City Lifestyle

Want to start a publication?

Learn More

Featured Article

From the Ground Up

Century Harvest Farms Foundation Feeds Mind, Body, and Soul

A Journey of Discovery

East Tennessee native Chris Burger was an art student in New York City in 2001 when he realized his life’s journey needed to take a sharp turn in another direction.

“There was a conversation going on in academic about when global capitalism might break down, and then 9/11 happened,” he says. “It became clear to me that rather than try to achieve some sort of substantial financial success or work in some industry, I needed to be a responsible tenant of the planet. I wanted to see what a sustainable farm was supposed to be, to see what a human life was like not being fed by regular products but by producing things for himself.” 

Chris came home to Tennessee and pitched an idea to his family: What if we bought a farm? What if we took a chance? 

“I thought they’d kick me out and tell me to get a job,” he recalls, laughing, “but they agreed that the world they grew up in was different and the new way wasn’t going to last. They wanted to be on the leading edge of a paradigm shift, so we put our hands in, yelled, ‘Team!’, and got started. That was 15 years ago.” 

The family started with 35 acres off Morganton Road in Greenback, then expanded west with 117 acres toward McCollum Farm, and then added 200 more acres on the Blount County side. Chris set up a tent and started researching everything about the micro-ecology of farming, how the inputs for one crop generate outputs for another, which becomes the input for another crop. Learning more about this agricultural cycle fueled his passion.

“What I was most passionate about was how that represented 10,000 years of agriculture, and how industrialized agriculture replaced it. Five billion people are dependent on fossil fuels for their existence, and I don’t mean energy. I mean protein. It was vitally important to me to return to a pre-industrial era of agriculture but using modern tools.” 

The careful balance of plants, animals, and the soil is crucial to the vitality and viability of a farm. A holistic farm paradigm relies on biological diversity. 

However, you also need revenue to keep the farm going. At some point, as Chris puts it, you have to stop farming and start selling. 

Century Harvest Farms Formation

When Chris realized that working the land and marketing his crops required more than he could sustain without more people on hand, he started looking for another way to make the farm sustainable. He wanted to add a social component, and he knew that farming had the potential to be regenerative and healing. 

Enter Jen McMahon. With a background in interdisciplinary anthropology, the Ohio native moved to Knoxville as an AmeriCorps Vista Program participant and secured a position at Compassion Coalition downtown. She worked with veterans and those experiencing chronic homelessness, a role that gave her a keen view of the socio-economic makeup of Knoxville. She also learned more about the barriers people face trying to reintegrate into society. 

“When Chris and I met, he was without labor, and he had this wonderful idea to have folks come out to pick vegetables. Half of the crop was kept for the farm to go into production for the things they were selling, and the people kept the other half,” she says. “We came up with the One For One program and applied for Trinity Health Foundation funding. We received $15,000.” 

Soon, they paired with Susanna’s House, and those mothers started coming out to pick fresh fruits and vegetables, taking home half to feed their children. As groups continued to participate in One For One, Chris and Jen collected data. They started to see how these relationships could grow into something else entirely. 

“I realized I was spending more time at the farm and a lot less time at my job, so Chris was like, ‘Why don’t you do this full time and we start a nonprofit?’ As a 26-year-old at the time, I was like, ‘What?’” says Jen, laughing. “We put together the blueprint for what our foundation was going to do. We focused on getting people fed, training them, and doing holistic practices. But looking at the data and hearing feedback from what people were experiencing, all of them wanted full-time employment and secure their own form of housing. They wanted enough money to pay court feeds and get their licenses back. That’s a huge barrier. If you don’t have a license or a car, you can’t get to work.”

Childcare, too, was a big barrier. Chris and Jen looked at the various Catch-22s that were recurring patterns and devised a plan that gave an answer to each one. Century Harvest Farms Foundation became an official 501c3 on December 3, 2017. 

“We initially addressed food insecurity but evolved into addressing barriers that prevent people from coming out of incarceration, becoming fully employed, and having the resources they need to become successful. We made our mission to empower, create new jobs and healthier futures for those in recovery and out of incarceration,” says Jen.

From The Ground Up is a 40-day work training program for individuals who are far enough into their recovery to focus on gaining full-time employment. Referred by local case managers and social workers, participants spend the first 20 days learning everything about the farm, from agricultural and culinary training to animal husbandry and machinery maintenance. Then, each maker gets to choose how to spend the remaining 20 days based on his or her area of interest. If makers are particularly interested in getting full-time employment in the food industry, then they work under the supervision of Cordon Bleu-trained Chef Christian Morrish. If they want to find work as a mechanic, they can focus on machine repair and maintenance. 

“Our main goal is for folks to get full-time work at the end of the 40 days, whether that’s here or at butcher shops, high-end restaurants, or anywhere else,” says Jen. “Being able to see someone go through the program and still maintain sobriety and employment - that’s the whole goal.” 


Changing Plans in a New Landscape

When the threat of COVID-19 hit East Tennessee and many businesses were ramping down, CHF was ramping up. A board member suggested the idea of a meat delivery program, which then gave birth to the Century Harvest Box program. 

“Our culinary team jumped on it. We made it and launched it in a week so we could get our name out there,” says Jen. “Before COVID happened, we had plans to have tons of people here, volunteers in the field and selling our products, but we had to completely switch our plan or shut down. We have a lot of people depending on Century Harvest to maintain sobriety.” 

They created online cooking classes, delivered boxes to homes for participants to create raised bed gardens, and set up Zoom check-ins. Over time, as guidelines allowed, they slowly let folks come to the farm to do isolated six-by-six-feet farming, giving individuals their own space and tools to work with.

“Farming is the original socially distant endeavor,” says Chris. “So, if there’s anything people can do together but apart it’s growing a crop.” 

The goal is to bring 40-day participants back to the farm full time as the program is designed, but if state and local guidelines prevent them from doing so, Chris and Jen will keep coming up with ways to keep the farm moving forward and feeding the community - mind, body, and soul.

Long-range plans are in effect too, as the need for transitional housing in the area continues to grow.

“There are no beds available for folks who are trying to get back into sobriety. A lot of our folks who come out of incarceration are flown to other places, like Atlanta or Colorado, because there’s nowhere for them to go here,” says Jen.

“Part of our thesis is that if you treat people with dignity and supply their most basic needs, they have a better shot at thriving,” Chris adds. “We make it very simple. I’m thrilled to help contribute to a world where people help out at a farm, enjoy fresh vegetables, and are healthier for it.” 

Shop Century Harvest products, including grass-fed beef, at Learn more about Century Harvest Farms Foundation at 

  • August, Chris, Shona, Edith (infant), and Cassidy Burger
  • Chef Christian
  • Christy McQueen
  • From the food truck, CHF serves 200 meals each Tuesday at Rio Revolution Church in Maryville free of charge during the “Celebrate Recovery Program”.
  • Martha Champion
  • Beets
  • Onions
  • Makers Kitchen
  • Nitrate-free, grass-fed charcuterie