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Finding their niche

By Staff
Falkville farmers break new ground in agriculture
Julie A. Best, Public Affairs Specialist, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service
Any good chef will tell you that one of the first steps in great cooking is fresh ingredients. How can you get any fresher than straight from the farm? That's what Tune Farm, Inc., near Falkville is all about.
Tune Farm is a 260 acre farm that was leased to a cattle operation for many years. Those acres are slowly being transformed into a community supported agriculture farm that specializes in organically grown vegetables. It works like this-people buy a share in the harvest before the planting season starts. That capital provides the farmer with the funds to start the gardens. In return, members receive a generous share of fresh-picked vegetables every week throughout the growing season.
Russell and Dove Stackhouse are the growers/managers at the Tune Farm. Sustainable agriculture is not a new concept to Dove. She grew up on a farm in Ohio where five families worked together to produce all that was needed for the group.
This is the first crop year for Tune Farm. They have three acres of vegetables and started the year with 12 members.
"After the first couple of deliveries of vegetables, all of a sudden, we got a lot of phone calls and doubled our membership," Dove said. "They are eating up everything I've got."
They planted extra vegetables with the idea that the excess could be sold at the farmers' market. It appears that there won't be any excess this year.
By necessity, the cooperators help make the decisions about what is grown. "If they don't want something, I can't sell it," Dove said.. As membership increases, there will be more pick-your-own crops, such as strawberries, beans, and peas.
Dove and Russell plan to increase the acres of vegetables grown as the membership increases, but they have other expansion goals as well. The objective is to bring the farm into an intensive management situation with vegetables, animals, and forage crops grown for the cooperative's membership. They plan to grow cover crop seed for other organic farmers.
"There is a real market for cover crop seed, but it's not going to be something that we can spring into immediately," Dove said.
According to Dove, as of December 2003, organic farmers have to buy organic seed. Because the Tune farmland has been in pasture for many years, Dove estimates that it will take three or four years to have good clean, sellable seed. They intend to start with cereal grains and sell the flour. They have a grist mill and will grind corn meal this fall. They have 45 acres enrolled in the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP); planting will begin in the fall. The CCRP land will help create the right environment for educational opportunities as well as provide habitat for wildlife while conserving the soil and water.
Environmental responsibility is a passion for Dove and Russell.
"What we are doing here on Tune Farm is just a progression of thought," Dove said.. "We were farming for market on some leased land near Jacksonville. We met members of the Tune Family at a conference, and they asked us what we were doing. Just offhand, I said, 'We are farmers without any land.' And they said, 'Well, we have some land, but don't have any farmers.'" From that chance meeting, the Tune Farm, Inc. concept was born.
The objective of the community supported agriculture effort is to provide locally produced, organic vegetables in season. Tune Farm, Inc. hopes to encourage people to savor the unique flavors of spring, summer, fall, and winter, each in its turn. In order to get started with this operation, a lot of hands had to work together. A task force to help develop the plan for the farm was formed with members from the Morgan County Soil and Water Conservation District, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Alabama A&M University, Tuskegee University, Auburn University, and the Tennessee Valley Resource Conservation and Development Program (RC&D), a program of NRCS. The Tennessee Valley RC&D assisted by writing a grant for funds from Tuskegee University to install irrigation, a greenhouse, and vegetable coolers. "Word has spread faster than I thought it would," Dove said. "It's nice to have an idea, but you have to be able to do something about it."
So far, all the pieces are falling into place.
"We have run into the things we need at the times we needed them, and at a decent price. It hasn't been hard, hard, hard."
It has been a lot of work, however.
"I've watched the progress as I drive by," said Mike Roden, Coordinator of the Tennessee Valley RC&D program. "Some mornings Dove and Russell are out here when I drive by early in the morning, and they are still there when I drive back by in the evenings. This operation requires a long day."
"To be environmentally effective, people just have to do it," Dove said. "And, the way to do that is through your own actions. You've got to get people back into the dirt, to get people thinking about what they are eating, and to give them an outlet for those options. If they don't have an outlet, it's not going to make any difference." Getting to know the farmer who grows the food gives people insight into the seasons, the weather, and the miracle of raising food. The concept of community supported agriculture provides a niche for a special group of people and helps promote the farmer/consumer relationship.