BY ALLIE HYMAS
It’s sunset on a diversified farm in Glenwood, Georgia. Cicadas sing from the canopy of the woods where a herd of pastured cattle lope toward the sound of a farmer calling them home. Fireflies glint among the rows of regionally adapted vegetables and grains, while turkeys scratch along the grassy rows of the peach orchard for a last bit of supper before roosting for the night. This sounds like an evening on a modern organic farm, but 1940s sharecropper Miss Lola had a vision for sustainable farming long before “organic” became a buzzword.
“Farming is part of my family history,” said Lola’s granddaughter, Dr. Jennifer Taylor. “Even my great-grandmother was using practices similar to those we use today in sustainable agriculture.”
The farming women in Taylor’s family utilized methods that added to the health of the soil, planting crops with time-tested succession strategies that maintained well-being on every level.
“She really enjoyed farming and she was good at it.” Taylor said.
Under Miss Lola’s care, the farm hosted bountiful integrated plant and livestock systems, with pastured beef, dairy, poultry, nut and fruit trees, vegetables, sugar cane and honey.
“She was not only able to grow for her own family, but also for her community,” Taylor said.
When Miss Lola was given an opportunity to buy her land, she and her six children pulled together resources to purchase the 32 acres. Taylor describes the immense joy and self respect Lola felt becoming the owner of her farm: “Imagine being able to envision another future for yourself, another future for your children.”
Taylor and her husband, Ronald Gilmore, continued Miss Lola’s legacy in 2010 when they took over operations of the farm and rebranded it as Lola’s Organic Farm. After studying agronomy at Florida A&M and Iowa State University, earning her PhD. and teaching organic farming at her alma mater in Tallahassee, Taylor brought both an academic and experiential approach to organic farming on her family land.
Organic farming “is really about building a healthy life on the farm,” Taylor said. “Not only in growing the crops but also the soil, the environment, and the produce. The whole system needs to be considered.” Taylor believes farming is about more than just the end product: “We’re the folks that should be out there growing healthy soil, benefitting the environment, being concerned about the welfare of our farm workers and the welfare of our family living on the farm.”
Finding Cohesion with Cover Crops
To produce the organic berries, grapes, persimmons, pomegranates, figs, ginger, turmeric, peppers, kale, sweet potatoes, eggplants and onions, Taylor and Gilmore had to find a way to address the problem of tough Bermuda grass.
“It looks like a beautiful lawn, which is fine until you want to grow something there,” Taylor said. “You have to manage how [the grass] grows so your vegetables can get a head start.”
Taylor spoke about this stubborn weed not with the tone of an adversary, but with warmth of an ecologist:
“It’s beautiful to walk on and the insects and the animals enjoy it,” she said. “We’ve tried to manage the Bermuda grass in such a way so that we’re not leaving the soil open, but using the grass for its own benefit, such as free erosion control.”
Taylor uses this nature-informed approach to decide what crops to plant and where.
“We’ve tried to identify what grows well by what’s already there,” she said.
The farm uses drip irrigation, and mulching with natural pine, straw and bark to give her crops a no-till advantage over the Bermuda grass.
Cover crops have also proved to be the key to overcoming the farm’s soil challenges. “We have very sandy soil with very low organic matter.” Taylor said, but hardy cover crops such as millet, cow peas, and buckwheat have helped the farm’s “Fuquay loamy sand” perform better by opening up the tougher topsoil so crops can access the more nutrient-rich deeper layers without tilling.
“Other combinations of cover crops we grow are hairy vetch, barley and subterranean clover,” she said. “The pollinators love it! You know it’s a good field when you look out and see pollinators everywhere. It’s a good feeling.”
Bringing Knowledge to the Community
Having dialed in a cover crop rotation that would successfully manage their soil and mitigate Bermuda grass, Taylor formed a coalition in her community and applied for a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Development grant from the USDA to test her experience and share it with other farmers struggling with soil issues and Bermuda grass.
“We had two plots for comparison,” Taylor said. “One used multiple tillage, which a lot of farmers engage in, tilling the soil successively to remove the Bermuda grass and the comparison plot was cover crops.”
As the only organic farm in the area, Lola’s Organic Farm’s no-till methods were in stark contrast to the heavy tillage happening on farms all around. On the research plot Taylor set up a side-by-side comparison with a 10th of an acre tilled the way her neighbors advised, and the rest of the field filled with cover crops.
“It’s true that using a tractor is faster,” Taylor said. “On the cover crop plot we used a three cover crop mixture — cow pea, iron and clay pea, and buckwheat — and we found it took a couple of months to get a complete change, but the benefits were so increased due to the presence of cover crops.”
Taylor and her research team found that the vegetables preceded by cover crops were visibly more healthy and vibrant, compared to the same varieties preceded by tillage.
“The same crop in the multiple tillage section were withered and the leaves weren’t as large, you could tell with your eye something was going on,” she said.
The cover crop plot ultimately outperformed the tillage plot on every level. “Not only did we build our pollinator habitat but the soil moisture and organic matter improved” Taylor said.
The test plot drew curious farmers and researchers from all over the state of Georgia, who came and listened to Taylor share their results.
“We continued to get requests from farmers about which cover crops they could use to deal with Bermuda grass,” she said. “So many farmers had Bermuda grass, I didn’t even know!”
The project impacted farmers on a broader scope than Taylor expected, prompting workshops and teaching opportunities. She feels a tremendous sense of calling to share their experience with cover crops not just as a solution to control weeds, but as part of her broader vision to promote regenerative soil practices.
From Impact to Influence
Taylor’s visionary leadership ultimately compelled her to join the Organic Farmer’s Association, where she serves on the OFA Governing Council as the vice chair of the OFA Policy Committee.
“We work to represent the needs of organic farmers across the state and we take those needs and possible solutions to policy makers” Taylor said.
Amid concerns about the integrity of USDA organic labeling, Taylor has advocated for the highest standard of sustainability through her roles in OFA and during her time appointed to the National Organic Standards Board.
“I try to share information about organic farming strategy because when you’re trying to get your products out there in the market it can be easy to spend less time building healthy soil, trying to save seed, or use mulching or crop rotation because the dollar becomes the driving factor,” she said.
While sales are important, Taylor emphasized that “organic farmers need to be caring for the land, and not only our own farm but the farm across the street from us.”
Taylor also coordinates the Small Farm Program and teaches Sustainable Development at Florida A&M University. Taylor describes her Sustainable Development class as “a different kind of approach to understanding the needs in underserved farming populations.”Taylor offers hands-on training in this course to help her students identify farming problems and develop relevant solutions.
“It gets to the heart of the matter. It’s specific but also offers skill building to help farmers make their own decisions and choose their future in organic agriculture,” she said.
As Taylor watches new farmers pick up a pitchfork, whether they be young adults, persons on their second career, or recently retired professionals, she sees a place for them in helping their community thrive.
“I haven’t always seen myself as a leader, but I’ve always been somebody who wanted to share information that would help others,” she said.
Taylor encourages aspiring agricultural leaders to start by living out one’s own agricultural ideas on the farm and then take that knowledge to help other farmers in the community to become successful.
“There is so much good work to be done,” Taylor said. “Be aware of those in your community who don’t have access to organic food.”
Taylor considers her work an extension of the community-minded values shared by her grandmother, Miss Lola. “Our focus should be on doing good in our local community, because the work we do here in our local community benefits the world.”