The Train is a Coming at Delta Sol Farms
BRANDON PUGH OF DELTA SOL FARMS
A farmer’s life in the winter is a little like waiting on a train. Tidying up plots, arranging planting trays on greenhouse shelves, and thumbing through seed catalogues is just like jotting at a crossword puzzle — a typical thing to do while waiting. Once the train arrives and the season begins, there is no jumping off and no turning back — hurtling through months of harvests and markets as though the brakes were gone. Brandon Pugh knows the train is coming and this year, his second at Delta Sol Farm in Proctor, Arkansas, he will have that crossword puzzle finished before it arrives.
Garlic has a prominent place in Brandon’s winter-time waiting and in his plans for the year ahead. In the late fall of last year, an area of his modest acreage in Proctor (a portion of his family’s larger holdings in the area) was prepared with just garlic in mind. Plowed, manicured and wrapped in a moisture and warmth-preserving overcoat of grow-cloth — his smallish section devoted to the glorious Alliums has been planted with pounds of garlic bulbs.
Garlic is not typically the lifeblood of a small market farm such as Brandon’s Delta Sol Farm. Growers such as monolithic Christopher Ranch Garlic and others located in and around Gilroy, California have had the corner on the garlic market for decades. Even so, a grower like Brandon — and perhaps only someone like Brandon — can cut into the commoditized garlic marketplace by growing and selling highly unusual and sought after culinary varieties.
To grow garlic well, and for that matter any specialty crop, takes a combination of knowledge, experience, perseverance, luck, and passion. Brandon’s knowledge and experience have come by way of a road not wandered by many small market farmers. When the bug to leave his family’s acreage in Proctor bit him, he jumped west to college programs and small farms in Oregon and California. An enviable education and internship with the University of California, Santa Cruz Sustainable Agriculture Program set him on both the academic and practical pillars of successful small market farming.
After some years away from Proctor — learning yes, but definitely on the train — the opportunity to return and to farm here came together. While living and farming in the west, he made regular trips to Proctor and the Memphis area for one reason or another — to attend Memphis in May and the Music Festival not the least of them. Family and friends encouraged him to come home to farm, but all of the parts he needed to do so were not in place — until last year. A portion of his family’s acreage became available, a truck and tractor and home came along, and the success and encouragement from other local small market farmers such as Jill and Keith Forrester at Whitton Farms finally pulled him away from the coast.
Brandon’s gathered knowledge and experience have served him well since setting up Delta Sol Farm. But small market farming also takes perseverance, luck and passion — things he has needed in abundance since his return to Arkansas. Unlike farming in California — with its temperate climate, fertile ground and abundant numbers of customers — farming in the Mid-South can be challenging.
And to do so in a way without chemical inputs to ward off the pests and fungus that thrive in our climate is even more of a challenge. A farmer like Brandon knows that the train will roll on — with him or without him, and that often all you can do is hang on.
Garlic will play an important part in Delta Sol’s early market offerings, as will many varieties of vegetables, greens and flowers that can either be grown in his greenhouse or given an early start because of it. While many vegetables and greens are perfectly fine grown in the field during the mild Mid-South winter, Brandon’s greenhouse allows him to better control the growing conditions, pests and varieties he can produce.
Getting the farm ready for the season ahead is a time of work for sure — with the plot to till, row, tend and cover. It is also a time for conversation and reconnection with family and friends who work beside Brandon as they sit among the leafy skins of the peeled garlic sets preparing the individual bulbs for planting. Each set must be broken apart and the individual cloves exposed prior to moving them to the plot for planting. As the bags and bags of sets are broken apart, the skins swirl like tender feathers, a downy fluff that drifts into corners and along fences and anything else in its path. The time taken to prepare garlic is time given for talking and stories with anyone who shows up to help. The connection to the soil — and the people of his life, are perhaps all of the reasons anyone will ever need to know about why he decided to ultimately leave California and return home.
Talking with Brandon, it is easy to relate to the story of the small market farmer. His easy and friendly personality, though, is no cover for a hard-working and determined small farmer. He knows that the year ahead will be filled with successes and failures, good and bad weather, and customers of all temperaments, perspectives and opinions. He knows that he will hear his fair share of ‘you should’ from well-meaning family, friends, customers, and the agricultural community — taking it all in for future reference and inspiration.
If there ever was a doubt, the year ahead will be a good one for farmers like Brandon and his Delta Sol Farm. The marketplace for local products in the Mid-South continues to grow and Brandon is poised to be a larger part of it than last year. And while he continues to look off toward the train that he knows is coming, he is also taking every minute that he can to connect with the farm and the people who make up the most important part of it — and they are all around him, waiting for the same train.
Kjeld Petersen is a chef, writer and an American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) board member.