Shifts in farming over the last decade have been dramatic, as farmers work hard to respond to a consumer base that is more interested in where food comes from. Theresa Allen has been farming for 10 years and for nearly five of them has served as manager of the Davidson College Farm, located on Grey Road in Davidson. She grows everything using organic practices, which means no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and all seeds are certified organic, non-GMO, and/or open-pollinated heirloom varieties. We talked with Allen about how consumer behaviors and farming practices have changed in recent years and about why “organic” may not always be the best option.
Is the “organic” label the be-all, end-all when it comes to buying produce?
Organic is what people know and what they see, and it’s what everyone is looking for in the grocery store—including me. But there are things about it people don’t know. I started farming in 2008. Mine was the first farm in Georgia to be certified naturally grown, which is a branch of farming that broke off from the organic movement when “Big Ag” (big agriculture) stepped in.
Once Big Ag got into it and began regulating things, they approved substances that none of us were using prior to this and they were asking us to use things that are…sketchy. Dicey. Things that we were just like—”No.” We won’t use them. Still, “organic” is what people will recognize.
How are people’s food buying habits changing?
To give you an example, we try to grow something new every year. This year’s new crop was a kohlrabi. It looks like an alien plant; nobody knew what to do with it. We couldn’t sell it at market until the first day we decided to slice it open and let people sample it. So we see people willing to sample new things. They’re also learning to eat seasonally.
What advice do you give novice home-growers?
Start small. Some people have big gardens; some have a pot on their patio. I tell them all: Start small. And probably a raised bed is best for most—they’re not going to go out and dig up the ground. I try to keep it as simple as possible. Some good go-tos are yellow zucchinis, cucumbers, and basil.
What sorts of technological shifts have you seen since you started farming?
When we started, high tunnels were just being talked about. A high tunnel is a passive solar greenhouse—there’s no electricity; we manually open the sides and the ends to ventilate. Today, if you don’t have one or two or 20 high tunnels, you are behind the eight ball because you can now grow 365 days a year, no matter where you live.
Low tunnels also have come in. And covering your crops. When you cover a crop, it is more protected—you can protect from pests and diseases. You control the water.
Do you have a favorite new tool?
There’s a kid, now 22 years old, who—when he was 16—designed a greens harvester. One of the most time-consuming things on the farm is cutting baby lettuce. Now, as fast as you can walk that row, you can harvest. With this tool I can harvest a 150-foot row of lettuce in about 10 minutes. It takes us an hour and a half if we do it by hand. That kid revolutionized the job for every small farmer and market farmer. It’s a $600 product, but once it’s in your hand, the labor you have saved is off the charts. Lettuce mix is my biggest thing—I had to have that tool.