Young farmers learn rewards of organic growing
MADISON, Ala. — Farming is a life of long hours fighting bugs and disease, while praying for the right weather.
But Lindsay Whiteaker and Pete Halupka are discovering the rewards of planting, growing and harvesting a crop for the first time.
The two 24-year-olds became commercial, organic farmers this year.
They are farming on a quarter of an acre on Newby Road in the eastern Limestone area. Neither is from a farming family, but the love of nature and growing drew them to the business. The two Sparkman High graduates are long-time friends.
Whiteaker, who graduated in December from the University of Alabama in Birmingham with an anthropology degree, said she had three job offers but chose farming.
She said experience as a farmhand in Oregon and Minnesota, as well as spending three months involved in subsistence farming in Fiji as part a National Science Foundation program, turned her into a farmer.
“I’ve always had a relationship with food,” said Whiteaker, who once wanted to be a chef. “And I found out that growing food makes me happy.”
Halupka is an art student in New York, but he now considers that a side interest to farming.
“I’d rather work 90 hours a week here on the farm than 40 hours a week somewhere else,” Halupka said.
Doug Chapman, a Limestone County Extension Office agent, said it’s unusual for someone who doesn’t have a family history of farming to go into commercial farming.
“They need to be sensitive to the market and the demands of the customers,” Chapman said. “Eventually, they’ll find their niche.”
Chapman said organic farming is growing, but the Southeast is the hardest region for organic farming in the United States.
“There’s a huge demand for organic products,” Chapman said. “But the Southeast is so difficult because of the disease and insect pressure. The climate is just conducive to insects and weeds.”
The duo is finding that work weeks usually push 90 hours, as they work six days a week. Their day starts early, usually at 5, and they break at 10:30 to avoid the midday heat.
They are farming property owned by the Walker family. Carol Walker is a client of Whiteaker’s mother, a Huntsville beautician.
“My mom and Carol were talking about me working in Minnesota,” Whiteaker said. “And then the Walkers offered me their land last fall.”
The Walkers’ only request for payment is they pay part of the water bill.
The duo’s lessons began early, and they admitted they’re facing a steep learning curve.
“Emotionally, it’s a roller coaster,” Whiteaker said. “There are times when I’m so happy because we’ve harvested so much food. But then the next day, I’ll find a plant with a disease and I’ll feel like a failure.”
Halupka planned to till during spring break with a hand-held tiller, but it rained the whole week. His art professors gave him permission to miss the following week, but the rain continued for another four days.
“We finally had to borrow a tractor to finish before I had to go back,” Halupka said.
The unseasonably wet spring has been an issue, delaying much of their early harvest. They did get lettuce and beets, but their carrots didn’t do so well, she said.
Chapman said crop production is picking up, but the wet weather increased the disease pressure on the plants. When dry weather finally took hold, Whiteaker immediately planted tomatoes instead of giving them a chance to adjust outside in small containers.
“At first, I thought I just killed all of our tomatoes,” Whiteaker said. “But they bounced back OK.”
“At least it would have been a collective killing, because we’re a team and I’ve made mistakes, too,” Halupka said.
They planted 451 tomato plants, plus a variety of vegetables and melons with organic heirloom seeds. These seeds are not genetically modified, and some are passed down through generations.
“They’re more resistant to pests and more likely to grow rich and strong,” Halupka said.
They are planning to plant some perennials such as herbs, asparagus, artichokes and fruit trees.
They don’t use manufactured pesticides.
Instead, they use the companion planting method: planting plants near another plant to fight pests.
For example, Halupka said, planting basil near a tomato will keep aphids away from the tomatoes.
They do use neem oil, a vegetable oil pressed from the fruits and seeds of the neem, an Indian evergreen tree, as a pesticide.
When they’re not in the garden, they can vegetables and create products such as kombucha (a fermented tea), ginger ale sauerkraut and a fermented nonalcoholic beer.
They are using community-supported agriculture, a subscription-like network, to commercially support their farming venture.
A CSA client pays $360 for a half bushel of food delivered to their home for 12 weeks. The duo has six customers, with two alternates. They also sell at the Madison Farmers Market.
“We’re making a living,” Whiteaker said.
Whiteaker plans to visit other organic farms to learn. They both have a goal of one day buying property.