“See those bumblebees on the sunflowers?” Dr. George Koulianos asks underneath a blue sky near the southernmost tip of Alabama. “This is what I do for a living. Isn’t that cool?”
His voice is filled with genuine fascination and wonder at the pollination process and the unknowing role this tiny insect plays in the beautiful ritual. You’d never guess that Koulianos sees this fertility dance every day — thousands of times a year, actually. In fact, as the medical director for The Center for Reproductive Medicine in Mobile, he’s kind of like the dance’s choreographer.
In Theodore, between Mobile and Dauphin Island, Koulianos looks just as natural on his farm in a pair of jeans as he does at his office in a white lab coat. When he and his wife purchased this 11-acre property in 2012, it seemed like a harmless little venture. “I thought I was going to grow and sell hay and maybe have a little vegetable patch, ” Koulianos says with a knowing smile. “I didn’t think I’d be selling vegetables to farmer’s markets and to restaurants.”
The irony is not lost on him. In 1993, Dr. Koulianos founded the Center for Reproductive Medicine in partnership with Mobile Infirmary. Since then, the clinic has become the most comprehensive reproductive medicine program in the region, helping more than 3, 500 couples start families of their own.
As for the farm? “It’s reproduction in a different way, ” he says. “The joke is that I’m ‘The Pollinator.’”
As the son of Greek immigrants growing up in Houston, Koulianos says medicine was less of a calling and more of a “telling.”
“From the age of 5, my parents told me I was going to be a doctor, ” he says. “Eventually, I bought in.”
But the path wasn’t always that clear. “My father died unexpectedly during my first year of medical school, so I had this decision to make. Stay in school to become a doctor or take over the family business?”
He tried juggling both for a year, taking on the study load of medical school while carrying the workload of the family service station. “It was my character building time, ” he says succinctly. He eventually sold the business, got his father’s estate in order and dove into medical school headfirst. “I had to be a doctor at that point, because I felt like it was meant for me.”
He eventually found himself working at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, with dreams of becoming a department chair at a medical school in the Northeast or finding a job back in Houston. Then Mobile Infirmary came calling.
“They approached me with this vision of creating a regional fertility clinic that would put outcomes and service first and everything else second. They asked what I would need to start such a clinic, and I intentionally gave them this completely unrealistic list, ” he says. To his surprise, they agreed.
Today, the center is the regional leader in outcome, volume and breadth of experience. “When I started this program, my goal was to be the best and to treat everyone with the respect and dignity they deserve. Those are the ideals under which we operate.”
It’s hard to ignore the similarities between his day job and his hay job — particularly how they’ve both grown and evolved from the first seed of inspiration.
“The farm operation just keeps growing every year, ” Koulianos says proudly. In just four short years, he’s gone from handing out a few squash to his nurses at work to selling his produce to establishments like the trendy Noble South Restaurant in Mobile, a local champion of the farm-to-table movement. “People are now calling me wanting to know what I have and where they can get it!”
The vegetables grow in six long rows behind his red barn: zucchini, squash, green beans, cabbage, broccoli, cucumbers, garlic, asparagus and six tomato varieties (seeds for two of which he brings back from Greece every year). This year, to keep up with demand, he’s hired a farmhand who helps with a lot of the manual labor two days a week, and Koulianos himself breaks a weekly sweat on the farm.
He cuts a cucumber off the vine, brandishes a pocketknife and methodically begins peeling off its skin. “Try this, ” he offers, slicing the raw vegetable into wedges. “This is the real deal.”
Koulianos uses no conventional pesticides on his farm, and he likes using organic fertilizers, including one with a local touch. “I put down tons of crab meal from Bayou La Batre, ” he says, “which is dried and crushed crab and shrimp shells.”
He swears by the stuff — that is, if you can get past the smell. “Hardly anyone else puts crab meal down, because it costs about three times as much as regular fertilizer.”
On the subject of expense, Koulianos recognizes that he was in a fortunate position to get his farming venture to take root. “You have to have enough capital to do it up front, ” he explains. “Most people who start businesses are undercapitalized, and you probably need a year’s worth of money up front. I was lucky that I was able to do that.”
Although his retirement from medicine is on the horizon, Koulianos has no intention of curbing his vegetable production. “When I retire in about five years, it’ll probably be two or three times the size of this, ” he says, looking at his vegetable rows. And he’ll need every row he can fit. Whole Foods is the latest business to come calling, and he anticipates providing vegetables for the popular grocer next year.
“You know, my favorite part of this whole process is the planning, ” he says. “I spend weeks and weeks planning how I’m going to line everything up, what I’m going to grow, where I’m going to grow it. You have a whole production schedule. And the key to having success in the spring is what you did in the winter.”
And believe it or not, sometimes his side-job makes his day job seem easy. “There’s more planning in farming than there is in my practice, ” he says. “For a patient, you plan maybe six months in advance. Here, I’m already planning what I’m going to do next year.”
Koulianos also says that the feedback from patients who have heard about his farming or purchased his vegetables at the farmer’s market has been overwhelmingly positive. “They love it, ” he says. “Patients want their doctors to be normal and to live balanced lives. I think they recognize that a doctor who’s practicing medicine all day and all night is more prone to make mistakes.”
And how long can he keep this up? “As long as I’m healthy. I mean look at these farmers! I see some of these guys plowing with their tractors, and they’re 80-plus. There’s a lot we could learn from people like that.”
Breck Pappas and Elizabeth Gelineau are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Mobile, where Pappas is a staff writer for Mobile Bay Magazine.
Text by Breck Pappas • Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau