A Visit To Bells Bend Neighborhood Farm
July 15, 2010
It is hard to believe you’re only 15 minutes from downtown Nashville when you’re in Bells Bend. It is a world unto its own with thousands of acres of rich fertile farmland nestled in the arc of the Cumberland River, its beauty an enticing draw for both residents and developers alike.
The past 20 years have seen several pushes to develop the area into strip malls, subdivisions and office parks. What is now the 800 acre Bells Bend Park, was initially marked to become the city dump. That, along with the infamous battle over Maytown, the commercial and residential development plan that the community miraculously fought off, was what made some residents decide that it was time to harness the potential of Bells Bend and put it into a detailed plan.
Bells Bend Neighborhood Farm was part of this vision, the result of the community hiring Jeff Poppen, the Barefoot Farmer, as a consultant to help start these gardens using his own model of organic and biodynamic farming. Now in its second year, the farm is a collection of four properties that have been donated, leased or traded, totaling over 200 acres of potential farmable land. For the most part, Bells Bend is focused on providing for their CSA members, although they do sell some fruits and vegetables at the East and West Nashville farmers markets and are looking to develop that part of the business even more next season.
At the start of the first year they only had 12 CSA members but by the end of that season they had 50 and now, about 65. “We bit off way more than we could chew,” Eric Wooldrige, the farm manager, tells me. “But somehow we chewed it.” The influx of CSA members helped make the whole thing work, covering most of the start up costs; seeds, equipment, etc, and helped put them on the map. “It really raised awareness of the area and showed what it has the potential to do.” Part of that potential being to feed Nashville residents and supply food for school lunches, restaurants and grocery stores.
Now, between Eric, the assistant farm manager Brooke, and three fulltime interns, they work almost 6 acres of land spread out between the four properties. Along with all the vegetables, berries and melons, they also have five beehives, which they hope to harvest for next year, and 20 cows that free range graze on their land. Eventually they’ll have intensive rotational grazing where the cows will provide the majority of the fertility for the following year. A big part of biodynamic farming is composting cow manure and adding it back to the soil to replenish the nutrients. Last year they received 250 tons of manure from the Tennessee State Fair, a win-win situation since otherwise the fair would have had to pay to dispose of it.
It’s these types of situations that make up the backbone of Bells Bend Farm. “It’s been an incredible process of the community donating or trading things to make this thing start up,” Eric explains. “And everything we’ve tried to do here, we’ve tried to do locally.” Take the shed for instance, although the word ‘shed’ hardly does it justice with its full outdoor kitchen, walk-in cooler, office, storage loft and equipment shelter. The structure was designed by a guy in the neighborhood, made from poplar and cedar from someone’s property up the road, milled by a friend with a saw mill and built by locals. In the spring they had a “Shed Shower” and people from the community showed up with an oven, pots and pans, a refrigerator, couches, anything and everything they needed. It was an extraordinary outpouring of support.
There has been a surge in recent years of people in their twenties and thirties who want to take the plunge into small scale farming but don’t have the means to purchase land or equipment. Bells Bend Farm has created an alternative model, one where people can lease land or even do a lease-to-own, since “people really just want to see their land utilized.” The model seems to be working, this year alone three new farms in Bells Bend have opened up, independent of but also under the guidance of Eric and others in the community.
It is not that the residents of Bells Bend are adamantly opposed to all development, new housing would not in and of itself destroy the area. “But any city planner will tell you that development follows the pipe,” Eric says. As soon as you bring sewers into an undeveloped area like Bells Bend, that’s when more strip malls and houses come in, which is ultimately followed by people deciding that they don’t want to live there anymore so they end up selling their land to developers and the cycle continues. Before you know it, you have urban sprawl.
“People think there’s nothing they can do if developers buy the land, because therefore they can do whatever they want to it and basically destroy your whole lifestyle,” Eric says. “But this community took a different look at that.” The vision they came up with was to try to develop the type of area they actually wanted to live in and “to do it sustainably instead of paving it over.”
Bells Bend Farm is ultimately working to stimulate a shift in values. Their website says that by joining their CSA, “you are supporting sustainable agriculture, promoting food security in Nashville and helping to heal our food system.” The belief is that a plan for conservation should be just as important as a plan for development.