North Carolina Native Strives to Transform Family Tobacco Farm Into Sustainable Farm Enterprise
August 23, 2012 | Hana Lurie
Reggie Oakley has set his sights on transforming the tobacco farm that he grew up on into an economically viable sustainable farm. With a passion for farming and a desire to utilize ‘tried and true’ sustainable practices, Oakley started farming his family’s land in Roxboro, North Carolina two seasons ago. His endeavor, New Oaks Farm, has not been without challenges, but Oakley has been honing his business model and focusing on online solutions that he hopes will shortly land his operation on solid financial footing.
I recently spoke with Oakley to learn more about the history of his farm, his embrace of sustainable practices, the challenges that he faces, the future goals of the farm and more.
Q: What is the story of how your farm came to be?
Reggie Oakley: The story of my farm begins as a little boy: I grew up on the land that is now my farm, which at that point was a conventional tobacco farm with a little bit of grain and corn or whatever was sold in between. Tobacco was a cash crop in this part of North Carolina. I always had a passion for the farm. I realized that farming meant a lot to me, and I knew it wasn’t the best economic opportunity, but I’d like to make it into something that my kids can appreciate the way I do. I just started farming the land two seasons ago. My parents still own the land, but I own the farm that operates on the land of 150 acres. More than half is timber, so we have about 40 acres of what I would call Grade A farmland.
Q: When and why did you decide to embrace sustainable agriculture?
Reggie Oakley: The farm was special to me as a kid, even when it was a tobacco farm, and I always wanted to find a way to feel like the farm was contributing to something greater than just providing tobacco. So that, in addition to the resources available on the farm, led me to produce vegetables. To me, sustainability is a return to practices that are tried and true. The sustainable aspect of the farm was just intrinsic.
Q: Is your farm certified organic?
Reggie Oakley: No, it’s not, but I have been considering that. I like the idea of being certified because I think its practices promote sustainability. There’s a price premium attached to organic; once I’m established I think it might be a nice transformative kind of thing to use that as leverage, from a pricing perspective, to make the farm profitable. But transparency to me is the key. As long as you’re transparent, I think the local market will support you. When you’re starting from nothing like I am, with very little knowledge base two years ago to [actual] production, you just don’t have enough time in the day. The additional cost and administration of certification just makes it not worth it right now. Down the road, I hope it will be more feasible.
Q: What do you grow and raise on your farm?
Reggie Oakley: Right now, it’s primarily horticulture: just diversified vegetable crops, pretty much anything you can grow in North Carolina. We specialize in solanaceous crops at this point: peppers, tomatoes and melons. But I also grow cucumbers, pumpkins in the fall, squash, eggplant, etc. We also have some chickens and laying hens.
Q: Can you describe some unique, sustainable practices that you employ on your farm?
Reggie Oakley: Well, drip irrigation is a big part of what we’re trying to do from a water resource perspective. I am exploring composting, although I’ve found that making good compost on the farm is harder than I imagined it was going to be. I am interested in developing my own compost. Sustainability is about trying to limit the number of inputs to the farm. The whole pasture poultry and small ruminants are part of what I’m trying to put together as a larger cycle that is sustainable in terms of fertility.
Q: How does the farm make money?
Reggie Oakley: (laughs) The farm doesn’t make money – right now. The farm is too new to make money; it’s in the investment phase. I’m putting way more cash in than I’ve gotten out, and that’s just the nature of every new business. On average, it takes about three years of doing everything right before you see any cash flow coming out. Farming has got to be a steeper learning curve than most [businesses] in terms of all of the variables that you can’t control.
The idea of profitability is being built around retail customers. I sell to my customers what I call a CSA, but really, I run a marketplace. People don’t understand what a marketplace is all that much, so I just call it a CSA. I get people to subscribe to take a minimum amount of produce each week, but they get total flexibility in what they receive. I wrote a webstore and I [post] what is going to be fresh on my farm and other farms that I work with. So, this is just another market, but we don’t have to stand in the parking lot and sell at a farmers market or develop a relationship with a wholesaler. To a customer, it’s like a CSA that they get to totally customize, and to the farm, it’s like another market that we’re selling to. It’s all a matter of perspective. And it makes [selling] a lot easier than with a traditional CSA – I ran one last year, and I find it impossible to provide a full range of stuff at the quality that you want without just burying people in the same [produce] week after week. This is a much more realistic way to get people engaged in local feed.
Q: What are some challenges that you face?
Reggie Oakley: The biggest challenge is markets. Where I’m from, there is much more demand than there is market infrastructure getting the local food into the hands of people who would love to support it. There are some big, well-known farmers markets, but it’s still a limiting [option] when considering a reasonable food system – only three hours on Wednesday and four hours on Saturday? There could be many more physical markets and more organization efforts for the online [approach] that I’m attempting. I saw an opportunity there, and I think the internet is the key to connect farms with people who want to buy food.
Q: What are the future goals of your farm?
Reggie Oakley: The first rule of sustainability is economic sustainability: the farm has got to be able to bring in more money than it pays out. I don’t ever expect to be rich, but it has got get to a point where it’s self-supporting fairly quickly. I can see all kinds of things down the road in terms of processed food that start from the raw foods growing on the farm, agritourism to bring people to the farm, and just having meat and produce sold directly to the retail customer.