Tubby Creek Farm: A Love Story of Sorts
I’ve known Jo Alexander for a while now. I met her when I was managing Project Green Fork and she was managing GrowMemphis, when she’d pick up the compostables from Project Green Fork certified restaurants. I knew she was a hard worker when I witnessed her hauling the food scraps to local gardens under the GrowMemphis umbrella. I knew she was an intelligent person when I listened to her talk passionately about growing food on a local level. I admired her then and have even more admiration for her now, knowing about her continued hard work co-owning a farm.
When I met Randy Alexander and found out Jo and Randy were together, it made complete sense to me: two like-minded, hard-working people with great passion and big aspirations about local farming and offering healthy, pesticide-free food to people.
Owning your own business, of any type, is hard work, and for farmers, it may be even more difficult. Farmers deal with challenging weather conditions, pests eating their crops, and having to say no to invitations to friends’ parties because they’d rather sleep.
I recently visited with Jo and Randy at their Tubby Creek Farm in Ashland, Mississippi. I learned a little about their farm, and I learned a lot about how these two make it work. I walked away from my time with them with an even better appreciation for these farmers and a better understanding of what it’s like to work with the one you love from sunup to sundown.
When did you start farming?
Randy — I started farming five years ago when we bought this property. Before that, I was heavily involved in disability-rights work and civil justice. I was a community organizer at the Memphis Center for Independent Living and on the board of directors of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. I’m still getting up to speed on farming. Early on, there was a lot of reading, conferences, and talking to folks. Then it was just trying out what I learned. It helps that Josephine has experience, is hard working, and is so smart. Between the two of us, we have figured a lot out, especially by finding what doesn’t work.
Did you grow up on a farm?
Jo — My father grew up on a small farm in Maine, and when I was a child, my parents grew a small vegetable garden. Fresh sweet corn, carrots, and asparagus are what I remember most. My chore was weeding the garden, which I detested. Now that we have our own farm, my dad likes to tell stories from when he was a boy about bringing the hay in by hand and harvesting 100-pound bags of potatoes to feed the family over the winter. I didn’t get interested in farming until college and quite by accident. I never realized how rural my upbringing was until I went to college in a city and found that being disconnected from wild spaces made me feel like my soul was dying. So I took trips to volunteer on organic farms during school breaks. With an undergraduate degree in geology, I had no clue what to do after I graduated, so I spent two full years working on organic and sustainable farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The farmers I met were passionate, strong, tireless, and intelligent people, and while I considered farming as a career, I wondered if I was cut from the same cloth as these truly amazing individuals. But living with the rhythm of the seasons and bringing food forth from the earth got under my skin and into my blood. I think this way of life became inevitable for me. In Randy, I found someone who could share this dream and give me the courage to pursue it.
Randy — I come from a long line of farmers that homesteaded the prairies of eastern Colorado and western Kansas. That ended with my uncles. My mom moved to the city, so, no, I did not grow up on a farm. Josephine brought farming to me. It started with some chickens, then gardening and taking over much of the neighborhood community garden. Josephine had talked about wanting to go into farming. The more we talked about farming and the more experience I gained from gardening. I thought. “Sure, let’s go for it.”
What have been the biggest changes you’ve implemented on your own farm since you first started?
When we bought the farm, it was just land. There was nothing here. Everything you see is something that we did, from digging the irrigation well and running electricity, to the most recent addition of the levee and perimeter fence for the goats. The biggest change, however, has been the soil. Although this used to be a family farm that raised cattle and vegetables to sell at the old Scott Street Market in Memphis, for the many years in between, it had been used to raise conventional row crops, mostly soybeans. Organic matter was non-existent. We still have a long way to go, but the health of the soil is improving. We have seen the earthworms come back.
What did you grow on the farm when you first started, and what are you growing now?
We started out with diversified vegetables, and that is largely what we still grow. Since then, it has been homing in on what works well for us. We try new varieties every year, and we continue to add perennial fruits and berries. We added chickens the first year, pigs the second, and goats the third.
What are your signature crops?
We grow so many things. Tomatoes in the summer, carrots in the fall, and gourmet lettuce mix in the spring and fall. These are all met with great enthusiasm at the farmers’ market. Fall carrots are our absolute favorite thing to grow and to eat. Another important crop are the goats. We added a much larger supply of goat meat this summer, and we’d like to be known for that.
What has been your most consistent crop in terms of making a good profit?
Does it say bad things about our business if I can’t immediately answer that question? The key word is consistent. Last year, the sweet peppers were fantastic and far and away our most profitable crop. This year, they aren’t even close. I blame June — too hot, too humid, and perfect for bacterial and fungal problems. Probably the most consistently profitable crop is lettuce, both head lettuce and loose-leaf mix. Believe it or not, we do a bang-up business with radishes. We also have some moderately profitable crops that we cherish for their reliability, like okra, eggplant, and sweet potatoes.
Of the 70 acres you own, how many acres do you farm?
The vegetable garden is about five acres. In any given year, we use about two-thirds of that for cash crops and grow cover crops on the rest. We have a small perennial fruit orchard and fruit trees scattered about. About 15 acres is in permanent pasture, although we do use other land for grazing as well. All in all, we use the front half of the property, with the back half entirely wild space that includes a seasonal creek, spring-fed pond, and young forest that is home to a fantastic array of wildlife.
What do you think of GMO — genetically modified organism — crops?
We live in a farming community. Our friends and neighbors raise corn and soybeans, much of which is GM. We’re in no position to pass judgment on how other people earn their livelihoods. That said, our biggest concern about GMO crops is that they do not foster resiliency in the food system, but instead increase dependency. We truly believe that the future of the global food system relies on the capacities of communities all over the world to feed themselves.
How did you make the farm wheelchair accessible?
Randy — I have used a wheelchair for more than 20 years, and I actually wouldn’t call the farm accessible. Yes, I can get around to do my work, but truly accessible is another level. As far as getting around to do the tasks I do, the farm is usable mostly by design and layout. Paths between rows of berries are a little wider to accommodate my wheelchair. The greenhouse and where we rinse and pack the vegetables are near the house. We have paths that slowly take shape all over the farm, so as time goes on, more of the farm becomes usable. Those are the easy and inexpensive things to do that just take time.
Then there are things that take money, like the lift system the state paid for that picks me up and sets me in the seat of either tractor. Once I’m in the seat, the hand-control systems work great, and I’m off doing work. Tractor work always brings a kid-like smile to my face.
How do you two divide the tasks?
Jo — By aptitude and ability. I do the harvesting; Randy runs the wash and pack operations. Randy almost always does all the tractor work, disking, harrowing, bed shaping, mowing. I do the transplanting, seeding, and hand weeding. Randy manages the accounts and communications, as I cannot be trusted to check my email. I write the weekly newsletter, but Randy sends it out. Randy is in charge of all things workshop: tractor and machine maintenance and repair, adjusting implements, anything that involves a wrench. Randy does all the orchard work (hoeing, mulching, watering, trellising); I do the same in the vegetable garden. Moving the goats to fresh pasture weekly is a team effort. The planning and decision-making we do together.
What do you think the government should do to change/help the farming industry?
Randy — Good local vegetables need to be available and affordable to everyone, but not on the backs of the farmers. Our margins are too thin as it is. I think we need programs to increase, not decrease, assistance for low-income families. Programs like SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] are vital to low-income families and important to farmers. I think if SNAP and programs like Double Greens and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers could be expanded, that would have a huge impact for low-income families and local growers — especially if they’re geared toward purchasing local food.
A great example of a simple fix is the senior vouchers. Tennessee senior vouchers can only be used to purchase produce sold by Tennessee farmers. In border towns like Memphis, that cuts a lot of local farmers out, who are local, but not in Tennessee. And it cuts a potential income stream out for us. Simply making the program for local farmers and not just Tennessee farmers would help.
Other programs face cuts too, like USDA conservation services, programs for new and minority farmers, and the list goes on. In a time when we need to be nurturing new farmers, programs to do so are facing cuts and restrictions.
What do you love the most about farming? The least?
Jo — I get to work outdoors every day. Every day, I see the sun rise, and I see the sun set. I feel the seasons change through the cycle of the year. I love that feeling of connectedness. I am in the world. Food is among our most basic needs. Bringing food forth from the earth is rewarding in the most tangible way possible. We eat and share the literal fruits of our labor. The loss of control as the season sweeps you away can be terrifying. Once things get busy in spring, the work is relentless until fall. The house will not be clean, and the laundry will not be caught up until November. We will miss all social engagements. Recently, a friend invited me to a party that I would have really enjoyed. I told him that if I had the time to go to the party, honestly, I would rather spend that time sleeping.
Randy — While I enjoyed living in the city, I love living out in the country. The majority of my time is spent outdoors working, which I find good for the soul. I love that our hard work feeds people, people we know. The best is when someone walks up to you and says, “My kids loved your (insert vegetable here). It was eaten before we made it home.”
What time does your day start and end?
Our day starts at first light and ends when we put the chickens to bed.
We really live by the season and the sun. We are typically awake about an hour before first light. That way, we are ready to open the chicken coop by daybreak and tend to morning animal chores. On cold days, we might not start outdoor work until it warms up a bit, but there is always planning for next season to work on.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in getting into farming?
Jo — If possible, live and work on a farm. There is no substitute. It isn’t just a career, it is a lifestyle, and you need to live it to know if it is right for you. It is not enough to be in love with the idea of farming; you have to love the work, too. You may enjoy your first hour of picking okra, but do you enjoy your 50th hour of picking okra? Work at the same farm for an entire season. See how management decisions made in spring impact crops in the fall. For me, I farm because I can’t possibly imagine doing anything else. It is hard, stressful, and unrelenting. It is also fantastically rewarding.
Randy — I completely agree with Josephine. So many folks think they want to farm, but it’s a lot more than they realize. It takes a huge cross section of skills: math, science, mechanics, labor, and more. It is relentless, but if it is meant for you, you’ll love it, and the way to find out is to do the work.
What’s your favorite fall meal?
Jo — I always say that October is the best month for vegetables. It holds the greatest variety. Not only do we still have the last of the tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and other summer crops, but also all the cool-season leafy greens and roots are at their peak as nights get colder. Fall also means sweet potatoes, snap and snow peas, multicolored carrots, and broccoli. Sometimes, farmers’ market attendance wanes in the fall, but if you miss October, you miss the best variety that local farming has to offer.
We love goat chops because they are so quick and easy to cook in a cast iron skillet. Great for busy farmers and an easy way for people to try goat meat for the first time. So for my favorite fall meal: pan-seared goat chops with garlic and red wine; a green salad topped with roasted fall vegetables like carrots, beets, and turnips; and a baked sweet potato.
Randy — I love goat roasts and stews or a slow-roasted (or crock pot) goat chili. Cut tomatoes into large chunks, along with onions, sweet peppers, and hot peppers (to taste) and place them on a cookie sheet and broil them until the edges darken. Sear some goat stew meat in a Dutch oven (or skillet) and then throw it all into a crock pot. Add vegetables, season to taste, and roast low and slow.
Learn more about Tubby Creek Farm at www.tubbycreekfarm.com and visit them at the Cooper-Young Farmers Market
Saturdays year-round, 8 am–1 pm at 1000 S. Cooper in Midtown, Memphis www.cycfarmersmarket.org.
Margot McNeeley is the founder and past executive director of Project Green Fork. She resides in Midtown with her husband, Gary, and their three rescue dogs — Fiona, Cleo, and Hank.