July 2015
Farm & Field

Going Organic

 
Chip and Laura Spencer put in long hours at their Dallas County organic farm, but they love every minute.  
   

The Spencer family garden was the beginning of an unintended journey to sustainable agriculture.

Education and excavation careers can be rewarding, but Chip and Laura Spencer of Dallas County have switched to a new profession, one drawing widespread, positive attention.

It’s called Community Supported Agriculture and they’ve extended their farming operation beyond traditional management that often focuses on basic cultivation techniques.

The Spencers have become so proficient and popular that visitors from as far away as Scandinavia and France have come to take a look at their program and often wind up spending several weeks each year learning the basics.

Ariel Drouault, a New York native now living in California, is winding up a 10-week "course" in sustainable agriculture, as it’s also known. Long hours and strenuous work in the fields haven’t had Drouault wondering if he’s doing the right thing because he awaits the sun each day so he can get back to work.

 
  Chip Spencer and his son Mac spend part of their days inside a greenhouse where organic vegetables are grown.

A student at Sterling College, an environmentally friendly school in Vermont, Drouault spent a few days with the Spencers during spring break and was so impressed he signed up for the summer course.

Drouault is an intern whose compensation is in the form of room and board. He and other interns who take part in the program spend long days at the Marion Junction site about 15 miles west of Selma not far from U.S. 80.

"I’m tired after we finish for the day, but I’m ready to get started again the next morning," said the 20-year-old Drouault who hopes to become a farmer one day. "I’m learning what I can during my time here."

The genesis of the Spencer enterprise dates back to a small garden on the farm they bought to raise Quarter Horses. It soon took on an organic agricultural complexion that surprised even them.

"We found ourselves on a journey we never intended because we were going organic with our family’s food," said Chip, who remembered sitting down with his wife and discussing "the future of not our farm, not our jobs, but our lives."

Laura was teaching school at the time while her husband ran a successful excavation business. They viewed the "garden" at first as not much more than an outlet to relieve stress.

 
Ariel Drouault tries his hand at driving a tractor on Spencer Farm where he is an intern learning about organic farming.  

But, then, something unexpectedly happened as "step by step," they began to appreciate agrarian life.

As Chip puts it, "Funny things happened on the way to the supper table. Our little garden became our sanctuary from workday trials and tribulations."

The longer he and Laura labored in the garden the more it began to pay a different kind of dividend, one that rewarded them with improved physical health of their two children – "not to mention the mental health of their parents."

As the garden continued to grow, the couple added beef followed by pork and, later, milk goats. Something else happened during that period, something Chip describes as a "defining moment" in their lives.

"I was working 12-hour days with my business, laden with the stress of employees and sales, bottom lines and equipment mortgages," he recalled.

One day, as he filled in for one of his truck drivers, he was passing through a small town in the area and noted three men sitting on a bench near the traffic light where he had stopped.

"They were smiling and laughing and having a very pleasant afternoon," he said. "It was then that I realized income and happiness were two separate and unrelated things. My happiness was found in my garden on my self-sufficient farm."

When he and Laura sat down to discuss their future, it veered from farming and employment, centering instead on their lives and how they were going to make some important changes.

During the years that followed, Chip began to sell off his excavation business while Laura became a stay-at-home mom, teacher, gardener and creator of goat/sheep soap.

"I took on the role of plumber, carpenter and mechanic while using my mental capacity trying to figure out how to grow animal feed on the farm as we weaned ourselves off purchased energy," he said.

Their self-sufficiency depended a great part on the soil providing the basis for what they grew in their ever-expanding garden. Assisting in that regard has been Russell Gibbs, manager of AFC’s Central Alabama Agronomy offices in Selma and Demopolis.

An expert on soil science, Gibbs is widely known throughout the Black Belt and his agricultural expertise at Spencer Farm has been invaluable.

"Russell has been very helpful in both recommending and finding the few necessary soil amendments we are not able to produce here ourselves," Chip said. "Even though we have reduced our fertilizer deficiency by 75 percent, there are a few micro-nutrients we must seek out."

Chip said Gibbs’ suggestion to use natural-mined baron granules on his farm literally hit "pay dirt" because he could not produce it through composting. In the end, baron additives have helped him adhere to organically minded practices.

Gibbs said the Spencers could well be trailblazers in Alabama, especially in the Black Belt region "because it looks like they’ve got a niche market."

"Organic farming is relatively new in this part of the state and they come to me from time to time for advice," Gibbs explained. "They certainly don’t appear to have any problem moving whatever they grow and that’s a good sign."

While all that was going on, Chip and Laura joined an online community connecting them with "willing and eager young people" from all over the world – from Australia to Canada, from Scotland to Switzerland.

That’s when foreigners’ visits to the farm began and haven’t abated. Drouault is a good example and he’s been joined by others also seeking to learn more about community agriculture.

"Hopefully, our example will inspire others to do something similar," Chip said. "We want to make a much bigger splash than just doing this for our family."

He believes that if their organic farm can serve as a catalyst for a "vibrant local food economy" it will make a big difference in alleviating problems that continue to affect Alabama’s Black Belt region.

Another important element at Spencer Farm has been the creation of a "shareholder" operation in which 25 families sign up to take advantage of those homegrown goodies at favorable prices.

"Social media has helped us spread the word about what we’re doing here," said Laura, who is kept busy planting, teaching her son at home and preaching the importance of what she and Chip are doing.

Each week for 12 weeks, the "shareholders," who already paid $250 up front, receive bags filled with wholesome produce. They can either pick it up at the farm or go to the farmers market at Bloch Park in Selma.

One of the "shareholder" families is headed by Rev. Jack Alvey, the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma. With wife Jamie and 2-year-old Mary Katherine in tow, they enjoy driving to the farm to chat with the Spencers and check out the animals.

"We enjoy doing what we can to help support them," Alvey said. "The organic food movement and family farms are becoming popular all over the country because people are getting back in touch with the land."

Since Spencer Farm produces organic crops, what they raise can be consumed from the fields and Laura has been known to pick off a broccoli stem or a layer of cabbage to munch on when she gets hungry.

There’s no need to wash it because potentially dangerous chemicals that can be used in the growing process at other farms are verboten at Spencer Farm.

If she wants to, all she has to do is take along a small salt shaker to add to the natural flavor in her hands.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.