Organic Mississippi farming
One man's ambition to establish the national organic movement in Mississippi.
Wed, May 06, 2009 at 11:51 AM
Charles Munford and Nientara Anderson in front of their vegetable garden.
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When Charlie Munford took over his family’s Mississippi farm two years ago, he had one goal: to show that organic farming could succeed in his home state.
“It was a proof of concept thing for me,” says Munford, standing in the cattle pasture on the edge of his Flying M Farm one uncharacteristically cool August morning.
“I thought, ‘Why doesn’t this work? Why don’t we see more of this?’”
Munford—a bearded, bespectacled twentysomething who punctuates his conversations with frequent bursts of laughter—had seen successful organic models in other parts of the country, first at the boarding school he attended in Vermont for a semester in high school, then at Deep Springs College, a two-year, all-male school in rural California where students operate an on-campus farm. But he observed few examples of organics in his home state of Mississippi, where his family has owned farmland since the 1960s.
Indeed, though the national organic movement has spread from the fields of California to the shelves of Wal-Mart, it has largely missed Mississippi, prompting Kevin Riggin, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture’s (MDA) organic coordinator, to call Mississippi “the last frontier in organics.” More than 11 million acres—or 37 percent—of the state’s land are used for farming, but the MDA has certified just 23 organic growers. For comparison’s sake, New York, a state where about 7 million acres are used for agriculture, boasts more than 500 organic farms.
But there are signs of growth on organic’s final frontier. Riggin says organic farming represents the fastest-growing sector of Mississippi’s agriculture industry, with about four growers earning organic certification every year. Hoping to encourage more farmers to seek organic certification, the MDA recently joined a federal program that covers up to 75 percent of certification costs. The few Mississippi farmers that have gone organic have succeeded by cornering the blueberry market. The state’s warm climate allows growers to plant their crops weeks earlier than farmers in Northern states, and the longer growing season has allowed Mississippi to become one of the country’s top five producers of organic blueberries.
A diverse cast of characters scattered across the state is working to promote sustainable agriculture in Mississippi. Along with Munford, there’s a Civil Rights Movement veteran who believes teaching young people to grow their own food can solve a host of societal ills, and a British transplant who uses her skills as a librarian and chef to bring seasonal, local eating traditions back to the land of fried pickles and gelatin salads.
The obstacles to organic farming in the Magnolia State, however, are formidable. Riggin blames the hot and humid climate, which creates a breeding ground for weeds and bugs — two enemies that drive all but the best-intentioned farmers to pesticides. Mississippi’s demographics also play a role in discouraging organics. With nearly 20 percent of the population living below the poverty level, there is no room in many citizens’ budgets for high-priced organic produce. Less than half of the state’s residents live in urban areas, the traditional hotspots for the organic customer base. And the state’s urban centers are hardly booming metropolises; Mississippi’s largest city, Jackson, has a metropolitan area population of around 500,000.
These factors notwithstanding, Munford has good reason to believe organic farming has a future in Mississippi. Much of the state used to be a flood plain for the Mississippi River, creating layers and layers of the world’s richest topsoil.
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Munford and his girlfriend, Nientara Anderson, had a tough first year on the Flying M Farm, a 30-acre plot of land just outside the one-gas-station town of Benton. They both worked from sun up until sun down but still did not see the results they wanted.
“It was a high learning curve,” Munford says. “I think about half the things I planted didn’t make it for one reason or another. And now I’m down to about a quarter.”
Despite the early hardships, the Flying M Farm turned a $20,000 profit its first year — a feat Munford calls “phenomenal.” And by the second year, the work got easier, allowing Munford to run the farm by himself while Anderson devoted her time to painting and SAT tutoring.
Munford sells fruits and vegetables through two seasonal buying clubs — one for fall and one for spring — where customers pay $20 a week for boxes of fresh produce. His spring buying club sold out this year, and he had to turn away 30 would-be patrons.
He devotes an acre of his farm to growing for the buying clubs: such familiar produce as tomatoes — his most sought-after plant — and peas and eggplant, along with more foreign fare like luffa and edamame. (Yes, edamame is an exotic plant in Mississippi—Anderson says she and Munford had to work to convince their customers that soy could feed humans as well as animals).
The rest of the land is animal pasture. Munford raises free-range chickens for eggs, along with grass-fed beef and lamb, the farm’s biggest source of income. The demand for his products has been so high that he believes his profits could soon rise to $30,000 a year — ten times the amount a traditional row-crop farmer could make on the same amount of land.
Despite the promise of future profits, Munford and Anderson plan to leave Mississippi after another year or so. Anderson wants to attend art school, and Munford is interested in working for an urban community garden or a non-profit that supports organic farming: all pursuits that will draw them out of the countryside and back to a city.
“The first model of the organic farm and the back to the land movement of the 1960s and ‘70s was this sort of escape from society, and I approached it from that direction initially,” Munford says. “But I’ve started to realize how much even sustainable agriculture really thrives on the urban lifestyle. I think the two are really interdependent.”
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Though Flying M Farm has found financial success in Mississippi, Munford and Anderson question whether organic growing can make money in all parts of the state. Munford and Anderson attribute their profitability to their proximity to Jackson, where they can cater to the city’s relatively affluent and well-educated residents.
“It would be harder if you were really in a truly rural community, if you weren’t forty minutes from Jackson … to have our same exact business model,” Anderson says.
Munford points out that though he will not stay on the farm forever, the Flying M will not die when he leaves Mississippi. He has in mind a candidate to take over the farm, so Flying M will continue its organic operation even after he leaves. He says that the economic benefits of running an organic farm could draw other Mississippians to the trade.
“There’s a shortage of jobs here,” Munford says. “Anyone my age that wants to live here has got to figure something out.”
The Flying M Farm is only one model for organic farming in Mississippi. The state’s success with organic blueberries may lead future organic growers to cultivate just one crop, rather than embrace a diversified approach.
And while the Flying M Farm’s model may not work in Mississippi’s rural reaches, a civil rights veteran named Wendell Paris has a plan for how to make sustainable agriculture thrive in the state’s poorest, most remote areas. He sees the cultivation of fresh fruits and vegetables as a cure for rural Mississippi’s social, economic, and health-related woes and the fulfillment of the area’s God-given destiny.
Story by Eleanor Barkhorn. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2008.
Copyright Environ Press 2008