Crabtree Farms in Chattanooga, TN
By Alina Kodatt
Chattanooga, Tennessee, is nicknamed the Scenic City for a good reason. With breathtaking vistas of the Appalachian mountains and the Tennessee River flowing through it, the city is rich with outdoor beauty. To add to its resume, Forbes ranked Chattanooga as the eighth most affordable city in America in 2009. But Chattanooga hasn’t always had such a gleaming reputation. In the early 20th century, the city was a bustling industrial, railroad, and manufacturing hub. After decades of industry, pollutants hung heavily in the air, shrouding those same beautiful mountains the area is known for. In 1969, the federal government deemed Chattanooga’s air quality the dirtiest in the nation.
Chattanooga has come a long way from that dirty past, witnessing a slow and steady rebirth over the last few decades. It’s now a city thriving with tourism, small businesses, art museums, a savvy food culture, and a growing movement towards green, sustainable living, Since 1998, one organization in particular has led the Chattanooga community towards more sustainable, local food practices. Championing their cause when the idea of sustainable agriculture was a little known concept, Crabtree Farms began educating and training local citizens. I spoke with Joel Houser, Executive Director of Crabtree Farms, and Melanie Mayo, Director of Education, about the ground-breaking work this organization has been doing and the community whose passion for local food has been ignited by Crabtree’s efforts.
SOTRU: What is Crabtree Farms?
CF: Crabtree Farms is a project promoting research and education in the field of sustainable agriculture. We have a demonstration CSA farm that provides an excellent venue for various educational activities and events ranging from school tours and field trips to informational tours for established farmers. We have pick-your-own berry crops and offer many opportunities throughout the year for public involvement and participation. We offer classes ranging from the establishment of community gardens and natural gardening techniques to backyard composting and shiitake mushroom cultivation. We have robust intern and volunteer programs, and offer a workshare program where people work for their food.
SOTRU: When was it started?
CF: Crabtree was started in 1998 as a public-private nonprofit. The synergy of two local families produced the nonprofit organization. When Crabtree was started, the idea of local, sustainable agriculture was still relatively unheard of in Chattanooga. In the early days, we had a small garden and livestock, the farm managers lived on the property, and life was good. We had an on-site community garden and worked hard to involve the community in Chattanooga.
SOTRU: How does Crabtree Farms impact the Chattanooga community at large?
CF: Crabtree Farms educates and inspires the Chattanooga community to grow their own food sustainably. Throughout the years, we have cultivated a variety of partnerships from community-based organizations to government agencies in order to spread the message of sustainability and “growing your own.” We teach over 400 volunteers on our farm each year about the hard work and rewards of growing food sustainably. This year, our work with an inner-city kids camp and at-risk teens has impacted the lives of children in our most disadvantaged communities, teaching them life-sustaining skills.
Our urban farm offers gardening resources and classes, and grows region-specific plant starts to enable more food gardening in our community. Many former Crabtree employees and volunteers have gone on to start farms or work on unique local food ventures!
Additionally, Crabtree produces TasteBuds Local Food Guide which inspires residents to connect with local food sources and celebrate our region’s rich culinary bounty.
SOTRU: Where do you see Crabtree Farms in 5 years?
CF: As much as we’ve accomplished, we still have further to go. We plan on expanding our educational opportunities in response to what is needed by our community. Farmers as a group are getting older. Finding willing, young farmers is a new challenge. In the next 5 years, our property will continue to mature. As time passes, our perennial crops will mature and our farm and community will come into its own.
SOTRU: What would you say to individuals who live in parts of the country that don’t have access to local food (i.e. few farms, no farmers’ markets, shorter growing seasons, inhospitable climates)? How could they eat locally and sustainably?
CF: Grow your own! Growing your own food is empowering and easy. Most places in the country are suitable for growing food, whether you grow in pots or in the ground. It is surprising how much food you can grow in a limited area. If buying your food, look for a few key things: Buy local first, state second, regional third, and after that, buy domestic. Much produce is labeled according to the place of origin. Check for an organic label and others such as “Certified Naturally Grown” to how your food was grown and ensure a level of third-party rated environmental stewardship. In areas with short growing seasons (and even here in the southeast), canning and food preservation are important to making the harvest last.
SOTRU: How can individuals around the country promote local, sustainable farming, production, and consumption in their own town?
CF: The best way to help the local movement is to vote with your dollars. When you have the choice, help your neighbor and buy local. Ask your local grocers and food vendors to buy local produce, or at least label its place of origin. Shop at your farmers markets, and ask if the vendors grew the food that they are selling. The most local food, though, is food that someone grows in their backyard or neighborhood. There is vacant land in all of our cities- grow on it.
SOTRU: Anything else?
CF: Ask your farmer! Get to know your farmer. Certifications are good ways to have an idea of someone’s growing practices if you cannot talk face to face, but the conversation and relationship is more important. We dropped our USDA Organic Certification because we are fortunate enough to know most of the people that eat our produce. If they are interested in our growing practices, we will talk about it or show them. Just because a farm is not certified organic or certified naturally grown does not mean that they are not using good practices.