There are currently 135 certified organic farms in the state of Georgia. “There’s so much room to grow,” Martin said.
The Rodale Institute connected with Ross and Rebecca Williams over cocktails at Serenbe.
“When we developed our plan for Serenbe, we knew agriculture was one of the pillars for creating a vital community,” said Steve Nygren, Serenbe co-founder. “Today, we expect our farmers to be the farmer, the harvester, the packager, the distributor and the marketer, and that’s not an efficient system. We are working to connect the dots here (at Serenbe) and, because of that, national organizations like Rodale come to visit us.”
So, Nygren threw what he called a “24-hour dinner party.” He invited the Rodale Institute and other organizations, such as the Urban Land Institute and the Conservation Fund, to come for a day.
This fall, Many Fold Farm’s more than 300 acres of rolling pasture land and fields in Chattahoochee Hills will become home to the Southeast Organic Center. CONTRIBUTED BY MANY FOLD FARM
Nygren was surprised at how quickly things moved. “I expected everyone to say, ‘Let’s study this for the next year.’ But they were interested in action,” he said. “So, we held a cocktail party and invited farmers,” including the Williamses.
“When we connected with Ross and Rebecca at Serenbe, they shared their vision of revitalizing an agrarian economy in Georgia,” Martin said. “They had closed their creamery, and were thinking about their next steps. We were excited to become partners with them.”
When Rebecca Williams heard what Rodale wanted to do, it felt like the right match for her underutilized farm. “We had been making cheese and raising dairy sheep for about eight years,” she said. “We closed the creamery two-and-a-half years ago, because we realized, to make our five-year plan, we’d have to be bringing in milk from across the country. We needed more volume than what our animals could produce. … We wanted to be a model for regenerative organic agriculture in the Southeast, not trucking in milk from Nebraska.”
The Williamses could see much potential in Rodale’s plans. “There’s no better place to do this than in the Southeast, because there’s so little support for organic agriculture here,” Rebecca said. “It’s hard to be an organic farmer where there’s no model. Ross and I thought if we did this, in alignment with a nonprofit research institution, rather than as a for-profit business, we would see what we could discover together.”
They became even more excited about the idea when they visited a pasture pig operation in Pennsylvania. “This was a model operation that needs just one person to run it,” she said. “With an initial investment of about $100,000, the farm was turning a profit in two to three years. It blew me away. The design allowed pigs to be pigs, outside, in the places they want to be outside. … It was a design for a more efficient, sustainable, regenerative production operation. That’s the kind of thing we all can learn from.”
Planning sessions were held in the spring, and those participating talked about the problems faced by organic farmers in the Southeast, forming the basis for decisions about research that the center will conduct.
Joe Reynolds of Love Is Love Farm, board chair for Georgia Organics, was in attendance. “It is exciting to have Rodale come to Georgia with their organic production expertise and eye toward research-based models,” Reynolds said. “I think they will be blown away at the brilliant, innovative farmers and organizations they meet and plan to serve here in Georgia.”
Many Fold Farm’s shuttered creamery building is being turned into the research center, and a research director is being hired. The center will form an advisory committee, and the new director will design the long-term research trial. They expect to break ground on some of the research this fall.
The research capability is what has everyone excited. “Conventional farmers have the benefit of university extension services,” Rebecca Williams said. “Now, organic farmers will have a research institution to lean on.”
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