By Jessica Mozo
City farming might sound like an oxymoron, but that’s the idea behind Crabtree Farms of Chattanooga.
Located on 22 acres near downtown, Crabtree Farms has the uncanny ability to make you think you’ve been transported to the rural countryside. Colorful vegetables and flowers pop up from rich black soil, farmers carefully tend to a diverse variety of plants, and green space prevails all around.
“It’s a great thing for Chattanooga, because it shows what you can do with land even within city limits,” says Sarah Malone, development and outreach manager for Crabtree Farms. “We’re able to feed families using land in an urban area, and we have a wonderful central location so people can come appreciate agriculture without having to travel far. It’s an urban oasis.”
Crabtree Farms is a nonprofit organization that was established in 1988 to promote sustainable agriculture. The property has been in agricultural use since the early 1800s and was donated to the city by the Crabtree and McGauley families with the stipulation that it must retain its agricultural heritage. Today, the city leases the land to Crabtree Farms for $1 per year.
The property features a 5-acre urban demonstration farm cultivated by employees, volunteers and interns. There’s also a 1-acre community garden divided into 41 plots that Chattanooga residents can lease from March through November. Each plot is 200 square feet, and community gardeners have access to tools, compost and water.
“The community garden is strictly organic. People can harvest crops for themselves or for their whole family, and a master gardener is here three or four days a week to answer questions,” Malone says. “It’s fun to see the huge variety of plants and everyone’s techniques. There are folks with perfect rows, and others use twigs and branches for trellises. There are flowers and herbs and unusual vegetables.”
In fact, the Crabtree farmers pride themselves in producing a selection of uncommon crops.
“That’s our niche. For example, we grow five different varieties of lettuce, but never iceberg,” Malone says. “We try to grow things you wouldn’t find in a grocery store. We have mint and other herbs, and instead of growing traditional spearmint, we grow chocolate mint and grapefruit mint – things that add a little more depth to the palate.”
Joel Houser is the farm manager at Crabtree Farms and oversees the planting and harvesting.
“We grow a lot of hybrid and older varieties of crops,” Houser says. “Everything is organic, and probably 60 percent are heirlooms.”
Visitors to Crabtree Farms can participate in free workshops, such as Farmer for a Day, where they get to work side-by-side with farmers and learn about planting and harvesting different crops.
“We do a garlic planting day, and we also do it with strawberries and potatoes,” Malone says. “The idea is to get people’s hands in the dirt and empower them to do it at home. We’ve had people drive from Georgia and Alabama if they’re really interested in a specific crop.”
Crabtree Farms offers pick-your-own berries in May, June and July, and an on-site farm stand sells fresh produce, co-op items, herbs and flowers to the public Tuesday through Saturday from May to November.
“For a lot of people, it’s nostalgic – especially the older generation,” Houser says. “They like to come out to the farm and get fruits and vegetables like they remember from childhood.”
Crabtree Farms’ biggest fundraisers are two annual plant sales in April and September when they sell plants and veggie starts that grow well in the Chattanooga Valley. Group farm tours and classes are available for all ages upon request with a $40 flat rate for each educational hour.
“We’ve done classes on topics like canning, soap-making and gardening,” Malone says.
In August 2008, Crabtree Farms launched a Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign dedicated to educate consumers on the benefits of buying locally produced foods. The campaign includes the production of Chattanooga’s first local food guide in 2009, which allows consumers to find farm-fresh food within a 100-mile radius of the city.
Crabtree Farms’ success has prompted other cities to start urban farm operations, including Knoxville and Hixson.
“There are green spaces in every city that can be used for something like this,” Malone says. “It helps people get connected with agriculture.”
CSAs Spelled Out
Community Supported Agriculture, known as a CSA service, connects consumers looking for fresh foods with growers in their own community. Instead of shopping in a grocery store’s produce section, people pre-order shares of a farm’s harvest. In return, they pick up a box filled with seasonal fruits, veggies and herbs at a specified meeting location and time, usually weekly.
Crabtree Farms’ CSA program goes by the name FOOD Box and costs around $30 per week to feed a family of three, and you can learn more on their Web site. Look for a CSA in your area by going online to www.picktnproducts.org and searching for “CSA.”