Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee: Jeff Poppen, Long Hungry Creek Farm

We heard of Jeff Poppen as "the Barefoot farmer" when we were in Asheville and were told that we should really try to meet this amazing man. We stepped onto his front porch and let ourselves in to find Jeff in the kitchen teaching his girlfriend's son to make pickles. Jeff's appearance is worth describing; he wears large round glasses and has long hair tied back in a ponytail with an equally long beard on his face that culminates in one massive dreadlock. Jeff seemed reluctant to talk at first and it felt like we were questioning him without much success until after a fine supper of corn, salad, and beets. An aside: at one point during the pickle making Jeff very adorably excused himself from the kitchen telling us "I'm going to go kiss my girlfriend."

So, while Jeff was very generous and hospitable, it didn't seem like we were getting too much information from him with his monosyllabic answers to our questions until he started talking about his compost and the quality of his soil. Like many of the farmers we have met, Jeff displayed his love for dirt by crouching down and lovingly picking up a handful, then crumbling it out through his fingers. His face looked radiant as he beamed up at us and told us that the dirt is what its all about; healthy soil equals healthy plants. When asked about issues in farming today Jeff replied that "there are no more farmers" because dumping chemicals on the ground doesn't count as farming.
What's your background? How'd you get into this?

I've been a farmer all my life.

In Chicago?

Near Chicago.

I'm guessing, but was it corn?

My dad had a horticulture operation; he was a nursery man. But it was in corn country.

And what do you do here? Seems like everything.

I've been running a small farm here since 1974.

Just produce?

It's a beef, a cow/calf operation. And gardens.

Do I understand it's a biodynamic focus?

I make biodynamic preparations and use them on my farm.

Is that something that your family did or something you got into yourself?

The latter.

Why do you choose to do it that way?

I don't use the calendar. I do it because it treats the soil as if it mattered and makes good quality vegetables. I like the way the vegetables taste. this a farming community?

Back in the old days it was. When I moved here. There is no farming in America anymore to speak of.

What do you mean by that?

Probably because I don't travel. I have a narrow definition of what farming is.

So what kind of changes would you like to see in the ag system to fit your definition?

There's only one thing that needs to happen in my opinon, mainly. And that is we have to return the cows to the farm.

You don't think people are doing that?

No. Most of our livestock are in confinement operations. And it's a way to concentrate wealth. Because when humans are allowed to live, they will have animals and crops in rotations on pieces of land. Agriculture is free. And there is no selling of produce. Produce has never been sold. And it shouldn't ever be sold. The fruits of agriculture are to be free, and this is the way it's always been. And wealth is relatively new. It wasn't uncommon a hundred years ago for people to inherit a lot of money and just say, "we don't want it." Why would you want a bunch of money? That just entails responsibilties...cause there's no place to spend it. It required...well, it was a lot of trouble. When food can't be sold, starvation ceases.

Do you see the importance of the cow on the farm as the nutrient cycling? Is that why you think it's important, to close your circles?

Well, the way I look at it, the dawn of civilization and the domestication of animals, arose hand in hand, and humanity can't live without ruminants. Mainly because a ruminant can live off a couple acres of land but make twice that much land per... So this necesitates every community having cattle and moving them around in such a way that fertility increases, and consequently there is a possibility of crop production, and then when crops are removed from the community, you're simply removing carbohydrates, staches, sugars, and proteins in a form that are basically carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, that all come free from the air and the water. And there's no expense whatsoever except nature and human labor. Other recent usurps of agriculture by the great pirates and the commodification of agriculture.

So how do you fit yourself in as a farmer? I'm assuming you have an income in some form through it.

Well, what I do is I have a farm budget of about a hundred grand a year and I have 200 families that are willing to give me 20 bucks a week for 25 weeks and they have all the vegetables that they need and I give everything else away and there's a sort of a free flow...I just load vegetables up every few months and send them down to Nashville and they take them home and have to give them to their neighbors and distribute them. It's a way of distributing food freely. And then, if at the end of the year I have money in the bank, then I do it again. People are pretty anxious to keep me in business.

You said you're a cow/calf operation. Are you selling your cows as well?

I sell a little bit of organic beef on the market. I believe that cattle are there just to inrease the fertility, not to make money.

There a lot more CSAs popping up all over the place. Do you think that's a good thing?


How many acres are you working here?

The farm is 300 acres. I have about about a 100 ares of pasture and a couple hundred acres in forest, and maybe 8 acres of produce.

So you've been doing this how many years? 35?


So did you start with that same view on CSAs and cattle or has it changed?

No, I was a truck farmer most of the time. I started the CSA in 99 or 2000, somewhere around there, and it arose out through the biodynamic movement. And as insight of the different roles that farmers and nonfarmers play in a community. A farmer {?? with the forces of nature and PROduction. These forces of nature are dealt with in a way that requires a farmer's attention and intuition and spiritual insights. The rest, after the produce is cut, it's all a matter of REduction, and these are forces of humans taking the produce and distributing it, transportation...

So these forces are generally human forces and the farmer should have nothing to do with it. Whenever a farmer takes stuff to the market, they ruin the whole thing because there's all this produce there. And the farm should be looked upon as a self contained individuality, where everything that's needed for agricultural production comes from within the farm's borders, through the rotation of crops, and animals, and pastureland and this kind of stuff. When it's viewed that way, you can sort of see that the farm itself really just runs on itself and just excess carbon, all this free stuff leaves it; nothing changes. And that way you have "farming" because you're making something from nothing. And then you have wealth created in a given area. And this is the way civilizations have built up. And this is the way destroying that you just destroy civilization. And this is what is happening right now.

So, if people are growing things, removing them from the farm and selling it elsewhere do you think it's possible to close loop some farms? Because even if the majority of it is carbon and things, there's all the other nutrients.

Well, it's impossible not to.

So do you think everybody should be farming then?

I think one person can farm enough for, I don't know, 50 or 100 people. Not all of them have to be a farmer.

You kind of told me what the role of the farmer is with the land...what do you think the role of the farmer is in society?

Well, the farmers are priests. And they're responsible for the incarnation of material.

And what kind of farming are other people doing (in this community)?

Nobody farms. There's no farming anymore. I don't call buying chemicals and Monsanto seed and throwing it out there and shipping feed to Texas feedlots, I don't call that faming. I think that's a blatant ripoff.

So how would you encourage more people to farm?

Blow two bridges up in St. Louis, I think would do it. I think to outlaw any corporation over 150 people. Close down all the WalMarts, that kind of stuff. Just have general depression.

Think that'll inspire more people to be more individualistic?

Well, you know, you can look at the model of Russia. 20 years ago we thought they were all gonna starve and the government said, "we're not gonna take care of you anymore," and they gave people land...and 90% of potatoes grown in Russia are never on the market, they're just grown in home gardens. If you don't sell food, people will grow it. They're not going to starve to death. They're smarter than that. And if they can't get chemicals, they'll figure out how to have animals and do it. So the way to encourage people to farm, the only way, is to get the animals out of the feedlots and back onto the land and then shut down the interstate system. And that, I assumed would have happened by 1975, 76, but is hasn't. That's why I don't prophesize much.

I like what you say, that people will know what to do, and they're smart enough...

Oh they're totally intuitive and everybody knows how to farm. It's just a generation or two back. Gotta get that soil humus; got to get that soil nice and fluffy, keep it healthy.

Are you happy with how things have worked out on this farm for you?

I'm generally a happy person.

Do you want to get any bigger?

I decided a few years ago that getting bigger was not what I needed to do; what I decided to do instead was to start other farms. Made no sense burning myself out and really there needs to be more farms. So I have a focus of raising farmers. I've taught a lot of people how to farm.

Do folks come and stay with you here and learn off this land or do you go stay with them and teach them there?

I do both, I mean I start farms when people pay me. I charge money, and then they take my tractors and make compost.

Those that you've started, do you think that people like and stick with the model that you set or do they want to get more commercial with it?

Um...I'm pretty outspoken about the noncommercialization of agriculture and it seems to be fairly popular with the people that I'm dealing with. I don't know, that may be just lucky. But there is's foolish to try to make money in farming. Farming is for the lifestyle that allows a whole lot of people to live on the land as in a welfare system, where they don't really have to do anything. They can just lay around and smoke pot and drink beer and jump in the creek and meditate and read and, you know, play guitar, and just kind of hang out. I mean that's what farms are for. And most people need to do much anyway. And then every now and then the farmer rounds them all up and you plant a big field oryou harvest a big field; we don't need all those people most of the time. But the corporate model necessitates unemployment, poverty, starvation, and then a very extensive welfare system, prisons, and all that.

I know you say you don't prophesize, but can you see that happening, the shutting down of the corporate structure?

There are more prisoners today than there are farmers. Unbelievable. If you told me that when I was a kid, I would have just said, "no way." I have no idea what's going on.

What do you do for fun around here?


How many head of cattle did you say you have?

I didn't say. There's about 50. Well, that's including calves. About half of that would be the correct answer, I suppose.

Are you able to manage that yourself?

I have two hired hands. And I have a lot of community support. Again, what I do is I come off of my hills with vegetables every day and I go through town, stop to get beer or whatever, and anybody, neighbors or friends from around here, is welcome to have anything off the truck that they please. Becasue I feel like it's my job to get money from the city to bring it in to Red Boiling. And then that makes me popular. And it makes it so that if I have any troubles I just go ask people and they're like, yeah, sure. And that's the way that communities work and farmers are always...sort of a typical way to run a farm. You don't try to make money, you just try to keep it going every year.

When Jeff was 19 he and his brother went in on Long Hungry Creek Farm together. He still is at it with his cow/calf operation and his vegetable CSA. He has several helpers who are around college age and Jeff likes to talk about the idealism of the farming lifestyle. His helpers get to swim in the river and lay in the hammock and take care of the vegetables when they need it. It is a beautiful way to live a slow paced life in this case. Jeff often drives through the town of Red Boiling Springs giving away his vegetables out of the back of his truck because he thinks everyone should have good food even if they can't pay for it.

He practices biodynamic farming, based largely on Rudolph Steiner's classic writings. To Jeff, the presence of the cow on the farm is tantamount, as they complete the cycling of nutrients from soil to food to soil again. His 300-some acres are mostly wooded and pastures, with 1-acre patches of vegetables scattered about in fences.

He has very stong beliefs about the capitalistic systems in which we live.

We walked down the long rows of lettuce that were unfortunately flooded and unsalvagable to the potato/squash cave on the left. Jeff and a little girl who was visiting disappeared inside and came back out with arms full of yellow squash to load into her mom's truck. It feels like it's about 50 degrees inside the cave, perfect for root storage.

The barefoot farmer has at this point turned downright friendly and, as it was evening, he invited us to stay the night on the farm so we wouldn't have to navigate in the dark. It's a tempting offer with the fireflies flashing and the bubbling clear stream, but instead we take Jeff's picture and head on down the road with him calling out "peace and love!" after us.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing!

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