Take a trip to Jeff Poppen’s Long Hungry Creek Farm and you’ll find a year-round farm. You’re also likely to stumble across some agricultural teaching moments or discover yourself in the middle of a 1,000-person celebration. And it's possible you’ll find all of that occurring simultaneously.
Poppen, known to many as the Barefoot Farmer, uses his land to grow and raise food like plenty of other farmers do. But much more happens around his 250 acres in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee, and most of it centers around Poppen’s many passions — a passion for small family farms, for community, for getting young people back on the land, and for healing the environment.
Nine or 10 acres of Long Hungry Creek Farm are planted with crops, primarily vegetables. The food grown on the farm feeds those who live there, and about 150,000-200,000 additional pounds of food harvested each year go to the families that Poppen says “supply us with a budget.”
That budget comes from families and individuals who invest in the farm through a CSA program, also known as community supported agriculture. Investors receive regular shares of the 50 varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers grown on the farm and are invited to participate in activities that occur throughout the year including hikes, picnics, swimming, camping and planting.
Poppen regularly opens his farm to the public. At the summer and fall solstices, about 1,000 people show up for music festivals. Many of them camp on the farm, and Poppen welcomes them.
He hopes these festivals encourage young people to get back to the land. Poppen says there are "lots of kids, lots of food" at these gatherings, and he wants to show young people that there's fun to be had in the farming community.
"People are entertaining, in and of themselves," he says. "They create art, music and dance."
In addition to the festivals, he holds agriculture and food preservation workshops, yoga retreats, internships and conferences on his farm.
Off the premises, Poppen started a local farmers market with a $100,000 grant he received from the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program. One of the farm’s interns and a friend helped Poppen write the grant proposal, and Poppen was happily surprised when the grant was awarded.
In the 40 years he’s been in Red Boiling Springs, there has never been a farmers market. He believes these markets are important because they help people understand that food doesn’t come from grocery stores.
Last fall the market opened with half a dozen farms. Throughout the colder months, there have been a few winter markets and some educational classes. The grant provided funds not just for the market, but for community education, too — and that element is crucial to Poppen.
“Community gatherings on farms have a huge, rich history,” says Poppen. All of the activities on and around Long Hungry Creek Farm continue that history.
Don't lose track of history
The history of farming is also important to the Barefoot Farmer. One of his hobbies is studying the history of agriculture education in the United States, and he’s serious about sharing that history with others.
“USDA books before World War I talk about how I farm now,” says Poppen.
He traces the change in farming from a polyculture, where everything needed for production came from within the farm’s borders, to the modern-day monoculture, back to World War I. When there wasn’t a large enough source of natural nitrate to create all the gunpowder needed for the war, Germany built weapons factories to make synthesized nitrate from petroleum to manufacture gunpowder.
When the war ended, those weapons factories began turning the synthesized nitrogen into plant fertilizer and sold it to farmers. Farms that previously had used animals to create the nitrogen to support crops no longer needed those animals. For the first time in the history of farming, separate farms for crops and animals came into widespread existence.
The wisdom of thousands of years of farming was quickly replaced with agriculture education that advised farmers to use fertilizer and, in Poppen’s words, “to never, ever have animals on the same farm with crops.” The damaging results came quickly.
“Plants with fertilizer grow imbalanced,” says Poppen. “The plant has to use its own energy to grow. That takes sugar away from the plant and makes it susceptible to disease.”
His studies found that it only took a decade for farmers to wonder why their plants weren’t doing so well, and by 1924, the dawn of the modern organic movement had started. By 1940, organic proponents started teaching about animals and their natural fertilizers being an important part of all farms. Only a quarter of a century had passed since synthetic fertilizers came into widespread use, but many farmers needed to be reeducated, and many still do.
“We have to get the animals back on the land,” says Poppen. With the right animals on the farm, specifically ruminants, there’s no need for artificial fertilizers.
Poppen believes returning animals to all farms will solve another problem: climate change.
“In organic farming, we can reverse climate change,” Poppen says. “We need to get the carbon out of the air and get it into the soil.” In other words, quit using synthetic fertilizers and start making good use of the animals that can fertilize the soil naturally.
Poppen has many beliefs about how farms should be run to support the environment and the community, and he practices what he preaches. At Long Hungry Creek Farm, cattle run on the sloped land. Some of the cattle are raised for food, but some are there to help the farm be a self-contained organism. His organic and biodynamic farm is managed like the farms before World War I were managed, when everything needed for production was found within the farm’s borders. He values community and creates spaces where members can gather, learn, and celebrate.
Poppen grows more than just food, he grows community, and the people of Red Boiling Springs are the beneficiaries of his harvest.