Tenn.’s ‘Barefoot Farmer’ Shutting Down Organic FarmDecember 14th, 2012
By Duane Marsteller and Josh Brown, The Tennessean
Owner, Jeff Poppen, widely known from dozens of appearances on public television, is concerned over possible contamination from a neighboring corporate chicken farm.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — One of the state’s oldest and largest organic farms — operated by Tennessee’s famed “Barefoot Farmer” — is shutting down operations in Macon County following a dispute over a corporate chicken farming operation next door.
The farm’s owner, Jeff Poppen, is a widely known organic farmer who has hosted numerous workshops, made dozens of appearances on public television and grown food for some of Nashville’s top restaurants, including Capitol Grille and Tayst.
Poppen says he is closing down Long Hungry Creek Farm in Red Boiling Springs because of concerns over possible contamination from a neighboring farm that is growing chickens for a Tyson Foods Inc. subsidiary.
“I can’t guarantee organic production here anymore,” Poppen said.
“Because of how close they built it, there will be no more gardens here, no more T.V. shows filmed here, no more church and school tours here and my family and I are moving,” Poppen posted on his Facebook page.
Although Poppen’s decision is a blow for the organic farming movement in Tennessee, others in the industry still see room for optimism.
College Grove farmer Hank Delvin Jr. has seen firsthand the recent growth in organic farming.
In the past two years, the number of wholesale orders at Delvin’s 140-acre Delvin Farms has doubled.
“I think it’s easier to get into organic produce than it was 20 years ago, because the public is seeking it and demanding it,” Delvin said.
Since 2000, the number of certified organic farming operations in Tennessee has more than doubled — from 10 then to 26 in 2008, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
John Cahill, a farmer at Real Food Farms between Brentwood and Franklin, has also seen the rise in demand.
“It’s going in the right direction,” he said.
Still, the fledging farms face a number of challenges to establish a firmer foothold. Even with the growth, organic farms make up less than 1 percent of farmland nationwide.
And running an organic operation — especially a smaller local farm — can bring a unique set of challenges.
Large-scale organic farms, which can produce more food for less, are putting downward pressure on prices, even as costs for smaller farms are going up, Delvin said.
One of those increasing costs is labor.
“I plant an acre of carrots, and organically, I’m fighting the weeds the whole time,” he said. “I have to spend a lot of labor getting rid of weeds. My friend who is not organic, he just sprays herbicide on it.”
Most of Delvin’s workers have been with him for several years and are good at their jobs, but they come at a price.
“I have to pay a living wage,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of training you have to do.”
For Cahill, another challenge is convincing consumers that not only should they buy organic, but they should also buy local.
“There’s still this giant wall that has to be broken down in people’s minds of how they can get local food,” Cahill said. “It’s a lot easier to go to Publix and shop in the organics section to get produce from California.”
In addition, sometimes prices are higher, he said.
“People are not willing to pay the price in terms of finances and getting themselves out there to get the food,” he said.
That could slow growth of new farms.
“You can’t start a farm with the main thought that you’re going to make a million dollars,” Cahill said. “It’s not going to happen. The expenses of a farm keep you at even.”
As for disputes with neighbors, Delvin said dealing with adjacent non-organic farms comes with the territory.
“I’m surrounded by non-organic farms,” he said. “Most people are. I have some dairies beside us. I have people growing corn and grain.”
The key is to try to maintain a buffer zone and prevent any contamination that could jeopardize organic status, he said.
Poppen had been embroiled in a public dispute over a neighbor’s chicken farm for more than a year.
The neighbor, Lundy Russell, recently began raising 40,000 chicks under a contract with Cobb-Vantress Inc., a chicken breeding subsidiary of Tyson Foods. The chicks are kept in two long chicken houses on a steep hill overlooking Poppen’s farm.
Poppen has contended the factory farm will pollute his land with excessive waste, which Lundy and Cobb-Vantress have denied.
Long Hungry Creek Farm drew hundreds of visitors each year, and served more than 200 regular customers with organic produce grown on the farm. The farm also supported a few part-time employees, along with interns.
For its part, Tyson Foods contends that its operation fully complies with state laws and is safe.
“We at Cobb-Vantress are serious about our responsibility to operate with integrity. In fact, we have been working with other family farmers in the area who have already built and are operating chickens houses and they have received no complaints from their neighbors,” said Worth Sparkman, manager of public relations for Tyson Foods Inc. “We want to assure you we intend to continue to work with our contract family farmers in a responsible way.”
As for his future plans, Poppen said he would likely look to start a similar farming operation about 5 miles away from his current farming site. Poppen did not give a timeline for when the new operations might be up and running.
“I can’t imagine he will give up farming because it’s what he likes to do,” said Alan Powell, who has worked with Poppen, in an email. “Ultimately, I don’t think he knows how this will all pan out in the end. He doesn’t trust the land he has lived on and farmed for over 20 years, and will stop producing food there so as not to risk his customers’ health.”