Published on 05/21/09

UGA experts help sustainable farm grow better

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Sometimes the best way to learn about something new is to dive in headfirst.

That’s what Tim and Liz Young did when they jumped off the corporate ladder to start a 76-acre sustainable farm in Elbert County. Now, instead of fighting city traffic to buy a frozen slab of bacon trucked thousands of miles to a grocery store, they provide customers throughout Georgia fresh eggs and farm-raised meat.

“We didn’t like the fact that we didn’t know where our food was coming from,” said Tim Young, who owns Nature’s Harmony Farm.

Clay Talton, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension coordinator in Elberton, enjoys learning to farm naturally along with the Youngs. He comes from a traditional agricultural and animal science background. When the Youngs call him with a question, it’s his job to think outside the conventional farming box.

“It’s a learning process for me as well,” Talton said of working within the certified natural boundaries of Nature’s Harmony Farm. “When we first got started helping Tim, I made that very clear to him. He and I are really kind of learning together, feeding off one another.”

From forages to animal care, Talton is a resource for the farm family. He helped Young find poultry litter for fertilizer, develop a forage plan and build up organic matter in his soil.

“My thing was to encourage a system for the forage…keeping in mind that Tim didn’t need herbicides and pesticides,” Talton said. “That was the toughie.”

When Nature’s Harmony animals have sore mouth or layer hen problems, Talton helps Young figure out how to treat them without using antibiotics.

It’s challenging at times for Talton, who was used to teaching conventional farming methods. “We’re just dipping into new ways of sustainable farming,” he said.

Sometimes he needs assistance from colleagues like Julia Gaskin, UGA’s sustainable agriculture coordinator. She helped him determine how much fertilizer Young’s chickens add to the land each day from their manure.

The Youngs’ farm is one of many environmental, economic and community sustainable farms popping up across Georgia. For these farms to thrive, they often rely on each other, but, like conventional farms, they also need science-based expertise, Gaskin said.

Gaskin works to make sure farmers get that expertise from UGA Cooperative Extension and also that Extension agents and specialists are trained to assist sustainable farmers.

“It’s helping my specialists look at agriculture with a different approach,” she said. “I’m excited that we have an example of something different to look at.”

People often confuse sustainable agriculture with environmentally-friendly farming.

“If you look at sustainable agriculture, there’s this continuum out there,” Gaskin said. “People need to move along this continuum to a system that’s still sustainable. You can be environmentally-friendly, but not profitable. That’s not sustainable.”

The Youngs’ aim to make a profit from meat and egg sales while trying to mimic nature. To help their profit ratio, Nature’s Harmony Farm developed one of the first meat CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) in Georgia earlier this year.

The basic principle of a CSA is to get people in the community to invest in local farms in exchange for a guaranteed share of the locally grown, fresh food products. This system also helps producers minimize the financial risk of farming.

Subscribers to Young’s CSA invest in the farm up front to help pay the costs of feeding and raising livestock and processing meat. In exchange for their investment, CSA members get a monthly share of meat which ranges from beef to pork, poultry and lamb. The Youngs also sell meat on-farm and through northeast Georgia farmers markets.

“We started this for the long term,” Young said. “What I’ve learned about business is commit to it if you’re going to do it.”

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.