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VOL. 37 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 04, 2013

Hermitage Hotel buys farm, grows local

By Hollie Deese

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The barn at Double H Farms in Dickson, which has been purchased by the Hermitage Hotel as a source of beef and produce for the Capitol Grille.

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The iconic Hermitage Hotel, a Nashville landmark for 102 years, has solidified its commitment to local, sustainable Southern cuisine and culture with the purchase of a 245-acre farm in Dickson County.

With room to develop the perfect grass to support a herd of heritage cattle, as well as acres of produce, Double H Farms is part of a bigger plan to create a sustainable brand of beef that is distributed beyond the hotel’s award-winning Capitol Grille restaurant. The farm will also grow corn for a future grist mill.

The November acquisition of the farmland is no surprise for those who have been following The Hermitage Hotel’s efforts to embrace its Nashville roots. Hatch Show Prints have been incorporated into the hotel’s website and branding designs. Items from local artisans like Vincent Peach and Linda Twist are stocked at the on-site Rachel’s Boutique. The hotel will even switch all guest mattresses to ones made in town by next year.

The hotel, home of the state’s only five-star restaurant, also has become a leader in Middle Tennessee’s local, organic, farm-to-table movement.

“The thing about The Hermitage and the Grille is that we have been here for 102 years, and we really feel that makes us of Nashville, very much a part of Nashville,” says Janet Kurtz, director of sales and marketing for The Hermitage Hotel.

Capitol Grille chef Tyler Brown hopes to expand Double H Farms to include vegetables and orchards, as well as blackberries, grapes and blueberries.

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“And since our centennial we have really tried to preserve the culture of Nashville into everything that we do. And this farm really extends that message of preservation even further by using it as the land was intended and bring that to a larger community base.”

Protecting farm and ranch lands

The Dickson farm, originally owned by Clarence and Helen Duke, is under a conservation easement held by the state and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, says Emily Parish, assistant director of conservation programs for the Land Trust for Tennessee.

This ensures that the land will only be used for agricultural purposes.

The transaction was completed through the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, which provides matching funds to help purchase development rights to keep productive farm and ranchland for agricultural uses only.

Working with existing programs, the USDA partners with state or local governments and other organizations to acquire conservation easements. The USDA provides up to 50 percent of the fair market easement value of the conservation easement.

The program has been used six times in Tennessee to protect farmland. The Land Trust holds five other easements, while the Hermitage Hotel holds this one. It will always be used as a continuation of the Duke family’s home and farm, founded in the 1930s.

Mob grazing, tasty beef

Before The Hermitage Hotel acquired the Dickson farm, Capitol Grille diners enjoyed farm-to-table produce from an heirloom garden on the 66-acre Glen Leven farm on Franklin Pike, just a few miles from the restaurant. The farm is where the experiment with raising grass-fed cattle began.

“This is wrapping up our third season at Glen Leven, and about a year and a-half ago we realized that to continue doing this on the scale we wanted to – and keep growing and add other elements to it – we were going to look in other areas as well,” says Chef Tyler Brown.

“So for the last year or so, we have been looking at different places real casually, and the last six months or so started to identify some properties that might work for us.”

Located in the hills of White Bluff and bordering Montgomery Bell State Park, Double H Farms has creeks that are fed by natural springs from the park.

This setting will allow for the rotation of cattle for grazing on the grasses through a relatively simple process because of the infrastructure that already exists on the land. This method should also help maintain good yields – and tasty beef - even during a drought.

“We have been speaking with the USDA and working with them to set up paddocks and utilize mob grazing, where we rotate the cattle on a daily or bi-daily basis into different 10-acre paddocks,” Brown says.

“When you cut it too short you take away all of the proteins that are very important for putting on marbling and things in a cow’s growth.”

Farm operations will be overseen by Greg Sligh, managing director of The Hermitage Hotel, along with Brown. For more than a century, Sligh’s family owned a 600-acre farm in Missouri where he worked growing up. He and his relatives still own and manage the original farm.

The goal for Double H is to create a sustainable brand of beef that will be distributed to other local restaurants, as well as directly to the consumer.

Learning along the way, teaching others

“We will start off pretty slow, but we hope to grow to 100 heads or so in the next three years, and, hopefully, by spring, have a couple dozen heads on the ground,” Brown says. “We are new at this, we are learning and we are trying to make some very counted steps. I think we were open to pretty much everything.

“The beauty of the whole project, beginning with Glen Leven and continuing on to Double H Farms, is this is all very new to us. Our hopes are to not only have the cattle but expand to an orchard and growing some blackberries and grapes and blueberries, and ultimately grow some corn and other vegetables out there.

“It will be a very slow progression. We want to take it slow and make sure we are dotting our I’s and crossing our Ts as we walk down the path.”

Educating the public is also important to Brown and the team at The Hermitage, and is something they started at Glen Leven. Seventh graders would come to the garden at the farm, plant with Brown and then make a meal, all the while learning about agriculture.

“That was in October of 2010 and every month past that we went to the school and brought lunch to the seventh-graders and talked with them about different aspects of agriculture in the state,” Brown says.

“Sometimes it was soil, sometimes it was sales.

“It would be nice if we could expand upon that at Double H. There are real needs in communities with respect to childhood hunger and where our food is coming from. It is something we are very focused on and want to take the community on the journey and be a real part of that.”

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