Growing reach

Growing reach

December 5th, 2010 by Brittany Cofer in Business Around the Region

Laura-Chase McGehee/Chattanooga Times Free Press/ Nov 22, 2010 - Joel Houser is the new executive director at Crabtree Farms.

Laura-Chase McGehee/Chattanooga Times Free Press/ Nov 22, 2010...

Making the leap from farmer to executive director sounds like it wouldn't be a seamless transition, but for Joel Houser it was as natural as the food he grows.

The newly appointed executive director of Crabtree Farms, a research and educational farm off Rossville Boulevard, worked for years on the "farming side" of the operation and is now taking a step back to look at the bigger picture.

Starting as an intern in 2002, he was farm manager from 2007 until this year and has been acting as executive director since the spring, but his official title change wasn't confirmed until November.

"It's been good this year to have experiences with the educational side of it and get beyond the farming side of it," Houser said. "The biggest change is just trying to keep the entire organization in mind."

And in doing so, Houser wants to push forward the farm's educational efforts and extend its reach in the community. He hopes to increase by a third the number of children who visit the farm next year, from 900 to 1,200.

"The big push is education," he said. "Our vision going forward is to really integrate ourselves with the school system more. ... We're really good right now with having one-time experiences with children, and that is very valuable. Moving forward, I'd like to see more work with the schools and having kids out here with multiple exposures."

Melanie Mayo, director of education and outreach at Crabtree Farms, also said she hopes to expand educational efforts in the area.

She said the goal of the farm is to teach environmentally sustainable food practices. By creating an atmosphere that is "as open to the public as you can possibly be," the farm is accomplishing that, she said.

"We're a teaching farm working toward everybody growing their own food," Mayo said. "We don't have a monopoly on it, we're not a business trying to make money off of selling food to people, our whole reason for being here is to teach people how to do it themselves, or how to connect with a local source for your food."

Since 1998 when the nonprofit organization was formed and acquired the 22 acres of city property on which the farm sits, Crabtree Farms has worked to educate local residents on growing healthy foods, Houser said. Since he joined the organization four years later, he said a lot has changed and the growth is visible.

From two fields to seven, and with periods of offering community gardens and being certified organic, Houser said it seems as if the farm is "finally hitting a stride and finding our place in the community."

"As far as the farm's concerned, we can't physically expand," he said. "We can fill our area out, and that's something we've been trying to do year after year. We realize we're never going to be a farm that supplies a ton of food to Chattanooga, but the goal of this farm is to be an example of how other farms can run."

Mayo said sometimes the farm's location can throw people off. Since farms are traditionally "way out in the country," Crabtree Farms seems like a "hidden oasis" nestled within the bustling city limits, she said.

"I think as our society has changed, people have gotten further and further from where their food comes from," Mayo said. "Especially being in a city, I think it's so special to have a farm that can teach you about all the things your mom and dad haven't been able to in the times we're living in."

Houser and Mayo hope to continue the farm's focus on youth outreach and education while also putting an emphasis on nutrition. They said they'd like to create more awareness about the benefits of whole foods grown through organic practices.

With the state's high obesity rate, Houser said, that message is now more pertinent than ever.

"We're looking at it from the whole picture, and food is the foundation of that picture," he said. "You can talk about exercise or activity or things like that, but what really is the focus is the food."

He said one of his goals as executive director is to get people to think about where their food comes from.

"We want people to grow their own food," Houser said. "We are in love with the idea of a small farm, but we're even more in love with the idea of people growing it in their backyard."