Fernandes uses the past to build his future

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Jason Fernandes

The sun shines over Fernandes’ self-described “wild orchard”, which is home to some of his natural terraces. Deer and turkeys can be found roaming the lush land.

Retirement is something many look forward to, perhaps moving somewhere warmer with a beachside view. For AP World History teacher Jason Fernandes, retirement entails building his own house and creating a food forest in middle Tennessee. 

Fernandes has been gardening since college and has construction experience, but had never taken on a project this elaborate before. When he and his wife came across treeless land leveled by timber companies, they found their canvas. 

 “A lot of it is trial and error … a lot of it was just going and doing it and just trying it … and expecting that ‘yeah, we’re going to fail at some of this, but that’s okay,’” Fernandes said. 

 Building his own home is more than a retirement plan for Fernandes it is a financial plan as well. 

 “We’re doing all the work, so once it’s all finished [and] it’s all paid for, we won’t have a mortgage or anything and we have solar panels for electricity, so we won’t have any electricity bills,” Fernandes said. 

 In addition to building a home, he has planted nearly 3,000 trees, which range from pear to cherry to plum. He loves to see that the once barren land has now become home to a food forest, inspired by his AP World History course.  

 “You’re just mimicking the forest with food trees and that’s something … the Maya did with their milpa system, but then there’s other people in southern India  that do that as well,” Fernandes said. “Some of the oldest food forests are actually in southern India and in Indonesia … [when] you walk through it … you would think it was just a natural forest, but it was all planted by humans and they’re all plants that are beneficial to humans and animals.”

 Students like Aditi Mishra (10) are inspired by Mr. Fernandes incorporating his lessons into his personal life. Fernandes has shown images of his farm to his classes allowing for visualization of discussed topics.

“It’s cool that he uses what he teaches,” Mishra said. “… I don’t think I’ve had any other history teacher, who’s ever done that and it’s so nice to see that he’s actually interested in learning more about the topics that he teaches about.”

As sponsor of the garden club, Fernandes plans to bring his farming skills to the school to build a miniature food forest. His personal food forest and knowledge of them will make him a key member of the project.

  “We’ve teamed up with an organization that’s going to help us,” Fernandes said.  “We’re in the planning works of it right now, so they’re going to help us plant some trees and kind of do a little mimic of a food forest back there by our school garden area.”

Food forests are an example of perennial agriculture, in which plants replenish themselves allowing less upkeep. Introducing food forests to urban areas is something that Fernandes is hoping for, as they would bring healthier options to those in need.

 “We have food insecurity in this city… we have this certain percentage of our population who is food insecure,” Fernandes said. “… Can you imagine if just half of the trees in Memphis produced food … that people could just have for free? It would be incredible for people to have access to free, healthy fruits.” 

Leslie Avila (10), a student of Fernandes, has first-hand knowledge of how beneficial fresh food in urban cities would be for those in need. 

 “My family in Mexico has little farm areas … and they don’t have to go to the store as often,” Avila said. “If they need any vegetables, they just go out to their farm, so it’s … cheaper and it’s healthier as well.”

 Fernandes’ usage of historical techniques at his farm demonstrates to students how they can use what they learn outside of school. However, historical methods are not the only thing that allowed Fernandes’ farm to succeed – his dedication and passion for the environment helped him as well. 

 “Mr. Fernandes is a great teacher and it’s really cool to see him really passionate about something other than school,” Mishra said. “Sometimes we just think teachers only have their one life, but it’s cool that he shares the rest of it with us … especially because he has such an interesting life.”