Growing Everything from A to Z, Two Young Organic Farmers Prosper and Inspire Others to Follow Suit
June 20, 2012 | Hana Lurie
In just six years, Justin Dansby and Paige Witherington have transformed Serenbe Farms in the sustainable Serenbe community 30 miles Southwest of Atlanta, Georgia into a thriving and economically viable certified organic farming enterprise. They have also launched a successful on farm apprenticeship program that has seen 85% of its graduates go on to become farmers.
I recently spoke with Justin Dansby to learn more about Serenbe Farms, why the farm values organic certification and sustainable practices so highly, the challenges that it faces and more.
Q: What is the story of how your farm came to be?
Justin Dansby: Serenbe Farms was developed in order to serve the sustainable community that it’s a part of called Serenbe. It [has] gone from producing about 8,000 pounds to 80,000 pounds of produce within the last few years.
I had been involved in farming with my grandfather – he loved growing tomatoes – and my father was a tree farmer. Paige and I met in college and apprenticed on a farm in New York called Sisters Hill Farm. From there, we just fell in love with what we were doing and the opportunity at Serenbe presented itself. This is the sixth or seventh year. Paige and I run the farm and there’s typically anywhere from 2-3 apprentices. We farm on about 5 acres.
Q: What do you grow on your farm?
Justin Dansby: I like to answer that question with asparagus to zucchini: A to Z. We literally grow everything. We are a certified organic, diversified vegetable farm. We grow shitake mushrooms, we have fruit bushes – blueberries and blackberries. We have greens, cabbage, radishes, turnips, squash – pretty much everything.
Q: When and why did you decide to embrace sustainable farming?
Justin Dansby: I guess we were part of the generation that was fed a bit of unhealthy food when we were raised and saw the need for young people to step up and make a difference. I think we both knew going into it that it was not going to be easy – I did computer stuff before and a couple other odd jobs – but I just always kept going back to farming and realizing that there has to be a food producer. I love working outside and reaping the benefits of working on a farm, eating organic produce all of the time.
We think [organic certification] is really important. I know that there’s other things, like “certified naturally grown”. We feel that the certified organic is a step above. We wanted that distinction that we are certified, because you can’t trust just anybody’s word anymore.
Q: Why did you decide to seek organic certification, and how difficult was the process?
Justin Dansby: I had had a lot of business experience before, so I understand that there are things you have to do to set yourself apart. It’s just one of those things that makes us an even better farm, because we have the certification and [people] know that what we’re doing is legitimate.
It’s not very difficult; we do it through and agency called QCS. We sought out the certification and it takes us roughly about one day every year to do the certification, and then we have the certifier visit our farm. It’s extremely necessary that you’re a well organized person and that you’re very good at record keeping, which we both are – Paige especially. She’s really good at Excel and keeps proper record of everything we do; where we get seeds from, where we plant things, how we treat plants, where they end up, etc. We were already organized enough to pursue it, so it really made sense for us.
Q: Can you describe some of the unique, sustainable practices that you employ on your farm?
Justin Dansby: We do some seed saving. We use a lot of the compostable material from the community and put that back on our fields, and we try to limit the amount of resources that we purchase. We are not as advanced as having solar yet, but hopefully that is coming to the community and we will get in on it.
We really are good stewards of the land. You go to some places and you see that they don’t cover crop, they don’t practice crop rotation and that they have terrible erosion. We really try to focus on taking care of the land, because if you don’t sustain the land and keep it healthy, you obviously can’t keep growing on it. And because we keep it so healthy – well composted and cover-cropped – we have less disease and less pests than some of the other surrounding farms.
Q: How does the farm make money?
Justin Dansby: We have 120 CSA families right now, along with three restaurants that are less than a mile away from our farm, and we do the farmers market where we have several hundred people visit every weekend. We used to go to Atlanta [farmers market], but then it stopped making sense to drive that far.
Q: Is the farm profitable, or self-sustaining?
Justin Dansby: It started out with getting some of the infrastructure capital from the community, so they provided us with a greenhouse, a tractor, and some of the initial costs. About four years ago we became sustainable – making a little bit of profit. As we move forward, I think we’re becoming better farmers. We’re learning what we can make money doing and what doesn’t make sense here in Georgia, because we were trained in New York. So we’re becoming more profitable, but there’s always unexpected losses or the tractor breaks – you know how farming is.
Q: What challenges does the farm face?
Justin Dansby: The biggest challenge is probably the time management and how labor is involved in that. Because with farming – you get stuff in the ground, and then you’re harvesting for a while, so you don’t always need that consistent source of labor. That’s really where the apprenticeship program has helped us, because we have those guys around and when we’re not busy, we are teaching them how to become farmers. In the last few years, more than 85% of those who graduated our program have become farmers in other places. I would say our biggest [challenge] now is really the infrastructure. We started out on the farm doing 10,000 pounds and now we’re up to 80,000 pounds so it’s really [about] buying cultivation equipment, having more tomato storage, etc. Our irrigation system was installed five years ago, so of course it’s going to start breaking – that happened last year.
Q: What are the future goals of your farm?
Justin Dansby: The number one future goal right now is setting up the infrastructure where we can continue to produce the amount of food we do in a timely and efficient manner. Outside of that, becoming more localized – pulling out of Atlanta a little bit and really focusing on educating our surrounding community. Now, we donate to several local food banks, really staying connected to the community. We try to get out there and allow people with less money and education in surrounding communities to get access to our food at a fair price. I think that’s something that’s really important.
Q: Anything you would like to add?
Justin Dansby: Go see the movie Grow! (a documentary on young farmers – Justin and Paige are featured).