At this moment, the Farm at Southall is blanketed in a four-inch layer of soft snow, the kind we only get once every several years in Middle Tennessee. But just below, life underground is waking up. Next week, when the forecast is calling for sun and temperatures near 60 degrees,…Read More
On first approach to Southall, the two glass greenhouses stand as welcoming beacons. They’re part of Chef Tyler Brown’s vision of marrying traditional agriculture with modern technology.
Case in point: on the left is a state-of-the-art hydroponic grow facility, where an ocean of leafy greens is reaching through a rigid foam base, their full root structures visible in the crystal clear water. At night, the soft pink grow lights help maintain optimal conditions to produce 400 pounds of show-perfect lettuces each week.
In the adjacent propagation greenhouse, tens of thousands of seedlings are being sprouted and hardened off to be planted out on the farm. Seasonality drives the selection, from pest- deterring companion flowers such as nasturtiums and marigolds to native shrubs and vines to herbs, berries and Brown’s hand-selected array of vegetables. It’s part of the “Ark of Taste,” sourced from coast to coast and around the globe – you might find black currants being started next to a native Tennessee clematis, or French lavender growing alongside an Indian blood peach tree seedling, just waiting to go in the ground.
There’s no wasted space in this greenhouse, which also includes the Orangerie: here, Persian limes and variegated Meyer lemons grow next to kumquats and tangelos, all selected with a future menu in mind. It’s about constant experimentation in the kitchen, and learning how to maximize the Southall footprint to create a food-producing oasis rooted in the values of permaculture, and preservation of the landscape.
“Most people in America aren’t familiar with the bambara ground nut, which has origins in Africa. A friend sent me 20 seeds, and we’re growing them now. Southall may be the only place in the country that will be serving bambaras, and it’s a thrill for me to share that with our guests,” Brown says. “Even in a much different geographical environment, we can find microclimates on the property that allow us to use old-fashioned farming sense while leveraging technology to grow really unique cultivars.”
Many areas of the farm will be utilized by livestock on a rotational basis, both to maintain pastures and to assist in pest control, natural fertilization and soil aeration. Nowhere will this be more evident than in the silvopasture, where layers of perennial food production will occur, from the top branches of nut-producing trees all the way down to the morels and chanterelle mushrooms being inoculated at their bases. In between, it’s layers of hazelnut shrubs and shade-tolerant blackberry brambles, warm-season grasses interspersed with ramps, and other native edibles colonizing to produce more each year.
The Southall farm team has been thinning the tree canopy to allow the right amount of sunlight in, while removing invasives and replacing them with layers of food. This part of the farm faces south, which is the best light for growing perennial edibles among mast-producing hardwoods. Here you’ll find multiple species of chestnuts alongside dozens of native azaleas. Different livestock will be rotated through on a well-timed schedule, allowing everything to work together collaboratively.
Experience equals knowledge for Brown and the farm team – understanding that an inch of rain provides 43,000 gallons of water on an acre of land, and that when it thunders over the buttercups in a warm February, a late frost is sure to follow in April – and when the kestrels return in March, it’s time to plant the onions. They’ve learned how to get blooms in 60 days from a native pipe vine that will attract the pollinating butterflies far more quickly than the two years it would take if the seed were left to its own devices.
“You can study agriculture, but you learn by doing, and this is a giant laboratory for all of us to experiment and grow and apply our life experiences while we’re continually learning,” Brown explains. “We have to have our hands on it every day, whether it’s vegetables or domestic animals. They deserve that kind of care, and the best part is sharing that with other people who may not otherwise have a chance to explore full-circle, sustainable agriculture. When they discover the product that we present on the plate, it hopefully becomes an unforgettable experience.”
He says the pursuit is where he finds fulfillment.
“As a chef, I’ve always set out to be purposeful, rather than whimsical – when you’re constantly learning and seeking better ways, you ultimately develop a better product,” Brown says. “The journey is the mission for me, and I want nothing more than for guests at Southall to come alongside us and get a taste of that inspiration.”