Career Veer to Home Grown
The pull of family land brought California jazz singer Sandra Simone back to Talladega County, but her success has been a studied harmony of contemporary farm market skills.
“City slicker farmer” Sandra Simone oversees 100 acres of organic vegetables, bleating goats, hard work and enough innovation to earn the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s 2012 Small Farmer of the Year award for Alabama.
Sandra Simone is a good farmer, reluctantly. Decades ago she traded Birmingham for California, with dreams of becoming a professional singer. Today she performs jazz in Atlanta clubs. But Simone also received the Natural Resources Conservation Service award as Alabama’s 2012 Small Farmer of the Year — a trophy she never saw coming.
Experts laud the award-winning farmer from Alpine. Conservationist Thomas McDaniel, with the NRCS District in Talladega, says of Simone, “She is open to new ideas and is always eager to share her knowledge with others.” The USDA’s website commends Simone’s conservation work in using solar power to run water pumps, mixing fertilizer blends for crops, experimenting with soils and seeds, and other trailblazing ideas in agriculture. She modestly laughs, “When did I do all of that?
“I came into this business as a city slicker farmer,” Simone explains, recalling days of youth when she could not wait to leave Alabama. “I had my fill of hot weather and bugs. I wanted to move on.” California, here she comes.
Not long out of the teen years, the determined Alabama transplant relocated to Long Beach. The new West Coaster took voice lessons, learned performing arts and envisioned life as a professional jazz singer. “California Dreamin’” did not include an Alabama produce and goat farm. But her future did.
“I had absolutely zero experience in farming,” she recalls. “I never tilled the ground as a child, never worked the fields, or picked crops. Agriculture — especially as a vocation — was not an option for me.” But in the 1970s, Simone visited home and faced her destiny.
“I started feeling a connection to my roots,” she says. Now married, husband Harry Burke and others persuaded her to move back South, to the land of her ancestors in Talladega County. “They all told me, and I agreed, our family land should be purchased by a family member, before it was parceled and sold away.” She bought 100 acres, turning and tilling fields and streams into gardens and pastures of organic vegetables, bleating goats, hard work and good living. The seeds that would become Huckleberry Hill Farm were planted.
Simone was not ready to call her Promised Land “home” just yet. She and Harry moved to Atlanta, visiting the project as time permitted. The happy couple enjoyed times in the rural countryside so much they eventually left Georgia and built a small cabin on the Alabama woodland property. In 1999, the dream log cabin perched on an Alpine bluff was completed. Three months later, Harry died of cancer.
“I was in shock, but my family was more shocked when I told them I was staying to tend the land.” One hundred fertile Talladega County acres were now under the sole care of the former California jazz singer. “I was alone on a farm and knew nothing about farming,” Simone recalls. “I studied everything and raised crops through trial and error.” She became a recognized leader in organic farming, which still amazes her.
“I chuckle when people praise me for my ‘great work and leading advances in farming.’ I was just trying to survive.”
The pretty log home on Huckleberry Hill Farm is still there, and so is Simone. “Every day is an adventure.” She smiles, stroking an appreciative house cat, nestled in her lap. “It’s exciting to me. But you must love it. If you don’t love farming, you’ve got problems.”
In addition to love, you must have a niche. Simone made a decision before tilling the first pound of soil — Huckleberry Hill Farm would be all organic. “Living in California 20 years influenced my decision,” she notes, about her choice to practice healthy organic eating. “I wanted to bring the organic concept here.” She grows everything: peas, tomatoes, collards, chard. If it can grow in Alabama, it will grow on Huckleberry Hill. The farm is Simone’s fulltime income.
In 2005, she formed a Community Supported Agriculture membership program. The plan allows people to buy “shares” of her produce upfront. For approximately $530, a family of four was provided fresh garden produce every week during the growing season. “The good thing about CSAs is your money is pre-paid. The capital is there to invest in your farm ahead of time,” Simone says. “I started with five shareholders and almost doubled them every year from 2005 to 2008.” At its peak, her CSA program served 44 customers. And then the bottom fell out.
“The recession hit,” she says. “Last year, my shareholders were zero. This year I’m trying something else, the Pepper Place Market in Birmingham.”
The difference between a CSA program and farmers’ markets is with a CSA, your clients take whatever is picked and packed that week, all pre-paid. At market, the customer buys what he wants, and they can be picky. “Organically grown vegetables cost a bit more,” Simone says. “Sometimes it’s hard for Alabamians to accept that, especially when just about everybody here grows tomatoes or knows someone who does.”
And then there are goats. “I got the idea for selling goats when people complained to me about how difficult it is finding goat meat at the grocery store,” Simone says. “It is very popular among some nationalities, especially during their holidays. It’s been a good addition to the farm.”
But goats have two problems Simone did not foresee, “They are cute and they like to die.”
“People have a misconception about how durable goats are,” she says. “They think goats will eat anything. They are actually very finicky, and easily killed by parasites.”
And it’s easy to get attached to them. “We do not butcher our herd here at Huckleberry Farm, but rather sell the animal to the customer. But even that was hard,” Simone concedes. “When I first started, customers came to make the purchase. Being loaded in the truck, my goats would cry and I then I would cry. They’re taking my babies! It took some getting used to,” she laughs.
Other revenue streams Simone is trying to pursue will come from agri-tourism. “I want to build some cabins on my property for people to visit, stay the night, pick from the garden if they want to,” she says. “College kids and church groups come here all the time to help me and to learn agriculture. I think the ‘farm tourist’ is a viable market.”
For Sandra Simone, her life and the gardens of Huckleberry Hill are also viable markets. From the back porch she gazes over fields of collards, meandering goats and a solar-powered water system.
So, how does a jazz singer feel being named Small Farmer of the Year, in a state she once could not wait to leave?
She laughs. “Hard to believe isn’t it?”
Emmett Burnett is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Satsuma.