July 2010
4-H Extension Corner

Entrepreneurial Spirit Adds Value to This Family Farm

 

John Locker in the garden.

When John Locker was growing up on his father’s dairy farm just outside of Florence, he was always working on inventions which he hoped would lessen the labor and improve profits.

It was only when the young entrepreneur began trying to develop a Perpetual Motion Machine that the elder John finally put his foot down.

Now, after obtaining a civil engineering degree from Christian Brothers University and working and traveling in more than 40 countries in the petroleum and energy business, John continues that entrepreneurial spirit back on the family’s 300 acre farm.

As President of Xton Corporation, which is physically based at the farm, John oversees the selling and distribution of Hay Gards and Turf Gards, which he laughingly explained gives him the capital to continue experimenting with other ideas, some which spring from those original products like dominoes falling in a row.

   

Put Garden Gards over grass and you have an instant garden.

 
   

Hay Gards are both "breathable and water-resistant," with John noting that when the hay is stacked "it sheds water much like a duck’s back. At the same time it is so breathable you can hold two layers over your mouth and still breathe through it."

The Turf Gards use a similar one-layer fabric and are used to protect golf greens at some of the country’s most recognizable courses (like Augusta) as well as to cover soccer and football fields.

When John’s mother, Alice, who still also lives on the farm, decided a few years ago she wanted to continue with her productive garden, John was tied up farming and taking care of 200 heifers.

He used one of the Hay-Gards, placed it directly down on an area of lawn complete with weeds and grass, used a branding iron to make holes for the plants and discovered by accident what may be one of his most useful ideas.

"At that moment I just didn’t have time to help her with the garden," he explained. "But with this, she didn’t need any help."

 

Lucy Crosby, John’s sister, demonstrates that using the Garden Gards allows you to garden even in white pants!

That prototype, Garden Gards, has been down now for more than ten years.

When John’s sister, Lucy Crosby, and her husband retired to the farm to live with Alice, the garden size was increased to 50 x 50 ft.

Lucy had just picked butter-beans as this article was being written and noted "how easy" it is. "I just sat down on the garden mat and scooted along and didn’t even get my pants dirty."

John noted even after a usual rain, you can sit or kneel on the mat and not get wet or muddy while completing your garden work.

One of the mats is currently being tested through the Southern Gardening program at Mississippi State.

"They realized the potential for its use with elderly and handicapped gardeners as well," John explained.

"With more people realizing the importance of having even small home gardens because of the costs of transporting food and the importance of knowing the quality and safety of your food, these mats can make gardening a lot easier for the beginner and for the established gardener."

John recommended placing the mat on your garden plot in the fall so all grass and weeds will be killed before the upcoming gardening season, although you can just "throw the mat down and plant."

   

Alice Locker, John’s mother, finds it easier to enjoy the vegetable garden with the help of the Garden Gards.

 

"I’ve covered Bermuda grass and it killed it," he noted.

"I don’t even recommend tilling the ground first. You can put it over tilled ground but you need it as flat as possible."

John will sell the now-manufactured Garden Gards in 6 x 12 feet sizes and larger. He will also custom burn the triangular-shaped planting holes. (After you harvest your crops and then pull up the plants, you fold the material back over the holes to make sure no unwanted weeds germinate there before the next growing season.)

The Garden Gards can last from 10 to 20 years with little upkeep. John said you might want to remove it every three or four years and spread compost evenly over the site and then immediately recover it.

John is particular about the quality of the fabric. It was made in the United States until two years ago when most weaving machines moved out of the country. He has traveled to India and other countries to assure quality control.

A couple of years ago, John developed Body Chillers, which are strange-looking jackets which can keep firefighters, football players and others cool while in dangerous heat situations. He worked with Auburn University to develop that technology.

He’s also working with folks at Auburn to help design a machine that will climb trees AND de-limb them, featuring a chain saw on a robotic arm. This would be a boom to the pine logging industry and others, if it can be safely developed AND wouldn’t be cost prohibitive.

John doesn’t feel like he’s straying from his farm background by developing so many products while living on the multigenerational farm.

When he first graduated college, he worked in the Gulf oil field areas briefly before moving overseas, around the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

While there, the company he worked for had set a platform for a gas well which caught fire and burned about a year. That company moved a jack-up, a rig about a mile away, drilled and intercepted the other well, putting mud and cement in it to stop the leak, similar to what they are attempting in the Gulf of Mexico now.

But what John explained is different is that in the Arab world they were working in about 150 feet of ocean while the problem in the Gulf requires working at a depth of about 5,000 feet, causing tremendous problems.

 

A sweet potato plant placed in one of the openings in the Garden Gards.

"It is just extremely complicated there," John explained.

After working in the drilling and energy industry, John came back to the family farm and built a home. His father’s health was failing and John stayed on to assist.

John’s father later passed away, but by then John was back firmly established on family soil.

Many of his family members had been instrumental in forming Alabama Farmers Cooperative and Lauderdale County Co-op, including his uncle, Alex Blocker.

John buys almost all his plants and seed from the Lauderdale County Co-op and counts Manager Reggie Shook as one of his biggest supporters, both on the farm and concerning his inventions.

John noted some of the products he’s developed, like the Body Chillers, still haven’t "taken off," because they are "just not pretty."

"They’re a success engineering-wise, but not market-wise," he noted.

But the success of the company’s Hay Gards and Turf Gards give John leeway as he thinks up new ideas.

"Sometimes some of the most important discoveries happen by accident," he noted.

More information on any of Xton’s products can be obtained by phoning (256) 766-2091 or by e-mailing www.turfcovers.com.

Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer who lives on her family farm in Blount County. She can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.