How Cul2vate Provides Personal Growth Through Farming
Growing food and growing people. A simple statement, but a powerful mission for Nashville-based nonprofit Cul2vate, whose founder Joey Lankford has made it his life’s work to impact others through living life the way they do.
“The motivation for what I do is my faith,” Lankford says. “It is the ether that is constantly squirted on my engine to keep me going.”
Before starting Cul2vate, Lankford and his wife adopted a daughter from South Africa, which spurred a move to that country, where they and their four children lived for five years. There, a Zimbabwean farmer taught him how to farm and sold him the equipment to get started, and he helped to build a robust training and development center for the chronically unemployed in the townships around Cape Town.
“For us, it was a recalibration of what we thought, how we moved and the way we looked through the lens to conceptualize our faith,” says Lankford, who credits the adoption of his daughter with this journey of giving self away for bigger causes. “When we returned home in 2015, now a family with five children, believing fully we had heard the Lord say to stay in food, we had the shelter that is now Cul2vate, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and $9,000 in the bank.”
A meeting with then-Commissioner of Agriculture Julius Johnson gave Lankford the pieces he needed to truly begin his passion project.
“We began to talk about life, agriculture, faith, family and how the collision of all of those gave us the perfect place to start in reconciliation on many fronts…and I asked him (Commissioner Johnson) for land. He looked at me very quickly, without hesitation, and said, ‘I can do that,’ ” Lankford says.
That land was within Ellington Agriculture Center in south Nashville, where the Tennessee Department of Agriculture is housed. Cul2vate officially launched in 2016 with two main missional strategies: invest relationally in individuals from socially disadvantaged places or who are overcoming trauma, and use food to do it.
“We want to feed the masses and restore dignity to those people through a work context while giving them the ability to take food into their community and become givers, not takers, of their community,” Lankford says. “The only way to speak into someone’s life is to live alongside them. My experience has shown, both in Africa and here, it takes about six to eight weeks of hard work before they start asking me the tough questions and opening up about trauma in their life. Agriculture and plants give us a great space to do that, and I just happened to stumble into it. If you learn anything about me today, it is that I am not a great farmer – I love it, but I love the men more.”
The men who originally started the program back in 2016 were from recovery homes in Nashville, as then-Gov. Bill Haslam had vowed to do something about opioid addiction in the state.
“I didn’t go looking for opiate and meth addicts, that’s who God sent me,” Lankford says. “I don’t, like in Africa, have any experience living in a township, or in a recovery home, but I find love leveraged toward a person is the same in both places. The purest form of help someone can receive is usually delivered in love because they see the authenticity of it. So, the farm is a place where we can relationally connect with people and live life on life with them.”
Cul2vate is more than a recovery program. It is a place where people can come to be loved on, trained and equipped, not only agriculturally but also in life skills to be able to access unfilled jobs in Nashville and the surrounding areas when they graduate. The course is 24 weeks, with two classes a year, as the greenhouses allow for year-round production. The preferred outcome is job placement, which according to Lankford doesn’t happen with everybody, but 50% of the lives touched have secured jobs and continue to hold them now. The program is not formatted, but allows participants to work on the farm, be who they are and, if they relapse, love them through it. It has also grown to include more than addicts, such as war veterans with PTSD and those suffering from brain trauma following a car wreck.
“I think everyone just needs a place,” Lankford says. “I tell people there is a gate you walk through when you come into the farm here…leave whatever you’re bringing on that gate and expect that God can do something special in your life. We don’t care if you are an addict or if you drove up in a Porsche, leave it on the gate.”
Fifty percent of what is produced on the farm goes to acute hunger relief in the surrounding Middle Tennessee counties, and the program attendees learn from volunteers who are as varied as they are – among the helpers are a retired radiologist from Vanderbilt and a retired plant biologist from USDA. UT Extension also sends people to teach about pests and fungal diseases.
“You have addicts who are learning from the people who write the curriculum my kids will learn about when they go to college,” Lankford says. “Only God could write that kind of story, and I think that further reinforces the fact that if you build it, they will come.”