By: Billy Mitchell
If you think about small-scale farming, you may think of tiny plots in large cities, like the half acre farms of Seattle, Houston, Chicago, or Atlanta. Perhaps you picture the small farms in peri-urban areas that help supply big city farmers’ markets —farms that exist close enough to the city to access those markets but far away enough to afford land. Even farther away from big cities is another type of small-scale farming, small-scale farms and market gardens being tended to in very rural areas. This type of small scale agriculture is rooted in a long history of rural people with small farms and expansive gardens feeding themselves and their communities.
Greenway Gardens, managed by April and Roger Westover, based out of Waycross, Georgia, is one of those farms. As Roger tells it, they first got into growing food motivated by the simple fact that they wanted “to be able to grow our own food.” Once they started growing, he realized, “Man, we can, we can grow a lot of food. And then it was evident that we were growing enough to support a small farmer’s market, and we still had more food.” Growing enough to have abundance might make you picture at least an acre, maybe more, but April defined ‘small scale’ for them as “less than a quarter of an acre.”
Small scale and how it’s defined feels very regional and debatable. As Roger says, with a laugh, “I think it depends on who you are.” He added, “small scale could be a hundred acres. It’d be small scale depending on what you’re growing, what your production looks like.” Like many growers, Roger is an avid farming podcast listener and said that “a lot of small-scale growers that I’m listening to are 10 acres or below.” It’s all a matter of perspective. Roger grew up in Indiana on 3,000-plus acres. He remembers talking to his cousin about their farm and his cousing saying that the family farm was a small one. Roger said that’s becasue there are “other places in the Midwest that are thousands and thousands and thousands of acres.” For Roger, “small scale is what you can handle. You know, there are people out there that can handle two acres easily . . . And we’re not to that point. We got plenty to do on this quarter acre.”
Small-scale and rural can bring some challenges – there’s a lot to handle outside of just growing the food. Not every neighbor may know what you are growing or how their growing practices could impact your farm. After you do a land risk use assessment, an approach recommended as a Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) that encourages you to look around, be curious, and recognize how surrounding land and neighbors could impact your crops, it helps to have a chat with those close by. You may see something that could negatively impact your farm, like manure piles uphill from your lettuce. Or you might notice something that could benefit your farm, like a pollinator garden you could help tend or new neighbors eager to purchase and share local food. April notes that good communication and clear barriers are keys to success. She said they talk with their “neighbors so that they know how we are growing.” And, just in case something gets lost in translation and a neighbor sprays something that could wreck their crops or animals get out of their fence, she and Roger also focus on “making sure we have barriers” like woods and hedgerows to help reduce any risks to their crops.
USDA defines rural in a few ways, but it all mainly boils down not having many people — also known as customers – around. A rural area is typically defined as having between 2,500 and 50,000 people and it is not part of a significant labor market. Roger says, for their farm, one big challenge is location to a big market of people. They do have loyal customers, but not a large customer base like you’d find in Minneapolis or Bozeman. To help get their produce to more people and increase sales, April and Roger work cooperatively with other small farmers in the area to sell through an organization called WayGreen. WayGreen organizes a food box distribution called Family Farm Share and a local, monthly farmers market called the Local Fare Market.
Over the years, April and Roger have enjoyed watching the WayGreen market grow as community members have learned more about the farm and how they grow their produce. April and Roger have found that once people learn about the market and the farm, they like supporting a local business. The farm has also found customer and chef support from restaurants in a coastal community about 60 miles away, and those customers and chefs love that the produce comes from the region and that they can support a small, local farm.
Since they are small, they don’t have employees – it’s a two-person family farm. That means they need to communicate well. A rough day in the pack shed could lead to an awkward dinner. April said, “it’s good, at least the day before, to plan together your itinerary and your goals for the next day.” Emphasis on the word together. She said that helps a small farm and team “to be on the same page about your standard operating procedures for accomplishing a task.” It helps keep things efficient and effective. April is “all about the lean farm aspect” because she likes “the thought of being efficient at what we’re doing. . . our time is managed well. And that makes me feel good when we work together like that and to accomplish things.” (For more information on the book The Lean Farm, please check out the now classic Local Food Safety Collaborative blog post, Hot reads for cool nights).
It also helps to figure out which roles are best for each person. April said that “on delivery day, I’m the introvert, he’s the extrovert.” Even a two-person farm needs to participate in employee training, one of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule requirements. April and Roger will review SOPs together and share information they’ve learned from classes, podcasts, and their farmer network.
They shared that they communicate a lot with other farmers in their network. Roger mentioned Andy Douglas from Crossroad Farm and Garden in Alma, GA (pop. 3,397) and said they “talk, I mean, pretty regular. I’d say every day, pretty much. Well, not every single day, but . . .” April laughed and confirmed that it is indeed every day. A strong farmer network like this helps farmers keep up-to-date on what’s selling well, how different soil amendments affect different crops, and when updates to the FSMA Produce Safety Rule’s water requirements are coming out.
Reflecting on what he’s learned while farming and from other farmers, Roger says: “developing the SOPs, the standard operating procedures,” is one of the most critical pieces to a successful operation. Most people write those down, but Roger wants to create visual SOPs. He wants “to set up filming each job. I think it would be neat to set aside videos for each job.” That way, when they expand to volunteers or a part-time worker, he said it’d be nice, with a big chuckle, “for visual learners like me.”
Another big lesson Roger has learned is to “get educated and stay educated. Things change.” He’s not just talking about formal education, like getting an agricultural degree at a university, but also exploring free resources online to learn from other growers. “There’s some YouTube people doing outstanding work at not just growing, but then telling you how they’re growing.” He added, “I’m a graduate of YouTube University.” Great YouTube to channels to explore include those from the University of Vermont and CONTACT. The videos allow you to see what other people are doing and learn from subject matter experts. How are people fixing floors to reduce the risk of tripping and cross-contamination? What kind of water do they use? What really happens when you don’t follow the label and add too much chlorine to your sanitizing solution? Roger has found that “if you don’t pay attention to what other people are doing well, you’re gonna fail.”
A class Roger and other small farmers from his area participated in was the Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training, the “best eight hours of my life,” he said with a grin. April didn’t get a chance to go, but Roger brought home the manual, and she read every word and took notes. (Editor’s note – Betsy Bihn, if you’re reading this, it’s a true story!) The biggest lesson they took from the class and the manual was to focus on cleaning. April considers the risks of cross-contamination, like “if you are going from one farm to another and sharing tools” and how you could also potentially share pathogens and soil-borne diseases from farm to farm. April and Roger have really dialed in their cleaning and sanitizing practices, focusing on food contact surfaces and tools to help reduce risks – another requirement of the FSMA Produce Safety Rule. April said this includes “the totes, the surfaces, the cooler.”
The training also caused April and Roger to consider how they use water in their wash/pack. Roger used to crank up the pressure on the hose and spray water everywhere, but he learbed that an extreme amount of spray could help splatter pathogens from one corner of the wash pack to another. They still spray water to clean, but now in a more controlled way.
Roger also said, “I listen to podcasts all the time” and “I hear stuff on the podcast in that class. All the time.” One of his favorite podcasts is the Farmer’s Share, hosted by Andy Chamberlin through the University of Vermont Extension and the Vermont Vegetable & Berry Growers Association. Another place to find information is the Local Food Safety Collaborative (LFSC) website and their Food Safety Dish podcast. Reflecting on his and April’s love of learning, Roger shared that “where you are five years from now, it depends on the books you’re reading, the people you associate with.” The lessons you learn and then share with others will improve your farm and practices year after year.
Small-scale, rural agriculture for April and Roger is a practical dream that they hope continues to thrive in other rural communities around the county. That way, as Roger sees it, “every community would have food.” April thinks of the tradition of victory gardens and how they were “practical” and “normal.” Building community, following best practices, and sharing information with other farmers is a tried and true method to helping make some of these old traditions new and normal again.
For even more food safety resources, visit the Local Food Safety Collaborative website along with the Food Safety Resource Clearinghouse for a curated source of food safety guides, factsheets, templates, and more. Don’t forget to follow LFSC on Facebook and Twitter for updates on the latest food safety news.
This project website is supported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award TBD totaling $1,000,000 with 100 percent funded by FDA/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by FDA/HHS, or the U.S. Government.