HARRODSBURG — When Zachary Davis was hired in November to grow vegetables at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, he took stock of what he had to work with: an antique hoe and a 200-year-old garden plot.
Actually, he had a lot more than that. Davis, 22, had a degree in sustainable agriculture and a good understanding of faith-based land stewardship. He also had bosses who saw his garden as a way to make the Shakers' legacy relevant today.
"We want to demonstrate their principles of sustainability and how to use and care for the land, but we want to do it in a 21st-century way," said Maynard Crossland, Shaker Village's executive director, who was hired two years ago to bring new life and financial stability to the nonprofit property.
Most people don't know much about the Shakers who settled in Mercer County in 1806, except that they belonged to a Christian sect that lived communally, made elegantly simple furniture and buildings, and didn't believe in sex.
The Shakers also were masters of what we now call sustainable agriculture, raising food to feed themselves and sell to neighbors, and running a large seed business before the Civil War. They were innovators and inventors, equipping their large dormitory-like homes with what were then the most modern labor-saving devices.
After decades of decline, the Shaker community disbanded in 1910. Since the 1960s, 33 Shaker buildings and 22 miles of dry stone fences on 3,000 acres have been restored and operated as a tourist attraction.
David Larson, operations vice president, has focused on improving Shaker Village's famous restaurant. The veteran chef wanted to serve more fresh, locally grown food. So, he thought, what could be more local than a garden within sight of the dining room windows?
In recent years, the garden had largely been a living history exhibit, with a few heirloom vegetable varieties grown Shaker-style, Larson said.
"If the Shakers were here today, they wouldn't be doing heirloom varieties," he said. "They would be at the forefront of organic farming."
Larson wanted to hire a skilled organic gardener, and someone who understood the Shakers' spiritual attachment to the land and could explain it to visitors. "I called a friend at UK and he said, 'I've got your man,'" Larson said. "Zach gets it."
Davis, a Lexington native who comes from a long line of insurance salesmen, had struggled with whether to go into the Episcopal ministry or become an organic farmer. At age 12, he said he read Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, a 2002 collection of essays by Wendell Berry and others.
"I got really fired up about how broken our food system is," Davis said. "The best way to address that, for me, was to get dirt under my fingernails."
Davis graduated last year from the University of Kentucky's new sustainable agriculture program. He also was a fellow at UK's Gaines Center for the Humanities. He is engaged to Emma Sleeth, an Asbury University graduate, author of the book It's Easy Being Green and daughter of Matthew and Nancy Sleeth, founders of Lexington-based Blessed Earth, a Christian educational non-profit organization.
Davis said he couldn't imagine a better way to begin his career than by helping Shaker Village rediscover and build on its rich heritage of sustainable agriculture.
After purchasing a greenhouse for seedlings and a tilling machine, Davis and UK classmate Polly Symons cultivated a little less than one acre. They are raising about 50 varieties of 25 vegetables, keeping the restaurant well supplied and distributing the surplus to employees on "dividend days." Davis gives public tours of the garden at 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
When I visited Shaker Village recently, Larson was bragging about the quality of Davis' lettuce, squash, cucumbers, peas and beans, and eager for his eight varieties of tomatoes to ripen. The restaurant's menu is adjusted each week, depending on what the garden is producing.
"The garden has been a resounding success this summer," Larson said. "We had to rethink the way we did things, and we wanted a young person who had a whole new set of eyes for this place. We certainly found that in Zach."
Larson said he has bigger ideas for the restaurant next year, including a healthy children's menu and a kitchen composting system.
Davis is planning an expanded garden. He wants to add vegetables based on what the restaurant needs "and what I think the Shakers would be doing now if they were here," he said. "Tourists like to see the time warp, but the Shakers were much more ingenious than that."