The weather is a perpetual source of joy and heartbreak for farmers - there's nothing better than the rain watering in seeds for you, but there is nothing worse than late frost killing half of your precious tomato seedlings.
Farmers Ken and Patti Cook, and their son Jason, are no strangers to the trials and travails that the can weather bring. For the folks at Spreading Oaks Farm in Dallas, Georgia (just west of Atlanta), it's the incredible support of their customers that keeps them going in the face of the ice and snow and storms and blazing sun.
How did you get into farming? We both grew up on farms in this area, and had large gardens every year since we married; canning and freezing extras, giving them away; in 2003, I got a herd of Belted Galloway cattle for my anniversary; in 2009 we decided to go into market production and created a CSA as well.
Have you had other professions in the past? What made you want to become a farmer? Ken was a residential home builder, and the dramatic decline in building and remodeling in 2008 forced him into early retirement. We both loved to work the land, so this was a natural choice. Our son had been working with him in the building business, and when no jobs were available, agreed to work on the farm as well. I'm a school teacher, teaching Environmental Science, and I try to practice what I teach.
Tell us about your farm. We have a small farm of 17 acres with 3 1/2 acres in vegetable production, including 3 high tunnels and 2 cold frames; we also have a small herd of Belted Galloway Beef cattle and cage-free laying hens.
Do you have a specialty? We grow over 70 varieties of market produce and fruits. We do not specialize because we want the variety for our CSA customers.
What are your markets? We go to five different markets: Kennesaw Farmers Market, Paulding County Farm Bureau Farmers Market, Marietta Square Farmers Market, Villa Rica Farmers Market, Dallas Farmers Market.
Why did you get involved with CNG? We had been growing naturally before we began marketing our produce, but the demand for “organic” produce was our deciding factor. We felt CNG was a grassroots movement to ensure good, healthy food.
Tell us about the biggest challenge you’ve encountered as a farmer. Our biggest challenge has been the weather. When you try to get produce to the market early in April, you must plant in mid-February, which means you might face the ground being too wet or a late frost or even an ice storm. Last summer, it rained almost every afternoon that we picked for a market, for 6 to 7 weeks in a row. Our outside tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and zucchini all died from being too wet.
(When) have you wished you hadn’t become a farmer? Last night when we were walking back to the house at 12:30 after pushing 2 inches of ice off our 5 tunnels for the 2nd time in less than 24 hours; when we lost over 600 broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage plants from careless measuring of our fish emulsion/sea weed mix; when we had 25 CSA customers to provide for and everything was being drowned out by excessive rain; when we lost half of our early tomato plants in one night to a late April freeze, after babying them along for 10 weeks.
What unexpected customer interactions have been especially rewarding? This winter, a woman came up to us and told us she felt wonderful; she had bought some of our produce the week before and was juicing it; she said it was the best she had every had. During the heat wave in June of 2012, customers stood in line with 100+ temperatures to buy our produce—we gave out little bottles of water if they needed it—but they just wanted our produce. Hearing customers in line tell others that they had bought this or that last week from us and it was awesome.
What advice would you give to a farmer just starting out? Start small; plan, plan and plan some more; go to workshops given by other farms and ask lots of questions; learn how to grow outside in the ground before attempting to grow in a high tunnel.
What’s your most useful piece of clothing for working on the farm? A wide brim hat—a necessity—skin cancer is a serious issue, and you’ve got to protect your face, neck and ears when you’re in the sun all day, everyday.
What plans or hopes do you have for your farm in the future? We hope to begin offering classes on the basics of backyard growing—to share our knowledge with all the people who are interested in growing their own healthy food.