ART

Fall on the Farm: Former Sotheby’s art student gets creative on 37 acres of Benton County farmland

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Gracie Snyder
HottyToddy.com
jgsnyder@go.olemiss.edu

From a variety of jellies, decorative gourds and flower arrangements to fresh eggs and sweet potato butter, one vendor at the Midtown Farmers’ Market in Oxford is serving up unique and egg-citing products.

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Marilyn Cheeseman of Flora Gardens explains her products to an interested customer. Photo by Gracie Snyder.

Before crafting gourds and being an essential part of Flora Gardens, Marilyn Cheeseman was focused on graduating from college.

Raised in Memphis, Cheeseman graduated from St. Mary’s High School, a private girls’ school. Influenced by her father, an accountant, she traveled to San Antonio, Texas to obtain a business degree at Trinity University.

“My dad was a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) and had a big CPA firm in Memphis,” said Cheeseman. “And I thought, well, I’ll just major in business because everything is business.”

Despite pursuing a business degree, Cheeseman had a love for art that could not be diminished.

“I really always drifted towards the arts,” said Cheeseman. “Even when I was at Trinity, I’d always take art classes because I knew I’d never make below a B in an art class.”

Realizing this love eventually led Cheeseman to study at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, England for one year after graduating from Trinity University. Having a previous understanding of fine arts, she decided to explore her creative side and study decorative arts at Sotheby’s.

Upon returning to the United States, Cheeseman’s passion for art continued in the variety of jobs she attained, ranging from assistant director at Dixon Gallery & Gardens: Art Museum in Memphis, to working as executive director and producer at Germantown Community Theatre in Germantown, Tennessee.

Her variety of jobs and spark for creativity would eventually culminate in her working alongside her husband, Van Cheeseman, in their business, Flora Gardens. However, this was not her initial idea.

“This was my husband’s idea, and he was lucky that I happened to really like chickens and farming and didn’t mind getting dirty,” said Cheeseman.

While this was not her original plan, Cheeseman love what she is doing now. From crafting gourds with leather dyes to raising chickens and hens, Cheeseman is able to let the zeal for art that she rediscovered in college shine through daily.

“I’ve done so much in my life, but I can tell you that this is probably the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done,” said Cheeseman.

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Decorative gourds designed by Marilyn Cheeseman and sold by Flora Gardens. Photo by Gracie Snyder.

Participating in the Midtown Farmers’ Market since its formation in 2008, Flora Gardens continues to make a name for itself within the Oxford community.

Angela Woods, a vendor and member of the volunteer board of directors for the Midtown Farmers’ Market and House Director of the Sigma Pi Fraternity at the University of Mississippi, said Cheeseman’s and Flora Gardens’ products are valuable.

“She has some of the prettiest flowers you will ever see in your life,” Woods said. “She has unique things that nobody else has. She’s a great vendor. I hope we never lose her – ever.”

Occupying 37 acres of land at their farm in Benton County, Mississippi, Van and Marilyn Cheeseman of Flora Gardens run an effective business raising chickens and producing  canned goods.

According to their website, Flora Gardens is a small farm that sells fresh vegetables, chicken and duck eggs, canned and pickled food, decorative gourds and cut flowers.

With Van Cheeseman at the helm of the production of canned goods, and Marilyn Cheeseman raising chickens and using her crafting skills to create autumnal colored gourds and flower arrangements, Flora Gardens consistently draws repeat customers.

“She has unique things that people want, and they come back for it every single time,” said Woods. “When you have repeat business year after year after year, that speaks volumes.”

From the production of distinct products like chai tea jelly and yellow jacket mustard to cultural infusions like Mississippi kimchee and sauerkraut, Flora Gardens continuously tries to stay unique and keep up with the trends of the time.

“You are constantly reinventing yourself in some ways,” said Cheeseman. “When you do something like this, you have to find a niche.”

Flora Gardens participates in the Midtown Farmers’ Market and Oxford City Market in Oxford, as well as the Botanic Gardens Market and Cooper-Young Community Farmers’ Market in Memphis.

Cheeseman said she recognizes the need for the local farmer, and she believes communities should support local vendors.

“I want people to know that it’s hard work,” said Cheeseman. “Just appreciate the local farmer. Don’t try to compare them to the Walmart.”

Knowing the need for and the positivity that stems from farmers’ markets motivates Cheeseman to continue her work with Flora Gardens. For her, the loyalty and support she receives from the communities, especially the Oxford community, makes the labor behind the products worth it.

“It’s one of the most rewarding things you can do – to be able to provide food to people and just to see the enjoyment on their face,” said Cheeseman. “I just love all of the people, and all the diversity. I always think of Oxford as being a little storybook. I just love this market, and I love Oxford.”

From farm fresh eggs to table ready arrangements, Marilyn Cheeseman and Flora Gardens are bringing the simplicity of locality along with the unique essence and diversity of Mississippi to the LOU community.

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Canned goods made by Van Cheeseman and sold by Flora Gardens. Photo by Gracie Snyder.

If interested in local produce and fresh goods, Midtown Farmers’ Market is open from 8 a.m.-1 p.m. on Wednesdays and 7 a.m.-11 a.m. on Saturdays, and the Oxford City Market is open from 3 p.m.-6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays.

Contact midtownfarmersmarket.ms@gmail.com (for Midtown Farmers’ Market times and dates) or (662) 832-7257 (for Oxford City Market times and dates) or visit  http://www.mtfarmersmarket.com/ (for Midtown Farmers’ Market times and dates) or http://www.OxfordCityMarket.com/ (for Oxford City Market times and dates).

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