Aging farmer nurtures younger generation with lease, lessons
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/25/08 Skip Glover ignored the backache at first. Farmers work through aches and pains, and spring was no season to shirk.
As the months passed, things got so bad he could barely move. At 64, Glover realized he couldn’t keep farming forever. Yet letting his carefully tended soil fall into disuse was unthinkable.
|Veteran farmer Skip Glover holds a bucket on his family’s ancestral property in west Georgia as his young associate Joe Reynolds does the harvesting.|
Four years have passed since Glover confronted the realities of aging, years of searching for a way to preserve his dream of growing food sustainably on the outskirts of Atlanta. It’s a dilemma many older farmers face.
The average age of American farmers is 55, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Georgia, 35 percent of farmers are 65 or older. Fewer than
5 percent of the state’s farmers are younger than 35.
The future of his land constantly gnaws at Glover, an only child who gave up plans to resettle his family in Australia three decades ago and returned to the farm after his father’s death. The Douglas County farm has been in the family since 1823, but his three children all have thriving careers that don’t involve farming. It’s too early to tell what the six grandchildren will take an interest in.
“It’s been productive so long,” Glover says. “To have it go back to weeds and trees would be painful. I think it’s meant to produce food, and produce healthy, good food.”
As farm groups and agriculture schools seek ways to encourage more young people to work the land, property is changing hands. Atlanta’s suburbs are filled with subdivisions that once were pastures or crop land.
Glover and his wife, Cookie, have felt those pressures. Developers don’t call as often since the housing market slowed, but signs for new subdivisions aren’t far from the Glover Family Farm,
40 acres on the banks of Anneewakee Creek.
Motorists passing by on Ga. 166 can see a few rows of vegetables, but trees shield much of the farm. Porches and decks are visible around the grounds, with blue and orange metal gliders providing ideal resting places to listen to birds or to look over fields nourishing a new crop.
In the greenhouse, a farmer and a high school intern from Germany are up to their elbows in perlite, worm castings and peat moss, mixing potting soil for summer crops. Glover’s not far away, on call if help is needed, but content that he’s found someone who can work independently.
For a search that started four years ago has found a solution, a partnership between a soft-spoken young farmer with no land but plenty of ambition and the outspoken established grower who has spent more than two decades helping others realize their dreams of raising food.
This spring, the partnership is reaping its first harvest, one that continues the Glovers’ legacy and starts a journey as farmers together for Joe Reynolds and Judith Winfrey.
Reynolds has farmed around Atlanta for several years, working for grower Nicolas Donck of Crystal Organic Farms in Newborn and selling produce at the Local Farmstand at Star Provisions. He’s also involved with a farm-to-school program. It wasn’t a career he planned.
Reynolds, 29, studied cultural anthropology at Valdosta State University, moved to Atlanta and got a job in a Decatur pub. After a few months, eager to pick up practical skills for international travel, he connected with Donck.
Winfrey, 33, is leaving her job at Georgia Organics so she can farm full-time, too. They plan to move into a trailer on the Glovers’ farm in June to be closer to the fields. They dream one day of working to build local food systems in other countries.
“I’d never thought about farming,” Reynolds says, “but it kind of entered our lives.”
Farming has never been far from the Glovers’ thoughts. Skip grew up in Douglasville, on a street where most families kept a big garden out back on their 1-acre lots, along with chickens and sometimes pigs or a milk cow. He and Cookie farmed in Australia for seven years before returning to Douglas County. As they shifted from raising horses to growing vegetables, they started nourishing the local food movement.
The Glovers helped establish farmers’ markets in Decatur, Carrollton and Douglasville and were familiar presences at markets in Morningside and Piedmont Park. As a leader of a group of North Georgia organic growers that eventually became Georgia Organics, Skip Glover worked to reach out to a community of food lovers who would become advocates for sustainable farming in the rapidly developing lands around Atlanta.
Glover Family Farm is a familiar destination to those who love good food. Skip and Cookie have opened the farm for gatherings to support refugee programs, culinary scholarships and other causes. Many of Atlanta’s top chefs have cooked at benefits there. The Glovers have worked with Hmong and Hispanic immigrants on farming projects and opened plots of land to elderly Koreans eager to grow familiar foods from their homeland.
Skip Glover’s strength has returned gradually since a thyroid condition was diagnosed four years ago. For the first two years, he relied on Cookie, friends and interns to keep the farm going. Last year, he stepped back into growing.
But the Glovers knew they were ready to pull back from full-time farming. Cookie, 65, and Skip, now 68, wanted to spend more time traveling, seeing children and grandchildren in California and Utah, catching up with former interns in Europe and visiting remote parts of the world.
Glover thought two former interns, Chris and Jenny Jackson, would be good candidates. They had helped keep the farm running while he was sick. But there was a farm in Jenny’s family the couple could work, and the search continued.
Reynolds’ name kept coming up. Glover gave Winfrey his card and told her he had the offer of a lifetime for her sweetheart.
Reynolds took over operations at the farm last fall, taking up Glover’s offer to lease the land for just $1 a year and reap whatever profits came from the harvest. As spring arrived, so did the first crops grown on the 5 acres he’s cultivating.
On any given Saturday at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market in Buckhead, shoppers might see Reynolds, Winfrey or the Glovers selling cut flowers, eggs, pristine lettuce and the distinctively sweet blue collards that Skip introduced to Atlanta markets. Watching shoppers pick up produce he’s grown, try something unfamiliar and come back next week for more are rewards he savors, Reynolds says.
“It’s hard not to feel some sense of completion,” he says. “There’s a feeling of exuberance when you’ve impacted somebody’s life through their stomach.”
Reynolds and Winfrey are operating as Love is Love Farm, an homage to a favorite song by the rock band Lungfish. A farm newsletter is named Rocket From the Field, a tribute to the bands Rocket From the Crypt and Rocket From the Tomb.
“Judith and I listen to absurd amounts of music,” Reynolds says.
The Glovers have kept some farm duties. Cookie grows flowers, and Skip handles 23 hives of bees. After he recovers from surgery last week to clear blocked carotid arteries, he plans to put in a summer garden. And they’ll travel.
“They don’t have to feel responsible for me or my time,” Reynolds says. “They play a crucial role here, but when it comes to farm decisions, I get to make them.”
Glover stands back and let Reynolds run the farm, but he hasn’t given up the mentoring role he’s played for so many years. He’s working with the Jacksons and Love is Love Farm on a community-supported agriculture program that has them delivering weekly shares of produce to members of a DeKalb County church. He’s also still helping make connections to link other farmers with resources, buyers or whatever they might need.
“It’s not that I love teaching; it’s that I love the dream around farming,” Glover says. “I don’t have much patience with lollygaggers.”
He waits for Reynolds to set the agenda for the day, pitching in if needed.
“Everybody’s been surprised at me that I’ve done that,” Glover says. “It’s because I’m comfortable with Joe.”
There have been some adjustments that both men joke about, like Reynolds’ first try at driving a tractor.
“The first beds he made looked like a snake had gone through them,” Glover says. “I didn’t say anything to him about it, just asked him if he’d been drinking when he laid the beds out. But now he’s laying them out just as straight as I did.”
Reynolds admits he’s made some mistakes. The Glovers keep feeding him breakfast and lunch in their ranch house by the fields, and he keeps learning.
“I’ve blown up a rototiller, overfilled the tractor with gas a number of times, maybe not kept the rows as straight as Skip would like,” he says, on a day that dozens of eggs crashed to the floor of his car and broke, turning the back of the Volvo wagon into a big scrambled egg as the sun warmed the spill.
“The challenge for me is to be as patient with myself as they would be.”