“When I was a farmer, I felt alone. I was always reinventing the wheel. To have the opportunity to have someone who is on your team and speaks your language, whose purpose is to help you? That’s going to make a huge difference.”
That’s Rebecca Williams, owner — along with her husband Ross — of Many Fold Farm in Chattahoochee Hills, talking about how most farmers face the same problems, no matter where they’re farming. They all must deal with crop and livestock selection; improving soil, dealing with weeds and providing nutrients for their crops; managing disease and pests; and marketing and distributing their products.
Organic farmers face all those problems, with the added complication of having to feed their crops and protect them from pests in ways that don’t introduce chemicals into the equation.
The Rodale Institute has been working in the field of organic farming for 70 years. Recognizing the need for regional research and solutions, the institute is opening regional resource centers. The first is in Marion, Iowa. The second, the Southeast Organic Center, will open this fall on Many Fold Farm.
“We realized we needed to have boots on the ground in many parts of the country,” Rodale Institute’s Diana Martin said. “We’re most excited about the Southeast Organic Center, because we have the smallest amount of organic production coming out of the Southeast.”
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.
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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