Rhonda Mostella is bent from the waist, peering at the packed row of carrot and kale sprouts in the recently turned earth of her personal garden plot at the Beardsley Community Farm. Her 9-year-old daughter, Mel, crouches beside her, crumbling the cool, moist dirt.
"Ooooh, I got... it's a worm!" Mel yelps. Her mother leans closer, but not too close.
But farm manager Ben Epperson comes rushing right over and sticks his nose two inches from Mel's hands. "Worms are great!" he crows. "You got out here early and you worked your soil and now your seeds are already up. And you've got a worm. That's great. They're part of the magic."
Mel cocks an elegant eyebrow, scowls a little and then breaks into a big smile.
Epperson has made another sale.
While this urban demonstration farm is part of Knoxville-Knox County's Community Action Committee (CAC), and Epperson has officially worked for them since September 2007, his real job is PR agent for worms such as these—and for smelly compost, sore muscles, saved table scraps, and the joy of hoeing in the hot, hot sun.
In place of logo-printed koozies and PowerPoints, his presentation materials include raised beds made of discard material, a small flock of free-range chickens and their rooster Pretty Boy, a greenhouse and two beehives.
"Our mission is to work with community members and provide tools to help them grow their own food and learn about the financial and environmental benefits of home food production," says Epperson of the farm that sits behind the Laura Cansler Boys and Girls Club on Reynolds, a sharp right turn off Western Avenue after the Middlebrook intersection and just a few miles from downtown. "All our methods are organic."
Visitors and volunteers are always welcome, but Mostella and family, who live 10 minutes away by car and plan to ride bikes to farm in the summer, are actually in command of one of Beardsley's 29 individual garden plots and can use what they grow however they like. "Seeing what we planted a few weeks ago actually sprouting," says Mostella, "picking a little piece of red lettuce to taste...it's exciting, it's..."
"Flabbergasting!" fills in Mel.
The plots are allotted to anyone willing to sign an agreement on a first-come, first-serve basis, and this year's gardeners include a few from Ridgebrook public housing development and a 5th grade class from Thackston school that also took back a free-range egg and incubated it.
A raft of both dedicated and hit-or-miss volunteers help grow thousands of pounds of food in a central garden. Along with service hours, they accrue take-home produce or a few of the coveted eggs, and lots of gardening advice. The rest of the bounty finds its way to tables at charitable organizations ranging from Bridge, a faith-based program that serves refugees in Knoxville, to a women's shelter and the Austin Homes Lighthouse after-school program.
Epperson's "sales support" staff in all endeavors consists of four AmeriCorps workers—Frank Callo, Beth Hilliard, Jeff Martin and Marie Boisvert—a close-knit gang of congenial greenies with strong backs and weak noses.
Where you can now see bright anemones and tulips, tender tomato seedlings, cascades of parsley and beds choked with a "green fertilizer" cover-crop of winter rye grass, they previously conducted the invisible work of plowing, composting, construction and weeding. They even put on the suits to draw the 70 pounds of honey that come from the hives each year, or to medicate the bees.
"Nothing really phases us," says Callo, the group's designated spokes-comedian and homespun philosopher. One minute he's saying, "let's kvetch about vetches," the next he's explaining why the work is so meaningful.
"What we are doing is the most basic thing—providing food for people and trying to inspire and teach people to grow their own," he says. "It gets to the point where people don't recognize that food comes from the ground, that somebody grows it. I think it's good to be put back in touch with the processes our life depends on, like how much does it rain, how sunny has it been?
"You start engaging with the world and it's very powerful."
This year, the crew (and volunteers) have cultivated a 60' x 70' bed for an elaborate butterfly garden, built large raised beds from discard materials, and set up the chickens with a tidy new fence and a refurbished wooden coop, complete with folk-art walls. They've also puttered and pondered their way to creating a compost pile that heats to about 150 degrees.
"The high temperature means it is decomposing quickly and killing off pathogens and weed seeds that we do not want introduced to the garden," says Epperson.
The workers are irresistibly drawn to checking the temperature gauge any time they pass by. "So far, we have been thoroughly impressed with our craftsmanship!" says Callo.
The source of the compost is another chore tackled by the AmeriCorps workers and volunteer crews, who collect some 25-30 five-gallon buckets from The Golden Roast Espresso Café, Tomato Head, and La Costa restaurants and the Love Kitchen food pantry.
It's a fulfilling and virtuous task, and fairly gross.
"When they leave salad greens in acetate containers and it turns into black swill... that's pretty awful," says Epperson.
"Probably not as gross as tearing apart hundreds of loaves of smelly, moldy bread..." counters Boisvert.
"Good thing we're all artisanal composters," adds Callo.
Another job not for the keen of nose or the faint of heart was laying in a supply of manure to amend the soil for the butterfly plot. "We contacted the Knoxville Zoo and they agreed to deliver 30 cubic yards of ‘zoo doo,' which comes from herbivorous animals like the elephants and rhinos," says Callo. "They brought it in a dump truck and the smell was unmistakable. Three tons of poop with the steam rising... it took the best of friends three hours to maneuver the manure."
Still, the staffers will tell you the stinky stuff is not the drawback at the farm. "The lack of money is the grossest thing," says Callo, "We're running at an artificially high pitch right now. We're providing a good level of service, doing what needs to be done, but the money is running out quickly."
Epperson hastens to explain that while Beardsley is funded by the city, and works to get grants, the money to operate at full capacity as they are now is just not there.
"The grants, like one this year from Rohm and Haas, are just one-time input. If we had $30,000 every year...or $20,000 for an extra staff member to draw in sponsors, we could keep providing at this pace."
Impediments to funding include Beardsley's status as a CAC entity, not a non-profit, and its lack of exposure. "It would be really nice not to be known as a ‘well-kept secret'," says Epperson. "If our list of people who wanted garden plots doubled, for example, we would probably get a bit more city-county budget."
Also on the staff's wish list is more involvement with their immediate urban neighbors. "Right now we've got a pretty big cross-section of Knoxville gardening and volunteering," says Callo. "It's good to have people of different backgrounds getting together, sharing the experience, sharing the garden talk... but I would definitely like to get more people from Mechanicsville involved."
At the same time, the group doesn't want to lose any of their far-flung participants, who do include "garden club" types and people on the high end of the socioeconomic scale. "We definitely don't care who comes. We wish everyone would come," says Epperson.
Boisvert thinks outreach in the community, including recent forays into the Lonsdale and Westview elementary schools and a free fair (and free produce) planned for May 10 will draw in neighbors. "Also, once we've made it more workable here, gotten it more established, it will be easier for us AmeriCorps workers to get out in the community. This time next year we'll be more apt to be out and about."
In the meantime, they'll keep singing the praises of sustainable gardening practices and fresh, locally grown produce. "Even people who aren't concerned about the environment should at least be concerned about their personal economics," says Boisvert.
In her own 12' x 12' plot she grows a variety of greens, bok choy, and any number of root vegetables—carrots, turnips, beets, radishes and a plant called kohlrabi, which is a mild-tasting bulb that grows above ground. "I also grow lots of onions," she says. "I cook them all the time and they're so easy to grow here and so expensive to buy at the farmer's market." (Boisvert shares a few of her fresh produce recipes on Metropulse.com, not all with onions!)
Last year, Boisvert estimates her efforts reduced her food bill by $100 a month. "Growing your own produce can save you phenomenal amounts of money."
Still not sold? The staffers bring up the emotional benefits of toiling in the soil, watching things grow, relaxing, letting it be.
Says Hilliard: "Seeds are cheap. Therapy is not."