Corporate physicist reinvents himself as a farmer

Thursday, April 23, 2009 at 6:04pm
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Second career farmers Jennifer and Tim Bodnar stand inside their chicken coop — a transformed old school bus they call "the egg mobile."

In a time when farmland is shrinking and the tradition of farming is becoming more corporate and less a family enterprise, Tim and Jennifer Bodnar and their Avalon Acres farm are thriving. And for none of the conventional reasons.

Tim Bodnar, a city kid from Cleveland, Ohio, excelled in math and science. In fact, in college, he took so many math and science courses that when it was time to pick a major, he was nearly done with the requirements for a physics degree. So, he let the decision be made for him. For almost 20 years, Bodnar was a successful physicist (or what he calls "a licensed pyromaniac") who spent his days designing water heaters and gas burners. Until one day he snapped.

"I got bored. I got burnt out,” he said. “It sounds totally unhumble, but I was really good at what I did, but I wasn't learning anymore. I was doing the same thing over and over again. I got tired of the whole corporate thing, and one day something stupid happened, and I got up out of my chair — left it swiveling — and I walked out. For good."

But the spontaneous decision didn't end there. His real motivation was his wife, Jennifer, a blonde beauty with a big heart for animals, whom he'd met on the Internet and married the year before. So, Bodnar drove to his wife's high-rise office building where she was an HCA executive. From the sidewalk below her window, he waved up at her.

"I called her and said, 'Come down. I'm here to save you.' She came down and never went back," Tim said. "It really was that we were spending 10-to-12-hour days apart from each other, and we literally wanted to be together 24/7. I had no desire to be anyplace else but with her."

With no back up plan or real idea of what to do next, the Bodnars followed the magic of serendipity that began with a cat.

The couple had decided to adopt a kitten from a family who lived along the Natchez Trace Parkway. While making the drive to pick up their newest family member, Tim, who was seeing the circuitous, tree-shrouded historic route for the first time, was struck by the land's verdant scenery. That night, Jennifer did an Internet search for available property and immediately found one that caught her eye. Within days, the Bodnars owned a 122-acre parcel of land in Hohenwald, Tenn. And with no prior experience, they began being farmers.

"We learned to farm from a book. Seriously. It's called something like Farming 101: You Can Farm by Joel Salatin. It said, get chickens, so we got 2,500 chickens our first year. We don't do anything small. We are nuts," Tim said. "We had no safety net, so we were highly motivated. We took all our marbles, scooped them up and left. We had to make it because we had to survive."

At first, the Bodnars gave their chickens away with hopes that stories of their superior quality of meat would spread by word of mouth. It did. Soon, they had the Capitol Grille's then-executive chef Sean Brock wanting to do business with them, Tim said.

"He called up and said, 'I never knew chicken was supposed to taste like this,'" Tim said.

The secret? "It's easy. If you let an animal live the way God intended it to live, it will taste how God intended it to taste. Outside. Fresh air. Let it scratch, look for bugs, eat worms. Don't hit them with sticks. Be nice to them. Happy chickens make happy meat. Happy meat, happy customers."

In the seven years since that first season of chickens, the Bodnars have grown Avalon Acres into one of the largest community supported agriculture (CSA) programs servicing the Nashville area. CSA is a way to connect directly with local farmers and receive a weekly basket of farm fresh foods. The first year, Avalon Acres had 30 customers. Then 125, then 250 and so on. This year, the Bodnars are gearing up for more 1,000 customers.

The Avalon Acres CSA program runs 26 weeks beginning May 3, and deliveries are made at various locations all over Nashville, Brentwood and Franklin in such spots as churches, businesses, parks, farmers' markets and specialty food stores. With their Farm Fresh at Work initiative, they will deliver to any company with 10 or more customers.

Customers can sign up for a quarter-bushel or a half-bushel, with the minimum order being $20 a week. Bushels are filled with a range of products determined by the season, including beef, pork, chicken, eggs, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, squash, tomatoes, herbs, lettuce, radishes, strawberries, green beans and much more. (The poultry and meat products are traditionally raised in their natural environments without the use of antibiotics, hormones or preservatives; produce is grown pesticide free whenever possible.)

"The cool part is we do weird stuff, too, like Easter egg radishes that come in all kinds of colors, black tomatoes and lemon cucumbers, which are all wet and juicy and go great in salads and sandwiches," Tim said.

Plus, bushels can be modified to meet a customer's preferences. For example, if you only want chicken breasts, or if you have relatives coming into town and you need two dozen extra eggs, you can specify that. It's as simple as sending Avalon Acres an e-mail, Tim said.

"I think what separates us [from other CSA programs] is that we are the only ones combining meat, the produce and the eggs all together,” Tim said. “It's a one-stop shop. I think we do a really good job supporting people — we make sure you know what to do with [the food]. If I give you a lemon cucumber and you don't know what to do with it and it rots on your counter, you won't come back."

CSA farming is quickly gaining traction not just locally, but nationally as people become more conscious about making more environmentally friendly lifestyle decisions. By buying from your local farmer, you help reduce the carbon footprint of trucking produce thousands of miles to be sold in chain grocery stores. And, money spent stays inside the community and supports locals instead of large corporations.

In addition, CSA customers have a more intimate connection with their food and their community.

"When you belong to a CSA and it hasn't rained in a month, you care. You walk out of your work and you think to look up at the sky, and you care because it matters to you because you know it matters to your farmers. What you get in your box connects you back to the weather," Tim said. "And, belonging to a CSA stretches you. You eat foods you wouldn't normally eat. You are given food you wouldn't necessarily choose on your own because people get rutted."

When your food horizons expand, you include people--which leads to cooking and eating together, Tim said.

"That's the cool part: We make an impact spiritually on people's lives," Tim said. "Not in a fluffy way, but in a very real way."

For more information on locations, services or to join, visit avalon-acres.com.

Avalon Acres
750 Piney Creek Road, Hohenwald
(931) 628-3938
avalon-acres.com