KNOXVILLE – In the county home to the world-famous tomatoes, Red Barn Produce on U.S. Route 11W in Grainger County serves as a community landmark and destination for fresh produce. Now, the iconic building has donned an equally iconic shade of orange for the nearly 6,000 travelers who pass by each day.
Jake and Lara Sawyer, owners of Red Barn Produce and lifelong residents of Grainger County, are excited their business is now involved in the ongoing University of Tennessee System’s mural campaign and that almost 600 UT alumni, employees and students representing the county will have a piece of UT right in their own backyard.
“When I was first presented the campaign, I thought it was a really great concept,” said Jake Sawyer. “I really decided to do it after recognizing the entire community could rally around the mural, given we’re located right next to Grainger High School. It’s another great way for people to find us, too.”
“Everyone here cheers on the Vols,” added Lara Sawyer. “And we’re happy there is now a physical reminder of UT right in the center of Grainger County.”
Jake Sawyer, along with his brothers and farm co-owners Clint Sawyer and Wesley Wells, hold a special spot in a prominent location. Their farm grows strawberries and the world-famous tomatoes right on U.S. Route 11W, making the produce barn the ideal spot for a Grainger County mural.
The campaign was first brought to the Sawyers’ attention by a lifelong friend and 2017 UT Knoxville alumnus, Blake Hodge.
“I didn’t immediately think of the produce barn for the mural, but then the barn’s proximity to the high school and the fact that they’re one of the only tomato farms on 11W really stood out to me,” said Hodge. “I’ve known Jake and Lara my entire life, so I knew it would be a match made in heaven.”
Hodge commuted from Grainger County to Knoxville every day for class while studying for a degree in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology. Hodge appreciated the perspective he gained from his studies.
“UT does an incredible job of keeping its students locally grounded but thinking with a global mindset. I met so many people and learned unique perspectives I would have never been exposed to otherwise,” said Hodge. The Red Barn Produce, and now the UT mural, will greet thousands of school children and their families on their way to the elementary, middle and high schools located on U.S. Route 11W each day.
Hodge and Lara Sawyer both teach at Grainger High School, tying in the importance of education even further into the campaign’s message. Hodge even earned his teaching license through VolsTeach, a program that emphasizes early and on-going field-based experiences while students are working to attain a bachelor’s degree in math or a science.
“You meet UT-educated people constantly in daily life, even if you don’t first know it. Grainger County borders Knox County, so I know we have UT graduates everywhere,” said Hodge. “UT even impacts the lives of those who didn’t graduate from there, through the local UT Extension Office and other programs.”
The connection between the Sawyers and UT doesn’t stop with their friend Hodge. The trio participated in 4-H through the educational Clover Bowl and Poultry Project.
“I think I still have a Clover Bowl trophy hiding somewhere in my house,” said Hodge.
As the 12th mural in the “Everywhere You Look, UT” campaign, the Red Barn Produce in Grainger County joins the likes of those in Knoxville, Memphis, Sharon, Bristol, Harriman, Humboldt, Decatur, Erin, Hartsville, Portland and Mohawk.
“When people see the mural, I hope they know we’re involved in our community and love UT,” said Lara Sawyer. “I really hope it brings the community together.”