The Barefoot Farmer: Jeff Poppen

By Catie Bohleber / Photography By Tim Harris | September 11, 2017
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Jeff Poppen, aka “The Barefoot Farmer,” will surprise you. And it’s not just his rustic aesthetic, how bountiful his farm is, or even the romantic way he farms. What I found most surprising was his near lack of interest in what he was growing. Jeff is interested in the science of farming—real agriculture and the way the Earth is one sustainable organism. As he told me, “it isn’t about the vegetables or fruit, though that is a delightful bonus. It really comes down, deep down, to the soil. The reason to grow crops should not be financial, but because it is what’s right for the soil.”

His land is one of the oldest and largest organic farms in Tennessee, and it’s totally biodynamic, what Jeff calls “the original way to farm”. In addition to the farmed acres, the land is also home to forests and creeks, all of which help create the farm in Red Boiling Springs. This farm was started by Jeff, but it can’t be maintained without the help of interns and farmers that work with him, like Kristina Rossi, who lives on the farm and is totally enthusiastic about what Jeff does; she’s so enthusiastic, in fact, that she moved to his farm three years ago and has been working with him ever since. She can convince you to move to his farm and never turn back. Jeff will tell you she is their “cheerleader.”

His CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, is made possible by the food he grows using eight acres of his farmland and about 40 head of cattle. While he doesn’t sell meat, his cattle are essential to farming and for the health of the soil. When I arrived on his front porch, he was filling cow horns with compost. He explained that, once filled he lets the horns sit until it eventually creates an incredible dirt. I’m talking powdery dirt that when rubbed across your hand feels like baby powder. This intentional process creates a soil that is rich with living organisms there to suck up carbon and improve the air and the vegetables that grow from the soil.

Jeff started his farm at 19 and admits that he’s made plenty of mistakes along the way. But he’s learned a lot and shares it with interns, would-be farmers, and farmers alike. He has worked with most of the farmers in middle Tennessee, lending his expertise to help start Bells Bend, Glen Leven and Green Door Gourmet.

He tells young farmers “learn how to farm, don’t just buy a farm.”

There is a life stream, as he calls it, on the farm that must be understood. Jeff says, “there is no matter without spirit.” He has cultivated a lifestyle that is drawing millennials because it isn’t like any other job. It isn’t a nine-to-five work week or sitting at a computer all day. The Barefoot Farmer lifestyle relies on the Earth to provide, not money. With the idea of spirit there also comes one of faith. He talks about having “faith in the crops”, faith that there will be enough water each season to allow the land to provide. Another important thing Jeff teaches his interns is his belief that “organic farming is really the peace movement.”

Jeff is not only someone you want to learn from, but he is also someone who you want to get your produce from. There are still spots available in his CSA for this season. Contact CSA manager Natalie Ashker by phone at (901) 626-7760 and by email at Jeff is also available to give lectures at various schools, universities, club meetings, workshops, and events.



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