The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Thursday, 18 January 2024 12:59

Fighting our own worst enemy along the way to better seeds and systems

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Seed_Swap.pngTennessee Local Food Summit participants were encouraged to bring their favorite heirloom seeds for a seed swap and social.  Courtesy Matt Matheson

Tennessee Local Food Summit is a hive for food justice in the Southeast

NASHVILLE — About 70 miles north of Nashville in the town of Red Boiling Springs in Macon County, farmer and educator Jeff Poppen, better known as the Barefoot Farmer, runs one of the oldest and largest organic farms in Tennessee. For nearly 40 years, he built rich soil for his bountiful farm before the second-largest meat producer in the world forced him to move from the 250 acres he’d been farming since 1974. 

When his neighboring property owner partnered with Cobb Vantress, a subsidiary of the multinational mega-giant Tyson Foods, to place a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) — aka a factory farm — 450 feet from his homestead and garden, Poppen’s first instinct was to organize. 

This self-described “dirty hippie” found unlikely allies in his neighbors — a Baptist preacher, a state trooper, a politician, and what he calls a “chemical farmer” — all opposed to an industrial chicken house moving in.


They knew that the confinement of nearly 40,000 birds in one area would produce a putrefying odor from airborne chicken feces along with a toxic runoff that would contaminate the pristine waters of Long Hungry Creek, designated as “exceptional waters” by the state. Agricultural runoff from such massive chicken houses can contain antibiotics, hormones, heavy metals, chemicals and dangerous bacteria. 

Despite community resistance to the Tyson CAFO, Poppen kept seeing Tyson chicken in his neighbors’ refrigerators. 

“It dawned on me that my problem wasn’t really Tyson or even Big Ag — it was the public who was buying their food,” he said in an interview at last month’s Tennessee Local Food Summit at Cumberland University in Lebanon.

 Tennessee Local Food Summit board members: Jeff Poppen (founder), Brenda Butka, Lynn Maddox; Front row: Keith Loisea and Dolapo Moloye.  Courtesy Matt Matheson

Poppen considered going up against this corporate Goliath under the federal Clean Water Act. His lawyers said he had a case. But he also understood that the confrontation with his neighbor’s CAFO was really a confrontation with the industrial food lobby, which spends a higher percentage of its profits on political action than the fossil fuel industry — all to ensure that consumers are disconnected from the reality of huge factory farms every time they see a menu or visit a grocery store. 

Tyson Foods is a courtroom veteran, contesting lawsuits spanning decades related to the environment and human health.

Instead of fighting Big Ag head on, Poppen chose instead to bring people together around education. In 2011 he launched the Tennessee Local Food Summit with a host of volunteers, and it remained a volunteer-run effort until 2022 when the summit was formed into the non-profit Tennessee Local Food.

Like a modern-day prophet, Poppen foresaw Tyson wasn’t just moving in next door to his home and business — it was moving into Middle Tennessee. With chilling symmetry, a former intern at Poppen’s farm, Natalie Ashker Seevers, who is now the Executive Director of Tennessee Local Food, is also facing relocation from farmland her family leases because of another Tyson CAFO. 

Cooperation and connection

The 2023 Summit had a theme of Cultivate Cooperation and drew 225 attendees from across the Southeast and Appalachia eager to gain and share knowledge about local foodways — everything from seeds to food sovereignty.

Olivia Cleveland, a farmer and organizer in the Southeast, resonated with the theme. “I think people have been starved for connection for a while, and farmers really need that for each other in community and also for co-fostering each other’s leadership,” she said. 

Chris Battle, founder of BattleField Farms, was a first-time attendee who found the connections invaluable. Battle started a community garden program to help address food apartheid and health disparities in the 37915 zip code of East Knoxville. His work was recently featured in People magazine.

“The most impactful part of the summit for me was the networking and meeting people who have similar hearts and desires and hearing other people’s stories, particularly with food sovereignty and fighting food disparities,” he said. 

Setting the stage

With a long, dreadlocked beard and bare feet, Poppen looks every bit the part of a farmer who joined the back-to-land movement of the 1970s. Before the keynote address, he introduced Tennessee’s most powerful person in agriculture — Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture Charlie Hatcher. On stage, the clean-shaven, sports-coated statesman next to the Barefoot Farmer was not simply a portrait of contrasting attire, but rather represented two divergent agricultural paradigms colliding, however briefly.

Ashker Seevers says that Tennessee Local Food is making a persistent effort to build bridges at the state level. Hatcher, clearly accustomed to being a main speaker, only had the mic for a few minutes before the keynote address, during which he paid lip service to the issue of farmland loss. 

“In Tennessee, we’ve lost 1.5 million acres of farmland. In the next five years we’re slated to lose another half-million acres if we don’t try to get some kind of balance,” he said.

The keynote speaker at the summit was an ethnobiologist from Cherokee Nation, Feather Smith, who was introduced by Nashville-based artist, musician, and speaker Shayna Hobbs with the Native American Indian Association of Tennessee. Smith began by introducing an Indigenous perspective of seeds as sacred ancestors and presented on the Cherokee Nation’s work to preserve the rare genetics of the tribe’s heirloom seeds for a tribal seed bank so members can grow ancestral crops bearing traits that have been bred out of modern varieties. 

One crop is a purple and white variety of corn called Cherokee white eagle. Its purple kernels bear a marking resembling a white eagle in flight. When the tribe first got the seeds, that genetic trait had almost been lost,” Smith said. “After years of careful selection, the white eagle marking is back in almost every purple kernel.” 

The sharing of heirloom seeds through this program provides a vital cultural and spiritual connection between the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma and their ancestral homelands of the Smoky Mountains, which was all but severed during forced removal of Cherokees from their homeland.

A seed commons for the people

This indigenous perspective provided grounding for a multi-day discussion around forming a Cumberland Seed Commons to serve as a regional collective that provides seeds, seed-storing infrastructure, and knowledge about growing within an open-source model of ownership and governance. 

Discussions were facilitated by civil rights and eco-activist farmer Jim Embry, a movement elder who was recognized with a James Beard Leadership Award in July 2023 for his decades-long work around food justice. He has attended the TN Local Food Summit for years and has fostered diversity of the attendees by inviting Black and Indigenous speakers. 

“Beyond taking in air and water, the third most essential thing we do is eat,” Embry said. 

“We get conditioned to viewing the world from a colonized perspective, but food and agriculture are more interconnected. We are trying to provide an experience for young people to go back home and do their work feeling more connected and grounded in Indigenous perspectives of agriculture.”

One of the goals of a seed commons is increasing seed literacy, according to Chris Smith, whose book The Whole Okra won a James Beard Award in 2020. He is the founder and executive director of the Utopian Seed Project in North Carolina that runs an experimental farm to explore and promote regional agrobiodiversity. Among his concerns is that most people don’t think about seeds at all. 

“They come in a little packet that people get at the hardware store, and then they buy them and plant them, and that’s the depth that most people go to,” he said. “We talk a lot about local food and sustainable ag, but we’re way behind in terms of public awareness of the need and the power of seeds.”

Smith says the problem in the Southeast lies in the fact that the vast majority of the seed that’s produced and grown by farmers is coming from outside the region and has not adapted to the conditions. Then, when the seeds don’t perform well, people spray the plants with herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.

“The seeds just don’t have any genetic resiliency or knowledge or intelligence to deal with these new environments,” he said. “Seeds are the very foundation of the entire food system, so without regionally adapted seeds, the South’s food system is inherently unsustainable.”

Local food for resilient communities

Consumers are challenged to make good food purchases. Many health-conscious consumers want organic produce, but Ashker Seevers says that organic only means so much when it has other detrimental things attached to it, such as food miles. (The average product in a grocery store traveled 1,500 miles to get there.) Additionally, the longer fresh food takes to travel, the less its nutritional value upon consumption. Furthermore, most small farmers can’t afford the organic certification even if their standards are higher than those of big organic producers.

“If we had more people purchasing from small, local farmers, we would be reducing that carbon footprint of trucking food thousands of miles while also protecting small farmers from losing land to industrial operations,” she said.

According to the Young Farmers Coalition, the vast majority of the next generation of farmers want to use regenerative practices but face barriers to land access. Tennessee Local Food board member and co-executive director of The Farmers Land Trust, Kristina Villa, says that in addition to land access, farmers need land security. 

“Typically when the movement talks about land access they’re talking about needing farmland to grow food. I feel like the conversation should shift to land access and tenure,” she said. “Most farmers in this country are paying too-high prices for short-term land access, which doesn’t allow farmers to practice regenerative methods that we know can build soil, heal earth and feed communities.”

Local food is a powerful connector and has the power to bring people with diverse backgrounds together around a common cause. Food is the fabric of community for the simple fact that everyone has to eat, making the local food movement at once both hyper-local as well as international. This is the quiet power of local food movements everywhere — to make small farms the center of community while sparing nothing in addressing systemic problems with industrial food systems. Supporting local food supports farmers and rural economies — an obvious win-win for people and the planet.


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Last modified on Saturday, 23 March 2024 21:19