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Golden Flowers
A hobby blooms into a nationally-known business in the Tennessee hills

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The wildest, prettiest places just under Knoxville's nose

Yard Work
UT's trial gardens are growing like a weed

Getting Dirty
Beardsley Farm teaches people how food grows

You already know the why — here's the who, what, and where

  Getting Dirty

Beardsley Farm teaches people how food grows

by Joe Tarr

There aren't a lot of gardeners in Cornella Isom's neighborhood.

After working for a spell in her vegetable garden at the Ridgebrook housing project, the 51-year-old woman invariably draws stares as she walks up the hill toward her apartment carrying a hoe, her pants and arms soiled with dirt.

"I'll be walking around with my tools all dirty. People see me, say 'Where you been?'" Isom says.

Isom did not grow up learning how food grows, and stumbled upon gardening later in life, through friends. "My great aunt raised me. She had flowers. She was a sharecropper. She always said she grew so many vegetables in her life, she was sick of looking at gardens.

"I think it's relaxing. My nails only grow when I work in the dirt," she says with a laugh. "I like to watch it grow. It's amazing to me how fast squash will grow.

"It's something about the dirt between my fingers. It just makes me feel good."

That connection with the earth, and with the nourishment it's capable of producing, is something Beardsley Community Farms is trying to get all of Knoxville to realize.

Located next to Knoxville College where the old Beardsley Middle School used to be, the demonstration farm just started its second year of operation.

The farm grew out of the feed-the-hungry movement, which realized that simply giving people free meals or bags of food wasn't stopping the U.S. hunger problem. "The anti-hunger people realized it was a problem of distribution, not lack of food," says Aubrey Baldwin, who heads Beardsley Farm.

Some urban areas have few grocery stores or produce shops, and a survey of Knox County grocery stores found that supermarkets in urban and poor areas were charging up to 70 percent more for fresh produce.

"In this community [Mechanicsville], there are no grocery stores, no produce markets. People shop at convenience stores or access the emergency food network," Baldwin says. "They're eating crackers and canned meats. People in this area aren't eating fresh produce."

The Community Action Committee—a social service agency with a variety of programs for low income people—got a $32,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to start the farm in 1998, along with $32,000 in matching funds from local private and public sources.

It wasn't CAC's first foray into gardening. For some 20 years, it has managed the city's 23 community gardens, which are located mainly in poor neighborhoods. Unlike other cities, Knoxville's community gardens—where people who don't own or have space for a garden can get a plot of land to grow vegetables—is completely free. Even the seeds and plants are given away. "The gardens are designed to help people increase their access to fresh produce and therefore improve their health," Baldwin says.

As a demonstration farm, Beardsley aims to teach people how food grows, and encourage them to be more self-sufficient. The farm offers classes and workshops for adults, children and school teachers, on on topics like basic gardening, making baby food, canning, freezing, herb growing, pest control, and the use of gardening tools. Beardsley also experiments with many new ideas, including a way to make your own topsoil.

"We have kids who come here that think milk comes from Kroger. They think bread is something you get in a bag at Kroger," Baldwin says. "That's bad because you have people who have absolutely no understanding of the means of their existence. They have no idea how they're alive on the planet.

"Few kids know that this is an onion plant and this is a garlic plant and if I put a garlic clove in the ground it'll become a garlic plant."

How did people get so disconnected from the process of food growing and making? Baldwin says it happened after World War II, when food production became more scientific and formulized, and large food companies began dictating production of the nation's food, to achieve greater efficiency.

"There are very few farmers left. There are people who contract their labor to food companies," Baldwin says. "Farming is not part of the fabric of society. It's very hard to meet a farmer, even if you live in a rural area."

At 7 acres, Beardsley Farm is not huge. Surrounded by chainlink fence, the farm sits behind the Cansler Learning Center on Reynolds Street. There are a couple of wooden sheds and a long greenhouse. Two beehives sit underneath a dogwood in the center of the garden. There are little sections where just about every kind of food will be grown, including lettuce, corn, wheat, garlic, tomatoes, and herbs. Outside the chain-linked area are several apple and pear trees.

The farm is run by Baldwin and a team of six Americorp workers, along with various adult and youth volunteers who help out throughout the year.

In its first year of operation last year, Beardsley grew about 3,000 pounds of food. So far this season, it's grown about 1,200 pounds and Baldwin expects it to produce about 5,000 to 6,000 pounds by year's end. "Everything we do is a demonstration. The byproduct of that is the food."

The goal isn't to give the food away. Those who are poor or on welfare can earn what's called "Beardsley Bucks," little green slips of paper, simply by attending job training or self-improvement classes or volunteering. The coupons can be redeemed for fresh produce.

"We've removed the monetary system. We wanted to say, 'You did something of value, so we want to give you something of value back, something that's beyond money.' We found people had a really hard time understanding that," Baldwin says.

Food that's left over is given to the Family Crisis Center, Positively Living, and various homeless shelters.

Another goal of Beardsley is to connect people with produce retailers, and producers with retailers. Most grocery stores and restaurants buy produce through large distributors, which makes it tough for local farmers to sell their food locally.

Next year, Beardsley hopes to start a farmer's market program, which will have many different aspects. The plan is to hire a marketer who would coordinate the efforts of local farmers, finding out what produce they have to offer, and then contact local restaurants to sell their food. "There's a disconnect between growers and retailers. If we could get those two to connect, people might be able to make a living farming. Or at least sell everything that they grow," Baldwin says.

Another aspect of the farmer's market program would be to set up produce tents at the city's housing projects and poor neighborhoods, offering food at a discount rate. A booth would be set up at the Knox County Regional Farmer's Market near Knoxville Center, supplied by local farmers and run by an inner city youth group. There are also plans to establish little produce kiosks around downtown.

Up the hill from Beardsley, sits Cornella Isom's apartment. She started gardening in the mid-'80s with the East Knoxville Garden Club but soon became involved with the city's community garden program.

Today, she spends a lot of time working at Beardsley Farm, as well as her own garden. She cashes in all the Beardsley Bucks she earns on fresh produce and delivers it to older people in her housing development.

She invites more able residents to pick from her own garden, provided they help out a bit tending it as it grows. Few ever take her up.

"It's like talking to a brick wall," she sighs. "If everybody pitches in and helps on the garden, they wouldn't have to buy that much in the summer as far as vegetables are concerned."

Isom hopes this year will be different as several people have promised to help out.

Beardsley—with all its little programs—hopes to change the way people think about food and food production.

"Consumer culture tells us if we get a Big Mac we'll be happy. We do that and somehow our lives don't end up the way we thought they'd end up, and we're unhappy and forlorn and without hope," Baldwin says. "Luckily, there's this anti-consumerism movement that's just getting started across the country.

"We're just trying to provide opportunities that are different from the opportunities that are available."

March 30, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 13
© 2000 Metro Pulse