Can the land heal? The past, present and future of Crabtree Farms

This is what homecoming looks like.

Can the land heal? The past, present and future of Crabtree Farms
Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee

This is the story of our city's urban farm looking backwards – its land, leaders say, was a place of horrific forced removal and plantation slavery – in order to shape the future.


"Healing," says executive director Melonie Lusk.

"We want to honor the land and the story of the land."

In the spring of 2022, a young African American man living downtown wanted to farm. But where? For young farmers, especially farmers of color, land access is one of largest barriers.

Melonie Lusk, who is white, invited the man – his name was Jamar, she said, and he is now deceased – to Crabtree Farms, the 22-acre nonprofit urban farm a quarter-mile off Rossville Boulevard, and offered him access to a dormant field.

Here's a 100' x 100' plot, she said. We'd love for you to grow food.

Lusk, Crabtree's executive director, had been considering what she quietly called an Emerging Farmers Program. This man would be the pioneer.

The work began as pursuit of data: how much food could be grown on a 100' x 100' plot? How much economic impact could be gained?

Soon, the work turned from data-collecting to the heart.

Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee

Jamar began.

Slowly, the outline of his garden took shape.

He built a chakra garden. Spiraling out from the center, the food grew in concentric rings, not traditional rows.

Chakra spiral garden, Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee

Lusk had never seen this before.

She'd also never seen what happened next.

Others began joining him. Instead of one person, there were 10, 30, even more. The solitary work had become communal.

Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee

"He introduced about 80 new people to farming. He got their hands in the dirt and made that healing possible. Numerous people told him: 'I want to grow food at my home now'," Lusk remembers. "This was the turning point."

What began as an idea around data – how much food can you grow in a 100' x 100' space – turned into soul and freedom work, community-building and life-changing agriculture.

"This is what happens when you give access," Lusk says.

Crabtree Farms is a 22-acre farm in the heart of urban Chattanooga. Deeded in 1998 to the city of Chattanooga under the promise it remain agricultural, Crabtree is a few turns from Rossville Boulevard in the Clifton Hills neighborhood.

It feels unlike any other place in our city. Leave the din of downtown hustle, turn past the tire discounters and pawn shops on Rossville Boulevard, and here's Chattanooga's urban farm:

Beautiful in so many ways.

As if tuning forks in our chest draw us there.

Rows of crops. A community of volunteers.

The wildly popular spring and fall plant sales and annual 100 Dinner.

Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee

The greenhouses alone are worth the trip.

"Aren't they gorgeous?" Lusk asks.

Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee

There are work-share opportunities, on-site farm schools, classes and events, facilities rentals, a table at the Main St. Farmers' Market and gobs of community support.

Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee

Today, as an institution, Crabtree is looking backward, acknowledging the brutal, violent history of the land and its people. Forced indigenous removal. Forced African presence.

"This was the largest slave holding plantation in Hamilton County," Lusk said. "Until now, that history has been ignored."

Today, Crabtree is maturely, sensitively and effectively redefining itself as an urban farm committed to offering land access, community gardens and healing.

"This is a place of healing potentially," Lusk said. "As good stewards, we work to honor the land and the story of the land. People need to know the history of the land. We want to honor the land and the story of the land."

Here's how they're doing it.

Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee

Today, only 1% of American farmers identify as Black. In the 20th century, Black farmers lost an accumluated $326 billion of land, three times the rate of white farmers.

Not only did pervasive forces discourage and deny Black farming, there can exist an aversion to agriculture and soil-labor within Black consciousness. As Crabtree began opening its doors and gates to residents – Black and Hispanic – the farm faced understandable resistance, generational and historic.

Walking a sensitive and narrow road, Lusk persevered. She was faithful to community meetings, listening sessions, just letting people step foot on Crabtree without any expectations or agenda. Language classes, cooking workshops, talking on doorsteps and porches.

"Trust to be built takes time," she said. "How can we cross language and cultural barriers?"

Food as a Verb proudly thanks Lupi's, our sustaining partner, for its generous support.

For more than 25 years, Lupi's has served locally-sourced, creatively made and award-winningly delicious pizza pies from five nearby locations.

Over time, hearts and minds shifted. Folks attended the language and cooking classes.

Then, Crabtree formalized the healing idea that's carrying it forward today.

"Community gardens," Lusk said.

David Cook, Melonie Lusk, Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee

Near the berry orchard next to the pen where sheepdogs watch over a goat named Boy George, there are some two dozen garden beds.

Half belong to residents in the 37407 zip code.

Half are leased to other Chattanoogans for a minimal fee.

Community gardens, Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee

It represents one of the most integrated agriculture sites in Hamilton County.

Community gardens, Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee
Community gardens, Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee

Each 4' x 8' cinderblock garden bed is full; the program has been wonderfully successful. When we visited in the late fall, most plants were turning with the seasons, only a few still producing remnants of summer's three sisters – corn, bean and squash – and tumbling down okra stalks. Hand-painted gourds hang from a nearby oak.

Initially, the gardeners were assigned one garden bed; soon, they approached Lusk: can we have more land to grow communally? Not separately, but together?

Crabtree will continue to expand its community garden space while adding larger growing spaces for community partners like La Paz, Orange Grove Center, the AIM Center, Lifespring Community Health.

More than 100 people have been impacted by the program.

Like Cortina Jenelle Caldwell.

"For me, it felt like a homecoming," she said.

For nearly 10 years, Caldwell studied ecology, leading land access projects and growing herbs, the first in her biological family to do so. Her website – House of Soleil – makes the beautiful declaration:

Nature is our legacy.

"There is no program that I have ever seen ... that has such an accessible and inclusive community gardening program like Crabtree Farms."

Cortina Jenelle Caldwell

In 2023, as the chakra garden was beginning to fruit, Caldwell moved to East Lake, near Clifton Hills, from North Carolina.

"Originally, I did not know about Crabtree because it's not one of those places that you arrive at by accident," she said. (Her full-length interview can be found at the end of today's feature.)

"From the first day, I knew the land had a deep and long story to tell," she said.

Over time, she became involved in the community gardening program, connecting with residents and Crabtree staff she calls "some of the most brilliant, talented and empathetic people I have ever met in my life."

"Each season, my relationship with the Farm and its stewards has continuously evolved," she said.

Caldwell, who’s farmed in North Carolina and worked with land projects and communities all over the world, says this:

"There is no program that I have ever seen throughout the 10 countries I've been to that has such an accessible and inclusive community gardening program like Crabtree Farms."

"There's always something inviting you back in."

This invitation will deepen in 2024.

Last week, Crabtree made a big announcement: it was awarded a three-year USDA grant allowing the Mary Navarre Moore Emerging Farmer Mentorship and the Crabtree Community Garden Program to expand in the coming years:

  • From 30 community beds to 54, nearly doubling the garden space.
  • Four emerging farmers will receive land access, training, support in order to grow seed-to-market produce.

All of this supports Crabtree's vision:

"Providing land access and opportunity," said Lusk. "For all our neighbors to come to farm, to allow African Americans and LatinX and others access to land and to switch the narrative to empowerment.

"It’s revolutionary to grow your own food."

As volunteers, supporters, donors, gardeners, we can participate in the renewing of Crabtree Farms, its land and community.

"It’s a story that needs to be told," she said. "It’s a story that keeps evolving. We can reintroduce people back to the land."

And healing, long delayed for so many of us, can begin.

Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tennessee

All photography by Julie Ellison. (Contributed self-portrait by Cortina Jenelle Caldwell.)

All words by David Cook. This story is 100% human generated; no AI chatbot was used in the creation of this content.

All design by Alex DeHart.

Story ideas, questions, feedback? Interested in sponsorship or advertising opportunities? Email us: and

Food as a Verb thanks our sustaining partners for their generous support.

Approaching the Full Truth: an interview with Cortina Jenelle Caldwell, House of Soleil, East Lake, Tennessee.

What's your relationship with Crabtree? How do you view Crabtree's work and existence today?

My relationship with Crabtree Farms first began in the spring or 2023, upon just recently moving to Chattanooga and settling into a home in East Lake, just proximate to Clifton Hills. Originally, I did not know about Crabtree because it's not one of those places that you arrive at by accident. 

Although the Farm is open and very active in the community, it's across several major intersections and tucked back behind a neighborhood.

In my case, I was looking for a place to volunteer some time, work on land and keep practicing my permaculture and agricultural skills, ultimately so that I could get grounded, quite literally, in this new city that I had chosen to call home. 

Once I came to know about Crabtree, it was a no-brainer to apply for a community garden and each season, my relationship with the Farm and its stewards has continuously evolved.

Back when I lived in North Carolina, there was a time that I lived at a permaculture-rooted eco-village which is where a lot of my foundations for farming stems from.

After that time, I  traveled internationally and domestically through hostels, farms, retreat centers and sanctuaries and yet there is no program that I have ever seen throughout the 10 countries I've been to that has such an accessible and inclusive community gardening program like Crabtree Farms. 

Their intention to be accessible and community-driven is not just in words, it's in their actions and you can witness it all around you on the Farm.  There's always something inviting you back in. 

This year, I volunteered at and saw some amazing culinary arts demonstrations at the Annual 100 Dinner; witnessed the love and care that goes into all the seedlings and starts on the Farm at the Fall Plant Sale & Festival; met fellow plant enthusiasts at community potlucks and herb circles; and invited Crabtree Farms into my tent as a guest feature during Nightfall Art Market. More importantly, I have made life-long connections with some of the most brilliant, talented and empathetic people I have ever met in my life. I am excited about how my work in diversity, equity, inclusion + belonging has influenced the team's outlook at Crabtree Farms and stand in solidarity with their commitment to honor the heritage of the land. 

Although so many in our community depend on the agriculture that comes from the Farm, the entire community benefits from the future-forward inclusivity work to come so that Crabtree Farms can continue to be a welcoming, growth-centered home for us all.

* How does it feel to you to step onto that land? It has a most painful, violent history. Is it possible to heal from that? Are we today still affected by what happened decades or generations ago? Does the land carry wounds? 

For me, it felt like a homecoming. 

From the first day, I knew the land had a deep and long story to tell. 

I was not personally there for some of the more turbulent, challenging times on the land but the feeling that I have present day is that a new narrative is emerging and I am grateful for any part I play in that. 

Truth be told, there is probably very little land in the United States of America that does not have a painful, violent history because of what was necessary for colonization to take root, especially here in Chattanooga, Tennessee. 

Many original peoples were forcefully removed from the land they stewarded for generations. Even though we speak of "history" like it's way way back, or ancient, the reality is this was just in our great, great- or great-grandparents' daily life that events like the Trail of Tears, Bacon's Rebellion or the slave trade occurred. 

In other words, it was not that long ago in the grand scheme of things so, for many, the wounds are still fresh and the trauma will require quite a bit of work to face.

If we can approach the full truth of what we inherited from our forefathers – the good, the bad and the ugly – we can hopefully find some tenderness, compassion and community around the fact that we all lost something with colonization.

For some of us, it was access to land. For others of us, it may have been our humanity or ability to speak up for injustice. Either way, there was no winner so, I hope we unite around that.

* What role can the land play in healing our own individual hearts and minds? How do we open up towards that?

One of the things that I love the most about what Crabtree Farms is doing is that the land is a basecamp, a gathering place, a hub education and other really amazing things happening in our community.

Just earlier this year, they hosted the Natural Resource Conservation Service for their annual meeting, and as I mentioned the Plant Sale & Festival in the Fall (which also happens in the Spring), the Annual 100 Dinner, community potlucks, work parties, the community garden, various organizations that have a plot to work on together as a team. Not to mention all of the restaurants, cafes, food trucks and chefs that source their ingredients from Crabtree Farms.

In my opinion, all of this is a reminder to me that we all need to do our part to protect farms like Crabtree because they are such a cornerstone for our communities and livelihoods.

I am the first in my biological family to return to the land and be engaged in growing herbs, produce and learning about agriculture in general.

From what I can tell, we're at a unique time in history where you're seeing millennials like me, and the younger generations push to return to, protect and preserve the land.

We recognize the value in protecting this sacred resource and if we don't intervene and build a relationship with it, the generations after us may not have these privilege.

So, I would say first: recognizing that our jobs as humans is to steward our natural resources; second: take responsibility for our own learning by having an active relationship with land nearest us; and third: find ways to host gatherings and community events on a local farm, which will not only help the farm's bottom line, like operations and revenue, but also introduces people to the idea that another way is possible.

Basil, Community gardens, Crabtree Farms, Clifton Hills, Tenn. (contributed by Cortina Jenelle Caldwell)

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