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Organically Grown in Alabama

It's not unusual to hear about people growing up on a farm and moving off before coming back to their roots. But for Billy Koons and Jonathan Wilfong, an organic farming partnership at Greene Hill Farms started in rows of numbers, not crops.

Perched on a patio chair outside a humble office building, Koons could feel the air, the way you often can during an Alabama summer, as he described meeting Wilfong in 1988 at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Atlanta, Ga. By the time they retired as partners at the accounting firm, he said, they had become fast friends.

After a few months of idling, they were both itching to start a new adventure when organic produce caught their atten­tion. Koons already had some agricultural experience, having purchased a tree farm in LaFayette, Ala., where he also went to college. When he and Wilfong noticed that the demand for organic produce was increasing but the supply was low, they knew that organic farming would be a good choice for them.

"Growth in organic products is expo­nential," Koons said. "Young people today are willing to pay a premium for organic products. We want to be one of the early adopters and part of that expo­nential growth."

The next hurdle was finding the right property. Thankfully, small communi­ties in the South have a way of filling the needs of those around them, and Koons learned that Steve and Julia Thomas, whom he knew from church, were looking to retire from their commercial nursery business in Waverly, Ala., about 18 miles north of Auburn. With a prime location and basic infrastructure already in place, the Thomases joined the partnership by supplying the land and a familiarity with the farming process.

Expanding to Meet Demand

Now two years old, Greene Hill Farms could easily be classified as a beginning farm. However, its success shows something entirely different.

Organic cucumbers made up the entirety of the crop last year, but with high demand from their marketing distributor, New Sprout Organic Farms, the owners knew they needed to expand the operation.

Greene Hill Farms har­vested 10 acres last year, and is boosting its tillable land to 17 acres for 2018. Soon squash, zucchini, watermelon radish, chard and cabbage will come out of the field and onto the shelves of 14 retailers across the country. By spreading out plant­ing times, the farm can harvest and sell over a longer period of time, enabling New Sprout to distribute evenly instead of flooding the market with product. Careful forecast planning and communica-
tion helps Greene Hill and New Sprout match up the amount that can be grown and sold.

Once harvested, the produce is stored in two 400-square-foot coolers and picked up twice a week. Barcodes and sensors on the farm's boxes keep food trace­able throughout the distribution process.

When consumers see the New Sprout label at retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Publix, Earth Fare, Ingles, Sprouts Farmers Market and Kroger, they can be certain the organic produce they are holding was proudly grown in the Southeast by small to mid­sized independent growers like the group at Greene Hill Farms.

It Takes a Team to Farm Organically

The organic farm can­not use synthetic pes­ticides, fungicides, fertil­izers or herbicides. Careful attention is paid to crop rotation to reduce the risk of harmful plant diseases, because something that can easily be treated in conventional farming can ruin an organic crop. One of the ways Greene Hill controls weeds is by using plastic-covered beds.

Farm manager Ferrill Crisler and six full-time employees handle day­-to-day operations for Koons and Wilfong, who divide their time between Atlanta and the farm, and the Thomases, who live locally. During harvest season it's not uncommon to hire an additional 15 employees to harvest, sort and box the produce. The farm also enjoys help form Auburn University agriculture students, who gain valuable experience at a real operation.

When it came time to find the right financing for the farm, Koons turned to Micah Garrett, a relationship manager at Alabama Ag Credit's Dothan office, with whom he'd done business before. Garrett's superior agricul­ture knowledge and the flexibility of Alabama Ag Credit's lending products far outweighed those of competitors, he said.

When looking into the possibility of adding even more variety or improving their yield and quality with high tunnels, Koons said he wouldn't question calling Garrett and Alabama Ag Credit again.


 

Want to Go Organic?

Challenges are inevitable when growing certified organic produce, but the rewards can be high, according to Billy Koons. Soil fertility and weed manage­ment are the two major challenges in converting from conventional to organic farming. To become a certified organic farm, the soil must be clear of all chemicals, which in most cases requires at least three years since the last point of contact.

Certification verifies that food is grown, transported, pro­cessed, packaged and sold without synthetic chemicals or contaminants. Certified farms must meet organic produc­tion standards and follow a farm plan that includes crop rotation to disrupt pest cycles and the use of compost or manure (green or animal) to provide nutrients. The certi­fication process also includes questionnaires, inspections, audits and residue tests.

If Koons could offer a little advice to a prospective organic farmer, it would be this: Have a distribution plan in place before starting, and understand how quality affects price. In the best crop cycles, about half of Greene Hill Farms' crop is No. 1 produce that brings the best price and is guaranteed to be purchased by their distributor. About 25 percent is No. 2 produce that may be purchased based on demand; otherwise the farm has to find another avenue of distribu­tion. The remaining 25 percent will inevitably be culls.

In addition to quality, there's quantity. It's important to understand the lower yields that will come from growing organically. That may sound frightening to some, but when asked if he would do it again, Koons wholeheartedly said yes.

"Organic is hard, but there is a premium price," he said.

Organically Grown in Alabama

It's not unusual to hear about people growing up on a farm and moving off before coming back to their roots. But for Billy Koons and Jonathan Wilfong, an organic farming partnership at Greene Hill Farms started in rows of numbers, not crops.

Perched on a patio chair outside a humble office building, Koons could feel the air, the way you often can during an Alabama summer, as he described meeting Wilfong in 1988 at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Atlanta, Ga. By the time they retired as partners at the accounting firm, he said, they had become fast friends.

After a few months of idling, they were both itching to start a new adventure when organic produce caught their atten­tion. Koons already had some agricultural experience, having purchased a tree farm in LaFayette, Ala., where he also went to college. When he and Wilfong noticed that the demand for organic produce was increasing but the supply was low, they knew that organic farming would be a good choice for them.

"Growth in organic products is expo­nential," Koons said. "Young people today are willing to pay a premium for organic products. We want to be one of the early adopters and part of that expo­nential growth."

The next hurdle was finding the right property. Thankfully, small communi­ties in the South have a way of filling the needs of those around them, and Koons learned that Steve and Julia Thomas, whom he knew from church, were looking to retire from their commercial nursery business in Waverly, Ala., about 18 miles north of Auburn. With a prime location and basic infrastructure already in place, the Thomases joined the partnership by supplying the land and a familiarity with the farming process.

Expanding to Meet Demand

Now two years old, Greene Hill Farms could easily be classified as a beginning farm. However, its success shows something entirely different.

Organic cucumbers made up the entirety of the crop last year, but with high demand from their marketing distributor, New Sprout Organic Farms, the owners knew they needed to expand the operation.

Greene Hill Farms har­vested 10 acres last year, and is boosting its tillable land to 17 acres for 2018. Soon squash, zucchini, watermelon radish, chard and cabbage will come out of the field and onto the shelves of 14 retailers across the country. By spreading out plant­ing times, the farm can harvest and sell over a longer period of time, enabling New Sprout to distribute evenly instead of flooding the market with product. Careful forecast planning and communica-
tion helps Greene Hill and New Sprout match up the amount that can be grown and sold.

Once harvested, the produce is stored in two 400-square-foot coolers and picked up twice a week. Barcodes and sensors on the farm's boxes keep food trace­able throughout the distribution process.

When consumers see the New Sprout label at retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Publix, Earth Fare, Ingles, Sprouts Farmers Market and Kroger, they can be certain the organic produce they are holding was proudly grown in the Southeast by small to mid­sized independent growers like the group at Greene Hill Farms.

It Takes a Team to Farm Organically

The organic farm can­not use synthetic pes­ticides, fungicides, fertil­izers or herbicides. Careful attention is paid to crop rotation to reduce the risk of harmful plant diseases, because something that can easily be treated in conventional farming can ruin an organic crop. One of the ways Greene Hill controls weeds is by using plastic-covered beds.

Farm manager Ferrill Crisler and six full-time employees handle day­-to-day operations for Koons and Wilfong, who divide their time between Atlanta and the farm, and the Thomases, who live locally. During harvest season it's not uncommon to hire an additional 15 employees to harvest, sort and box the produce. The farm also enjoys help form Auburn University agriculture students, who gain valuable experience at a real operation.

When it came time to find the right financing for the farm, Koons turned to Micah Garrett, a relationship manager at Alabama Ag Credit's Dothan office, with whom he'd done business before. Garrett's superior agricul­ture knowledge and the flexibility of Alabama Ag Credit's lending products far outweighed those of competitors, he said.

When looking into the possibility of adding even more variety or improving their yield and quality with high tunnels, Koons said he wouldn't question calling Garrett and Alabama Ag Credit again.


 

Want to Go Organic?

Challenges are inevitable when growing certified organic produce, but the rewards can be high, according to Billy Koons. Soil fertility and weed manage­ment are the two major challenges in converting from conventional to organic farming. To become a certified organic farm, the soil must be clear of all chemicals, which in most cases requires at least three years since the last point of contact.

Certification verifies that food is grown, transported, pro­cessed, packaged and sold without synthetic chemicals or contaminants. Certified farms must meet organic produc­tion standards and follow a farm plan that includes crop rotation to disrupt pest cycles and the use of compost or manure (green or animal) to provide nutrients. The certi­fication process also includes questionnaires, inspections, audits and residue tests.

If Koons could offer a little advice to a prospective organic farmer, it would be this: Have a distribution plan in place before starting, and understand how quality affects price. In the best crop cycles, about half of Greene Hill Farms' crop is No. 1 produce that brings the best price and is guaranteed to be purchased by their distributor. About 25 percent is No. 2 produce that may be purchased based on demand; otherwise the farm has to find another avenue of distribu­tion. The remaining 25 percent will inevitably be culls.

In addition to quality, there's quantity. It's important to understand the lower yields that will come from growing organically. That may sound frightening to some, but when asked if he would do it again, Koons wholeheartedly said yes.

"Organic is hard, but there is a premium price," he said.