Then & Now - The New Deal at Old School Farm

By William Harwood / Photography By Tina Vonhagel & William Goertel | March 02, 2017
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With a Great Depression on, times were tough in ’36. Folks were hungry for something better, and FDR’s New Deal programs aimed to give it to them. One such program here at home was the Wade School in Bells Bend, a Works Progress Administration building done in Classical Revival style. Its construction employed a number of middle Tennesseans, and its existence educated their kids and grandkids. But, in 1997, its doors closed.

Abandoned buildings go to seed quickly, and the Wade School was no exception. For ten years, the structure sat and stewed in its own obsolescence. By now, the building would merely be a graffiticovered footnote in the dustbin of history had Susan Richardson and Rowan Miller—founders of MillarRich, LLC—not seen the nineacre site and implanted a vision for Old School Farm. The property is now home to an organic farm that creates meaningful employment for intellectually disabled adults, a beer garden, an event barn, a music room, a dance floor and a farm-to-table restaurant.

Through award-winning restoration work—Old School Farm garnered a Nashville Historic Commission Architectural Preservation Award in 2015—Susan and Rowan brought the old building back to life. But Old School’s raison d’être, of course, is the farm itself, a growing concern unearthing people’s true potential since January 2014 when it hired its first organic farmers from the disabled community. Ben Brown, an organic farming expert, manages Old School Farm’s workers and determines what, when, where, and how Old School Farm will plant its varied crops. It is not an easy task. Turning old fields that were essentially compacted playgrounds, tramped down for decades by multitudes of little feet, requires serious effort. And, as Ben laughs, a Vermont boy recalling his first Tennessee summer, it also requires “sweat—lots and lots of sweat.” But, in the end, Ben is the first to admit that the effort is worth it. “Watching the adults with disabilities taking ownership of their tasks and rising to the level of full independence,” he says, “is the best part of the job. They’re fully integrated into the life of the farm, each working a four-hour shift on average for two to three days a week.” Two of the farm’s workers are Josh Gibson and Jared Mcintosh. As Josh puts it, “I know now that there isn’t anything I cannot learn to do. People used to focus on what I couldn’t do. Now, if I have a little support and training, I know I can do it.” Jared adds, “I know how to grow plants now and make soil blocks and plant seeds. I don’t think about chickens just as food. They need to be quiet.” When asked what he wants to see next year on the farm, Jared is quick to offer his opinion: “More animals and volunteers, less peppers.”

But those peppers (as well as the eggs and other vegetables) are a thing of beauty in the capable and creative hands of Old School Farm’s new executive chef, Kirstie Bidwell. The Colorado native comes to Old School Farm’s kitchen via her former position as executive sous chef at Pinewood Social. Inspired by Provençal cuisine (that’s “Dixie France,” y’all), Chef Bidwell crafts the menu based on micro-seasons and the freshest options that Old School Farm and its sister farms gracing Bells Bend have to offer. “This is not farm-to-table,” Rowan likes to say, “but table-to-farm. The menu has definitely gone back to the roots. If it’s not in the fields, it’s not going on your plate.”

Photo 1: Owner and proprietor Rowan Millar greets guests at The Old School Farm to Table Restaurant.
Photo 2: Once the Wade School, the building was renovated in 2011 and is now The Old School Farm.
Photo 3: The building before renovations.
Photo 4: Nestled in the heart of Bells Bend, just 10 minutes from downtown Nashville, Old School Farm grows produce for their CSA and Farm to Table Restaurant.
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