The Oakes family turned a hobby into a thriving agricultural business. In a region where farms traditionally provide only a small portion of a family’s income, they’ve created full-time jobs for themselves and a dozen other workers.
When Ken Oakes left home to attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, he wasn’t expecting to return to his small hometown. The farm where he was raised near Corryton, Tenn., didn’t produce enough to provide his father, Stewart, with fulltime employment, let alone support another generation.
“I never expected to come back,” Ken said.
Today Ken and his dad run Oakes Daylilies, a thriving agricultural enterprise near Corryton that sells daylilies across North America and overseas. Besides employing Ken and Stewart, the business provides full-time work for a dozen other employees. It’s far more economically productive than traditional farming in east Tennessee, which is mostly dairy, beef cattle and, until recent years, tobacco.
The Oakes’ success with daylilies is a combination of factors: the business and marketing acumen that Ken picked up in college, broadband access that allows the family to market its product around the continent and globe, the support of the local community that shops at the farm and patronizes side projects like a corn maze, and hard work.
And of course, there’s those daylilies the Oakes began cultivating and hybridizing back in the 1960s.
“The problem with daylilies is you can find an excellent daylily, an excellent clone, [but] the only way to get more of it is to vegetatively propagate it,” Stewart said. “You have to grow it up, divide it, line it out. … It takes a long time to get more of one good plant.”
Over the years, the Oakes slowly built up their supply and variety of flowers. “We were well into this process when my son, Kenneth, graduated from the University of Tennessee,” Stewart said.
Ken saw an opportunity to do more with daylilies, but he knew the business would have to show people the quality and variety of their flowers. So Ken and his dad agreed they needed to create a color catalog. It was a big risk.
“Dad really took a leap of faith the first year, because I was just spending his money,” Ken said. “The first color catalog we did actually cost more than everything we had made the year before.”
The investment paid off. Ken had created his own job, and soon they expanded to employ others.
“My job is primarily marketing,” Ken said. “How do I show folks what it is that we’re offering? It’s the difference between selling a commodity that you can get a guaranteed but low price for. I can’t guarantee that someone is going to buy my daylilies. I have to talk them into it.”
To make the business work, broadband is critical, Ken said. High-speed Internet service allows the Oakes to create and manage a robust website and email marketing program. Even producing the paper catalog depends on having a broadband connection to work with a commercial printer.
The Oakes take pride in keeping their farm operating, both because it provides a satisfying way to live and because it preserves the nature and character of their community. Knoxville’s residential development is creeping down the two-lane road toward the Oakes place, which is located on the county line of Knox and Union counties. The open space of their farm and others nearby is an asset for the community, Stewart says.
As for Ken, he’s glad he got to move back home after college. “I feel like I’ve been really fortunate to be able to bloom where I’m planted,” he said. “That was a saying that was on my grandmother’s wall. … And I get to do that. I get to live and work here where I grew up.”
Video and photography by Shawn Poynter. Video editing by Joel Cohen, Semaphore Media