driving the tractor. This was beyond a reach for her husband, as he didn’t even own a car. Misty chuckles at the memory of looking out onto the pastures and seeing “this totally tattooed hipster guy in the middle of these Jersey cows.
“It was a crash course for all of us,” Anna recalls. “That same week my mom announced, ‘I’m going out of town, so you need to milk the cows.’ And I was like, ‘Ohhh. Oh-kay.’”