Healthy Crop of Second-Career Farmers
The growing demand for locally grown food has sprouted a new class of small farmer — many of them second-career farmers — who invest hard work into 50 to 100 acres and earn a living with a bumper crop of satisfaction.
Trent Boyd gave up a career as a civil engineer to return to his roots as a farmer in Cullman County.
A 1996 civil engineering graduate from the University of Alabama, Trent Boyd was working for a building and excavation contractor in Birmingham when it closed its doors two years ago. Boyd, who grew up on a Cullman County farm, decided at that point to begin farming full time instead of pursuing another job as a civil engineer.
“I guess farming is just in my blood,” says the 40-year-old Boyd.
Boyd’s Cullman County farm grows 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, cauliflower, onions, peas, beans, corn and heirloom tomatoes. He doesn’t use chemicals in his operations, opting instead for more natural growing techniques.
“We went away from the more traditional farms,” he says. “We do the natural, the organic, whatever you want to call it. Organic is actually a licensed thing from the FDA, which we don’t participate in. So I guess you’d say we’re a natural farm.”
Boyd is among a growing group of smaller farmers and non-farmers taking advantage of increased interest in and demand for locally grown fruits, vegetables and meat products. “It’s very expensive to get into large-scale agriculture and be competitive,” says Tony Glover, coordinator of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s office in Cullman County. “We’ve seen the shrinking of the middle — the mid-sized family farms are on the decrease and most of those are being bought or the land leased by larger farmers.
“But, at the same time, a whole new group of young and second-career non-traditional farmers are growing by leaps and bounds. Many of these folks either have or want to purchase small acreage or even small plots of land to start small-scale agriculture businesses. The majority are interested in fruit and vegetable production for local farmers’ market sales. That’s where the astronomical growth is occurring.”
Boyd’s Harvest Farm is considered small, straddling 50 acres along County Road 1527 in the Fairview Community near Cullman. The crops are grown in plastic-covered rows three feet wide, with small irrigation lines underneath the plastic. Boyd’s technique includes fish and seaweed as fertilizer and bacteria and organic fungicides to maintain healthy plants. Instead of chemicals for weed control, he plants cover crops that are tilled into the soil to provide organic matter, and he also uses manure and compost to keep the soil strong.
Boyd works hard at creating a market. “Just because you’re growing something doesn’t mean you’re going to sell it,” he says. “That’s probably the thing I’ve seen small farmers fail at more than anything else. They think you can just go out and grow all this stuff, but if you don’t have a market for it, you aren’t going to sell it. If you don’t have someplace to take your crops, you’re going to fail.”
Boyd’s customers include high-end restaurants in Birmingham, as well as individuals buying through community-supported agriculture (CSA) groups. Those customers pay an annual fee in advance for 16 weeks of fresh produce delivered from the farm in half-bushel boxes. Boyd has roughly 40 CSA customers who pick up their orders at different locations.
“We deliver from Cullman to Mountain Brook,” he says. “We’re trying to limit the number of customers right now, but we’ll expand it as we go. We want to be sure our customers receive the highest-quality produce and safest, chemical-free produce they can get.”
Boyd is active on Facebook; he spends time supporting local farm initiatives, and he spends four hours a day selling and developing new customers. He says he gets the best results from face-to-face selling and word-of-mouth referrals.
As part of his marketing, Boyd’s farm has a small plot designed especially for growing giant pumpkins, and that’s how he grew a 903-pounder last year — a state record. “We do the big pumpkins for fun, but we also do it from an advertising standpoint,” Boyd says. “People love to see them, and (what we do) just shows that there are creative ways to get word out that you’re growing something.”
In response to increased interest in small farms, the County Extension System’s Glover coordinated an eight-week course last year called Farming 101. More than 50 people paid to attend the courses, which were taught in Cullman but drew from a wide area in North Alabama. Similar classes have been offered by other County Extension System offices and most people attend such classes to learn more about supplementing non-farm income or retirement from an off-farm career, Glover says.
For 50-year-old Dewayne Jennings, who attended the Farming 101 classes and got to know Glover, the goal is a bit more ambitious. Retired from the Army after 20 years of service, Jennings and his wife, Barbara, bought 120 acres in Cullman County and are developing the property — Paradise Hollow Farm —with the eventual goal of raising Black Angus cattle, training horses and growing pine trees.
The land that Jennings bought had been ravaged by the 2011 tornadoes, and he has spent countless hours disposing of damaged and fallen trees. He has spent well in excess of $50,000 for a tractor, bush hog and other equipment used to help reclaim the land, but in doing so he has restored value to the property.
He has almost completed construction of a new, wind-resistant barn that includes horse stalls, office space and room for mechanical repairs, welding and storage. The Jennings also plan to build a small house nearby. A pond sits on the higher side of the property, and Jennings is laying plans for a gravity-fed system for delivering water to cattle at different locations once he starts a herd.
“We’re still in the first of three phases we have planned,” Jennings says. “The work we’ve done has already added $50,000 in value back to the property. That’s probably going to double in the next five or 10 years, and then with the value of land, it may go up again. We’re looking at when we turn 70 and we can’t do this kind of work anymore, we can sell the farm, walk away from it, downsize and still get our money back as a business venture.”
Like Boyd, 42-year-old Andy Millard of Jemison only recently began growing crops full-time. Millard majored in marketing at Montgomery’s Huntingdon College and married into a fruit-growing family in 1992. He worked the retail side of that business — Durbin Farms — for the better part of 15 years before that part of the business was sold.
For the past few years, Millard and his father-in-law, Steve Wilson, have grown apples on five acres and peaches on 25 acres at Mountain View Orchards. They sell their product on a U-Pick basis and recently made arrangements with additional buyers in Texas and Louisiana.
“We thought we might be able to do this part time, but then we realized this would be a full-time job,” says Millard. “From the first year to the second, our sales tripled. Traffic flowed onto the farm because more people were hearing about us. I see a lot of potential. We might even have to hire full-time employees down the road.”
Millard says changes in the farming industry present a “whole new opportunity for younger people who can’t buy hundreds of acres but who can buy 10 or 20 acres and make a decent income working it themselves or with one or two hired hands.”
But he and Boyd both say that the hard work a farm requires is not for everybody. “If you don’t like hard work and being outside, then you’re probably not going to like farming,” says Millard.
“There aren’t many young people farming like we do,” Boyd says. “It’s a culture thing, really. I don’t think people want to get out here and work like this anymore. I get up at 4 or 5 in the morning and go to bed around 10. Anybody can do it, but you’ve got to really like it. It’s got to be a calling for you.”
When Boyd started farming full time, “We weren’t doing anywhere near what we’re doing now — maybe a third,” he says. “Since then, I’ve lost 50 pounds. I’m healthy. My blood pressure is better. I feel better. My family is closer. Our (six) kids help us. My wife, Jennifer, helps. It’s been a blessing.”
Many aspiring farmers don’t experience success on a large scale. “Most people don’t share the dollar volume they’re doing,” Glover says, “but it’s safe to say that the small beginning farmers I have worked with are not getting rich, and they work very hard for what they do earn.”
That could apply so far to David Beasley, 70, a retired hospital pharmacist who farms 94 acres near his home in Florence. He has worked long and hard but is growing only modest amounts of blueberries and muscadines, although he expects larger crops in the next few years. Beasley has found pleasure in growing and selling hay, but he also finds that simply working the land is rewarding.
“I just wanted some property to play on, develop and have pride in,” he says. “I’d like to get to the point where I’m profitable, but I’m not there yet. And I’m pay as you go. I don’t care about getting into debt with farming.”
Charlie Ingram is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.