Let It Grow

Let It Grow

See Mother Nature at work at Southall Farm & Inn

Words by Jennifer Kornegay

Most folks understand that farming is serious labor. Plenty others get that it’s often also educational; the land yields valuable lessons alongside harvests. While the minds behind Southall Farm & Inn in Franklin, Tennessee, know farming is both these things, they believe it has the potential to deeply engage and even entertain. So, Southall’s goals are also multi-faceted.

First and foremost, it’s a 325-acre working farm. An orchard is lined with 1,300 apple trees. Inside both hydroponic and traditional greenhouses, leafy greens and additional fruits and veggies grow. Other crops occupy open acres, while some of the land is left undeveloped, inviting foraging for wild edibles, including native mushrooms, nuts, and berries. Livestock roam in its pastures.

Southall is also a resort that relies heavily on the farm’s pastoral calm to charm guests and on its bounty to mostly—but not exclusively—feed them. None of this is hidden in sheds on the edge of the property or tucked behind hills. Evidence of this cross-pollination is put front and center. Large greenhouses greet guests at arrival. Their glass panels gleaming in the sun spotlight Southall’s main mission: marrying the property’s two faces. It’s a match made in heaven according to chef Tyler Brown, Southall’s senior vice president of agriculture and culinary. “The farm aspect and hospitality aspect are actually pretty similar. Both involve serving and doing for someone, something other than yourself, so weaving these threads together makes sense,” he says.

But the farm remains the focal point and operates under Brown’s watchful and experienced eye. He sees Southall as the culmination of his career so far. “The way I’ve cooked in the past, that food passed along  a lot to our diners, like where ingredients came from,” he says. “But here, I’m getting to tell our guests the whole story via their taste buds,” he says. “It’s totally interactive; it goes beyond eating a dish and just knowing the farmer’s name and location.” 

Indeed, guests stay and play amid all that the farm is and have opportunities to enjoy immersive, farm-focused activities—such as beekeeping, apple picking, forest foraging, and more—that show the day-to-day of agricultural operations as well as the overarching ideas that govern Southall’s approach to the land. Customized culinary offerings, including the Rambling, a series of family-style, outdoor dining experiences, are on the menu too. Experiential travel is not new, but it is growing in popularity, as is an interest in food and how it is produced. “A lot of places offer some of what we do, but not many put it all together, so we think that sets us apart,” Brown says. 

He grew up in South Carolina and has worked in kitchens all over the South, landing at The Hermitage Hotel in Nashville in 2006. He felt confident in his kitchen skills when it came to utilizing local products, but he realized there was still a lot he didn’t know about what it took for those ingredients to make it to him. And he wanted to learn. He began visiting the farmers who supplied him, even getting his hands dirty alongside them to increase his understanding. Soon, thanks to a partnership with The Land Trust for Tennessee and a local farmer, Hermitage had its own garden. “I started planting and harvesting and seeing how farming and the food system work. Getting to take that a step farther, to show guests the whole process, that’s what drew me to Southall.”

Southall is packed with things to eat. While not all of the property’s acres are actively being farmed, food being grown in and on the cultivated spaces is abundant and diverse. Thirty-five distinct types of apples are in the orchard. Six apiaries produced 1,200 pounds of sweet liquid gold honey last year. Its orangerie contains sixteen varieties of citrus. The 1.5-acre kitchen garden—designed to invite guests in and encourage exploration—is ripe with dozens of heirloom crops. Even landscaping around the inn and cottages contains edible plants. And striped bass are swimming around in one of the greenhouses. “We’re doing aquaculture too,” Brown says. “We chose to grow and raise the things right for this area, and in our methods, we are celebrating both old and new ideas in agriculture.”

The tie that binds this all together is a biodynamic philosophy that views all the farm’s elements as pieces of a whole that work together in harmony to maximize the farm’s health. This includes pasture rotation for grazing and terraced land that funnels rain runoff to a capture basin to be used for orchard and field crop irrigation. Brown explains the emphasis on sustainability. “We’re focused on how to make this land work in unison and to celebrate the cycle of life here,” he says. “We’re not boasting, saying we are doing everything right, but we want folks to see what we are doing, and we want to share what we are learning.”

Part of the sharing takes place on the plate. There are two on-site restaurants, and every dish is built on each season’s abundance. “It’s about what’s coming out of the garden at this time and what we have in meat now, and then drawing the lines to say, ‘OK, what goes together?’ ” Brown says. “And it’s always about the ingredients. We’re not cooking in any one style.”

Southall’s certified canning kitchen allows Brown to make the most of what this plot of earth gives him, as he produces jams, relishes, pickles, and ferments to stretch the seasons. “I want to do all I can to highlight Mother Nature’s work,” he says. And he asserts that Southall guests will be inspired by it. “Some resort guests will want the more relaxing visit and to just see what is happening here,” he says. “But some—I think a lot—will take advantage of the chance to dig deeper into the farming side too. And that’s going to be fun.”