1ST OF A TWO PART SERIES

Approaching harvest time, a Georgia farmer shares his wealth
Skip Glover and his wife Cookie grow far more than 7 acres of mixed vegetables and cut flowers. They cultivate connections with diverse people throughout the Atlanta area, and their product has become the knowledge they've gained.

By Skip Connett

Read more about the Glover's latest project in Part 2:
Immigrant farmers get a helping hand in Georgia
Posted June 27, 2003: Cross the Chattahoochee River, follow the sharp bend, and there at the break in the roadside thicket is an unmarked dirt road leading to Glover Family Farm. Not the kind of entrance one would expect for a place that flourishes from such a rich mix of people and produce.

Hardly a day passes that a new group isn't pulling into the driveway that winds into this 40-acre, third-generation farm. Yesterday, tourists from St. Louis brought their children to see a "real working farm." Today, elderly Korean farmers have come to tend their donated patch of sesame and hot pepper plants. Tomorrow, volunteers from AmeriCorp EcoWatch will make preparations for an upcoming workshop on vermiculture.

Mostly what brings them here is the on-farm market and seven acres of vegetables and cut flowers that have made this place a model for successful organic farming in Georgia. But the real draw are Skip and Cookie Glover, a husband-and-wife team that has mastered the art of sharing their wealth of knowledge through innovative workshops and education programs.

"I find that the purely dollar-driven reason for growing stuff is not very satisfying," Skip explains as he waters his bonsai trees-- a hobby he picked up in Hong Kong. "My greatest enjoyment is working with like-minded people who want to grow things and many of the ethnic folks I am working with have that desire. They have smuggled seeds into this country and that comes out of a love for growing."

This year, when Georgia Organics honored the Glovers with the Land Steward of the Year Award, the state's 300-member organization was not just acknowledging their considerable farming and marketing skills. It also was recognizing how the couple has gradually transformed their farm into a hands-on classroom for beginning organic farmers, urban youth, and immigrants eager to return to their farming roots.

"Skip has a strong sense of stewardship -- a Wendell Barry type whose vision is big and constantly changing," says Cynthia Hizer, the founder of Georgia Organics and food writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "What he has done with the mentoring and immigrant farmer training program is something we all thought about doing but no one has had the wherewithal and the energy to make it happen."

Skip's passion for other cultures has taken him around the world. When he and Cookie and their three children lived in Australia, Skip used his Masters in Social Work to help set up community development programs for Aborigines. Cookie shares her husband's multi-cultural interests. In addition to managing on-farm tours, workshops, and internships, she finds time to teach English as a second language to local immigrants.

Watching his wife and intern Kate McAnish cut flowering sweet peas for tomorrow's market, Skip explains his philosophy: "There is always something you can learn from somebody else's way of doing something. Even my fellow conventional farmers around here who got caught up using chemicals after World War II know cultivation and plowing techniques that will be lost if you don't learn from them."

Whether he's running presentations for master gardener classes or teaching young Asian students how to double dig, Skip's passion to pass information seems to come as natural as dust to water. As Hizer points out, organic farming has grown up outside the traditional agricultural school program and depends on mentors and community support. "It's had to be learned orally, literally from the knee of the elder," she says, "and that is what Skip has been doing."

Skip's organic farming roots were passed down from his father, who supplemented his timber business with cattle and corn. Back then, the farm was 200 acres and the insatiable maw of urban development wasn't biting at it borders. Skip was attending the University of Georgia when he received a letter from his father explaining how newspaper excerpts from a new book had convinced him to give up pesticides. The book was Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring."

After travels, a return to his roots

Throughout his travels, Skip always kept a garden and practiced organic techniques. Only after other pursuits, which included training horses, did he start organic farming fulltime -- back on his parent's farm, in the same soil his mother grew food for the kitchen table. Skip was approaching 50, but good health and a growing appreciation for locally produced food were on his side.

What began as one acre quickly grew to five. Then seven. The menu of produce also expanded -- seven varieties of lettuces, 25 varieties of cut flowers. It diversified, too, adding bok choi, oriental steaming greens, and tat soi for the growing Asian population in Douglassville, a fast-growing community 25 miles west of Atlanta.

"We sold virtually everything the first year," Skip recalls. "Soon it gets in your head -- the more you do, the more you can make." The farm was making money but the Glovers soon found themselves overextended.

"We tried all the other ideas everyone else has gone through," Skip says with a knowing smile. An internship program was set up, followed by workshops and classroom tours. Bees were added to the mix, proliferating from two boxes to 50. Reaching out to other nearby farmers and artisans, the Glovers started an on-farm market that sells not just their produce but goat cheese, pottery, and oak trellises made on neighboring farms.

The Glovers also began reaching out to new communities. A partnership with the Pan Asian Community Center in Atlanta brings 50 kids each week during the summer. Divided and assigned to five work stations, they learn the fundamentals of organic farming.

More recently, vermiculture has come into the picture as a result of a joint project with the Atlanta Community Food Bank's Gardening for Youth program. The experience of raising worms and selling their castings not only has given urban youth new entrepreneurial skills but has convinced Skip of the advantages of using pure castings for his transplant mix. Not only is the soil pH balanced naturally, but the casting inoculate the root zone with microorganisms, giving them a fertility head start in the field. "I'm thrilled about vermicompost," he says. "Our plant starts this year were fantastic."

Then again, getting intimate with worms has proven more difficult than anticipated. Like his tomato plants, the floods this spring that ended a five-year drought have uncovered a drainage problem in the worm beds. "All of us tend to overextend ourselves until we learn our lesson," he says. "I guess I haven't learned this one yet."

Teaching farmers new -- and old

Skip's eye for doing what others might overlook -- or ignore -- led to him to the Elderly Farmers Program he started three years ago. On a given day, up to a dozen Koreans make the 25-mile trip to grow their traditional crops, which they share with their friends and neighbors. The youngest is 63.

"Everyone has focused on youth and one day I noticed some old folks sitting around at the Pan Asian Center. I asked if they would be interested in growing some traditional food at the farm and they just jumped at it. I expected they would just like to piddle in the dirt but it wasn't like that at all."

"Everyone has focused on youth and one day I noticed some old folks sitting around at the Pan Asian Center," he says. "I asked if they would be interested in growing some traditional food at the farm and they just jumped at it. I expected they would just like to piddle in the dirt but it wasn't like that at all."

Indeed, the learning has spread in both directions. After noticing their peppers were doing better than his, Skip wondered if they weren't secretly slipping their plants liquid fertilizer. The magic ingredient turned out to be a mulch of spent tea leaves and herb roots. "If this works like I expect, I'm going to find a herb shop for myself," he laughs.

Off the farm, Skip cultivates like-minded people in numerous ways, first as president of Georgia Organics during its formative years, and then, closer to home, by helping other farmers develop new markets. Through his leadership on the Carroll County Farmland Preservation and Protection Partnership, the organization formed a sustainable agriculture subcommittee that led to small marketing grants from SARE and a thriving farmers market in nearby Carrolton. With the help of a nutritionist he also has started a farmers market nutrition program for the local health department's WIC participants, and is working to get organic food into the city's schools and hospital.

For reasons that go beyond the practical, Skip chose not to renew his organic certification when the USDA began certification. His farming practices have stayed the same but now "organic" is missing from his marketing pieces.

"We were organic before organic was popular, so it hasn't changed our practices," he says. "My gut feeling was that the "O" word would lessen its meaning but that individual farmers with their own reputations for growing practices would increase. So far it looks like I'm right."

Even in Georgia, where organic farming has been slow to catch on, the state's extensive small-farm culture is starting to benefit from emerging markets. "The small farm that is appealing to the local market is going head over heels," Skip notes. "People are demanding fresh produce. Whether it's organic certified they don’t really care, as long as they trust the person who grew it."

Gaining that trust has been a signature of Skip's influence and success, say those who know him. "He has a way of articulating what other people want to share and without his own agenda or ego getting in the way," says Fred Conrad, director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. "People can understand him, and want to be a little bit like him."

Preserving the farm through teaching

Now both in their 60s, the Glovers are devoting more of their energies to building the farm into a center for education and training. It is a natural progression, born out of necessity and a vision for the farm's future.

"We have been focusing lately on the education approach because of our age and the idea we want to keep this property in tact and in some kind of environmentally-friendly condition," Skip says. "That isn't easy when you're farming on the urban edge and the pressures to sell are so high."

"If he were younger and not focusing on education, Skip says he would probably cut his acreage in half and put up hoop houses...Instead, Skip is actually clearing more ground as he gets ready for the most ambitious project yet."

If he were younger and not focusing on education, Skip says he would probably cut his acreage in half and put up hoop houses, a trend that has proven profitable for Alex and Betsy Hitt in Graham, North Carolina. "They've been able to go from seven acres to four and not reduce their bottom line," he says.

Instead, Skip is actually clearing more ground as he gets ready for the most ambitious project yet. As part of Heifer International's "Farmers: A New Generation" initiative, a dozen or so refugees from the Hmong klans of Laos will be learning how to farm in Georgia's hot red clay. This spring, Skip cleared some woods to develop terraced fields comparable to the way the Hmong farmed in Laos before the Communists drove them out after the Vietnam War.

Skip is breaking new ground in more ways than one. "I have a framework for how I think it should work," he says, "but it will be in a state of change, according to the needs of the people."

He could be speaking for organic farming in general. If he has learned anything from his past, it's that farmers have to be quick to adapt to a changing environment. The farm started by his grandfather more than a century ago hardly resembles Glover Family Farm today. Which isn't a bad thing. If the Glovers fulfill their dream, this farm stands a good chance of being here -- as a producer of knowledge -- for generations to come.

The Glover's and others build a market in Georgia. Read more:
New organic farmers' markets emerge in Georgia...but change is slow


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Skip Connett is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and is longing to get back to farming. Until then, writing about organic farming is possibly the next best thing.