Photos by Martin Cherry
Y ou can learn a lot on a farm, so it somehow seems appropriate that one special Middle Tennessee farm was once a school, and now is again—albeit teaching slightly different lessons.
Old School Farm is just that: An old elementary school built in 1936, the former Wade Elementary School taught its last lesson in 1997. Since then, the beautiful white schoolhouse sat in disarray, unused and empty—until now. The old school sits on nine acres of farmland just off Highway 12, minutes from downtown Nashville in the little town of Bells Bend. In the back of the school there is the coolest little neighborhood bar, with amazing gourmet food and crazy reasonable prices; it’s a hidden treasure, for sure. But, more about that later. First, a bit of history.
Sharing the desire to start a farm where people could work side by side, regardless of their ability levels, Rowan Millar and Susan Richardson founded MillarRich, a nonprofit organization with the purpose of serving adults with intellectual disabilities by placing them in family-like environments, in 2008. The duo dreamed of a sustainable farm where people, no matter their skill level, could learn to grow organic produce—everyone would be learning, working and teaching in a happy, healthy and helpful environment that would also benefit the entire community. In 2013, that dream came true when the two humanitarians found the perfect home for their nonprofit farm and voila, Old School Farm was born and the school was once again teaching lessons.
“We initially started Old School Farm in 2013 on the belief that creating a sustainable farm can also produce sustainable jobs for those with disabilities, while giving back to the community at large,” says Director of Marketing and Business Development Barry O’Neil. “We have volunteer days during the month, and we are currently looking to expand our teaching programs with our new greenhouse initiative so we can reach out to more community members, children’s groups and groups that help people with disabilities.”
Now, three labor-intensive years later, the very impressive team at Old School Farm has grown from Richardson and Millar to a beehive of workers whose hearts and hands are always reaching out to help others. When Local Table met with several of the members for a long dinner at the Old School Farm Bar, the team’s dedication was obvious. Their belief in the mission, their drive to help and their passion for the cause were apparent from one member to the next, whether it was O’Neil, Bartender Jason, Events Coordinator Natalie Ray, Executive Director of MillarRich Jay Camperlino or owner Rowan Millar himself. Their excitement for the farm, bar and the placement program for the disabled was contagious.
And these folks have ample reason to be excited—and proud. During these few short years, this still-young nonprofit organization has managed to find a home, complete a year-long renovation of the school (entertainment space coming soon), start a farm, sell at farmers’ markets, form a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, entertain the community and place more than 100 people with intellectual disabilities into environments where they can experience and benefit from being part of a “family.” Many of these people have worked on the farm, learning both how to work with others and how to grow crops.
Founders Richardson and Millar state, “We believe that it’s not people’s disabilities, but their abilities, that matter. Being able to create an environment where people of all abilities work side by side is something that continues to inspire and motivate us everyday.”
With the hard work of farm managers and their assistants, plus farm helpers of all abilities and wonderful volunteers, the farm has delivered very well. Wanting to showcase some of that dedication and hard labor, MillarRich decided to open a bar, using the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables the garden offers, as well as local sources. The community would benefit from a lovely 50-seat local bar that offers fine beverages and gourmet dishes created from local ingredients, as well as dances, concerts, parties by the fire pit and more, all while supporting a worthy mission.
“As the popularity of our farm grew,” O’Neil says, “we thought it would be a great idea to showcase the efforts of our farmers by creating a restaurant and bar that gives people a unique farm-to-table experience in the Nashville area. We have called this the Old School Farm Bar and it is housed in our lovingly restored 1936 school building. We feel that we are a ‘bar with a mission’—to help people eat healthier and also provide jobs and training for those who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
Not only are the ingredients the bar uses farm-grown or from local sources, but they are also organic. Diners can eat with their minds at ease, knowing from whom the food they are enjoying came. In fact, the farm-raised foods used in the amazing dishes the bar offers are also the foods in the CSA boxes.
The farm began the CSA program to help support the farm, which in turn supports the community and placement program. Old School CSA is also a vehicle for individuals who want to support local farming, while benefiting from fresh organic produce. Anyone interested in farms and fresh foods can become an Old School CSA member. Members pay at the beginning of the growing season and once the produce begins to be harvested, they’ll receive a box (or share) of produce and other farm-made products for a 20-week period. Farm Manager Ben Brown is excited about the upcoming season: “This year we are looking to increase the amount that we grow and provide more job training and educational opportunities.” If you are interested in becoming involved in the program, visit the farm’s website, www.oldschoolfarms.org.
How has the community responded? In the same spirit Nashville always responds to those in need. Local chefs have planned dinners to support the farm, volunteers have worked in the massive gardens and the developmentally challenged have basked in learning something they can do right alongside everyone else. The bar itself has been a hit; the atmosphere is easy-going, light-hearted and friendly, the food seriously fine and the cocktails imaginative works of art. The servers don’t rush you out after a meal is finished, but rather let you visit, sit by the fire pit or (coming soon) go into the entertainment hall for some live goings-on. For information on the full dinner and lunch menus, as well as the upcoming brunch menu, visit www.theoldschoolfarms.com, or just pop in for a meal you won’t forget.
What can you do to help? Besides donations, what the team needs is help spreading the “good word” via social media. Follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter or come to a farm event such as a dance or dinner. Another great way to support Old School Farm is by volunteering at the farm throughout the season. If interested, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “volunteer.” To participate in the 2016 Summer CSA Program, email email@example.com .