Local Hero spring11 [with sidebar]

The Barefoot Farmer's Almanac
By Roben Mounger

One of the greatest success stories from the hippie movement is the ever-relevant teacher, Jeff Poppen, also known as the Barefoot Farmer. In 1974, after a childhood on a farm outside Chicago, Jeff exchanged a promised college fund for a down payment to help his brother buy a farm in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee. In the hills of north Middle Tennessee, he found a pioneer base of operation. His farm, Long Hungry Creek Farm, became certified organic in 1987, and has been certified biodynamic for the past 13 years; it produces 150,000 pounds of fresh vegetables each year.

While in his twenties, Jeff had found evidence to support his growing unease with the prevalent agricultural and economic models, and studied the works of Rudolf Steiner and biodynamics. He was one of a few thousand small farmers in the 1970s to spearhead sustainable farming and to create markets and conferences. "I have always had a deep-seated conviction that all you need is nature plus labor to create wealth," says Jeff.

His methodology for farming on the 250-acre farm has been gleaned from old timers' wisdom, experience, and a wide variety of texts. By living on the farm full-time, he has created a lifestyle that fulfills him completely and generates harmony with the land. "Farmers are better off if they can stay on the farm and not have to run markets," says Jeff, explaining the economic model that he began in 1999 with his CSA (Community Supported Agriculture program).

Jeff's system bypasses traditional forms of marketing. The vegetables are simply harvested, packed in boxes, and sent to Nashville, where CSA members drop by and pick up their fresh produce for the week. Because of this delivery method, he is able to put his attention on developing the farm's unique possibilities. "We don't get paid for 'just vegetables' anymore," he notes. "Our job is to run a farm and have the ground ready for the next crops." The 200 members of the Long Hungry Creek Farm CSA pay into the farm's annual budget for 28 weeks. "When you support us, our farm is your farm," says Jeff.

Jeff grows the sorts of food that he likes to eat and provides educational forums wrapped in fun-seasonal celebrations for CSA members and curious visitors year-round. "The social aspects of farming are most important. Entertainment, education, and inspiration naturally occur on an organic farm," he says.

Lots of people help on the farm. Some get paid money and others come and stay for room and board. Jeff says, "The farm is a true welfare system. A large workforce is on hold, no 9 to 5. Everyone can work as much or as little as they choose."

Jeff insists on proper preparation of the ground before planting. He does not use irrigation, finding it unnecessary in his system that supports the humus (the living part of the soil). To ensure this balance, Jeff honors the biodynamic practices that allow farms to prosper with the right amount of livestock. Sheep, goats, and cattle can make enough fertilizer to serve twice as much land as needed to feed them. "In nature everything is interrelated and the most important thing is that food be grown on live soils. This gives health to humanity," he says.

Framing the road, Long Hungry Creek Farm greets visitors with a lush stand of towering bamboo plants and blueberry bushes. The farm is open to anyone during the day; folks are invited to hike, picnic, swim, or camp out. The scenery is beyond pristine, bestowing the peace that a deep breath brings.

Jeff can wax biology and botany with the best of them, and even on the coldest early spring day he is barefoot and ever the host. His personal mission leans toward sharing knowledge, which he has done with farmers throughout Middle Tennessee and the South. Most recently, he mentored two farms in urban settings.

Managed by Eric Wooldridge, the Bell's Bend Farm, an 80-member CSA in Nashville, thrives today with Jeff's practices. "Jeff is a gem and his teachings are practical-tried and true," says Eric.

Tyler Brown, the chef of The Hermitage Hotel's Capitol Grille, is also a fan. His organic restaurant farm, Glen Leven, was mentored by Jeff. Brown says that his personal interest in biodynamics and a desire to produce a period garden under Jeff's tutelage resulted in him growing 65 percent of the produce for the Capital Grille Restaurant last year at Glen Leven. "A nearby barn full of rotted manure was a plus," adds Jeff.

Jeff's students digest his basic principles:

  1. Fencing: Keep the King's deer out
  2. Compost: Add almost 25 to 50 tons per acre, per year, enhanced by bio-dynamic preparations and field amendments
  3. Tilling: Properly done, and highlighted by advice from an Eastern European farmer who suggested, "You plow like you're turning over sleeping babies"
  4. Mineralization: Add lime and other rock-like stuff (granite, rock phosphate, and green sand)

The Barefoot Farmer is a long-time favorite on The Volunteer Gardener, seen on Nashville's PBS affiliate, WNPT. Selected works from his columns in the Macon County Chronicle have been published in his book, The Best of the Barefoot Farmer. In demand for classroom, garden, and business club presentations, he is always ready to expound on the best practices of a sustainable system, and his annual fall Biodynamic Conference/Celebration is a must for anyone with an interest in biodynamic farming and food.

Jeff's reverence for the farm life-a synthesis of science and spirit-is clear to all who know him. After 40 years, he is still observing and practicing. "Mother Nature's intelligence is better than ours," says the Barefoot Farmer.

Roben Mounger develops relationships with area farmers and cooks year round with the bounty of CSAs and farmers' markets. She writes in celebration of food and people on her blog, Ms. Cook's Table, which you can find at www.localtable.net

Roots and Shoots [sidebar for Jeff Poppen article]

Bugtussle Farm - Organic and Biodynamic Community Supported Agriculture

Cher and Eric Smith are intentional farmers, living simply and frugally. Their love of the natural world and focus on health were the basis for an initial connection with Jeff Poppen. Currently they farm 2 acres of a 120-acre farm and serve 80 CSA customers in south central Kentucky. For the Smiths, Jeff's most profound influence was his approach to self sufficiency. "We cook on a wood cook stove some fifteen years later after his example," says Eric.

Hill and Hollow Farm

With an international background, Robin Verson and Paul Bela settled in south central Kentucky to farm Hill and Hollow. Their task, to serve CSA customers in Glasgow, Kentucky and Nashville, with "beauty in mind," is excellent fodder for their involvement with CRAFT (a support initiative for farmers to connect with other folks committed to sustainable farming). Jeff's influence is apparent as the couple slowly adds livestock to help fertilize and manage the grassland.

Red Springs Family Farm

Not far from Long Hungry Creek, Coree and Paul Entwistle pursue the tenets of biodynamic agriculture for their 40-member CSA and their own family of four. A desire to live a low impact life is a page from Jeff's book and is expressed by their life off the grid. "Our vegetable selection is primarily of heirlooms and we save as many of our own seeds as possible," say the Entwistles.