Bringing the mission back home

Volunteer farmers, formerly homeless help feed Midstate’s hungry

Friday, August 5, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 32

Crunching through an almost invisible gap in the fence and onto the rutted “road” of mostly loose gravel, I’m looking forward to meeting up with the produce and life nurturer I first met in a church parking lot on the other side of this very hill.

That was a few weeks ago when I stumbled, almost literally, into Joey Lankford, 38, who was standing on hot asphalt, selling produce while preaching the value of sustainable agriculture to achieve his quixotic quest to eradicate urban food deserts while lifting lives.

“I’m growing produce locally and using it to provide job opportunities and help with food-insecurity challenges,” he says, perspiration of this endlessly brutal summer trickling down his forehead as he tends to the produce in his booth. Kale, I believe, was in season at the time.

He didn’t tell me at first that “growing locally” meant tilling the soil, planting and harvesting on the other side of the Ellington Agricultural Center hill from the market at Crievewood United Methodist Church. Can’t get much more local than bringing produce to a farmers’ market from a half-mile away, as the battered, old, proverbial crow flies.

Joey is basically an ordinary Nashvillian who through his church – Brentwood Baptist – learned about a way he could be an agriculture-raising and people-training missionary in Africa, where he and his family spent five years before he decided to try the same basic formula in the heart of Nashville.

“I completely worked in job-training and the development platform for Living Hope,” he tells me when I next catch up with him in the Ellington valley, where crops are rotated three times a year to bring the best produce to market and lift the workforce to something resembling prosperity: Self-confidence, at least.

His Living Hope non-denominational mission in Cape Town, South Africa, was to teach poverty-stricken South Africans how to grow food – to eat and to sell – while learning skills to make them valuable in the workforce.

The success of that program during a half-decade in South Africa sparked him to begin daydreaming about how he could put this same model to work back home in Middle Tennessee.

He knew there was a need.

Our “It City” bursts with the “invisible” homeless people, many wanting and deserving of a second or third chance. He explored Nashville’s many food deserts, locales where it’s easy to buy rolling papers and hot wings but almost impossible to find fresh produce to feed a family. He also figured the same model could be applied in Franklin, where a nest of poverty near downtown is invisible to tourists visiting the unique shops and Civil War historic sites.

My curiosity, birthed in our parking lot conversation, drove me to negotiate the gravel “road” into the hollow where Joey and his crew of volunteers and formerly homeless toil in 100-degree heat.

Bountiful fields of corn and other crops decorate the valley. It’s the work of mission volunteers and the formerly homeless who are learning job skills and regaining pride. Sweat soaks their clothing as their spirits rise.

“It’s more blessed to give than to receive,” reads Acts 20:35, a Bible verse attached to the fence that surrounds the Nashville Cul2vate mission farm. It is one Scripture lesson Joey and volunteers hope to instill in the formerly lost souls they are attempting to raise with the vegetables.

It is also a passage stenciled into the heart and head of this Brentwood father of five – including one child adopted from Ethiopia – as he plants hope in souls and seed in soil in this gloriously agrarian slice on the other end of the rugged gravel trail.

A few weeks before during our first meeting there was too much “Farmin’ in the Hall” activity around us to allow for detailed conversation. In addition to the live music – a staple at farmers markets around Nashville, of course – there are folks selling lemon ices, Italian food, homemade soaps and fresh produce, all the while happily chatting up my Crieve Hall neighbors.

Visiting farmers markets has become a passion this summer, and I’ll likely write more about it in the future. But it was at the one a block from my house where I met this fellow with Cul2vate stenciled on his T-shirt. I quickly surmised he was an unorthodox passionate peddler of produce and hope.

“You buy a pound of our produce and we donate a pound that goes to the people who need it,” he says, rattling off charities such as Second Harvest and Nashville Food Project. They benefit from the fruit and vegetables nurtured by the labor of Joey and the rest of the guys who work in something resembling unison in this valley.

From the brief explanation of what Cul2vate is, I realize lives are being saved while the cornstalks flourish down on Joey’s farm.

He’s filling the bellies of those in need while giving doses of pride and reasons for being to formerly homeless gents.

Seeing those admirable goals at work is what drives me to take a sharp left through the Ellington fence-line to descend through woods and across the tricky gravel to reach the paradise of Joey’s dream.

An afternoon thunderstorm – punctuated by lively lightning – accompanies my descent into Joey’s field of dreams. for which there always will be a need. Poverty, bad nutrition and homelessness thrive beneath the towering condos and hotels punctuating the Nashville skyline.

“If you grow it, they will come,” could pretty much describe not only the motivation for the men who work down here but also that which draws food banks to load up with stuff either fresh-cut or fresh-picked.

Joey Lankford shows off some of the tomatoes that are ripening inside the greenhouse at the farm.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Hard work has turned a field of thistle and Queen Anne’s lace into a productive farm that reflects the calm spirit of Thoreau rather than the “outside world” and its frenetic pace punctuated by mass-shootings, Trump and Hillary bombast and Pokémon Go.

Rain chases me as I dodge through the gate to where I first meet Matt Worley, who says he “runs operations and helps with the spiritual pillar of Cul2vate.”

“I worked with Joey in Africa, and when he started this, I wanted to work with him here,” he says, leading me toward the two greenhouses filled with at least 400 tomato plants and other assorted edible vegetation.

At the moment, the guy I met at the Crieve Hall farmers market is out in the cornfield, working with retired medical physicist Charles Coffey. They turn toward me and stride in my direction.

The gentle physicist brushes away the “Dr. Coffey” greeting with a robust handshake and the “Just call me Charlie” directive of a hearty soul who works most days down in this valley, helping Joey and the other volunteers raise fields of food while rescuing sad-eyed people from life’s asphalt lowlands.

“What kind of man is devoted enough to give up his retirement to come down here and work?” Joey asks, rhetorically, as Charlie dodges rain and hands me three ears of corn.

“You take these home and eat them,” Charlie softly commands, before sitting by me at a picnic table beneath a leaky canopy installed to give the men meal space and temporary respite from the sun.

Charlie, 67, is a year and a world removed from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he and his staff filled orders for specialized radioactive medical materials for use by the doctors and others performing high-tech procedures.

“We’re like a pharmacy, but we deliver radiation,” he says, abbreviating a description of his 40-year career, the last 22 at Vanderbilt.

“I’ve been gardening since I was 7 or 8 years old,” adds Charlie, who retired from his stressful profession last September.

Cul2vate Farm behind Ellington Ag Center in Nashville.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

In addition to working the land in this valley and a related Cul2vate field in Franklin, “my brother and I have a little family farm up in Kentucky where we go about once a week and play farmer.”

He also grows a fairly large plot of vegetables behind Brentwood Baptist Church, where he’s among the congregants who till the soil to provide food for the poor and downhearted.

“One day I stepped out of that plot at the church and that’s where I met Joey,” who told the genial physicist about the fruit of his Living Hope mission in Cape Town and described how he was going to apply the same principles in Middle Tennessee.

Charlie, intrigued, began plotting strategy that led to the Cul2vate farms. “I’m a planner,” he explains. “You have to be if you are in physics.”

So in addition to deciding he would work with Joey to help the younger man realize his dream here, he also began deciding which crops to grow on this state-owned land as well as in the smaller produce patch behind the Franklin Public Library, right off Columbia Avenue.

The question of “Can we grow food for people who we know need it?” and the challenge to answer that in the affirmative had the physicist experimenting with his plot behind the church, before rolling daily into this hidden oasis to grow crops and mentor men.

After a dawn start, “I work until 10 or 11 (a.m.) here, then come back and do more in the afternoon,” he explains, remarking that break is especially important during these brutal dog days. Besides that “lunch is my favorite meal.”

Some retirees play golf. Others watch “Jeopardy” and “Andy Griffith.” Maybe even begin watching “Game of Thrones.” Perhaps take up dominoes or bocce and sip single-malt Scots whiskey.

None of that appealed to Charlie, who located his destiny thanks to Joey.

“Retirement is something men dread,” he says. “That’s because of the fear of being unhappy and not going to work and not having something to do.”

Charlie Coffey cleans tomatoes before filling a crate.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

He smiles as the rain pelts us and he hoists his arm toward the 2½ acres of ripening produce, including towering stalks of sweet corn worthy of Kevin Costner’s best movie (and Shoeless Joe Jackson.) “We’ve already harvested 100 dozen ears” for food programs in Nashville.

In addition to selling produce at the Crieve Hall market, Joey also sells to a growing number of restaurants – Green Hills Grille, the Brentwood Amerigo and Subculture Urban Cuisine, so far. He’s aiming for a retail connection.

Charlie adds he volunteered to work at the farm “because this was supposed to be my transition. But I never do anything halfway. I’m a whole-hog guy.” He shakes his head, a note of self-mockery or perhaps simple realization.

Not only does he plan the plots and nurture the plants, he also takes part in the overall mission of feeding the poor and helping to reverse the fortunes of life’s down-and-outers and lovable losers.

Joey brings two formerly homeless or otherwise “lost” men at a time out here for one-month “vetting” periods to discover if they really are suited for the labor – before giving them three-month jobs.

The goal is not necessarily to turn the men into farmers in four months. But it is to educate them in the ways of work, train them in case an agricultural job does turn up and teach them pride and discipline.

“I do a lot of mentoring to the guys,” says Charlie, looking over at the group of workers huddled from the steady rain just inside the entrance to one of the two greenhouses.

“I like sharing life stories with them, helping them be better men, showing there is a principle here, little lessons in life,” Charlie points out. “None of these guys had any experience in gardening,”

Charlie has a life’s worth of horticulture knowledge to share. As noted earlier, in addition to the Cul2vate fields and his Brentwood Baptist plot, he works with his brother on the circa-1880 family farm in Phil, Kentucky. “Just say in Casey County.”

“This will be good for the turnips and the bean seeds,” Charlie tells Joey, who nods agreement while looking through the curtain of rain and over to the corn.

Charlie Coffey prepares to take a load of vegetables to Green Hills Grille.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Another part of the farm crew, at least this week, is John Gayhart, VP of Pantheon, a tile company in Dallas, which pays its employees to perform one week of volunteer service each year. “We want to give back,” he says.

Since he was Joey’s roommate at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas, he volunteered for Cul2vate.

“It’s amazing,” he adds, when asked about the work accomplished by his old roomie. “He absolutely got called. I knew (in college) he’d be having an impact somewhere.”

Then there’s Chris Comstock, one of the fellows learning lessons in life, faith and soil-tilling.

“I met Joey in a coffee shop,” he says. “He was telling me about this idea. I shared my heart with him and he shared his with me. “

He’s been earning a living wage out here all summer, and he has been joined by Jack Pook, who works here three days a week.

“I learned about this through Welcome Home Ministries, where I live,” says “city boy” Pook, a 52-year-old former estate caretaker in California, who lost that job and some level of hope when that property was sold.

“This has been huge,” Jack says of Joey’s mission. “It’s had a big impact on my life. It’s given me a lot of hope.”

“I want to stay in agriculture” is his answer when asked what will become of him when he’s done sweating through life’s lessons down here and is replaced by another “trainee” recommended by a social services agency or shelter. “I can use what I learned here.”

Joey says providing a venue where these men can discover hope and look to the future is a big part of his mission.

Charlie Coffey, Chris Comstock, Joey Lankford, Matt Worley, Jack Pook and John Gayhart gather in front of part of the corn crop the Cul2vate farm at the Ellington Agricultural Center.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“They are the best dudes on the planet,” he notes of Comstock and Pook and their predecessors in this field. “They’ve all had some problems in their lives, but this is an opportunity to invest in these individuals, get them started.”

The plan is for five individuals to come through the program – at this farm or the other one near the Franklin Public Library – every four months.

And it’s not just learning how to plow, plant and pick (or harvest) food for distribution in the urban food deserts.

“While they are here, these dudes learn about personal development, resume writing, how to present at an interview, how to be confident,” Joey says of the men whose lives he is nurturing along with the corn, okra and beans.

“We are the ones who are blessed to have these guys.

“This is skills-development that can help them get placed into a job,” Joey adds. “They learn dignity through work. They learn to take the bull by the horns out here, where they are guided by people who care about them.”

The mission was born from a dream Joey had during his five years in Africa. He decided it was time to help in his own country, where poor nutrition and crack are washed down with Thunderbird or Mad Dog 20/20, and joblessness fills the cities, even Nashville.

“I began to look at the food desert in my own country,” he says. “It began to come to me that we needed this here, so we started this organization, a grassroots effort by a lot of good people.”

Plenty of campaigning earned him the necessary nod from the state that allows him to use this land in a hollow at Ellington Agricultural Center, a briefly rural oasis surrounded on three sides by Crieve Hall, with Edmondson Pike whooshing by on the fourth side.

A few weeks ago, on the steamy day, I wandered past the food trucks, produce stands, guitar pickers and the like at the neighborhood market, I couldn’t help but be engaged by Joey’s sense of purpose.

While everyone was selling local product, his was hyper-local, grown just across the street and over the hill at the Ag Center.

“We decided that if it’s going to be local, let’s make it really local,” he said that day as he scanned the produce booths, food trucks and the musicians on “the stage” that really is a church entrance. “This gives us a space to engage the local community.”

But it’s only after I join him in the hollow that I truly get a sense of his mission.

“These guys are the heart of the mission Joey chirps.

Across the misty field, the men in search of good ears of corn for the poor vanish – much like Kevin Costner’s movie ballplayers – into the cornstalks, Joey’s Field of Dreams.