Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A New Breed of Farm

A couple of weeks ago I came home for lunch and sliced a one inch thick center slice out of a locally grown, organic bright red tomato as big around as the length of my hand, laid it between two slightly toasted pieces of loaf rye bread, slathered it with mayonnaise, sprinkled it with fresh ground pepper and took a bite. It was about 40-45 degrees outside and overcast, but all of a sudden it felt like the sun was shining in my mouth. Eating a tomato this good at this time of year makes you feel like there’s a small crack in the firmament, and a small beam of heaven’s light focused just on you. I like to call that center slice the “steak” of the tomato, and there’s just nothing on earth as good.

Less than a mile away from where I live in Winterville, GA sits an unimposing small farm called Woodland Gardens. My yummy tomato was grown on this farm; only a stone’s throw from the Athens airport, and maybe six or seven miles from downtown Athens. Along the road in front of the farm is an itty bitty yellow sign that reads, “Organic Garden, please don’t spray.” Down a short dusty road stand ten tall domed greenhouses. A curious passerby might pause and say, “I wonder what they’re growing down there?” A good answer would be, “All kinds of stuff!”

My first visit to Woodland Gardens occurred one summer morning, about 4:30 a.m. It was pitch black of course, and I was hitching a ride to the Morningside Farmer’s Market in Atlanta; the only year round farmer’s market in the state that sells only organic products. Before heading off, I helped two lean, quick moving, hard working women load a refrigerated truck from top to bottom with boxes of tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, beans, squash, zucchini, okra, lettuce, potatoes, onions, leeks, herbs, bunches of fresh cut flowers, and about a dozen items I couldn’t identify. Everything had been harvested the day before. This food was fresh. So fresh, it was practically wigglin’!

Everyone at the market was magnetized towards the Woodland Garden booth. The bounty of beautiful shiny fruits with chalkboard signs describing each item and how much it cost in blue, green and pink chalk. The bright colors and the smell of fresh cut flowers, ripening tomatoes and respiring greens entranced passerby. The fresh blessings of the earth had been brought to the big city.

Woodland Gardens isn’t an ordinary farm. It’s a new breed of farm; an example of what farms may look like if society truly decides to try and eat local. Most people can’t yet imagine what eating local actually means. To most of us it probably sounds trendy, unrealistic, or downright confusing. But current and future generations are facing some challenging questions that until the last few years were inconceivable. Where will our food come from? How will people make a living in our rural landscapes? What happens if everybody sells the farm?

Celia Barss is a new breed of skilled farmer. She’s young, she’s savvy, she speaks three languages and she’s the farm manager of Woodland Gardens. Born in Canada then raised in Papau New Guinea and Baltimore, she gained her training as a farmer at the University of California in Santa Cruz. She didn’t grow up on a farm, but she always loved to have her hands in the dirt, and after finding her passion for growing food she never looked back. She knew what she wanted to do and focused on it. These days a farmer doesn’t have to be born on a farm to be born to farm; and that may be a blessing to the rest of us since less than two percent of the nation’s population still grows our food. Celia is tanned, sinewy, and confident in her craft. There’s nary an organic farm or farmer in Georgia that can compare to the level of output, efficiency and quality of produce at Woodland Gardens.

When asked to paint a picture of Woodland Gardens, Celia explains the different structures that allow them to grow year round. A total of one acre of land sits under ten passively ventilated greenhouses called high tunnels, and two heated greenhouses. Four additional acres are devoted to field production. “Each area is the best place to have the crops at different times of the year,” Celia explains, and she’s developed a system of careful rotations to maximize crop performance and efficiency.

The major advantage of greenhouses is they allow a farmer to extend the growing season, thus providing year round income, maintaining full time employees, capturing a bit of a price premium, and allowing folks like me to eat local tomatoes in the month of February. But the greenhouses also preserve nutrients and organic matter in the soil. Since a greenhouse blocks rainfall, precious nitrogen from compost isn’t leached from the soil after a heavy rain. The plants are irrigated with drip tape and nitrogen is slowly released by the decomposition activity of micro-organisms in the soil. _

Every good farm starts with a farmer who loves doing what they do. Isn’t that true of excellence in any craft, and every profession? Celia explained that in addition to this love of the craft many farmers feel responsible for providing good food, “because they’re able to do it.” Fortunately for us, some people are just born with the talents that make for good farmers. They love being in the earth, they have a mind for detail, and possess bountiful storehouses of energy. Bit by bit these individuals are finding their way back to the farm as opportunities expand and society begins to appreciate this contribution. A new breed of farmer is slowly, ever so slowly being born. As this occurs individuals like Celia and places like Woodland Gardens stand out like an experienced older sister who just graduated from college. If you’re lucky maybe she’ll take you out, show you around, and instill in you an encouraging example of future possibilities.

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