New Roots in Music City: the growth of urban agriculture in Nashville, Tennessee
NASHVILLE, T.N. – “The chicken came first for us.”
Jason Adkins, Trevecca Nazarene University professor and Environmental Projects Coordinator, clutches one spotted and one yellow chicken in each thick black glove. His denim overalls are frayed at the edges and spattered with dirt. A pair of black Crocs trod over a thin layer of wood shavings as he meticulously checks and refills each water tank. His bright smile and tousled brown hair match his cheerful disposition walking around the coop, taking it all in, breathing in the pungent smell of feed, feathers and feces.
Meanwhile his seventy precious egg-providers go about their daily lives. The chickens come in brown, yellow, black and white. They move constantly, bumping into each other and clucking in high tones. “Some of them are more boisterous, some are pushier. Some like to be held and some of them don’t.” Adkins keeps his fowl friends updated on current events, talking to them soothingly about the situation in the Middle East and uprisings in Egypt. Meanwhile, he measures feed and cleans mesh cages while weaving through his feathery friends with ease. Out here, Adkins is a farmer; only his hip, thick-framed black glasses hint that he might be something more.
These seventy chickens provide eggs for the Nashville Mobile Market, an operation founded in February 2011 that aims to bring fresh and nutritious food to the low-income “food deserts” of the city. Adkins is just one of many examples of farmers cultivating urban land for crops and bringing healthy food to the underserved.
As director of Trevecca Nazarene’s “Environmental Justice and Care” department of their Center for Social Justice, Adkins is responsible for managing the three acres of land set aside by the university for growing crops, as well as an organic greenhouse, fruit trees and
a biodiesel machine. Adkins first got introduced to urban farming at a previous job, working on a farm with men recovering from addiction. The farm setting proved to be an ideal place for recovering addicts to channel their energy into something that was physically invigorating, good for the earth and satisfying to the belly.
Four years ago, Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee had just opened its new Social Justice center and invited Adkins to lend his expertise on environmental issues. He quickly discovered that food was the perfect way to wedge himself into the community. “The neighborhood I moved into invited me to help with a community garden, and that was my ticket in,” Adkisn says. He envisioned a garden where people of all ages and backgrounds could labor towards a common goal.
Last year, the farm produced 1500 pounds of food, with another 500-600 pounds of food in the greenhouse and twenty pounds of seedlings. On campus, students walk amongst olive, fig and jujube trees; swiss chard, kale and blueberry patches; fragrant flowers and nutritious soil. The greenhouse also produces tilapia, onions, cabbage, lettuce, basil, eggplant, strawberries, tomatoes, aloe, Cuban oregano, spinach and chocolate mint. This local and fresh produce is sold at the university market, used in the cafeteria, sent home with youth volunteers, dispersed amongst different community gardens, cooked in monthly volunteer and community dinners, and stocked in enterprises like the Nashville Mobile Market.
THE “URBAN AG” TREND
Adkins’ grassroots approach to sustainability may be new to Nashville’s campuses of higher learning, but he’s not alone in his commitment to reshaping the city’s use of agriculture. Josh Corlew, manager of the Urban Agriculture program at volunteer-mobilizer Hands on Nashville, has witnessed firsthand the growing trend in demand for locally grown and produced food.
“People are realizing the importance of our food choices,” Corlew says, “not just in our own health, but the health of our environment and world. People are making choices that are healthier for everybody.”
The urban agricultural division of Hands on Nashville began in 2011 as an extension of relief efforts for the Nashville Flood of May 2010 that submerged much of the city for weeks. Hands on Nashville was thrust into crisis mode as it became the city’s only agency recruiting and placing over 150,000 volunteers for flood response and recovery. Thus, the organization developed a positive relationship with governmental agencies and Nashville bureaucracy. Through the relief efforts in various parts of the city, Corlew discovered a substantial amount of floodplains bought by the city with no plans for use. He saw growing potential in these unused zones, some of which had been abandoned for thirty or forty years.
Today, Hands on Nashville has access to five acres of floodplains purchased from flood recovery by Metro Parks Nashville. The farm serves as a buffer between a nearby creek and the neighborhood, an intentional setup that protects the farm’s watershed as well as the neighbors’ water source. Like the rest of Hands on Nashville, volunteers run and maintain the farm year-round. The farm’s wide variety of produce includes spinach, lettuce, garlic, peas, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, corn, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, turnips, collard greens, mustard greens, beans, pumpkins and watermelon. Their root vegetables – potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes, carrots – are grown in a foot of nutritious imported top soil lying on top of a thick layer of cardboard.
Last year, Hands on Nashville’s urban agriculture program produced 1200 pounds of food; this year, with the addition of a new field, Corlew expects to grow twice as much. The food grown at Hands on Nashville goes directly to the nonprofits that provide the volunteers, including Preston Taylor Ministries, Bethlehem Centers of Nashville, and Youth Encouragement Services. In the summer, groups of up to sixty children from nonprofit partners come to the farm on a designated day of the week for five weeks to work on the farm and learn about growing food. Most of the volunteers are children from low-income neighborhoods considered food insecure or food deserts.
The operation has been praised by Mayor Karl Dean and featured in The Tennessean and other local media. “It’s a boon to the community and empowers volunteers to make eco-friendly and health-conscious choices,” Corlew says.
Yet the operation is still small, part of a movement that accounts for only a fraction of Nashville’s food economy.
One of the city’s biggest advocates and pioneers of urban agriculture is Sizwe Herring, lead gardener, speaker and community food advocate for EarthMatters Tennessee. Herring used to oversee the creation and production of his one crop at the George W Carver Food Park: nourished soil. The food park featured composting and earthworms, yet hosted a big and diverse group of green-thumb-wannabes each week.
However, in spring 2011, the George Carver Food Park was shut down due to complaints from the neighbors about light and noise. This attitude may reflect the city’s attitudes towards the organic and local-grown foods.
“We’ve created a place where someone can say this is my job and they have something to be proud of,” explains Herring. “We all have an intimate connection with food. Our mothers and grandmother have stories about the foods they ate they pass on. It’s something that can hold a family and a community together.”
WHAT’S NEXT: THE OBSTACLES AND GOALS OF URBAN FARMERS
Looking ahead to the immediate future of urban agriculture in Music City, neither Adkins nor Corlew plans to measure growth in terms of numbers.
“We need to change the food culture in Nashville,” Corlew says. “In order for Nashville to buy enough local and sustainable food to make a difference, we need to move away from traditional farming.” Corlew believes that the key to this change is education, hence the emphasis on volunteer labor, backyard cultivation workshops and youth employment at Hands on Nashville. “We’re instilling a value in students and families to care for their health and the environment.”
Corlew predicts that the most change in our food systems will come from the bottom up, from grassroots efforts that address one backyard at a time.
“We need to think about food differently.”
Meanwhile, Joe Bandy, sociology professor and co-facilitator of the Cumberland Sustainability Project at Vanderbilt University, believes that the necessary push towards a substantial local food sector of the market is job creation.
“Nationally, there’s a growing sustainable agriculture movement, and people are becoming more concerned about toxins and organics,” Bandy says. “Places like Whole Foods are still a relatively small part of the food amongst the middle and working class where price is more of a factor.” The emergence of Nashville farmers’ markets, organic boutiques and green technology shows promise, but the local food sector lags severely behind that of major urban agriculture cities like Chicago, Seattle and Detroit.
According to Bandy, the keys to expansion are laborers, knowledge and political support. “Working people have a hard time finding the time to manage gardening, much less the time to learn how to garden,” Bandy says. “The sustainable agriculture movement needs political support. I don’t think the Mayor’s Office is against it, but they haven’t come out as for it, to educate and train workers in the area and supply financial resources to employ workers. On a volunteer basis, it’s going to be very supplemental, almost incidental. You’ll need employees to manage anything substantial.”
Adkins’ measurements for change and success, however, extend far beyond an educated public and manpower for the movement.
“We’re trying to do something larger,” Adkins says. “Yes, we want to make a difference economically. Our goal is to inspire and educate people to grow their own food, but we also want to be a small-scale production farm as well. The only things keeping us back are time and muscle, human labor and imagination. But even while we’re focused on that, we want everyone to get a broader sense of how the food system works, how nutrition works, environmental issues, and environmental justice.”
Adkins cites racial and ecological reconciliation as part of his long-term goals for the farm. “We need to address the institutionalized racism, both in our systems and our attitudes. Not just doing something all the time, but thinking intentionally about seeking justice, too.” His vision for racial reconciliation and diversity in the environmental movement stems from his learning stint at Growing Power, one of the nation’s largest urban agriculture programs led by basketball player-turned-urban farmer, Will Allen.
“I am very much inspired and my work informed by Will Allen,” Adkins says. “I learned a lot about racial reconciliation and institutionalized racism as well as particular growing techniques that I hadn’t known before.”
Located in Milwaukee, WI since 1993, Growing Power boasts six traditional greenhouses, two aquaponic hoop houses, a worm depository, an apiary (beehives), three poultry houses, outdoor livestock pens, a rainwater catchment system, a retail store and more. The organization hosts multiple national conferences and tours 3500 visitors per year. It offers intensive programs in anti-racist food justice training and has expanded to satellite sites in Chicago, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Mississippi.
Many of Growing Power’s techniques have been well-integrated into Adkins’ fully sustainable greenhouse operations: vermicomposting (the byproduct of earthworm digestion becomes seven times as nutritious as the original!), tilapia fed with self-regenerating duckweed, soil block potting rather than using traditional plastic pots. However, despite all he’s learned about farming, Adkins is confident in finding his own place in the urban agriculture movement. “I don’t ever expect to be Growing Power,” Adkins says with a laugh. “I don’t expect, nor do I want, to get that big.” He still hopes to make a positive economic impact in the community, but he acknowledges that such a drastic expansion could undercut his long-term goals.
“One of the biggest challenges in urban farming is getting the community involved in what we’re doing. That’s a whole aspect of the work that’s quite different from the mechanics of growing,” Adkins says. “Most of the successes I’m talking about are very difficult to measure. Maybe when we begin seeing truly diverse people working on and making decisions about the farm, we’ll have reached our goal.”
THE FOOD FIGHT AGAINST CLIMATE CHANGE
As the impacts of warmer temperatures continue to mount – record-breaking heat, months of drought, increased tornados and freak weather incidents like the Nashville Flood – Nashville is beginning to see what could happen if we don’t follow the paths of other major urban agriculture hubs such as Seattle, Chicago and Detroit. “The obvious correlation between urban agriculture and climate change is plant life to absorb carbon dioxide,” Bandy says. However, he believes that the real contribution from urban agriculture is education. “Urban farming provides the chance for everyday citizens without much ecological consciousness to gain a sense of where our food comes from, understand the world’s ecological systems, and experience firsthand how our bodies are affected positively or negatively by what we eat.” This education will open minds to a variety of environmental issues and ultimately mobilize the public to support legislation to reduce greenhouse gases.
Another key component of growing local and sustainable food is the elimination of fuel-guzzling semi-trucks driving thousands of miles to deliver produce to parts of the country where those crops aren’t grown. The less fuel we use, the less emissions enter the atmosphere and heat the planet.
For now, it seems Nashville is just getting comfortable with the idea of buying local or organic food at a slight premium. Bandy predicts that only a major food crisis will end our unhealthy agriculture practices. “Our food system is so out of whack right now. People don’t know the kinds of problems it wreaks on us: toxins, obesity, malnutrition, a lack of food security despite cheap food. We need not only sustainable agriculture but also a much more robust and educated public. Those contradictions are things people need to learn about before we can envision new solutions.”
And so we continue to envision the possible. Students at Vanderbilt University dream of rooftop gardens on top of dormitories and an onsite garden for hands-on service learning. Josh Corlew dreams of building Hands on Nashville’s newest greenhouse in a low-income neighborhood and expanding their summer program to college students. And Jason Adkins dreams of a few new residents for Trevecca’s farm: angora rabbits for wool, beehives for honey, and goats to mow the grass.
For now these operations are small, but each one plants seeds in hopes of a bigger harvest to come.
Duke, Marne. Sizwe Herring, EarthMatters Tennessee. 6 Apr 2011. http://www.localtable.net/articles/featured_old3.php