It’s not something you might expect to find in a former industrial area near the heart of a city. Approaching the former Standard Knitting Mills site, the building looms large in the distance. Captivating in its own way, there is nothing to prepare a passerby for the site of tilled earth awaiting spring planting. But that’s what you’d find if you walked past the Parkridge property.
Abbey Fields is an active, productive project of love. Brenna Wright, the force behind the farm slips easily between discussions of produce or soil conservation and philosophical thoughts on the importance of reconnecting people to the earth. She quotes Wendell Berry as easily as she rattles off lists of vegetables to be grown. Producing something useful and, hopefully, beautiful is important to her.
Originally from Kansas, she earned a degree in psychology with a minor in religion. Hardly the preparation one might expect for a future farmer. She worked with the Peace Corp in an agricultural village in Ghana, acquiring a passion both for agriculture and for community building, before returning to Kansas. While in Kansas she worked with young people who, she observed, were at their best when connected to their environment. Fate brought her to Knoxville in 2010 after her marriage to a man from Tennessee.
Deciding she wanted to make a difference in her community, she began exploring the idea of an urban farm while pursuing studies at UT in soil science and conservation. She worked first with Care of the Earth, CSA and later with the organic farm at UT. She credits that experience with giving her the marketing skills she would need to start her own farm.
Noticing the vacant acreage outside Standard Knitting Mills, she approached Henry and Wallace, owners of the building about her idea and received an enthusiastic response to her use of the property. She feels they will support her continued farming of the plot even as they pursue development of the property. She sees its future as an amenity to the potential residents in the building much as it is to the larger Parkridge community today.
The agreement didn’t produce a farm, of course. The land had to be rezoned to allow farming and regulations regarding farms inside the city limits are a work in progress. She said city officials have been very supportive, giving special credit to Jacob Tisinger and his successor Brian Blackmon in the Office of Sustainability as well as Mayor Rogero. She noted that new urban agriculture regulations are currently being developed which will make efforts like hers easier to undertake.
I asked about the soil, given that it is located just outside a former industrial building. She told me she gets that question often and that the soil was tested and no contaminants were found. Naturally occurring contaminants were even below expected levels. The soil was re-tested after it was tilled and the results were the same.
She noted that if the soil had been found to be contaminated, she would have continued to work with it to remediate the issues while cultivating elsewhere. She feels it is important that the earth as well as people have a chance for healing and she sees both happening through active farming. Future work with contaminated land is something that she sees as a possibility with some of the profits from the farm.
I asked about the size of the farm – roughly three acres – and whether that was enough to grow food in a significant quantity, particularly since she’d mentioned crop rotation and letting the ground rest periodically. It turns out that while in the west we tend to think larger is better, smart farming without equipment on a small space can produce a very large amount of produce. The farm is not certified organic, but utilizes organic practices, non-gmo seeds, crop rotation and cover cropping. They also have use of a greenhouse thanks to the local Sertoma Center.
The farm is a form of community supported agriculture (CSA), which means that people invest in the farm in exchange for produce. If it does well, they do well, if not, the risk is spread among many people. A full share is $725 which provides weekly vegetables for a family of four (or two vegetarians) from May through the first week of November (weekly for 27 weeks). A half share is $450 and five work shares (currently filled) are offered whereby people work three hours a week in exchange for their vegetables. Brenna is the sole employee of the farm and draws a salary from the profits.
She emphasizes it is a for-profit small, development supported business attempting to enhance the lives of those in the community. The area where the farm is located is classified a food desert and she points out that many people have no direct connection with the source of their food. But she wants to develop a successful business model that will, in turn, encourage others to give it a try, making “farmer” a viable occupation for some who live in the city. With about 30 CSAs the first year, the farm was able to meet expenses. She hopes to double that number this year and show a profit.
She also has other plans for the space. She will introduce micro-greens this year, which are popular with restaurants and she hopes to expand her relationship with area chefs. She also envisions developing the farm into a beautiful space that people will choose to use for weddings or simply as a quiet refuge.
Finally, I had to ask about the name. When I first heard it, I assumed immediately it was a Beatles reference. Later it hit me that didn’t make sense. The association I was making was a merger of “Abbey Road” and “Strawberry Fields.” Brenna said I’m not the only one to make that illogical leap, though it’s an association she doesn’t mind. The reference is actually intended to be to an Abbey which is a communal living facility for monks who would have their garden just outside their abode. The image speaks to the tranquility, return to nature and healing that Brenna hopes her farm will bring to many.
Interested in becoming involved? A workday will be held March 14th with coffee, snacks and (maybe) music. The farm is located at 1400 Washington Avenue, which is a short bike ride out of downtown. If you’d like to purchase a CSA, you can do that by completing this form. It’s another example of the good things that are emerging in our area, making our city a better place.