After successfully testing a 20-acre plot of wheat in 2013, they pivoted to grains and larger row crops. They also installed cleaning and milling equipment on-site, essentially transforming DaySpring Farms into a turnkey seed-to-sack grain operation.
“We had to find a way to make the land more profitable,” said Murray’s son, Nathan Brett, who lives on the farm with wife Simone and their two young sons, Noah and Theo. “We got into value-add because we had no more land to grow on.”
Having recently acquired 7 acres, DaySpring now consists of 90 acres. But value-add is what makes the farm profitable and marketable. It ticks a lot of boxes for buyers interested in hard-to-find grains bearing a USDA-certified organic label that are milled on-site, upon demand for as fresh a product as possible.
Nathan, 35, didn’t set out to be a farmer. A little more than a decade ago, he was living in Nashville to pursue a career in the music biz. “I didn’t think it was a great idea, but he had to get it out of his system,” said his father.
As the elder Brett tells it, the two were seining for shrimp on Sapelo Island in the fall of 2010 when his son divulged that he wanted to come back home. Nathan landed a job at a large organic produce farm in Georgia. “He said, about three months into it, ‘I’d like to do this for a living.’ I said, ‘Well, we need to find some land.’”
Nathan’s farm experience didn’t just awaken a call to agriculture, but one rooted in organic farming. “Organic farming practices are very responsible. They’re regenerative,” Nathan said. “The way we manage our soils just really fit into the whole organic system of doing things.”
His father also sees their farming operation as part of a bigger picture. Murray grew up on a farm in central Georgia, with grandparents who lived just down the road. He bonded with his grandfather, watched him work the land and invite folks over to his home for gatherings every Saturday. “He sought to build community not only in our family but in the place he lived. I thought it was a great way of life and I wanted to recover that way of life with my children and grandchildren,” said Murray.
He and his wife, Paula, are a 15-minute car ride from DaySpring. Every Friday night, Nathan and Simone pile the kids in the car and tootle over to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for dinner.
Murray has been committed to the local community since establishing Grace Baptist Church of Commerce in 1997. He’s still the full-time pastor there; he simply added farmer to his list of occupations.
Murray has known other jobs, as well. His mechanical engineering background comes in handy when equipment breaks down or when refurbishing old machinery, like a mid-20th-century grain cleaner, to keep expenses down.
The day I visited, the idyllic scene of Murray plowing the wheat field was interrupted when the combine got jammed, forcing him to get out of the cab, grab a toolbox and start tinkering. By the time he was done, his shirt was soaked with sweat.
He’s 60, but with no plans to retire. “I don’t believe in retirement. I will work as long as I can. I don’t always want to be cleaning out a combine that got clogged, but I don’t mind it. ... I just love the life I have.”
DaySpring customers are smitten, too. Christian Castillo, pastry chef at the Chastain, swears by DaySpring flours, the majority of which are made from a high-yield, hard red winter wheat variety called Catawba. “I told Chef Chris (Grossman), ‘We need to use this flour. No matter how much it costs, we need to use it.’”
Plenty of other Atlanta restaurants are among DaySpring’s clientele, including Empire State South, Kimball House, Miller Union, the White Bull and the Deer and the Dove.
Their wheat even makes its way into local beer. Among them is Dayspring grisette, a Belgian-style farmhouse ale that Creature Comforts has brewed for the past few years.
Perhaps the most exciting project, at least for folks who geek out to heirloom varieties, is one forged with Root Baking Co. baker and co-owner Chris Wilkins to plant 8 acres of a unique heritage French grain called Rouge de Bordeaux because it lends itself to a rustic, nutty loaf that works wonders for sourdough.
Besides flavor, DaySpring grains come with more nutritional value than others, thanks to an old Meadows stone mill, which helps to retain natural enzymes and oil compared to grain ground by steel rollers.
“Many bakeries and restaurants are satisfied to use the lowest-grade commercial baking flour. It’s processed on a roller mill and you have to have additives to make it work,” said Murray. “We don’t do that. It has no flavor. You taste ours: It has a flavor profile.”
Despite restaurant-worthy end-products, Murray cited numerous obstacles to profitability. Weeds, fungus and disease can’t be treated with any old chemical on an organic farm. The cost of fertilizer is three times higher compared to commercial fertilizer. And some crops, such as peas, have proved not worth the effort.
“Everybody imagines that just because it has an organic label that automatically you can sell your products for enough money to make a lot of money. That’s just not true,” Murray said. “One of the challenging things is to find the right crops, the right varieties, that people will be willing to pay a reasonable price for.”
Yet, Murray is encouraged by the niche that DaySpring has created, particularly in the baking community. Soft wheat is grown primarily in these parts, “but soft wheat doesn’t make good bread,” he said. “I think we have a bit of an edge with what we are growing. Hard wheat can’t be grown south of I-20. You don’t have enough cold days in winter to produce a head.”
Simone, his daughter-in-law, is especially excited for their next value-added project: a dedicated gluten-free processing facility on the farm. Ironically, this wife of a wheat farmer is sensitive to gluten. But if any farm family can adapt to circumstances and market demands, it’s the Bretts.
For more information about DaySpring Farms, visit dayspringfarmsga.com. Find more stories about Georgia farmers and recipes for their products at ajc.com/georgia-on-my-plate.