Photos by Sarah Gilliam
M y status as a food adventurist propels me to a favored Martha Stewart recipe: Mixed Chicories with Persimmons. But I can’t find its ingredients around any old corner. Where to begin?
The answer is as simple as a chat with the uniquely talented Tana Comer of Eaton’s Creek Organics Farm.She is an ideal starting point.She will win your CSA-loving heart.
Tana has a steady gaze.Her directness pushes for the business at hand: our scheduled chat about her history as a farmer. But the story has tangents and Tana’s farm manager, Julia Thompson, is present and listening.
One important fact to know at the outset: Eaton’s Creek Farm was sanctioned as the first organic farm in Davidson County.
Tana grew up surrounded by big gardens in Kentucky.Both sides of her family were engaged in the business of self-sufficiency.Her backdrops were of hogs and cattle, beehives and apple trees.
Her maternal grandmother painted the vivid picture of working with produce. Early on, Tana churned butter and remembers big bins of flour.She has memories of trips to the springhouse and creatures in the scary root cellar.
But before she could call a patch of dirt her own, a preoccupation with criminal justice prevailed. Tana gained prowess in the intense world of social work and probation. Dallas was Tana’s home in those days and, at the same time and place, her future farm manager, Julia, was serendipitously growing up.
A career move to Nashville added a couple of new achievements to Tana’s resume: a dozen years in General Sessions Court and the formation and management of Pretrial Services.
Living in Sylvan Park, she began to feel a childhood instinct, the itch to work outside.“At that time, the only rural life in Davidson County was in Joelton and I made the move,”she says.
And so it began. On 1/2acre, she started a raised bed garden and friends turned out to help, even providing three separate parcels of land on which to grow. Hoop houses were employed to provide more food for neighbors and friends.
The young and wise Tana was firm with a commitment she made to herself—always love what you do. So far, good jobs had delivered work that satisfied her, but now she was in love with a different kind of ministry: supplying healthy food to locals.
She decided to work to pay off all her bills and create a nest egg from which to live as her farming operation took flight.From that moment forward, Tana created firsts at every turn.
“In 2001, the fledgling way to insure that crops were grown organically, without fertilizers etc., was a process completed inside the Tennessee Land Stewardship,” she says. The federal guidelines for organic farms were in place by 2002 as she finished her certification with the Quality Certification Service out of Florida.
Julia pipes in that the required annual inputs and inspection for certification are essential for success in subsequent seasons.“Everything we do is documented on an Excel spreadsheet,” says Tana. “Plantings, seeds, rows, fields, yields, CSA specifics, restaurant customer details, receipts...”
The fun stuff rolls out as they talk variety—75 different crops for 2016. The greens are prolific and the sugar snaps are finicky.Julia is enthusiastic about the Italian butternut squash delivered to Nashville restaurants last fall.“And Julia is into stinging nettles at this time,” Tana says.Julia loves their distinctive flavor. You may have already had the pleasure of trying them yourself, as nettles are likely to appear on a menu near you.
Eaton’s Creek Farm delivers to Nashville restaurants: Marche, Margot’s and City House. Restaurant requests to Tana are quite different than a customer would guess: radicchio and various chicories, watercress, persimmons. Also, a Tennessee native is popular: Jerusalem artichokes.
At this point, I could talk all day about my future with Martha Stewart’s salad, but we have come to the golden kernel of the farming conversation: Tana has the future on her mind. She wants to nurture farmers. “At Eaton’s Creek Farm, we have a history with what we plant and for me, it works to stay small,” she says. “Not every farm is for every person.”
Eaton’s Creek Farm has two paid farm hands, plus Julia as manager and regularly scheduled volunteers.From her earlier days in social work, Tana brings organizational skills and character judgment to the day-by-day particulars of each growing season. “When someone joins us and works for a while, if the group agrees, they become a grower,” she says.
Julia gradually worked her way into mentored farm manager seven years ago while she transitioned from research work with the Tennessee Economic Council for Women.“Julia is assuming more governance of the farm this year,” says Tana. “She is a valuable part of Eaton’s Creek Farm.” No doubt some of Tana’s attention to detail has been transferred as Julia acknowledges that she absorbed knowledge like the plants do nutrients. “I hope that someday I can be the mentor to someone else that she has been to me,” says Julia, detailing Tana’s know-how on crop planning,tillage, soil fertility,the right way to plant a tomato,the best way to explain a task to a volunteer and post-harvest handling methods.
Tana maintains a five- to 10-year cycle of change and is certain that this is a healthy approach to life. “Now I am ready to teach more people about growing. I enjoy creating a test ground for others to learn how to farm and be successful,” she says.
And so Tana’s mission for the next revolution is underway. She will soon escort Eaton’s Creek Farm’s 16-week CSA subscriptions to the East Nashville Turnip Truck. Included gratis will be a story or two about the origins of those veggies, because Tana is a grower and—as it turns out—an excellent mentor.