Jeff Poppen, known as the “Barefoot Farmer” and the owner and operator of Long Hungry Creek Farm has been farming for the last 40 years in Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee. Long Hungry Creek is one of the oldest and largest organic farms in Tennessee; but Poppen’s farming goes beyond organic by using biodynamic farming methods, concepts developed by philosopher Rudolph Steiner in the 1920’s.
Poppen began practicing biodynamics because of how directly it addresses what he views as the biggest problem facing sustainable agriculture. “With agricultural additives, we can separate plant and animal production entirely. I was drawn to biodynamics because of Steiner’s recognition of the importance of mixed agriculture and the natural synthesis of nitrogen. I was also attracted to the ‘woo-woo’ side of it. ‘Woo-woo’ is something that works for someone that you personally may not understand. It’s the mystery of it all that I like.”
When asked to reflect on how the farming world has changed over the last 40 years, Poppen points to economic changes brought on by the artificial synthesis of nitrogen in 1914. “The real problems with agriculture began during WWI. The same things we use to make gunpowder were repurposed to make herbicides and pesticides. We began to artificially synthesize nitrogen, which made the separation of vegetable and animal production possible.” Before then, he notes, even the USDA preached universal integration of plant and animal crops. Since then, the separation of those fields, especially in an educational setting, has become a huge issue when it comes to sustainable production. “Domestication of animals and civilization go hand-in-hand because animals make land fertile. There are many ways to close the nutrient cycle, and that knowledge is deep inside of us.” Instead of using traditional methods that Poppen references all the way back to quotes from the Bible, we’ve fallen back on these “easy” alternatives we’ve created without thinking about the environmental implications.
As big agriculture is becoming less and less appealing for our health and the planet, the market for conscientiously produced food is booming. “The organic farming movement is about health, spirituality, and economics. People want local and organic food. It crosses political boundaries. Biodynamics is so much cheaper than the organic or conventional method. I want to teach people to grow food cheaply. It’s the economics that are going to change peoples’ minds.”
Although his farm is 250 acres and certainly falls into the “market farm” category, his teaching is geared towards smaller-scale producers, often focusing on teaching biodynamic methods to home gardeners. Starting as a backyard gardener himself, Poppen has been working tirelessly to spread his message that gardening is easy, if you let nature do her thing. “I really encourage people to let the microbes do the work,” he says. “The organic farming movement is about health, spirituality, and economics. I would go as far as to say that home gardeners are the backbone of this movement. Farmers are not nearly so vocal and visible; turning suburban places into food havens and home growers into food advocates is a huge wave of the future. There is no better place to incorporate good farming practices and a passion for conscientiously grown food.”
Poppen has a very “common sense” approach to gardening, and describes the knowledge you need to succeed at it being rooted in intuition. “Everything just does so much better if there’s no stress involved! Plants grow well in good soil, so build it. How do you get across the importance of soil health to the new gardener? Put a clod of healthy dirt on their head and let them feel it! It should feel like chocolate cake. Soil texture is very important, but it’s obvious when you compare a healthy root system and an unhealthy one. Of course it should look like chocolate cake! An educator can do nothing but draw out what’s already in someone. All I can do is point to those things that are already inside of you, and let you explore them.”
The Organic Growers’ School has the honor of hosting a Pre-Conference Workshop at UNCA taught by Jeff Poppen on March 11th from 9:30 – 4:30 p.m. covering The Principles of Biodynamics.
Registration for Jeff Poppen’s workshop at the Spring Conference is now closed. Consider attending the 2nd part of this workshop on July 9-10 at Living Web Farms.
Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology and Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. She was hired at OGS as the Farmer Programs Associate in 2016, and as the Conference Coordinator in 2017. When she’s not geeking out over genetics, systems theory or soil hydrology, she spends her time working for farmers, homesteading, and river jumping in the South Toe Valley.