Located just five hours from Memphis, Chattanooga at first glance might seem like a sleepy version of Nashville. The city boasts lots of tourist attractions, beautiful rolling hills, and a variety of outdoor activities.
But a closer examination, which I was able to have one weekend in early October, revealed a city eagerly embracing artistic endeavors, sustainable business, locally grown food, and a thriving agri-tourism industry.
Agri-tourism, for the uninitiated (which is what I was until this trip), is a vacation that focuses on farms, local food, and education about farming culture. Because of the rich farming industry in Tennessee, Chattanooga is a natural culinary and agriculture destination.
No agri-tourism/culinary trip would be complete without a bit of risk. So, at the Tennessee Aquarium, which sits right on the Tennessee River, I did something crazy.
"Anyone want to try some toasted mealworms?" One of the keepers was giving a demonstration about the different foods that the aquarium prepares each day for the fish. I slowly raised my hand.
They were quite delicious. Crunchy, salty, and slightly meaty, I was craving more for the rest of the day.
In addition to offering exotic snacks to its visitors, the Tennessee Aquarium was very influential in reviving downtown Chattanooga and tourism in the city. When the aquarium opened in 1992, downtown was not very active. But within a few years, several restaurants also opened in the area, and tourists began to visit Chattanooga just for the good eating. Farmers on the outskirts of the city started to capitalize on the growing interest in Chattanooga, and the city's agri-tourism industry has been expanding since.
The growing popularity of agri-tourism is partly because people are interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it's grown. Meeting the farmers who grow the food completes the circle.
In Chattanooga, not all farmers are outside the city. John Sweet, founder and owner of Niedlov's Breadworks, grows an urban garden outside his bakery. Sweet began his love affair with bread when he did a baking exchange program in Germany.
"I stood on a concrete floor, kneading artisan bread for eight hours a day, 40 hours a week," he said. "And I just fell in love with breadmaking."
Sweet is committed to community involvement and sustainable practices. He grew up on a 15-acre farm, so composting and gardening are second nature. He grows tomatoes, beans, corn, and basil in the bakery lot. He built a water-collection system and composts all the bakery's food scraps.
Crabtree Farms is an urban farm located near downtown Chattanooga. Covering more than 22 acres, it has a weekly farm stand on-site that offers produce, flowers, a community garden, pick-your-own crops, and various outreach and education programs. Outside the city is Apple Valley Orchard, a family-run farm that grows more than 30 varieties of apples. Visitors can tour the orchard and pick apples to take home.
One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to Williams Island Farm. Located on a 450-acre island in the middle of the Tennessee River, the farm is run by five young farmers. Three of them — Noah Bresley, Beth Austin, and Daniel Westcott — took some time away from tending their fall crops to give me a tour.
The farm provides produce to a few restaurants and markets. The farmers also do their part to reach people by offering educational tours and dinners at the farm.
"We want local food to be very accessible," Bresley said. "Some people respond to the taste of fresh, local food. Other people buy it because they feel like it's the right thing to do."
Because so many Chattanooga restaurants buy from local farmers, tourists can experience the city's rich agriculture without traipsing through the mud. Susan Moses, co-owner of 212 Market Restaurant, has built her family restaurant into Tennessee's first certified green restaurant and bicycle-friendly business.
The restaurant opened downtown in 1992, long before downtown Chattanooga was considered a good location. Now, 212 Market is not only an excellent place to eat, it is also a shining example of sustainability. They cut water usage by 70 percent, changed the lighting to LED lights, started composting and recycling, tinted the windows in the dining room to cut cooling costs, and use lots of local ingredients.
Tom Montague is the founder of Link 41, an artisan butcher. His business is still in the works, but when his farm is established, the animals will be raised free-range.
There wasn't enough time to visit every farm in the area, so I am definitely planning a return visit sometime soon. And depending on the time of year you visit Chattanooga, you will experience different crops. Whether you want to get down and dirty and pick your own food, or if you'd prefer a farmers market on a Saturday morning, Chattanooga has a little something for the inner farmer in us all.