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VOL. 38 | NO. 24 | Friday, June 13, 2014

Farming a gamble Delvin’s happy to take

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Kale and collard king Hank Delvin rubs his sorta-bionic leg as he looks up from his Franklin Farmers Market table and time-travels to April 1972, when he was an 82nd Airborne captain facing extermination after the village of An Loc was surrounded by North Vietnamese Army troops.

“That was rough,” he says, describing how a swarm of choppers had to rapidly descend, load and lift off to cart GIs to safety. “We were lucky to get out of there alive.”

He pauses during the steamy Saturday conversation to swap “Doin’ great. You?” pleasantries with fellow plowboys, folks who have toted freshly harvested produce to this market behind The Factory every Saturday since the spring of 2002.

Hank’s not here today to talk about war, but rather to share genteel joy while selling fresh-from-the-ground bounty carted in from his acreage out near the Williamson County town of College Grove.

“Been farming all my life,” he says. “Started as a boy in South Nashville.”

While Vietnam was terrifying, his closest brush with death came while engaged in his life’s passion of peddling produce.

“Life changed forever July 25, 2009,” he says, tapping on his left leg, reassembled from parts real and manufactured.

“Doesn’t bend much. Have to have my wife, Cindy, put my socks on for me. When she gets mad at me, I’m in a pickle,” he says, laughing.

Course, this man who has spent a life growing and selling vegetables and fruits would do so barefoot if it came to that.

During a break in the stream of customers, he describes the 2009 Saturday that began like all the rest, with him at the wheel of his “snub-nosed” truck, hauling freshly picked produce to this market, a journey that was almost mortally cut short when the remnants of an SUV slammed through his windshield.

“It was early in the morning,” he recalls. “There were only two of us out on 96 (the Franklin-to-Murfreesboro highway). ... He was driving way too fast and his car rolled over and over, then began going end-over-end. The top-back of the SUV came right in my windshield and landed on me.”

Rescuers had to cut him free before he was airlifted to Vanderbilt.

“I spent two years going through surgeries and rehab. Artificial knee, hip, lots of work. Had to learn how to walk again. But I was lucky. If it had been the engine that came in the windshield, I’d have been killed, for sure.”

The wreck robbed some flexibility and mobility – tough losses for a gentle soul of the soil. He’s not complaining.

“I’m vertical,” he says. Much better to be tending the soil rather than to be six feet beneath it.

Hank, 66, pushes himself up from his chair and goes over to check on the tables of mostly leafy greens tended to by long-time employee, George Pena.

“I always found exceptional joy in raising vegetables,” says Hank, maneuvering his stiff left side as he settles back into his chair to recount his earliest attempts at carting produce fresh from the family’s South Nashville garden to paying customers. “I guess I just got hooked as a young boy.

“Delivered tomatoes on my bike on Sunday afternoon when I was 10. Bushels of ‘em. Probably made $2. Good money back then.”

A customer interrupts the farmer’s reflections. “How do you cook the red Russian kale?” she asks, holding a bunch of the stuff.

“I like to use it as a stir fry,” says Hank, describing with words and illustrating with hand gestures his cooking instructions.

As she carries her kale to the cashier, another farmer – “one of my neighbors” – ambles up. Quick pleasantries exchanged, Hank tells the man “I’m going to need to borrow your corn planter next week.” The man agrees and walks away.

“I’ve got one, but his works better,” Hank allows. “We help each other out.”

The obvious joy of this lifestyle sprouted from his experiences growing things on the 125 acres his TVA-employee father had on Old Tusculum Road in South Nashville.

“I was the oldest of eight children. We had a big garden. We had a milk cow that I had to milk in the morning and at night, so I never was involved in any sports in high school. When I left for college, they sold the cow and started buying their milk.”

Hank Delvin began his career selling fresh produce as a child in South Nashville, where he sold tomatoes from the family garden. He made his Sunday deliveries on bicycle.

His dad sold the land while Hank – who farmed and sold produce to pay his way through Middle Tennessee State University – was in An Loc.

“It was pretty easy duty until April of ’72,” he says, as the conversation drifts back to the war that he prepared for in MTSU’s ROTC program. “That’s when the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] came across the Cambodian border and decided to make An Loc their southern capital.

“There were all these Russian tanks surrounding us.” Plenty of well-armed NVA soldiers, as well.

He skips through the bad and bloody memories to focus on the sight of the choppers that carried Hank and his troops out of the tightening military noose.

“Least I came home vertical,” he says, noting that homecoming was to another farm, one his dad – tired of the city’s encroachment – bought on Nolensville Road, near Mill Creek. Hank purchased land to add to the farm.

But the city caught up with the Delvins again. Too many people, too many subdivisions, too much noise, not enough elbow room as Nashville sprawled.

“One Christmas Eve, Cindy and I were driving along 840, we’d never been out on there before, and we saw a sign that the land was for sale. She didn’t think we could afford land in Williamson County. But I called and we got it….”

The 200-plus acre College Grove farm is not only home to Hank and Cindy. It’s also home to their son, Hank Jr., and his wife and their three children, as well as to Hank and Cindy’s daughter, Amy, and her husband and their child.

“We’ve got four of our six grandchildren living right there (in separate houses) on the farm,” he says, eyes lighting. “Our other son, Eric, and his family live in Seattle. He has twins, but we don’t get to see them much.”

In addition to the family, a crew of 10 is employed in planting, maintaining, picking and taking the goods to market. And that’s not to mention the 60 sheep – some bound for market eventually -- tending to the clover fields left vacant for proper crop rotation.

Hank watches happily as customers wander the aisles of the market, picking out fresh produce, dairy products and other food items. “Everybody here either grows it or makes it or bakes it themselves, otherwise they can’t be here,” he says.

In addition to the casual customers combing through the display for the tenderest of kale and collards, Hank is there to greet his “investors,” the folks who are here to pick up their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes.

Hank was among the first in the region to enlist in this grass-roots organic farming movement, where customers pay “their farmer” in advance for boxes of the freshest produce every week. Today’s heaping half-bushel boxes are filled with many leafy vegetables along with green onions, cucumbers and the last of the strawberry crop.

Next week, there will be different items, depending on what’s flourishing among the 70-some types of produce at Delvin Farms.

“It all is what we farmed yesterday. It’s fresh now, rather than having been fresh a few weeks ago,” he says, a gentle poke at the produce sections of many grocery stores which rely on shipments from Florida, California and other points for much of their produce.

“It costs $725 for six months,” he says of the CSA agreement. “That’s $30 a week for the box.” The boxes are distributed at the five farmers markets where the Delvins set up each week, at their farm, wherever it is most convenient for customers.

The advantage, Hank says, is that the people who pay for CSA boxes are literally “investors” in their own produce, so they eagerly enjoy the freshest stuff from the farm bisected by the Harpeth River.

“By getting the people to pay up front, it takes care of a lot of our expenses. Have to spend a lot of money on seed and fuel and everything at the beginning of the season,” says Hank, who already has 700 clients and expects to have 900 by the time the season ends. “Good program.”

As the 1 p.m. closing time for the market approaches, Hank climbs, stiff-legged, from his chair. It’s time to pack up the remnants and head back out to College Grove, where sweet potatoes are being planted.

“Farmers have got to be the most optimistic people there are,” he reckons. “Only a farmer will take everything he has, buy seed with it and put it all back into the ground and be optimistic that something is going to come up out of that ground.

“Even a Las Vegas gambler wouldn’t do that.”

It’s a gamble he’ll keep taking -- at least as long as he’s “vertical.”

“Ya gotta have faith,” he adds, with a shrug.

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