It's a quandary shared by many small farmers today. "We had to find a way to sell the farm, without selling the farm," says Chris Rinehart, co-owner of RiverView Mounds Century Farm, located near Clarksville, Tennessee. Not wanting to sell the land, and not interested in continuing to farm traditional row crops such as corn and soybeans like his father, Chris and his wife, Scarlett Mulligan, set out to find a new way to make a living on their family's farm.
Prior to farming, the couple spent time in the military and eventually moved to Spokane, Washington, with their son, Miles. There, Scarlett earned a degree as a physician assistant and Chris pursued a master's degree in philosophy. When Chris's father fell ill in 2006, the couple decided to return to their roots in Tennessee to spend time with family and raise their children (their daughter Harloew was born shortly after the move). It was also time to deal with the 375 acres of farmland that would soon be left to Chris and his brother.
"We knew we'd have to decide what to do with the farm someday," says Chris, "but not as suddenly as we did." Scarlett adds, "Our kids would be the seventh generation to live on this land. We couldn't bear the thought of selling it off to developers. So we came up with another idea."
After some soul-searching, along with lots of research, and guidance from organizations like University of Tennessee-Tennessee State University Extension Offices and Pick Tennessee Products, Chris and Scarlett found the answer. They decided to turn the farm into an agritourism destination, to educate kids and families about life on a farm. "For us, it's about closing the gap between the food and the table," says Scarlett.
"We get calls from small farmers like Chris and Scarlett wanting to do something more with their land all the time," says Karla Kean, at the University of Tennessee-Tennessee State University Extension Office. But Chris and Scarlett's passion stood out. "They have such a feel for the land," she says. "They really want to share it with others while teaching about its heritage and conservation. They just kind of have an aura about them-it's hard to put into words."
The passion that Kean describes, along with their unique blend of fun, educational on-farm events and alternative crops such as blueberries and Chardonnay grapes, recently won them the title of Tennessee's Small Farmer of the Year 2010 from Tennessee State University.
RiverView Mounds is also a certified Tennessee Century Farm. In the fall of 2008, Chris and Scarlett celebrated the farm's 175th anniversary with their first Fall Festival, offering hay rides, pumpkin-picking, a corn maze, and barnyard animal feeding activities. They will kick off this year's Fall Festival on September 11, and will follow that with Country Christmas 2010, beginning on November 26. Their busy roster of activities also includes hosting school groups. Kids learn about farm animals, plant life cycles, and seed-planting, and they can take a hayride out to the farm's Mississippian Era Native American mounds. The mounds, which were recently added to the National Historic Registry, are also the origin of the farm's name.
"The education piece is the most important thing for me," says Scarlett. "When I ask kids where their milk comes from, nine times out of ten they say 'Wal-Mart,' as if there's a faucet inside the store filling up the gallon jugs. We've got a long way to go."
Upcoming plans include providing produce through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture program), and selling cut flowers and year-round produce from two greenhouses that Chris built. They've also applied to the Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program, a cost-sharing program for farmers, to build a Discovery Barn where kids can participate in farm activities such as churning butter and composting.
"Lots of the kids that come out have never been in a green space like this," says Scarlett. "They leave so happy and energized. It's just so powerful to be able to share this with them." Chris adds, "It's as if they come out here in black and white, and leave in full color."