SOUTHERN NATIVE PLANTINGS AT LONGWOOD PLANTATION
IT’S MEET MY FARMER MONDAY!
Mike and Karen Smith are farmers’ farmers. From their busy piece of rural paradise in tiny Newington, GA, this powerhouse couple does a unique kind of agriculture: they help others grow their farms. “We call ourselves ‘farm-assists,” Karen laughs with a signature twinkle in her voice.
Simply put: Mike is a soil sage and Karen is a plant whisperer. Together their individually managed businesses are known collectively as Southern Native Plantings at Longwood Plantation.
It all started 14 years ago, after Mike – a Georgia Tech grad – left his almost 30-year corporate career as a textile engineer. He called up his wife one day from an ag auction and said, “I’m about to bid on a backhoe.”
“There was no plan,” Karen laughs again. “It really has been a journey of faith for us.”
This year, Mike is projected to make and sell more than 40,000 cubic yards of organic-grade compost and planting mixes. Equal parts businessman, farmer, scientist and naturalist, Mike has immersed himself in the study of bio-dynamics to build his business while building the soil. First, he negotiates with other farms and businesses to receive local agricultural waste and bi-products, freeing up mountains from landfills. Then he expertly mixes and mounds the recycled organic materials to suit. Finally, he inoculates his 100-ton piles using preparations of plants like yarrow and dandelion and stinging nettle, which engage the microbial life in soil in ways that make elemental nutrients more bio-available. And while this practice may have sounded like the stuff of fiction novels in the past, it’s cutting-edge soil science now.
A new challenge arises in the hundreds of tons of coffee grounds they now receive on a monthly basis. The grounds are blended with other raw materials to further enrich their fine compost. Longwood’s soil amendments, planting mixes, and processes are USDA Organically Approved and tested by the likes of the University of Georgia and others.
Mike is a hoot and a southern gentleman all in one, complete with cowboy hat and drawl. The only thing faster than his nonstop workday is his mind; you can tell he’s thinking outside the box pretty much all the time.
To keep this Renaissance man grounded, God put heart-of-gold Karen on the other side of the acreage. Just look for the woman with the best-looking work boots in Georgia and legs to match. Karen started her side of the business 10 years ago, after finishing up a full career in IT management. Today, Karen runs a widely popular plant nursery with a special passion for natives, pollinator plants and edibles. Self-taught and committed to working as aligned with nature as possible, Karen is known throughout the state for her botanical wisdom. While Mike makes the soil mix, Karen knows how to grow in it. And she does it in ways that give other organic farmers competitive advantage and home growers reassurance and confidence.
Just last month, for example, one of her farm customers picked up his order of 30,000 seedlings, which included baby kale plants in four varieties, all grown in her greenhouse. Karen currently grows most of her vegetable seedlings for this one primary farmer, but she sells smaller batches to a handful of other lucky local growers and home gardeners, too. Step outside the greenhouse, and you’ll find yourself in a food forest of young fruit trees and berry bush starts. Paw paws, pomegranates, pears and persimmons; blackberries, raspberries and blueberries; all in pots, never root-bound, each ready for transplant. She’s also got more than 2000 aronia berry plants – also known as chokeberries – available for sale. Eventually they will all be sold to some smart farmers who see – as Karen does – the future economical benefit of a medicinal fruit that scores higher on the antioxidant scale than another other berry in the world. It also happens to be pest resistant, grows well in Georgia, and makes a beautiful hedge.
“I love growing plants that contribute to our edible landscape with a combination of benefits,” she notes.
As active advocates for Georgia’s local food and environmental movements, Karen and Mike have been involved in a number of large-scale projects that promote both. For example, Karen’s biggest fruit tree sale each year is done in partnership with Georgia Organics as a fundraiser for the Atlanta Local Food Initiative (ALFI). Mike is bold and experimental when it comes to helping farmers look to nature for solutions. One of their farmer friends – for example – had a fungus wipe out his entire onion crop. Mike encouraged him to take all those onions, compost them and spread it back out into the field to help build resistance in future crops.
“This kind of intervention is unheard of in conventional agriculture these days,” explains Karen. The modern tendency is to get rid of the bacteria or virus that caused you problems, she notes. “But we’re finding that the more sterile you attempt to make your farm, the more problems you will likely have.”
“We live in a culture that is dying,” notes Karen. “We need to look for life. Where is life coming from? That’s where our answers will be.”
The CSRA is lucky that Mike and Karen have five grandbabies growing up in the Augusta, Georgia area. The grandparent-draw provides extra motivation for them to sell and deliver through ALG’s Online Market most weeks, year-round, at www.augusta.locallygrown.net.
You can also buy their products directly from their beautiful farm from which you will come away with a car full of new plants and a head full of ancient wisdom.