Knoxville’s Urban Agriculture Initiative Aims to Bring Farming to the Center City

In Cover Stories, Food & Drink by Eleanor Scottleave a COMMENT

cover_0728_Brenna2Brenna Wright rinses off a mess of greens in a plastic tub behind wooden tables loaded with tomatoes and herbs. It’s a hot day, and Wright works under the shade canopy of her makeshift produce stand outside the gate of Abbey Fields, the new urban farm on the edge of the Parkridge neighborhood in East Knoxville. The tomatoes on the stand were grown just a few feet away on the other side of a new wire fence protecting rows of crops; the herbs were propagated in the small greenhouse just inside the gate. Farm volunteers walk down the rows harvesting vegetables into reusable shopping bags. Wright chats with customers and curious passersby, patiently answering questions about her unusual new business. In only two years, Wright has converted the three-acre overgrown, debris-littered vacant lot into verdant farmland. Standing as it does at the western entrance to Parkridge, the change has been highly visible to residents of the neighborhood, and according to comments on local message boards, quite welcome.

Abbey Fields is just the kind of project the city of Knoxville’s Urban Agriculture Initiative is designed to encourage. In fact, Wright had a hand in formulating the first phase of the initiative, a new zoning ordinance providing legal standing for more urban agriculture practices.

“Brenna Wright with Abbey Fields provided fantastic insights as we researched and crafted the ordinance, and her transformation of an otherwise abandoned industrial lot into a productive farm we believe shows the possibilities of what can be done with a little imagination,” Office of Sustainability Project Manager Brian Blackmon writes in an email. “She has been one of our test cases through this process as we sought to reduce barriers for others seeking to make this type of investment in Knoxville.”

The Office of Sustainability worked to develop the Urban Agriculture Initiative with the Metropolitan Planning Commission, Beardsley Community Farm, Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum, the Knoxville-Knox County Food Policy Council, and other advocates of food security as well as entrepreneurs like Wright. The entrepreneurs were key; the initiative looks beyond community hobby gardens to the creation of a broader farming-based economy inside the city.

Earlier this month, City Council passed the new zoning ordinance (8-1), which seeks to support urban agriculture by allowing community gardens in all city districts, allowing personal and for-profit market gardens in a wider variety of districts, and establishing guidelines for practices like beekeeping and composting on private property.

Office of Sustainability Director Erin Gill says the Urban Agriculture Initiative “responds to a renewed passion in the community” to reconnect people with the origin of their food, honor the agricultural roots of this region, and find solutions to health problems due to poor nutrition. Gill says ideas gleaned from the regional brainstorming project Plan East Tennessee (PlanET) also informed the development of the initiative. PlanET asked residents of East Tennessee to envision their ideal future for the region and submit ideas to their website for a plan to reach shared goals.

“Urban food was a top priority, ” Gill says.

In 2013, Mayor Madeline Rogero submitted a proposal for an “urban food corridor” to the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors’ Challenge grant competition. At stake was a $5 million grant prize and four $1 million runners-up prizes to the best ideas for city improvement. Rogero’s proposal for Knoxville aimed to transform blighted lots into productive urban farms, creating jobs and increasing access to healthy locally-grown food. It was an ambitious, unprecedented plan drawn from ideas pitched by community members in a series of public meetings, especially in East Knoxville. Although Knoxville didn’t win the Bloomberg money, what emerged from the process was a comprehensive blueprint city officials and local food advocates could rally behind, establishing a vision for future development.

Long before City Council voted on the zoning amendments, the Office of Sustainability released a readable explanation of the logic behind the proposed changes, illustrated with appealing photos of Knoxvillians in gardens. This proposal states “a staggering 11.26 percent of Knoxville’s households are located in food deserts.” Gill says East Knoxville is a particular area of concern as a part of town where healthy food is a serious issue and limited access has led to chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. People living in food deserts may not be starving, but the only edible substances within walking distance are chips, snack cakes, and other junk food from gas stations and fast food restaurants. The very young, the very elderly, and poor people without cars have difficulty getting to a grocery store with a real produce section.

City officials think market gardens could improve the lives of these urban poor. Market gardens, as businesses, have been allowed in commercial and industrial zones for some time. The new ordinance permits them in residential areas too, subject to use on review. Now, with a temporary permit, people will be allowed to grow and sell food on a variety of scales. One market gardener may put out a little table and sell baskets of homegrown tomatoes from her backyard. Another may establish a mini-farm with greenhouses, sheds, and a sophisticated produce stand. Even if most people living in food deserts don’t grow a garden, the few fresh vegetable stands of their neighbors may provide much needed oases.

The Urban Agriculture Initiative is not designed to only serve the urban poor. One has only to look at the marquees of trendy restaurants downtown to see that foodie culture is a real thing in Knoxville, and some customers really care about organic, locally-grown food with regional ties.

The popular Market Square Farmers’ Market permits vendors to sell only food grown or made by the vendor and gives preference to local growers. Most farmers are regional, but with the new zoning ordinance market-goers may see an increase in hyper-local food grown less than a mile from downtown. Wealthier locavores may appreciate and patronize more farm-to-table restaurants like the Plaid Apron in Sequoyah Hills, one of Abbey Fields’ customers. The city is hoping these wealthy drivers of the food movement will grow a local food economy.

Barriers and Supporters

cover_0728_9031The new ordinance designates the community garden as a non-profit managed by a group, for group use as either a stand-alone garden or an accessory garden attached to a structure such as a church. As not-for-profit entities, community gardens are not allowed to have produce stands. Beardsley Farm, the oldest and most established of Knoxville’s urban farms, is technically a community garden. Although Beardsley sells honey from their beehives as a fundraiser, all other produce grown on the six-acre property is donated. The city started Beardsley in 1996 as an urban demonstration garden; now the farm falls under the umbrella of the Community Action Coalition with Khann Chov as farm manager. Located in Mechanicsville behind the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, Beardsley has a hen house, a berry patch, and a native fruit orchard as well as beds of vegetables, and plots to rent. This spring Beardsley broke ground on a 1,200-square-foot education center. Previously, the only real structures were the barn and a plastic high tunnel, neither one with toilets or running water.

Blackmon says a major barrier to urban farming was the requirement that a lot have a house or main building in order to also have an auxiliary structure like a greenhouse. Beardsley is inside the boundaries of Malcolm Martin Park, and as parkland, escaped this requirement. Now greenhouses, storage sheds, beehives, and composting bins are allowed in gardens in all zones, with or without a main building, but do require building permits and are subject to codes and overlays.

Fifth District City Council member Mark Campen, who sits on the Food Policy Council, says he supports the initiative “big time,” and thinks the ordinance is proof Knoxville is “headed in a good direction by making growing your own food accessible and acceptable.”

Although most City Council members reported generally favorable comments from constituents, not everyone is on board. Third District Council member Brenda Palmer is a dissenting voice. She says many of her individual constituents as well as the Bearden Council opposed the new ordinance.

“It’s one thing to have a backyard garden, but another thing when your neighbor starts planting rows of corn in their front yard,” says Palmer, who adds her constituents tell her they moved to the city because they liked city life, and aren’t sure farms are a part of that.

City code considers personal gardens a landscaping feature, and are allowed on any open space of a residential property, including the front yard, but landscaping may be subject to neighborhood “covenants” or rules of homeowners’ associations.

Palmer is also concerned that urban agriculture will create more work for the city. She worries neighborhood codes enforcement will be overwhelmed by an increase in codes violations due to unmaintained agricultural equipment and structures such as plastic high tunnel hoop houses. As of now, there are no planned staff increases for codes enforcement, the department responsible for policing the new urban gardens.

Palmer’s was the only vote against the ordinance. Now that the ordinance has passed, the Office of Sustainability is moving on to the next phases of the initiative: livestock, food distribution, and policies to convert city-owned vacant lots into market gardens.

To be clear, the new ordinance does not allow dairies, pig farms, stables, or cow pastures; these and other elements of major agriculture are not on the agenda. The definition of urban agriculture in the ordinance does include apiaries (beehives), aquaponics (growing fish and plants in a symbiotic system), and domesticated chickens.

Members of the Knoxville Permaculture Guild and the Knoxville-Knox County Food Policy Council have already questioned the city about allowing ducks and goats, and making amendments to the backyard hen ordinance to loosen requirements. One issue was the fact that currently a household can keep up to six hens, but some 4-H projects require at least 15. Some members of the Urban Hen Coalition say that the hen ordinance is an unnecessarily costly and lengthy paperwork process that would benefit from streamlining. Gill says future policy on this issue will be developed through public meetings and community engagement.

Briefly mentioned in the Urban Food Corridor plan and the Office of Sustainability zoning proposal is the possibility of renting or selling city-owned vacant lots to market gardeners for use in growing food. According to the proposal, vacant lots cost the city $117,000 yearly to maintain, and more unseen dollars are lost in community costs. Gill says no additional policy is in place yet for that. So far, everything is in the research phase.

Feasible Food

cover_0728_9011Speaking of research, last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the Metropolitan Planning Commission a $25,000 grant to conduct a food hub feasibility study. The study aims to find out if enough supply or interest exists for a locally-grown food processing and distribution center to work in the 11-county region surrounding Knoxville. Food hubs are a fairly new thing; most in the U.S. are five years old or younger. Chattanooga got their food hub, Harvested Here, in 2013 and use it as a branding tool, with labels marking foods as local. Louisville, Ky. will soon have the largest food hub in the nation, including a facility that converts food waste to energy.

“That one’s really cool,” says Liz Albertson, the senior MPC planner coordinating the study.

Albertson and her team have been looking at food hubs around the country to see what’s been tried and what works. MPC contracted economists at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture to conduct research and formed a steering committee of vegetable farmers, livestock producers like the Cattleman’s Association, and local food advocates. Albertson says funding agencies United Way and the Aslan Foundation have expressed interest in a local food hub.

Every region’s food hub is unique to accommodate quirks of the area and each is organized in a different way. The one in Louisville is a partnership between city government and Seed Capital, a nonprofit investor, but others involve private companies who share in the profits. Albertson points out that a food hub doesn’t even have to be a physical location. One in Indiana is essentially a networking website connecting farmers with buyers. Even if the Knoxville region cannot support a large facility, that kind of networking site might be appropriate to help farmers working cooperatively (such as one group in Roane County) to coordinate with each other.

But the food hub is another project still in the research phase. To look at an urban agriculture project already off the ground with an energetic leader already growing and doing, we turn to Abbey Fields.

Flagship Farm

cover_0728_9096Abbey Fields is Wright’s 2.5 acre for-profit farm that broke ground (in more ways than one) in 2014 at 1400 Washington Ave., adjacent to the vacant hulk of the Standard Knitting Mill.

For over 100 years the Standard Knitting Mill provided jobs to the communities of North and East Knoxville, producing textile garments like T-shirts and underwear, with employment and productivity peaking in the 1960s and slowing to a trickle in the following decades. The last tenants, Delta Apparel, left in 2003. In the 1990s part of the mill was demolished, leaving a three-acre piece of rutted clay. Eventually weeds took over, small scrubby trees grew up, and the place took on the weird beauty of a neglected area in Tennessee, full of illegally dumped trash, wildflowers, and songbirds.

Wright used to walk by the property dreaming about the potential of the open vacant space. In 2013 she approached the owners of Henry and Wallace, the company that owns the mill, with the idea to turn the space into an organic farm. She brought them a business proposal and examples of successful urban farms in other cities, and pitched the idea of development supported agriculture as an amenity to the community that would reflect favorably on the owners. Wright says DSA is a recent trend in new developments; instead of tennis courts and golf courses, some developers are putting in small farms.

The SKM owners agreed to allow her to farm the space in return for a share of the profits, with Henry and Wallace owning 80 percent of Abbey Fields and Wright owning 20 percent.

“We don’t have a profit right now, but we will,” says Wright.

Wright grew up in Kansas, surrounded by industrial monoculture farming. Working as a health volunteer on a Peace Corps mission in Ghana, she first witnessed a community living off small-scale diverse farming. Wright studied soil science and conservation at UT’s Organic Crops Unit farm, and found poetry in the dirt.

“This idea of soil remediation was so fascinating to me. If you just don’t do things to destroy it, it can heal itself and be good again,” Wright says. “That always amazed me. With a little bit of care, who knows what could happen. It was a cool symbol of community. If we just care a little, things can be better.”

That care includes amending the soil with “crap tons” of leaf mulch donated by the city, several dump-truck loads of composted manure from the zoo, and dozens of smaller loads of finished compost. All the vegetation cleared off the property was also composted.

“It was important that what was there prior came full circle somehow, all of that compost has now been turned back into existing soil,” Wright says.

Wright gained hands-on experience in the business side of farming and learned to practice good land stewardship at Care of the Earth CSA, a community supported agriculture in Corryton, Tenn.

Abbey Fields is also a for-profit CSA. Wright sells produce to the farm-to-table restaurant the Plaid Apron, food co-op Three Rivers Market, and locally-owned coffee shop K-Brew. Mostly, she grows for her CSA members. The way a CSA works is this: Customers pay for shares up front and receive an allotment of in-season produce. This year Abbey Fields sold 42 paying shares. A full share is $725 and a half-share is $450, split into three payments. Wright also has a work-share program in which eight members work three hours a week (or 12 hours a month) for a full share of food.

Every Wednesday evening and Saturday morning from May through October, Wright has her pop-up shade canopy and industrial spool tables set up outside the gate of Abbey Fields, passing out weekly baskets of vegetables to CSA members. Non-CSA members can also walk up and buy any extras she has on hand, depending on what’s in season. Wright has applied for a Natural Resources Conservation Service USDA grant to fund a high tunnel greenhouse and irrigation, but currently the only money stream is from vegetable sales.

In 2014, city rules around starting an urban farm like Abbey Fields were murky or non-existent. Wright says the Office of Sustainability worked with her to help get the farm off the ground. She says the attitude of then-Office of Sustainability Project Manager Jake Tisinger was, “You tell us what you need, and we’ll try to make it easier.”

According to Blackmon, “Abbey Fields offered a good example of why we needed to add more clarity to our zoning ordinance around urban agriculture. The farm is located on a lot zoned for industry, but it wasn’t immediately clear whether farming and community supported agriculture was an allowable use. We eventually confirmed that yes, a CSA farm on the Standard Knitting Mill site was fine, but that evaluation underscored to our team just how confusing the rules were about gardening and agriculture in the city.”

Wright spoke in favor of the ordinance upon the first reading at a City Council meeting.

“Coming from a for-profit frame of mind, you want this kind of agriculture to catch,” Wright says. “Just as industrial agriculture has guidelines and regulations, if this is to move past the novelty of a farm in the city then it needs to have accountability and regulation. Some people see it as making it more restrictive, I see it as making it more legit.”

She says the ordinance opens up the possibility of growth for her business and affects her plans going forward.

“[With the ordinance] we know we need to do this when we start another farm. There is a guidebook for people who want to actually do it, they are not just guessing,” Wright says. “If you want to make this a viable business venture for small-time farmers there does need to be some sort of accountability to give it wings.”

Blackmon refers to Abbey Fields as the Urban Agriculture Initiative’s “flagship farm,” not just the first, but also a model for potential farmers.

The old mill looms above the farm, vacant now, but full of potential. A patch of sunflowers grows near the crumbling brick wall. Honey bees swarm around the hives. Already, elements of the initiative’s vision can be seen here, but the farm is clearly a work in progress. In the fall, UT landscapers will design a front entrance to Abbey Fields with beds of native flowers. The city plans to extend the First Creek Greenway along the edge of the farm, connecting Caswell Park to Sixth Avenue. Bicyclers on the greenway will pedal past meadows of sunflowers and rows of tomatoes.

Recently at a CSA pick-up, a customer gently admonished Wright, who is in the last stage of pregnancy, for working too hard.

“Well, I have lots of help,” Wright replied.

cover_0728_CollinsStarting a farm from scratch is hard, and Wright says she is thankful for her work-share members and volunteers. One passionate volunteer named Johnny Collins, a paying full-share member who works in the garden 15 hours a week, has been with Wright from Abbey Fields’ beginning.

“Gardening is the way we are gonna save the world,” he says before donning his straw hat and heading out into the garden.

Wright’s previous job in social work led her to pondering different approaches to healing, especially with kids. In addition to the baby on the way, Wright and her husband, Aaron, have a 3-year-old daughter. The books of food guru Michael Pollen and that agricultural saint Wendell Berry, who both speak to the value of good food and hard work, inspired her to find her own niche in that world.

“I have always loved being outside, and found peace and meaning in working with my hands. I want to help people, I want to provide good places for people to be,” she says. “I was drawn to the aspects of growing my own food. When I saw that it could work at Care of the Earth, I thought, if I could find a way to do this and beautify spaces in the city, that gives people access to good food—it’s not going to fix every social problem, but people that do find the same peace being out here, it’s available.”

Wright says if it is to work, it all comes back to the soil.

“I get to watch a piece of property transform. It is so hard, but it is so worth it. I don’t know something better I could be doing with my hands.” 

See AlsoCultivating the Land at the Knoxville Botanical Garden and Arboretum’s Center for Urban Agriculture

Contributing Writer

Eleanor Scott's Possum City explores our urban forests, gardens, and wild places, celebrating the small lives thriving there. A freelance writer and columnist, she also maintains the Parkridge Butterfly Meadow in East Knoxville.

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