After receiving his master’s degree in education, Allan Benton was a bit underwhelmed when he saw that he wouldn’t be making much more money as a high school guidance counselor. So he left his job and did what anyone would who wanted to remove themselves from a school environment: he began curing hams.
Now, nearly 45 years later, Benton is still turning out smoked and unsmoked country hams and bacon, selling them all over the country. He has owned Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Madisonville since 1973, after buying the business from the original owner who had started it in 1947.
“I had planned to just do it for a while until I figured out what I really wanted to do (with a career),” Benton says. “I didn’t think I would make it for over a year or two. Somehow I made it last, and I still enjoy what I do.”
Benton admits he went through some rough patches in his early years as owner of the company, saying “I barely kept my doors open. It was a struggle. I was very lucky.”
Much of being “lucky” had to do with his involvement in the Pick Tennessee Products (PTP) program, a Tennessee Department of Agriculture initiative that is commemorating 30 years in 2016. The program, which connects farmers and producers to consumers in a variety of ways, began as a campaign to identify local food products in retail stores, but has expanded to focus on farm-direct foods and local farmers markets.
Benton was basically introduced to the PTP program at a photo shoot conducted by the Department of Agriculture. It involved Louisville, Ky., Chef Jay Denham, who was in Nashville at the time.
Soon after the photo shoot, Benton says, “I started selling Jay hams, and that opened up the Middle Tennessee market for me immediately. He later went back to Louisville, where he was from, and he opened up that market for me.
“There’s no telling how many customers I picked up because of that photo shoot.”
Benton has been involved in PTP in other ways through the years, and recommends it for any farmer or producer looking to improve business.
“Pick Tennessee Products has gotten so many of us attention that we couldn’t have garnered for ourselves,” he says. “And for people who are just getting started, the program is a big tool for them.”
A Big Asset
Danny Shelton, a third-generation farmer who owns Shelton Farms in Jefferson County, has likewise benefited from PTP. A former tobacco farmer, Shelton now grows corn, soybeans, wheat and rye, as well as produce such as green beans, tomatoes, cantaloupes, watermelons and several kinds of berries. He also has artisan ground grits, whole- wheat flour and more.
“I’ve tried about everything,” he says.
PTP helped Shelton get into the wholesale end of produce, taking him to a bidding operation conducted through the Produce Marketing Association.
“They introduced me to people at Wal-Mart, Food City, Kroger, places like that,” Shelton says. “It helped me to get in several chains. The program’s been a big asset. I believe I’ve had everyone from the Department of Agriculture out at the farm at one time or another. They’re always welcome.”
PTP is also a valuable tool for consumers seeking local food as well as wineries, greenhouses, Christmas tree farms and more. Explore Pick Tennessee Products, or use the PTP mobile app that makes those searches even easier. The app lets users keep track of favorites and provides links to seasonal recipes, handy tips and fun facts.