Thoughts on Farm to Table

From Jennifer Niceley and I. Enjoy.

Farm to Table dinners are gaining popularity all across the country bringing farmers, eaters, and food lovers together at the table. Google “farm to table” and you get millions of hits, from blogs, to restaurant guides, to radio shows, to agricultural extension office sites. Here in Tennessee I like to say we never really got that far away from the farm to table concept. We live in a land with a long growing season and fertile land, surrounded by rivers and growers that take care to grow the best fruits and vegetables. One only has to stroll through the Market Square Farmer’s Market to see the bounties of our farmers.

In an effort to capture the importance of family farms and the bounty of summer 2010 Mockingbird Events is partnering with the Riverplains Farm to host a Jefferson County farm to table dinner. This will be an incredibly unique locavore experience. Not only will everything you eat but the spices be from the farm, but it will be prepared on the farm by the family that lives on the farm.

In the early 1970’s Frank Niceley and his brothers took over the farm their father had bought nearly 30 years earlier, what is now called Riverplains. It was a time of huge farm credit: copious amounts of money borrowed to buy tractors and silos and dairy equipment. At that time the riverbottom fields were put into corn and other grains for silage for the dairy cattle. The old men who worked the farm for most of their lives were still around: Earl, who was actually raised on the farm, Raymond or “Hot Shot”, and Gilbert who is still living and tending to his own garden and goats just a ways down the road in New Market. They were old then, but they worked hard keeping the fences mended, the fields bushhogged, the baby calves fed — and tended to the countless other chores that are never ever finished on a working farm.

As we all know family farms are disappearing at a rapid pace. According to Wendell Berry in the Summer 2002 issue of Orion, “In 2002 we have less than half the number of farmers in the United States that we had in 1977…We continue to lose farmland to urban development of the most wasteful sort. The large agribusiness corporations that were mainly national in 1977 are now global, and are replacing the world’s agricultural diversity, which was useful primarily to farmers and local consumers, with bioengineered and patented monocultures that are merely profitable to corporations. The purpose of this now global economy, as Vandana Shiva has rightly said, is to replace “food democracy” with a worldwide “food dictatorship.”

Riverplains Farm is in transition time, which is frustrating and stressful but also exciting. Of course so much of being a farmer has to do with risk — with trial and error and faith and hope and certainly perserverance. The family has been experimenting with growing organic crops: corn and alfalfa and spelt. This is the second year Jennifer Niceley has put out a large organic vegetable garden. There are a handful of Jersey cows, which are hand milked, and they have learned to make butter, cheese and other dairy products in the process. The Niceleys are continuing to build their herd of grass fed beef cattle, and have added four mule footed hogs to the field of Mouflon sheep. In another trial, they put out organic tobacco this year — the first time tobacco has been planted on the farm in over 30 years.

Experimentation and diversification will have to continue for any of us to ever reach the goal of healthy, productive sustainability. For Jennifer, “The “Farm to Table” dinner is in celebration of that goal. As temporary “owners” of this beautiful land, I believe it is our responsibility — and honor — to try.”

Jennifer Nicely and her family embrace their land and the diversity they can bring to the land. From organic spelt, to their dairy cows, to heirloom pigs. Jennifer puts it best on her Facebook page:

After some years of living in Nashville, making somewhat of a living as a waitress and (self) releasing two records, I returned to my family’s  farm in East Tennessee. I have been back almost two years, working and learning and living with these people by which blood makes us bound…The land here had been calling me back for some time. Many songs written while I was away were fueled by a longing to reconnect. A hunger for wholeness I felt could be found at home. Which has been true for me on many levels.

How blessed to have intimate access to this fountain of green, growing things, tucked in between a lovely crook in the Holston River. Great Blue Herons still fly across this peninsula and even Eagles can be spotted on occasion. There are horses in the fields, cows to be milked, chickens who must be fed and sheltered. Such a setting allows me to restring a little of the circle that has been broken — broken in so many ways, in so many places, with so many dreadful consequences. And still there is much more to mend here, as everywhere.

Catching up with the past in a way, where our grandparents may have left off — trying to retrieve the knowledge they may have kept to themselves or forgotten, believing of course that it had become just useless. Outdated yes, but no, not useless Grandma. For those who choose to see: we must lean back now and wonder where our food comes from, wonder just how it was treated on the journey to our plates, wonder how things are made, were made. We must wonder at the wonder — and try to remember, try not to forget, everyday. In the midst of these struggles unique to our time it is essential we endeavor to remember, endeavor against forgetting. We can do it anywhere and in endless ways. For myself I’ve decided to do it here, in this place where I was born and raised and have now come back to — hoping that the circle will be closed a little closer by the time I have to leave.

Join us for this special evening at the Riverplains Farm enjoying food, farms, and the beautiful summer. Tickets at www.mockingbird-events.com/events.

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