Jim Artman had just finished eight and a half years serving in the military - including a couple of tours in Iraq and an instructor at sniper school - when he wound up back home in Ohio wondering what to do with the next phase of his life. He had always been interested in the natural world, and he was a good teacher, so he enrolled in school and started studying molecular biology. He got into mushroom hunting and reading books by Paul Stamets, a mycologist and fellow Ohioan.
“[Paul] laid out this vision for how you can use fungi in a closed-loop system, and I got completely enamored. It made so much sense to me, and I wondered why we weren’t doing this everywhere,” says Jim. “It all sounded wonderful - having land, living off the land, and teaching other people how to do it.”
Jim jumped deeper into the study of how food supplies are grown and distributed. He learned how closed-loop agriculture recycles nutrients and promotes sustainability. He dove into clinical nutrition. He started meditating and practicing yoga - hot yoga, no less. Soon, his body was showing signs of healing in ways he didn’t realize he needed.
“I’d been struggling with PTSD, which doesn’t hit right away. It took me a while to implement all of this into my life, but once I did, there was a dramatic transformation. Instead of being afraid and being so depressed, years of that, I was fine again,” says Jim. “I started doing a lot of consulting and working with other veterans, and thinking about what makes it so difficult for people to make those kinds of changes. What I identified is that people’s relationship with food is a problem.”
Jim moved to Knoxville six years ago and got to work building Appalachian Grit, an eco-landscaping company that digs a lot deeper than knowing what plants pair well together in a shady spot in the yard. Jim and his team help homeowners and businesses with soil testing, planning and managing fruit orchards, building productive stormwater management systems, erosion control, mushroom cultivation, native plant selection and integration, nontoxic pest management, and so much more. Some of his newer projects include building ecologically-informed edible landscapes and green roof installation, which is exactly what it sounds like.
“You can do a green roof installation several ways. You can plant a seeded lawn that will capture rainwater and reduce the heat island effect. You can plant bushes and start to incorporate shrubs and native grasses, all the way up to having full rooftop gardens with vegetables,” says Jim.
One of Jim’s primary missions through Appalachian Grit is to create spaces for permaculture - a systems-thinking approach for food production and an ecosystem that takes care of itself.
“Permaculture literally means permanent agriculture. It doesn’t require constant interaction. If you look up at the mountains and see all of those trees growing and thriving, you can create a food system that does the same thing. No one is up there watering those trees,” says Jim. “We can build a system with a habitat and ecosystem with human outcomes, a system that begins to take care of itself and doesn’t rely on you to irrigate it or fertilize it.”
By planting things that bring in pollinators to an area and using organic matter to plant everything, they can replicate nature and get residential and business landscapes working for themselves. Part of the reason people aren’t already doing this is because they don’t realize how many edible plants would thrive in East Tennessee.
“We’re putting in blueberry bushes and plum trees right now. I could list 150 species of food natives, things that are familiar to us but also have food on them. All of this stuff supports human health but also our planet and animal health,” says Jim.
Conventional agriculture plays a significant role in what plants and products are available to consumers, but Jim endeavors to help people look beyond what’s sold at big box stores, or even local nurseries. It really is all about supply and demand.
“We’ve been taught that you have to use Miracle-Gro to make your garden work, but that’s not true,” he says. “It’s about putting the forethought into understanding how a garden can work.
“I truly believe that taking care of yourself includes healthy food,” Jim continues. “If I could surround people with food and nature and help shift their awareness on how it relates to their life, then after five or ten years of doing this, it could reshape the landscape of our whole city.”
Learn more at AppalachianGrit.com