A lesson in reaping what you sow
Words by Michelle Ferrand
Photos by Abigail Bobo
Despite being so close to the hustle and bustle of Broadway, the Bells Bend neighborhood of Nashville is known for its rich history, beautiful countryside, and being a mecca for farms. Out there, where the old schoolhouse used to be, you can find a farm that operates a little differently than its neighbors.
Old School Farm is a nonprofit that employs adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Along with a few others, this small but mighty team grows, harvests, and delivers local produce to food-insecure families in Davidson County.
The nonprofit was founded in 2014 by Rowan Millar, who at the time was running MillarRich, a healthcare company that provides “family-style foster care” and employment services for adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. During his search for a larger office space, Rowan came across an abandoned old school house that sat on nine acres of land in a mostly rural, agricultural community. Not exactly suitable for an office but perfect for his next idea.
Through its partnership with MillarRich, Old School Farm has been able to employ individuals of all abilities via its PerfectFit program. Under this initiative, typical farm responsibilities are broken down into smaller tasks so they can accommodate more people with varying skill sets.
“There’s a big push for supportive employment and getting folks into the workforce, so we thought [Old School Farm] could be a great program to educate, train, and develop jobs for adults of all abilities,” said Rowan.
While the nonprofit is a first of its kind for the Music City, it isn’t for Rowan. Back in Ireland, Rowan worked at a day center for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There, he headed the horticulture program that sold potted plants to the public as well as maintained public and private hospital grounds.
“Although it was a bit different, I saw how well it worked [in Ireland],” said Rowan. “So, once we moved into the community, we worked with local farms and got their advice [on how to start].”
The farm grows food across three acres, and it also houses an orchard and a hydroponic greenhouse. Depending on the season, you can expect to find classic produce, such as potatoes, beets, cabbage, okra, and squash. Within the last few years, it’s also produced peaches, apples, strawberries, and blackberries.
“We try to grow a diverse garden but keep it to food that folks will recognize,” said David Cloniger, Old School Farm’s Director. “We want to grow food that pantries can use, not waste.”
All its produce gets sent to The Store, a free grocery store that offers healthy food options to food-insecure individuals, and to Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. Both partnerships are fueled by the farm’s belief that families in need also deserve locally grown produce.
“It’s important to us that we fill that gap since it’s not something they may have access to,” said David. In that spirit, he adds, they refrain from sending seconds, or imperfect fruits and vegetables.
“While everyone else is now discovering ‘ugly produce,’ food pantries have known what that is for a long time because it’s all they would get,” said David. “I remember when I worked at Second Harvest, we would get truckloads of horse carrots. They’re just these enormous carrots that are double the size of regular ones. They’re still good, but we want to send food pantries the best produce we have available.”
This past April, Old School Farm reopened its pottery studio in downtown Nashville. At the studio, they offer ceramic classes to the public as well as a retail area where one can shop locally-made goods. Then in June, the farm was the recipient of a huge fundraising dinner hosted by Juniper Green, a local catering company, and Patagonia. Their next goal is to expand the farm’s size so they can grow and sell cut flowers at markets. With every new expansion and project, the goal stays the same: make Old School Farm as self-sustainable as possible.
“With every dollar that comes in, it widens the blanket of people we can help,” said Rowan. “Not only are you securing employment for individuals that need it, but you’re also helping families in Tennessee get access to clean food.”