Nestled in the northern crook of Boulton Bend, where the Caney Fork River curves west a couple of miles before being swallowed up by the mighty Cumberland, flourishes a 400-acre farm. Its bounty includes dozens of varieties of organic vegetables, meats from small herds of grass-fed Angus cattle, Katahdin sheep and a passel of pasture-raised Mulefoot pigs, and the possibility of chestnuts this fall from a 55-acre silvopasture with 2,000 trees.
Welcome to Caney Fork Farms where food goes from farm to fork every week of the year.
The farm, dedicated to sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, soil carbon research and conservation, thrives on the family farm of former Vice President Al Gore. Ground was broken for the venture about five years ago and Caney Fork Farms began selling its vegetables and meats in 2018.
The year-round operation emanates from its hilltop headquarters that boasts a workshop, livestock building, vegetable propagation center and composting area. The seven-member staff, not counting two research students, includes a farm manager, vegetable-agroforestry manager, marketing manager and a livestock assistant.
The vegetable gardens are separated into a one-third-acre market garden and flower patch, beside the farm center, where greens, carrots, beets and other veggies are raised mostly by hand, and a 10-acre field beside the Caney Fork where six acres, cultivated by tractor, sprout a variety of other vegetables including many grown inside caterpillar tunnels. The larger garden is watered via gravity-fed spring and rain water.
The farm markets its produce and meats through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program as consumers in Smith, Wilson and Davidson counties pay a subscription fee for twice-a-month deliveries. The spring-summer program is sold out but the fall-winter program opens for sign-up in August.
Caney Fork Farms also sells its harvest to a number of Nashville restaurants such as Hathorne, Henrietta Red, Dozen Baker and Butcher & Bee. This fall it will be peddling its chestnuts to Whole Foods as well as selling directly to the public online.
Overseeing the operation is farm manager Zach Wolf, who grew up working on a small farm in Salisbury, Conn. That’s where he discovered what he wanted to do with his life. After earning a biology degree at Columbia University, he labored at various nonprofits and farms in the Hudson Valley for 12 years.
“I found my way down here when Caney Fork Farms was being planned back in 2014. I was part of a larger team that helped plan the initial vision of the farm,” recalled Wolf, who when asked exactly what he does for a living, responds simply, “I’m a farmer.”
Wolf came on board with Caney Fork Farms two years ago. “It’s just such a beautiful place with naturally fertile land. What we’re doing here is unique and exciting. I feel blessed. I’ve heard it said before that this type of farming would look more familiar to people 100 years ago than to people today.
“Some of the practices are traditional. Some use new technologies and techniques. But it (the farm system) is constantly adapting and evolving to the conditions of this place. It needs to be context specific to work. And we are still a young farm, literally, and we are finding our way and hopefully developing systems that are best suited to this land. The animals, vegetables and trees and whole approach works together to produce a lot of food, all the while and generating our own fertility. But to bring it all back, the ultimate measure of success would be the quality and vitality of the soil. Increasing soil carbon is one of many measures that indicate this,” he said.
“It’s slower, for example, to take a piece of land and make it more productive the way we are doing. It’s sustainable but slower than what you might call the conventional approach. It takes three to five years to really turn a piece of land around. We have seen notable improvement in the health of the ecosystem: the quality of the soil, water quality and habitat. The farm has way more biodiversity than it did six years ago and it produces more food than it did then. So, we haven’t gotten all the way there, but I think we are on the right path.”
Asked to define carbon farming, Wolf explained, “The simplest way to think of carbon farming is a set of practices that improves the quality of the soil, the health of the crops and the animals and in so doing increases the amount of organic matter in the soil or carbon: hence carbon farming.”
In specifying the diversity of vegetables grown on the land he said they ranged from A to Z. This means lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, collards, squash, lettuce, ginger, turmeric, onions, parsley, carrots, beets, peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes, eggplant, melons, celery, spinach, kale, popcorn, cabbage, herbs, bok choy, radicchio and mustard greens.
As for beef, mutton and ham, the farm supports 100 Angus cattle, 80 Katahdin ewes and 140 lambs and 25 charcoal black Mulefoot pigs, so-called because of their solid hooves that resemble those of a mule.
“The farm is certified organic, certified grass-fed and certified animal welfare approved. So, all that says is we are doing our best to raise our animals as best we can. We’re bringing the cattle all the way to maturity, 100 percent on grass so the quality of pasture and forage needs to be really high. We move the animals daily so the pastures have time to recover,” said Wolf.
(As the cattle are relocated, a watering trough and a shade haven moves with them.)
“It’s very simple. But we think the results tell the story. The meat is really good and the flavor is a reflection of the health of the land and the soil.”
All Caney Fork farmers receive a portion of vegetables and meat to take home to their own tables.
The vegetable man
Also leading the charge at the farm is vegetable and agroforestry manager Ranan Sokoloff, who grew up in the suburbs of New York City and studied neuroscience and philosophy at Cornell University. While working with the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, he visited two dozen farms and found he loved being outside and doing manual labor, especially when a lot of science was involved.
Sokoloff knew Wolf from New York and visited the farm in 2015. Later he moved to Franklin, Tenn., and when this position came open, he took the job, where he has been on the go the past two-and-a-half years. The first thing he did after arriving at Caney Fork Farms was walk the land.
“There was already a lot at play,” the New York transplant recalled. “We wanted to hone in on what works, what crops sell and focus on production.”
Today, the farm grows 50 crops with over 150 varieties. The best-selling veggies are beets and carrots, to the tune of 10,000 pounds of each annually.
“This past year we harvested 52 weeks. That’s due to using row covers and caterpillar tunnels. June and July are labor intensive. Today, we’re digging potatoes, doing lots of weeding, planting more sunflowers and pruning tomatoes. We do minimal tilling and use a lot of tillage implements without turning soil,” he said of the smaller market garden.
At the larger garden beside the river, Sokoloff said the plastic-covered tunnels were filled primarily with tomatoes, cucumbers, ginger and turmeric, while during the winter months they shelter kale, kohlrabi, celery, spinach, arugula, lettuce, collards, bok choy, radishes, dandelion greens and mustard greens.
“Cover cropping is a big part of the system. We’ll grow crops just for the health of the soil to hold the soil in place and to add carbon and biomass into the soil,” said Sokoloff, addressing plants in the pastures such as Sudan grass, buckwheat, cowpeas, sunflowers, millets, legumes and other grasses.
“This is our first year to sell flowers, and we have been successful, especially with sunflowers, snapdragons and zinnias. I enjoy working most with cucumbers, which is also one of my favorite things to eat. I enjoy the diversity of work. Every day looks different for me,” the veggie chief said.
Elaborating on the 55 acres where the chestnut trees are maturing daily, farm manager Wolf, said, “Our main silvopasture is the chestnut. Silvo means trees and pasture means, well, pasture!
“It’s the incorporation of trees into pastureland. In our context, the trees produce nut crops, shade and provide a wind break. And what we are seeing through research, they actually improve the soil too. That’s significant. All these co-benefit while incorporating trees into pasture. Right now, within our silvopastures we’re producing nuts, hay, graze sheep and will eventually graze cattle as the trees mature. So, the same piece of land, managed this way, produces more while also improving. It’s a win-win.”
The chestnuts sold up to now have been harvested on five acres of leased land in DeKalb County where the yields have about tripled. That site produced about 3,000 pounds last September and October. Caney Fork Farms hopes to gather its first crop this fall off their silvopasture.
From farm to table
Caney Fork Farms’ newest employee, delivery driver Hailey Manus, has been piling up the mileage on the farm’s big white truck with seven weeks under her belt and is loving it.
“I had farmed growing up with my grandfather. I planned to work in tourism, but I had so much rather be doing this,” said Manus, a 2016 alumnus of Smith County High School who recently graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
“I do deliveries all over the place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday: everywhere from Carthage and Brush Creek to Lebanon and numerous Nashville locations. It’s very interesting, and there’s a lot of interaction. Everyone is so nice, so sweet. Some of them are really into it and know all about it,” said Manus of the CSA venture.
On this Wednesday morning at the Smith County Farmers Market in South Carthage, she transfers a cardboard box filled with veggies and a sack of potatoes to consumer Adam Hill of Carthage.
“I was looking around for an organic farm, and I saw Caney Fork was here,” said Hill. “This is my second pickup. I like getting a variety of vegetables. Some of these things I wouldn’t have ever thought about getting or even find at a grocery store. I like every kind of greens.”
Those are words that would be music to the ears of the other Caney Fork farmers as they ply the practice of regenerative agriculture.
Wolf defines it as “a way of farming where you’re regenerating the resources which you steward: the land itself, the soil and the water. You should be producing high quality, healthy products that nourish people. And the scope and scale need to be appropriate to the place where it is.
“Stewardship of the landscape means seeing that the farm has a role beyond just producing food. The farm is nested within an ecology and a place. And farming can, and we think should, improve both the life on the land and the community it feeds,” said the agrarian.
“I can’t tell you the last time I ate at a McDonald’s.”
As for finding his place in pastoral Smith County, New Englander Wolf admitted, “I would say I have grown to love the Southeast. The growing season lasts so long. And there is something special about living on a landscape with so much water and so much lime in the soil. I am still discovering what that all means but it is certainly rare and special. It, as all places, deserves stewardship.”
CANEY FORK FARMS
The farm grows organic vegetables, grass-fed beef and lamb, pastured pork and chestnuts which are sold via its community supported agriculture (CSA) program. The spring/summer season is sold out. The fall/winter season runs November-April and sign-ups open in August. Cost of the veggie CSA is $30, and the meat CSA is $50 to $150 depending on size (small, medium and large). Pick-up locations include: Smith & Lentz Brewery in East Nashville, 2-4 p.m. Tuesdays; Smith County Farmers Market in South Carthage, 10-11 a.m. Wednesdays; and Demeter’s Common Grocery in Lebanon, noon-3 p.m. Fridays. Caney Fork Farms also offers home delivery. For more info, go to caneyforkfarms.com or call (615) 212-5234.