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A Common Goal through Food and Water

April 7, 2024

The Nashville Food Project and the Cumberland River Compact Support Small Farm Businesses to Ensure Access to Healthy Food and Clean Water.

Food, water, shelter.  These are basic needs for survival, but millions of people around the world and right here in Middle Tennessee struggle to access these resources. 

The Nashville Food Project’s mission is “to bring people together to grow, cook, and share nourishing food, with the goals of cultivating community and alleviating hunger in Nashville.” This statement encompasses the complexity of our food system that is responsible both for the physical nourishment of our community as well as the deeper nourishment that access to fresh food and shared meals can provide. 

Like food, water is a shared resource and a fundamental human right. 

The Cumberland River Compact’s mission is to enhance the health and enjoyment of the Cumberland River and its tributaries through action, education, and collaboration.  More than three million people and thousands of species depend on clean water from the Cumberland River. Water connects us, as the choices made upstream literally and metaphorically impact everyone downstream. 

Both The Nashville Food Project and the Cumberland River Compact tackle “systemic issues,” in other words, problems that are multi-faceted and come from several, interrelated sources. Just as the problems are multi-faceted, the solutions must be equally dynamic to be effective. We know that non-profits like the Cumberland River Compact and The Nashville Food Project must collaborate as we press for solutions. 

We know that non-profits like the Cumberland River Compact and The Nashville Food Project must collaborate as we press for solutions to systemic issues.

A common thread emerges between our two organizations as we pursue initiatives such as The Community Farm at Mill Ridge and Growing Together at The Nashville Food Project, and River Friendly Farms programming and Working Lands initiatives at the Cumberland River Compact. Each of these initiatives targets land use and agriculture in specific ways, but each has sustainability at its core. Responsible agriculture is a cornerstone of healthy communities and ecosystems. Farms are not only our source of fruits, vegetables, fiber, fuel, and meat but also have an outsized and overlooked impact on water throughout the Cumberland River basin. 

A focus on the success of small, conservation-minded farmers is a place where the missions of our two organizations beautifully align. “Terra Firma: A Six-Session Course to Build Your Farm Business on Solid Ground” was created to improve business outcomes for small, sustainable farms. While the Compact took a leadership role in putting on the course, The Nashville Food Project leant its muscle in the form of staff support and meeting space. 

The success of conservation-minded farmers is essential for the health of soil and water in the Cumberland River basin and to secure the food supply for our growing region.

Helping Conservation-minded, Beginning Farmers Succeed in the Business of Farming

Terra Firma – the origins of which lie in a conversation between the Compact’s Executive Director Mekayle Houghton, The Nashville Food Project’s CEO C.J. Sentell, and farmer/owner of Henosis Mushrooms, David Wells– was dreamt up as a way to help small, Beginning farmers who prioritize conservation sharpen their business acumen. A successful farmer must know more than how to produce food. They must also be able to manage their finances and keep good records, market their product, manage employees, and fulfill the myriad obligations that come with running a small business. Terra Firma was developed to fill a knowledge gap and meet the unique needs of a specific type of farmer: one who has been in business for fewer than ten years, prioritizes conservation practices, and sells into the local market.

The vision of C.J., Mekayle, and David was brought to fruition thanks to funding from the Southern SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education). As an organization, SARE works to advance agricultural innovation that promotes profitability, stewardship of the land, air and water, and quality of life for farmers, ranchers and their communities.

Twenty-six farmers from Middle and East Tennessee met every Tuesday evening for six weeks in The Nashville Food Project’s Community Room to “look under the hood” of their farm businesses. Holistic farm planning, accounting, record keeping, labor and project management, National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) programming, capital financing, marketing, and social media were just some of the topics covered.

Twenty-six farmers from Middle and East Tennessee met every Tuesday evening for six weeks in The Nashville Food Project’s Community Room to “look under the hood” of their farm businesses.

Zysis Garden

Bridget Bryant, owner of Zysis Garden, inherited her love of farming from her grandfather and great-grandmother. Her grandfather grew a big garden and kept pigs in their hometown of Meridian, Mississippi. Bridget recalls her grandfather stopping by with the pigs in the back of his truck and running out to greet them. She’s known she wanted to be a farmer ever since she was a little girl.  Bridget’s love for the sun and soil is infectious, and she’s quick to tell you that having her hands in the dirt is therapy for her. It is healing. 

“For me, farming is my “farm-acy.” It’s my therapy. I can go out and release trauma or think through things I’m going through. When I leave the farm, I’m refreshed and renewed, plus I like talking to the plants.”

Although farming is in her blood, Bridget began to take farming seriously after she completed Tennessee State University’s New Farmer Academy in 2019. The course provided not only technical knowledge about farming but also access to land. It was there that she began to grow food and sell produce.

She maintains a farm plot at T.S.U.’s community garden and at The Nashville Food Project’s Community Farm at Mill Ridge. Collectively, this land totals less than 1/10 of an acre, but the production she manages in such a small space is laudable. 

Being a business owner and farmer is tough. Bridget notes that being an entrepreneur has required her to step out of her usual reserved demeanor. “I didn’t realize I would have to be more aggressive than what my normal personality is. You have to be more aggressive and speak up for what you want.” 

Bridget was an invaluable participant in Terra Firma, as she has creatively approached land access and has secured farmer-focused grants, two hot topics for Beginning farmers. She noted that the class on the project management tool, Scrum, was useful to her as she thinks about her income goals for the year. The class on marketing and social media was particularly helpful, and she’s noticed increased engagement on her Instagram page since the class. “I’ve been more responsive to comments and that’s helped me get more engagement,” Bridget says.

All of the farmers who participated in Terra Firma strive for sustainable farm systems– one that minimizes inputs and focuses on soil and water health. We need farmers who put soil health at the center of their operations to fulfill production goals and thrive as business owners if we are to have the resilient, abundant food and ecosystem our organizations envision.

We need farmers who put soil health at the center of their operations to fulfill production goals and thrive as business owners if we are to have the resilient, abundant food and ecosystem our organizations envision.

Several of the participants have also received the Cumberland River Compact’s River Friendly Farm certification.  This certification assures the consumer that the certified farmer uses practices that promote healthy soil and protect both groundwater and streams.

Cooper Creek Farm

One of those River Friendly Farms, Cooper Creek Farm is a prime example of making use of a small space. On approximately ½ acre of land in Inglewood, Alex Bice produces an abundance of fruits and veggies. 

“Small farms can be efficient in their use of space. Because you’re working with such a small space, you have to put more care into each square foot. Especially for urban farms, you’re farming on valuable and expensive land, so you have to focus on efficiency and quality so that you can get top dollar for your produce.”

Alex has been so successful at his backyard urban farm that he is increasing production by nine times in 2024 when he expands onto a new multi-farm collective called The River Bottoms Farm in the Pennington Bend area of Davidson County. The knowledge he gleaned from Terra Firma will be valuable as he makes this production jump.

“Terra Firma helped me with a lot of organizational tools that will be crucial for my expansion. Scrum was huge. Holistic farm planning really helped me get my mindset in place for planning this new farm. The Richard Wiswall class about farm finances was very helpful. That inspired me to immediately get Quickbooks and get my financial house in order. I’ll be hiring an employee this year, so the unit on creating a good work environment for employees gave me some good ideas for hiring and making my farm a nice place to work.” 

One of our favorite things about Alex is his dedication to engaging and feeding his immediate community. Through farm volunteer days and a “pay what you can” cooler he puts on the sidewalk, Alex works to share his healthy produce, land, knowledge, and stewardship values. 

People say that small farms aren’t going to feed the world, but the acre for acre productivity of small farms is so that if there were a lot of them working together, they definitely could feed the world.”

Harpeth Moon Farm

Even farmers on a larger scale and with years of experience found the Terra Firma class to be beneficial and valuable for refining business management strategies.  Harpeth Moon Farm is owned and operated by Hayley Roberts, Max VanderBroek, and Hayley’s father, Bruce Bryant. Max took our Terra Firma course on behalf of his family and farm partners. 

An abiding love for the Harpeth River is central to Harpeth Moon Farm’s ethos, and they were one of the Cumberland River Compact’s first certified River Friendly Farms. Max was one of the more seasoned farmers in the course but still found that, “When it comes to working on the business, there’s no experience level, great or small, that doesn’t benefit from an opportunity to check the vitals of the farm.”

“Having access to insight from professionals who have been through it and a chance to step away from the isolation of field work to network and problem solve with peers is invaluable.”  

A standout feature of Terra Firma is that every class included a farmer-teacher, someone who not only possesses business expertise but also has been “in the trenches” and knows the difficulties of managing a farm. Mirroring the farmer-teacher approach, the course facilitated student-to-student support. Farmers were encouraged to share how they have managed their farms. These conversations were productive and bore everything from favorite farm management software (Tend Smart Farm) to favorite resources for crop planning (Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable Growers). 

Speaking on the farmer-to-farmer approach, one Terra Firma student said, “This course brought our community together to learn skills and collaboratively solve problems and roadblocks that we all face as small-scale food producers.” Another student, Caroline Mayhew, said, “It was wonderful to connect with producers in the community and hear about their difficulties and successes in their operations.”

A Watershed Worthy of Investment

The team spirit of the Terra Firma participants was palpable, and it’s a feeling that extends nationwide across the small farm movement. The farmers serving local markets– the ones selling CSAs, attending farmers markets, and supplying local grocers and restaurants– share a feeling of camaraderie that runs counter to the dog-eat-dog world we associate with American business. These farmers have a unifying mission to produce healthy food and care for the earth. Regeneration is put before extraction. Integrity is put before success. This business ethos and the people behind them are worthy of investment– from the Compact, The Nashville Food Project, and you. 

Together, the Cumberland River Compact and The Nashville Food Project envision a world where humans, animals, and plants have healthy food and clean water. A world where abundance is understood to be inherent, so we take no more than we need, and there is always room at the table. And the work starts at home, here in our watershed, here in our city.

The Future for Small Farms and Our Foodshed

In his closing remarks to the Terra Firma class, C.J. Sentell noted that he is on the board of the burgeoning Nashville Food Co-op. The community-owned grocery is concerned about the lack of locally produced foods for their future customer base; they’re worried there won’t be enough farmers to serve the demand. Along those lines, neighborhood farmers markets pop up and die because there simply aren’t enough farmers to make them viable. High-end restaurants compete for farm-fresh goods.

Despite demand, local farmers still struggle to make ends meet.

The Compact and The Nashville Food Project value small, sustainable farmers and the people they feed. We want to see these farmers flourish and share their knowledge and ethos with more people and the next generation. We developed Terra Firma to fulfill this goal.

How To Support

You can support these efforts, too! Remember that when you shop with farmers like Zysis, Harpeth Moon, Cooper Creek, or any of the other farmers who took our Terra Firma course, you are supporting clean water, biodiversity, and healthy, deeply nourished communities. 

  • Support Zysis Garden at Richland Park Farmers Market during normal production months, spring through early winter.
  • Support Harpeth Moon Farm at Richland Park Farmers Market all year long, at the Kingston Springs Farmers market during summer months, and by dining at restaurants that purchase from small farms.
  • Support Cooper Creek Farm at the Richland Park Farmers Market and the East Nashville Farmers Market, or join Cooper Creek’s CSA. Gardeners can purchase plants at Cooper Creek’s original location, 1208 McAlpine Ave, 37216. Follow Cooper Creek on Instagram or Facebook for updates on the pay-what-you-can cooler.
  • The Nashville Food Project is working to expand land access for food production with their Community Farm at Mill Ridge, the Growing Together program, and other community garden initiatives they support. Collectively they provide land to eighty gardeners across Davidson County. Make a donation to The Nashville Food Project, or sign up for their kitchen and garden volunteer opportunities

Through courses like Terra Firma and our forthcoming Grazing School, the Cumberland River Compact’s Working Lands programming serves to educate, promote, and further the efforts of farmers who value soil conservation and water stewardship. Sign up for our River Friendly Farms newsletter to stay in the loop on upcoming classes. Donate to the Cumberland River Compact to help further the mission of clean and abundant water in our watershed.

Farmers Who Participated in our 2024 Terra Firma Course

Carla Beals – Marrowbone Farm

Alex Bice – Cooper Creek Farm*

Tonya and Michael Bradford – Una Acre Farm*

Bridget Bryant – Zysis Garden

David Cloniger- Old School Farm*

Linda Hamm and Mariel Newkirk – Erin’s Farm*

Matt Holt

Philip Johnson and Laura Jones – Stone Creek Farm

Josh Key

Lino Larke – Larke & Ward Farms and Moonlight Collective

Paul & Liz Lassiter – Lost Weekend Farms

Lynn Linebaugh Jones

Caroline Mayhew – Tennessee State University Organics Program

Erle Mulligan 

Anna Murabito

Nurisa Phillips – Sugar Camp Farm

Treasure Spurgeon

A.J. van der Zwan – Caney Fork Farms*

Max VanderBroek – Harpeth Moon Farm*

David Wells – Henosis Mushrooms

Hannah Wuesthoff – Wuesthoff Farm


*Certified River Friendly