Eric Wooldridge never intended to come back to the Bells Bend area of West Nashville after college. In fact, the 24-year-old thought it was the last thing he would do.
But the Hillwood High graduate found right here at home what he was looking for somewhere else: a strong community spirit, fertile farmland and, more importantly, a job.
“I was graduating from Appalachian State University and the opportunity came up,” he says. “For some reason I jumped on it and never looked back.”
What he jumped on was the farm management position with Bells Bends Farms CSA, an organization that came about when the community sought an alternative to May Town Center, a high-impact development that many feared would strip the area of its fertile land and rural charm.
“This is a pocket of undeveloped land very close to Nashville,” Wooldridge says. “The reason this area has remained undeveloped is because there has never been a bridge built across the Cumberland, so it has remained rural and agricultural pretty much forever.”
But the past 20 years has seen numerous threats.
“They wanted to put the city dump here for a while, and the community miraculously fought that off,” he says. The site of the proposed dump is now the 808-acre Bells Bend Outdoor Center.
“In the last five or six years there has been a couple other pushes from developers who have bought land in Bells Bend to put either high-density subdivision or the latest, May Town, which is a huge corporate residential and commercial development that actually rivals the size of downtown Nashville,” Wooldridge says. “It would be a huge development on what is now some of the most fertile farmland in our area.”
But the community realized it couldn’t say no to all development, so it worked together to come up with an alternative use for the land that would maintain its rural character while making money.
“We know this area will change over time and it will develop, but why don’t we try to play an active role in the way in which it is developed,” he says. “The community came up with a list of the different uses for the land out here called The Third Vision, a third option. Because most communities feel they have no voice when it comes to their land.”
Organic gardening figured prominently on the list, so the group hired in 2009 consultant Jeff Poppen, better known as The Barefoot Farmer of Red Boiling Springs. He pointed out which areas in the community would work as gardens, farms or orchards.
“We basically modeled our farm somewhat after his operation,” he says. Now in its third year, the Bells Bend Farms CSA is a conglomerate of several different properties, all managed by Wooldridge and growing food on land — donated or affordably leased — that had been sitting idle.
“I never really envisioned I would move back here,” Woolridge adds. “But I was involved in what the community was going through because my folks still lived out here. I was still passionate about a community voice and what happened to the land out here, just not that I would come back.
“I knew when I finished school I would find a job that would somehow involve me with local communities and in giving them a voice about what happened to the land around them and, consequently, their lives. Farming just happened to fulfill all those things I wanted to do and a whole lot more.”
Wooldridge is now looking to pair more newbie farmers with willing landowners.
“One thing we have no shortage of are other young people who are interested in starting their own farms, and we serve as a neat example because there are many, many landowners in this community who have the land but have other jobs or are too old,” he says. “It is a way for younger people who may not have the means to access land – which is usually the case – they can still start something up.”
The popularity of the program is evident in the response from the community. The produce grown feeds 90 families, half of whom pick up items at the farm and the other half who pick up at the West Nashville Farmers Market. They also have an online market for people to choose their items for easy pickup.
“We have huge support,” Wooldridge says. “The CSA is full every year with a pretty big waiting list.”
The sense of community spirit that lured Wooldridge back also is at play in the success of the program.
“This community has a lot of older folks who used to farm but were forced out of it because of the rise of bigger conventional farms,” he says. “The reason this is really exciting for them is to see the resurgence of younger people getting into it.”