High atop Cagle Mountain, almost hidden from the view of travelers, is a gravel driveway that serves as the entrance to Calvary Chapel Chattanooga’s Farm 58. The driveway leads visitors past grassy fields and rows of meticulously-kept gardens, a patchwork of browns and greens stitched together by fencing. To the left a small herd of cows is grazing and ahead groups of hens are busily pecking the ground looking for a snack. Following along the fence line, visitors are led to a variety of destinations, one of which is a quintessential big red barn, like out of a child’s storybook.
This farm’s picturesque vista is the result of countless hours of planning, hard work and God’s providence. Four years ago, the Farm 58 property was thick with timber. Pine trees and hardwoods covered the rolling hills instead of partitioned pastures and acres of produce. While it was 2013, when the 180-acre plot of land was donated to Calvary Chapel Chattanooga’s Renew Ministry, the story of Farm 58 does not start there.
Renew is a discipleship ministry for men and women who desire to follow Christ but for one reason or another need a quiet season of stepping away from their lives in order to repair them. Most individuals served by the ministry have made choices that have left their lives in shambles, whether it be addiction, adulterous relationships or simply a lack of direction. Through Renew, participants learn to make healthy decisions based on their own study of the Bible, under the guidance of counseling and mentorship. The ministry houses approximately 45 men and 13 women at a time for a period of one year. The women’s house is located near the church in downtown Chattanooga. The men split their time between the men’s house, also located near the church, and Farm 58.
The Renew Ministry in Chattanooga is based on the design of the Calvary House Ministry in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but the dual location concept that Farm 58 offers is unique. Many years ago, church leadership visited a ministry with a similar purpose located on a cattle farm in South Florida. They were struck by the simplicity of the environment—free from distractions with an emphasis on work ethic and self-discipline, all while worshipping God through His creation. Immediately this type of environment became part of the vision for the Renew Ministry. They felt it critically important for men to have the opportunity to begin their Renew journey within the slower paced environment of the country and then transition to the city where they could learn to negotiate the temptations encountered there.
This vision was shared multiple times over the next several years and eventually reached the ears of a family whose son had been dramatically impacted by the Renew program. This family offered to donate the land needed to help the dream of Farm 58 become reality.
Another family who had a son impacted by the ministry offered to put together a fundraiser so that the clearing and building could begin on the property. Over the course of one weekend $450,000 was given to inject capital into the project. Remarkable as that was, the land and monetary resources were only a portion of what was needed to get the farm off the ground. Church leadership needed someone who could run the day–to–day operations. That person was Donovan Coughlin.
Coughlin was working full–time and pursuing a business degree when he was struck by an overwhelming desire to learn everything he could about organic farming. He began researching fervently. He read every book he could get his hands on and watched every video he could find, without any notion of where the path would lead him. After a great deal of prayer Coughlin eventually left business school to pursue his newly found passion, a decision he did not take lightly. “It didn’t make any sense to me at the time. In a lot of ways, I felt like I was failing by leaving the traditional college path but I knew that God was clearly telling me to become a learner of this thing he had put in my heart,” said Coughlin.
A graduate of Renew himself, Coughlin maintained many connections to the ministry along with a passion for the work done though the program. It was through these connections that the church leadership at Calvary Chapel Chattanooga learned of Coughlin’s growing expertise in the field of organic farming. They contacted him for advice on the process of beginning to farm the newly donated land. Coughlin shared his research and suggested methods of efficient food production. Eventually the conversations turned from information gathering to asking Coughlin to come run the farm. At that moment, Coughlin and his wife Katie knew that what had transpired in their lives over the previous two years had been solely for the purpose of preparing him for that position.
“I believe it was at that moment that God’s will met God’s timing. If we had jumped ship at any point during the process, we may have missed out on this opportunity of His best for us. No other job in the world could possibly combine my two greatest passions,” said Coughlin.
Coughlin’s farming philosophy is grounded in his faith. Living out Biblical agrarian references to sowing, reaping, pruning and cultivating is one of the things that initially attracted him to gardening and is something he encourages others to experience. In the gardens Coughlin depends only on what God has created for fertilizing and controlling pests, forgoing manmade chemical treatments. Although this practice has proven to be challenging at times, Coughlin feels it is important not only to preserve the land but also for the health of the end consumer. Every choice Coughlin makes on the farm from seed selection and livestock choices to building projects is analyzed through the lens of his belief system. “There is purpose in every decision. God is a God of order so everyone and everything on the farm has a job and a reason for being there. We also view everything from a business effectiveness standpoint because we want to be sure we are being good stewards of the resources God has given us,” says Coughlin.
Under the leadership of Coughlin’s business background and extensive knowledge of sustainable organic farming, the farm has already had multiple successful seasons. Food from the farm’s gardens and livestock fill boxes for over 200 CSA shareholders each year. CSA members can choose a full-share weekly box or alternate weeks for 1⁄2 share. The revenue from the CSA, which sells out each year, covers the entire cost of the farm operations excluding the two staff salaries. The produce selection is methodically chosen and planned by Coughlin to ensure that every CSA member receives a full box of usable food.
The CSA produce plan is extremely consumer-centric. The farm purposely stays away from exotic food choices because Coughlin doesn’t want customers to open their weekly box and wonder what to do with the produce inside. He also carefully arranges the planting schedule according to the length of time it takes for each plant to mature. This ensures the largest variety of crops seasonally possible will be available for the shareholders’ boxes.
“We spend December and January meticulously planning the entire season on paper. I know exactly how many transplants and seeds we are going to plant on exactly what date in exactly what bed location to be ready for a specific weekly box. I can pull up the entire plan at any time. If the Lord allows everything to go as it should, I can tell you what produce to expect in each box throughout the whole season,” says Coughlin.
The farm also supplies Calvary Chapel’s M58 Cafe with a variety of produce and meat for weekly specials. The men who are enrolled in the Renew ministry follow their time working at Farm 58 with a period of time working at the café. Several years ago, one of these men was a professional chef who suggested adding the farm fresh specials and offered to rework the menu. Since that time the café’s menu, which began with burgers and other grill basics, has been dramatically enhanced by the farm’s offerings, including eggs, seasonal produce and smaller birds. The men who reside at Farm 58 and Coughlin’s family are also fed by the farm’s bounty, after the other obligations have been met.
The farm hosts a family day every month throughout the spring, summer and fall. On these days, the public is invited to enjoy the farm’s welcoming atmosphere and take part in a guided tour of the grounds. In addition to sharing in the beauty of the landscape visitors can, for minimal cost, also enjoy a lunch and homemade ice cream, all made from farm–raised ingredients. The farm’s abundance reaches beyond the gardens, hoop houses and pastures. It is found in the richness of the community it feeds.