Save the Family Farm: How Small Farms Can Succeed

Booker T. Whatley, who died in 2005 at age 89 at his home off Court Street in Montgomery, kept a flourishing midtown garden until the last, with the help of his wife, Lottie.

When Business Alabama checked in on him in August 1986, he was already officially retired from his career as a university agronomy professor and researcher. But he was busy with a new gig — early prophet of what is now called sustainable agriculture.

A rousing speech Whatley made in Washington, D.C. in 1981 at a Department of Agriculture symposium on the mordant topic of “the plight of the family farm” caught the attention of the media by banging out a solution.

The fix was what Whatley called “limited resource farming.” He had figured it out in his years at Tuskegee University, designing a model farm funded by a three-year, $250, 000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Think small, Whatley said. “Take the small farmer out of the big guys’ ballpark.” Grow high demand, locally marketed crops and “let the big boys grow soybeans, cotton, hay, peanuts and beef cattle.” Cotton brings 70 cents a pound, $350 an acre. Same acre will yield 8, 000 bunches of collards, 50 cents a bunch, times two growing seasons, $8, 000.

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Each crop on a 25-acre farm should produce a gross minimum income of $3, 000 — like blackberries, blueberries, mustard greens, purple-hulled peas, strawberries, sweet potatoes and honey bees.

Another essential element for small farm success, Whatley preached, was a clientele membership club, what it now called CSA, community supported agriculture.

Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan read Whatley’s testament in the Wall Street Journal and hired him to run a model farm at the company headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich. Whatley detailed his ideas in a 150-page book, “How to Make $100, 000 Farming 25 Acres.”

In a 2005 tribute by the Alabama Farmers Federation, Whatley was credited with helping hatch a brood of innovations now common to the small, sustainable family farm: U-pick operations, community supported agriculture, drip irrigation, rabbit production, farmer-owned hunting preserves, kiwi vines, shiitake mushrooms, veneer-grade hardwood stands, on-the-farm bed and breakfasts, direct marketing, organic gardening and goat cheese production.

text by Chris McFadyen

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