“The public loves the stories behind their food. They want to support their local family farmers. And I don’t think it’s only consumers seeking rose-tinted images of the farm. It’s something very real and palatable. People hunger for a connection with their food, and they are very interested in how this food is grown and who is growing it.” P. Allen Smith
If you enjoy gardening, home cooked food and natural living, you may have already heard of P. Allen Smith of Moss Mountain Farm in Arkansas. He has written best-selling books including P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home and P. Allen Smith’s Seasonal Recipes from the Garden. His media company, Hortus Ltd, produces three national, award-winning television shows: Garden Home (14 seasons on PBS), Garden to Table, also on Public Television, and Garden Style, now in its 17th season of syndication.
Not as many people may know, however, that this media personality studied garden history and design at the University of Manchester in England; is an honorary member of the Garden Club of America and recipient of their Medal of Honor; is a fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society; and is a former board member of the Royal Oak Society.
I first met Allen at his inaugural Garden2Blog event in 2010, when he invited 20 garden bloggers from across the United States to be his guests at Moss Mountain Farm. Over the last five years, I’ve since been invited back to the farm two more times to watch the progress. During my last visit in May 2015, for the fifth anniversary activities, the farm was as idyllic and bucolic as in these photos.
Q) Your Moss Mountain Farm has been called an epicenter for promoting the local food movement, organic gardening and the preservation of heritage poultry breeds. Why was it important for you to help people learn about and appreciate these skills?
P. Allen Smith. The history is important. I come from a long line of small, independent farmers. So there’s a part of my history that connects closely to these farmers. ‘Independent’ is an important word, because this part of my family from Middle Tennessee felt that self-reliance was an integral part of their culture, of my childhood and of my upbringing.
I studied biology with an emphasis on botany from Hendrix College, a small liberal arts school in Arkansas. After that, I studied garden history and design in England, where I became a Fellow in the Royal Horticultural Society. In England, I became very interested in organic farming and sustainability, with an emphasis on gardening practices. I also became interested in Thomas Jefferson’s tour in 1786 of English gardens with John Adams. Jefferson was a fan of the concept of ferme ornée – a term that is ancient Italian in its origins and means ‘a beautiful and productive estate.’
You could say the phrase ferme ornée is an idea with a French name, of Italian origins, which was practiced in England and adopted by this American man from Arkansas. I wanted to create a modern ferme ornée in my home state of Arkansas. One of the things my great grandparents always told me was that Arkansas people are self-reliant: we have oil, we have minerals, we have timber, we have fresh water and we have the ability to grow anything that we need. And that idea of self-reliance has always resonated with me.
I wanted to create this model farm that demonstrated organic gardening principles – as well as showed the diversity of plants that could grow in Arkansas. I found 600+ acres that overlooks the Arkansas River valley (we have a mile and a half on the Arkansas River) called Moss Mountain Farm that dates back to the 1840s. With our farm house we adopted the style and place in time with architectural details and the layout of the property of a 1840s Arkansas River Valley home.
The farmhouse looks old, but it is a model of Green building. We tried to apply the best practices of LEED certification guidelines to a farm. Much of the LEED certification is set up for urban or suburban properties, not for a farm. We wanted to demonstrate sustainable principles in building, while honoring older, traditional methods that still remain relevant today in saving energy. One example is our seven Rumford fire places, which reflect more heat. They were common from 1796 and used at Monticello.
We do water harvesting off the main house and the two dependencies (summer kitchen and an art studio behind the main house) and the barn. We have a 6,000 gallon cistern that collects rainwater to water the orchards. All of this was built for our media company, television show, books and social media to demonstrate the best principles of organic gardening, and help more people engage in a healthy lifestyle.
Thomas Jefferson was considered the nation’s first foodie, who grew more than 300 different vegetables at Monticello after his presidency. In our one-acre organic kitchen garden we grow and trial about the same number of vegetables and herbs – about 150 different varieties every year from Sakata Seed Company and Bonnie Plants, the largest branded vegetable plant producer in the country. We use animal manure from the farm and Jobes fertilizer with spectacular results. We provide demonstrations about healthy soil practices. We help people understand why the soil is so important, and why you need to look at soil as an organism. If you have healthy soil, you’ll have healthy plants. With a healthier diet, we live a healthier life. It’s a full circle.
The three things that matter most to me at Moss Mountain Farm are education, inspiration and conservation. Those are the three pillars we operate from, and the goal of my company is to help people live a happier, healthier life by connecting closer with nature.
Q: How are you involved with Arkansas’ local food movement?
P. Allen Smith: We’ve been local food advocates since before the beginning of the founding of our media company in 1993. As I travel around the country, a big part of what we talk about on the programs is the local food economies. We often interview local farmers in various states.
Over the last three to four years, we’ve worked with Arkansas Department of Agriculture and the Secretary of Agriculture to promote local food in our state. We came up with a program called Local Conservations, which brings food providers and food customers together in the same room. I call it ‘Speed Dating for Foodies.’ We wanted to connect these people and let them understand the challenges that both sides faced. In late February, our most recent event was attended by more than 200 farmers, restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, foodies, food service personnel and grocery store management.
We’re also working with the Dallas Arboretum on a food garden and we’re developing the programming that supports it. It will further open the conversation in Texas about local foods and connect consumers with the food producers there. We’re breaking ground later this year on the garden, and we’ve been in the design stage for the past 12 months.
Q) What are some key opportunities and challenges for local food providers?
P. Allen Smith: There is a huge opportunity for those who want to be a part of the local food economy. The public loves the stories behind their food. They want to support their local family farmers. And I don’t think it’s only consumers seeking rose-tinted images of the farm. It’s something very real and palatable. People hunger for a connection with their food, and they are very interested in how this food is grown and who is growing it. It’s a comfort to many to know that a portion of their diet is being grown organically in their geographical area.
It’s not only about the food; it’s also about the relationship of the food with the community. The opportunity is for those who want to provide a product that is differentiated in their area, something that goes beyond the simple food commodity. That’s where the opportunity lies.
Some of the challenges are in the packaging, distribution and marketing side. Many farmers aren’t attuned to the best practices in marketing, for instance. Social media offers farmers interesting platforms to get their messages out to the public. It allows you to build personal connections and have this dialogue with your community. And it’s really about building relationships, so people can know who grows their food.
Q: Why did you start the Heritage Poultry Conservancy in 2009? Why was it important to preserve and support threatened breeds and strains of domestic poultry?
P. Allen Smith: Animals are important to the farm, because they are part of the farm’s ecosystem. We founded the conservancy to protect heritage breeds. These animals need our support because they’re being replaced by modern varieties, which are all about production and industrial agricultural systems.
At Moss Mountain Farm, we have more than 60 breeds of heritage poultry. Some breeds, such as Silver Gray Dorkings, date back to Roman times. Visitors can come and see nearly 2,000 years of poultry history. While there are specialty breeders that may focus on four to five heritage breeds, I don’t know of any other conservation-oriented poultry collection with 60 breeds that are on ‘the most critical to save’ list, such as Blue Andalusians, White Face Black Spanish or Dorkings. We also keep three colors of the same breed of historic turkeys, as well as six breeds of geese and six breeds of duck.
With poultry being such an important component to our food system, it’s critical we recognize the genetic diversity that this food resource offers. Our farm is conserving genetic stock of different breeds, and each breed has its own characteristics. Maintaining genetic diversity is fundamentally important to our food security, and what we’re doing with poultry is just one small piece of that effort.
Raising poultry is a meaningful way to get kids active in nature and connect with the outdoors. In fact, I raised poultry and other livestock with 4-H when I was young. Now the backyard chicken movement is huge. With our conservancy, we raise money every year for kids in 4-H to show heritage poultry in state and national shows. We give awards to encourage these poultry to be raised and conserved for the future.
The University of Arkansas has been a big supporter of our poultry conservation work. We have a group of students we call the ‘bird brains,’ who are interested in the old stock. They help with our seminars and in selecting breeders. We are constantly working on maintaining these birds so they reflect the best standards of their breeds. These standards are listed in a book called “The American Standard of Perfection,” first printed after the American Poultry Association was founded in 1874.
Q) What keeps you up at night and what gives you hope?
P. Allen Smith: I suppose what keeps one up at night is the way we as humans continue to deplete the planet of its natural resources and wild places. I’m hopeful about the number of young people who have become interested in food and farming organically. As far as Moss Mountain Farm goes, I’m excited about some of the all-heritage poultry sausages with duck, turkey and chicken we are presently working on. This is 100 percent pasture-raised heritage poultry combined with organic herbs from the farm. I get very excited about these value-added products that farmers can create.
Q) What is the value of heritage versus conventionally raised poultry?
P. Allen Smith: With poultry, for me it’s the flavor. I love dark meat, and modern chickens don’t have very much dark meat anymore. So, we are losing that flavor profile. You wouldn’t believe the different flavors and nuances between these poultry breeds. For instance, our French ducks are Rouens, which taste very different from our English Aylesbury ducks; both are delicious, but different.
This is an opportunity for farmers to offer the public a convenient way to support these heritage animals. These farmers realize the way you save these animals is to eat them. Maybe these farmers will decide to sell homemade heritage poultry sausage, which is easier to sell than a whole bird. Then that farmer gets that uptick in margin. But it helps the farmer, the consumer and the cause of preserving these heritage animals’ genetics. Everyone benefits.
Q) Any last words you’d like to share?
P. Allen Smith: A healthier lifestyle comes from being connected to nature in a more meaningful way. At the end of the day, that’s what we always want to show. Whether you live in a high-rise apartment building or have a ten-acre garden plot, you can still live closer to nature.
Thanks for your time today. We enjoyed speaking with you.
All photos courtesy of P. Allen Smith.
Learn more about the rapid changes affecting California poultry.
Dig into the importance of genetic diversity on our food system with Seed Savers Exchange.