A Small Urban Farm Mindfully Grows
NESTLED IN A SMALL, fertile field near Bonaventure Cemetery, beyond an entrance framed by moss-covered live oaks, Vertu Farm feels quintessentially Savannah — and yet its roots stretch to a much smaller place, much farther away.
“I got some experience working on an organic farm in California while in college,” says Vertu Farm owner Chris Molander, “so I began growing greens on my dorm patio for friends.” Years later, that humble start would serve as a valuable learning experience about what one could do with a small space. In February 2016, he started Vertu Farm by splitting the lease with some neighbors. At about 1.5 acres, only the edges of the farm are accessible by machinery, and the majority of the land is farmed with nothing larger than a wheelbarrow.
Such hands-on work suits Molander’s vision for Vertu. He is a practitioner of “no-till farming,” an agricultural technique that while simplistic is also painstaking: crops are grown without disturbing the soil through tillage. The method stops erosion in certain soils and landscapes, but no-till farming requires close consideration of the ground conditions, particularly with regard to weed control and disease. Without machinery to alter the terrain, soil quality must be kept in order through “a lot of composting.” Partly, Molander says, “this is out of necessity.” The farm is in a city, after all, “and the space is really tight.” It’s also part of Molander’s larger farming ethos: by paying close attention to the soil and to the plants, he aims to “slow things down a bit.” The deliberate pacing isn’t just for show, either — it’s critical for growing the healthiest and best-tasting vegetables. Molander harvests high-quality produce that you can taste from the first bite.
Vertu is a veritable one-stop farm-to-table destination, and it’s also well built for this moment in history, when the ways in which people eat and obtain food have drastically changed. With quarantine conditions encouraging people to steer clear of conventional grocery stores, Vertu offers innovative ways to get fresh food into customers’ hands, safely.
Molander’s “farm fridge” is one such effort. Based on an honor system, customers can take produce from the fridge at 2500 Tennessee Ave. — filled with ready-packaged greens — at any time of the day and leave cash or a check as payment. The prices are competitive with organic grocery stores: salad mixes are $5 and baby arugula is $4. In the era of social distancing, the fridge has increased in popularity, and Molander has never had to worry about the honesty of Savannahians. “It’s never been a problem,” Molander says. “All my customers are super supportive.”
Molander is also expanding and improving Vertu’s reach online. For customers who prefer to order in advance rather than take a gamble on what’s in the farm fridge, they can visit vertufarm.com, place an order, and receive a code to access a large, fully stocked refrigerated trailer instead.
While microgreens and salad mixes comprise the bulk of Vertu’s business, Molander also sells goods from fellow Forsyth Farmers’ Market vendors, with products ranging from ground beef to eggs to pork. “Everything we sell,” he says, “is [grown or produced] at most from an hour and a half away max from Savannah.” He trusts the quality of this “best local food” and the people who grow it, calling them friends he has known for years
This spirit of community is reciprocal, as evidenced by the results of a recent Indiegogo campaign that Molander launched to procure funds for a greenhouse. Up until 2019, Molander shared a greenhouse with Victory Gardens, a landscaping company that, like Vertu, had a growing clientele. Molander needed more space to grow his signature microgreens that he supplied to Green Truck Pub, Fox & Fig, and Atlantic, among other restaurants. Thanks to 117 backers, Molander raised nearly $12,000 for the greenhouse project, which was completed in early 2019.
Creativity, both business and agricultural, drives Molander. It’s fitting that when he named the farm, Molander turned to one of the canonical works of English literature for inspiration. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales mentions vertu — the Middle English equivalent of our contemporary “virtue” — which, for Molander, “has a lot of connotations of growth, light and green.” Vertu Farm, a place where rays of sunshine cross the trees to both diffuse through and nurture the lush plant life below, lives up to its name. But despite the old literary reference, Vertu is grounded in the physical work of growing and selling simple, good food. It’s a timeless practice that yields daily satisfaction. vertufarm.com