Garlic Pickin’, Potluckin’ and Llamas:
the Agrarian Tour through Kentucky and Tennessee
We – Agrarian Road Trippers – have been visiting and trading stories with many a farmer across Kentucky and Tennessee. Learning the tales of the trade and dreaming of the day when I will be a little old gray hair – well preserved, with her chickens and 12 varieties of tomatoes.
Day One: In Louisville, KY, we visited with the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program – ½ acre in vegetable production, scattered across 30-some odd plots. Plots are sectioned by nationality – Burundi, Burma/Myanmar, Congo . . . and on and on, all finding a common language in compost and corn.
Day Two: Still in Louisville, we trek to Garden Summer Camp at Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church – a one-week summer camp with 15 kids, ages 8-14. All kids share morning chores harvesting vegetables for lunch, grinding corn for tortillas, tending chickens for eggs, and prepping beds for fall harvest. Each day of camp starts with a telling of a story about Father Coyote. In today’s lesson, Father Coyote studies a farmer sowing seeds – and then sows his own garden in order to harvest his own crop of happy little rabbits, lured to the garden by the fresh carrots and cabbage. The story touches upon irrigation techniques in the arid southwest, companion planting for bountiful harvest and the benefits of increased biodiversity in the garden. After the kids are tuckered out from their garden work and fresh lunch, they head to the pool for an afternoon swim.
Discussion with Ellen Davis – Old Testament Scholar from Duke Divinity School – who has recently written a book called Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. Professor Davis focused on Exodus 16 as the basis for her research in understanding the cultural context of the Israelites exiled from the Egyptian Empire, for understanding the Modern Agricultural Empire. In a nutshell, the Israelites who have been freed from their slave masters take to complaining about lack of food. “At least when we were slaves of the Empire we have food enough to eat.” God has provided our daily sustenance (in the form of manna from heaven) – but instead the people grovel. Modern parables highlight our society’s dependence on – and enslavement to – genetically-modified, mono-cultured food-product that travels 1500 miles to our dinner plate. Rather than learning how to grow or can or cook our own food, we rely on a food system that is ever-increasing out of our hands and beyond our control.
Professor Davis takes our lesson one set further in analyzing the Greek roots of the closely related words adama and adam. Adama is Greek for “fertile soil.” Adam is Greek for “human.” The term adama is used in the Biblical context to refer to the land as ancestor of human – before Abraham there was adama. To create Man, God breathed His breath into adama. Now, I am no Biblical scholar, nor am I an Agrarian scholar – but that’s all pretty crazy amazing. We are dirt. Or rather, we are biologically breathing, o-so fertile soil.
Lunchtime: Lunch provided by Soup By-cycle, soups made using local, organic ingredients – delivered by bicycle to the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) Headquarters in downtown Louisville for a wee little potluck with like-minded folks doing the work of the Church in the world. Some shared stories of recently travels to Haiti to protest against a recent Monsanto donation of genetically modified seeds to the region’s farmers. Instead of gladly accepting, the people of Haiti rebelled, by marching and burning the seeds. The introduction of GMO and hybrid seeds into cultures with a rich tradition of seed-saving poses a jungle of legal repercussions – linked also to increased suicides of peasant farmers in many countries.
Next stop – also in Louisville – Oxmoor Farms. The Field Day Farm at Oxmoor Farms partners with the Food Literacy Project to grow food for market and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) as well as provide school-age education about local food systems. Situated on 8 acres tucked betwixt the interstate, golf course and a suburban subdivision, Farmer Seamus says golfer and farmer frequently meet eyes in questioning gazes. Ironic because there is a current trend where farms across the country are bought out by large residential developers due to a higher monetary value attached to land for its developmental potential rather than its agricultural productivity. (Watch our talk and interview with farmer Ivor of Field Day Family Farm here.)
All that to say, we Agrarians harvested garlic and weeded kale while swapping stories about soil amendments and growing seasons. The garlic harvested was put into shares for Field Day Farm CSA – which supplies 60 families with produce each week. In addition to its CSA, extra produce is sold at 2 farmers markets each week and contributed towards Grasshopper, a cooperative multi-farm CSA supplying meat, cheese, milk, eggs, mushrooms to local families – in addition to regular shares of vegetables.
The beauty of a multi-farm (or multi-yard – reference fellow Wacoan Lucas Land’s Edible Yard Project) CSA is that it buffets the problems of pest invasion or crop failure, as well as taking advantage of the soil varieties and farmer specialization. Such a model also allows small gardeners who may not have enough to sell at market may contribute their produce and reap the benefits.
Day Three: We hit the road for Berea College in eastern KY to explore Berea’s Eco-Village and Farm Gardens. Professor Richard Olson expounded on his theories of the most-of-us speeding towards hell in a hand-basket – due to the rate we use electricity, water, petroleum, etc. (Sometimes doomsday global warming pessimism is not my cup of tea – it’s more like a cup of gas station coffee). After stepping off his soapbox, he showed us around Berea’s Eco-Village – ever-evolving with aquacultured tilapia, biointensive growing, photovoltaic (PV) panels, greywater treatment system – as well as demonstrations in natural building, including: cob, cord wood with cob mortar, earth bag, earthen plaster, and straw bale. Berea’s Eco-Village is open exclusively for 4 interns in the Sustainability and Environmental Studies program – as well as students of Berea who are single parents.
From the Eco-Village, we journeyed to the other side of Berea College to the farm, gardens and greenhouse – a total area of 500 acres. In addition to vegetable production, Berea operates an apiary (honey flavored by blueberries and buckwheat), hoop houses for season extension, mushroom spore-infused-logs, and a cord wood root cellar. We were not able to see their livestock production – but Berea does that, too. All produce is sold at local farmers markets for a flat rate of $8/lb. The school also purchases produce for use in its cafeteria, at a rate of $6.50/lb. These prices are extremely high, for the majority of crops – but the people of Berea are willing to pay. The farm and gardens are maintained by students in the College’s Agriculture Department. All students at Berea are required to work for tuition (10-15 hours/week) – no other costs are associated with tuition. Another similar college is School of the Ozarks in Missouri.
Vegetables grown at Berea College are Certified Organic – meeting the USDA’s standards and definitions of organic practices. Organic certification is a highly contentious topic amongst small scale agrarians. Both Field Day Farm at Oxmoor Farms in Louisville and World Hunger Relief Farm in Waco choose not to certify their produce – although each farm meets, and exceeds, the USDA’s standards. Farmer Igor at Field Day Farm choose not to certify due to moral convictions – both that the standards are too loose, while being relatively expensive. He also notes that small scale farming is about relationship with the consumer – and if a strong relationship is in place, all farming practices are transparent – and thus certification is unnecessary.
After Berea, we traveled to Maryville, TN – to visit Liles Organic Acres, a small family farm operated by Sheri and Russell Liles. Here we met the llamas. Sheri – a self-proclaimed back-to-the-land hippie – showed us around the farm. She grows vegetables in 25 raised beds – that have been double-dug and enriched each year with layer upon layer of compost. She and Russell keep seven compost piles around the farm – enriched by rabbit, llama and chicken poop – as well as leaves, food scraps and red wigglers. Her vegetables are sold at market – and chooses not to certify organic. In addition to vegetables, Sheri also keep llamas and angora rabbits from which she can spin the wool – as well as growing cotton and flax, to be spun by her mother-in-law for linen. Both Sheri and Russell work part-time off the farm – she as a nurse practitioner, he as a picture-framer. Russell is also a crafted wood-worker and quite engineer-ed-ly minded, installing PV panels that supply 25% of their energy use and building the llama barn, chicken coops and beehives.
Once we departed the Liles farm, we met up with locals from the Highland Presbyterian Church in Maryville – to share stories and recipes over a potluck of locally produced grub.
End Day Three. End Part One.