Fallback to Farming

When the economy tanked in 2007, the Giles family retreated to their farm property near Luverne. Now the retreat is the epicenter of their multi-faceted small business, Agnus Dei Farm.

Deborah and John Giles were retreating when they settled at Agnus Dei Farm, but the farm has propelled them into an unexpected small business. Photos by Julie Bennett

The year 2007 was not a good one for Deborah and John Giles.

John Giles, coming off 10 years leading Alabama’s Christian Coalition, started a commercial and residential mortgage business just as the bottom fell out of the markets. For the couple, childhood sweethearts who wed just out of high school in 1972, it marked financial disaster.

“My balance sheet became a casualty of the economy,” he says. “You’re talking about a guy who was buying groceries with credit cards. You’re talking about a guy who went from a seven-digit balance to zero.”

The Giles family lost their Montgomery home and retreated to Agnus Dei Farm, 40 acres in Luverne that they had bought in 2004. There, they reinvented themselves, creating and running what is a $50,000-a-year business selling products with the honey and bee’s wax they harvest from their bees, among many other products.

But in 2007, that was the furthest thing from the Gileses’ minds. They moved full time to the farm, where John Giles started a financial business that soon was in trouble. He went to the First Citizens Bank of Luverne, which had helped finance his business venture, and told banker William Petrey that he could only make payments for the next three months.

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“He said, ‘Do y’all like the farm?’ and I said, ‘We love it,’” John Giles recalls. “He said, ‘We’ll help you. Come back next Friday, and we’ll figure out a way.’”

The “way” was offering John Giles a job. “He hired me, and I did a little of everything,” says Giles, now the bank’s marketing and special projects officer. “I’ve been with the bank ever since.”

About five years passed, and around 2012, the Gileses got interested in bees. They bought a hive from a local beekeeper and harvested about a gallon of honey. “I thought that was a miracle,” John Giles says with a laugh.

Lip butter, hand and body butters, soaps and whipped honey are among the many products marketed by Agnus Dei Farm, individually or in gift baskets.

They also had some wax, and after some trial and error, the couple came up with a lip balm — they call it lip butter — and John Giles took some of it to the bank to see what his co-workers thought.

“My CEO, the guy who hired me, said why don’t you put our label on these things and give them to customers,” John Giles says. “That’s how this all started. I thought in the beginning we’d be doing private labels and that would be our niche. We started out doing just that, and we still do that today, but we’ve diversified. The chap stick was the first product, then Deborah started doing hand and body butters, some soaps and whipped honey.”

On New Year’s Day 2015, John shared another idea with Deborah. “Using the internet for shopping was kind of coming on strong, and I said let’s put together some gift baskets made up of our stuff,” he says. “Let’s get them up and have them ready for Valentine’s Day.”

Today, most of Agnus Dei Farm’s business is on the internet (agnusdeifarm.com), and a big chunk of that is gift baskets. They produce around 100 of them, averaging about $50 apiece, at Christmas each year.

“We thought private labeling was going to be our route, but now, our corporate gift baskets are big, too,” John Giles says.

Most of the production takes place at Agnus Dei Farm, which has a grand total of two employees.

“It’s just the two of us,” says Deborah Giles, who named the farm (and later the business) Agnus Dei Farm, because she was always drawn to the ancient symbol that is their logo. Agnus Dei means “lamb of God” in Latin, and the Gileses felt it represented the peace they found at the farm.

The farm has been much more than they ever thought it would be.

“We bought this really as a getaway, and we were going to put a little cabin here,” Deborah Giles says.

Their home now encompasses 5,000 square feet, including a loft for the Gileses’ 12 grandchildren (they have two children), a wrap-around porch and convertible beds on the back porch.

“We had the house framed and farmed out the electrical, plumbing and sheet rock, but I did the rest of it,” John Giles says.

The grounds include a large pond stocked with bream, bass and grass carp, and three types of grapes — white muscadine, blackberry, red scarlet — that the Gileses use to make their own wine.

And then there are the bees — seven hives each containing about 70,000 bees. They produce five to ten gallons of honey each year. “That’s enough for our little business,” John Giles says. “If I need more, I’ll buy more from our local beekeepers’ association.”

Close to half a million bees doesn’t qualify the Gileses as beekeepers, Deborah Giles says.

“We are bee havers, not beekeepers,” she says. “A beekeeper is all about the bees, and that’s their full-time thing. We have all these interests on the farm. They have one interest, and that’s bees. I know beekeepers, and so much work goes into beekeeping.”

Though Agnus Dei Farm products are in about 30 retail locations around the country, John Giles says it is still a small business.

“If I did it full time, we could make a real business out of it, but I’m 65, and I still need to be at the bank,” he says.

Deborah Giles spends much of her day tending to Agnus Dei Farm business.

“I call it shelling peas,” she says. “I’m doing something with this business all the time, kind of like shelling peas.” She packages gifts, fulfills orders and works a garden that includes squash and peppers, the latter of which are used in Agnus Dei Farm’s pepper jellies.

“I’m a country girl all the way,” Deborah Giles says of living on the farm. “Sometimes I don’t leave here during the week other than to go to church on Sunday.”

John Giles says his wife is the heart and soul of Agnus Dei Farm.

“I’m doing all the talking, but she’s the farm,” he says. “She has always loved to give gifts and make them look special.”

In addition to their own products, the Gileses feature other Alabama-made products in their gift baskets, including toasted pecans from Priester’s and cookies from G Mommas Cookies in Selma.

The couple loves living on the farm in Luverne. Their neighbors have acreage, too, and at night, no lights are visible from their porch.

“What I really love about it is the quiet,” Deborah Giles says.

And her husband agrees.

“Deborah always says she likes waking up here every morning because it’s like being on vacation,” he says. “It’s just so peaceful.”

Alec Harvey and Julie Bennett are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Auburn.

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