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109.  Jenny Jackson | Jenny Jack Sun Farm | Pine Mountain, Georgia
31st December 2015 • GREEN Organic Garden Podcast • Jackie Marie Beyer
00:00:00 00:59:15

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On the Jenny Jack Sun Farm located one‐hour southwest of Atlanta in beautiful Pine Mountain, Georgia, Jenny and Chris Jackson, along with two apprentices, grow a generous variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers on 5 acres. Recently, heritage hogs have been added to the mix, including a rare breed called Red Wattle.

Tell us a little about yourself.

My husband and I have been running the farm full time for 8 years now. We met at the University of Georgia. I studied horticulture and he was an education major. I was interested in the idea of farming in college but I wasn’t really exposed to small diverse farms until after I graduated. I knew I wanted to study plants and how they grow and how to grow them, but I didn’t have a clear path until we traveled after we graduated college. We went to Hawaii to work on different organic farms.

Did you go through the WWOOFer program?

Yes, a friend that had traveled extensively told us about WWOOF. That’s an acronym for Willing Workers on Organic Farms. You can do that pretty much anywhere in the world. We decided we wanted to go to Hawaii, but we knew it was expensive there to go as a tourist. By WWOOFing you can work in exchange for a place to stay and food. By that I mean in a tent.

But a tent’s probably ok for Hawaii?

Yes, it’s an ideal place to camp for several months, so we stayed there for 5 months working on 3 different farms. We didn’t get an in depth education because as a WWOOFer, you work about 25 hours a week, so that way you have time to explore the area your in. So it was a good introduction. When we came back to Georgia after Hawaii we found a longer term apprenticeship. That’s where we really started learning what we would apply at our farm.

Awesome! I think that’s great advice. I love to hear about experiences like that, I think it’s a good way to learn because One: it’s a lot of work so you can one learn how to be effective and efficient and two: also you can learn if you are ready to do all that work before you make a good commitment. I just had a guest who said you need to learn how to manage one acre effectively before you learn to manage 20. One of my very first guests Todd Ulizio did an apprenticeship and he recommended it because he said you have 0 risk but get all the knowledge.

Tell me about your first gardening experience?

I was fortunate because I grew up in the garden, my parents had a big garden, although I didn’t fully appreciate it as I was younger or help as much as I probably should have, at least I had exposure.

took for granted that you could harvest it and eat it so fresh! Also we had a babysitter who was a serious gardener. When I wasn’t at home with my parents from the time I was a few months old, she had us in her garden just watching her as she tended her plants. So I feel really lucky that I was exposed to it my whole life basically.

What does organic gardening/earth friendly mean to you?

Well basically, there’s so many toxins in our environment today, and a lot of them come from agriculture, so when I started learning about the health hazards of conventional fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, number 1 I didn’t want to expose myself, or my husband or my workers to that, but when you’re growing for other people you want to make sure it’s as healthy and safe as possible too. For me not only is it about how to care for the soil, but it’s about keeping myself and my husband and our customers as healthy as possible! Personally what I have learned about conventional fertilizers and chemicals I don’t think it’s possible to do it otherwise.

I agree, sometimes I think it’s crazy? How are we eating this stuff?

Who or what inspired you to start using organic techniques?

Not my parents, they were just sort of, not old fashioned, but I guess mainstream gardeners. They used triple 13 or whatever conventional fertilizer people use on gardens. I do think its better to grow your own food, if that’s the only way you are going to do it, I think it’s better then not doing it at all. For them it was just a lack of knowledge about organic growing methods. So I wasn’t exposed organic growing ideas until college, I guess. It’s not something I was taught in horticulture. I was at UGA from 2000-2004. Shortly after I left that they started focusing on more organic gardening methods. So I didn’t learn about it in college but I did get interested in it as I read about the hazards of conventional farming just on my own. It was in Hawaii, when we were working on these organic farms I becomes aware the importance of growing organically.

I just talked with Anna Peach from the  Squash and Awe blog  in Hawaii!

Tell us about something that grew well on the farm this year.

Growing Organic Tomatoes

Our tomatoes were phenomenal this year! We have just recently put up a couple of hoop houses, that is like a green house except  you grow in the ground, it’s basically a high tunnel of plastic over a growing field. This year we had our tomatoes growing in 2 of our hoop houses.

And that made such a difference! By having the plastic over them we could get them in the ground earlier. By avoiding rainfall, we could manipulate the water, just as we need it which is so important especially cherry tomatoes will split in half. And it reduces foliar disease because the rain wasn’t splashing back up on the leaves, the plants were able to stay drier. So less cracking, less disease, longer season! We had a really great tomato crop!

Awesome, those are great tips for listeners. In Georgia, I wouldn’t think that you’d have to worry about a longer season, but you do down there I guess? What’s your climate like?

We have a really great long growing season, but our frost-free date in the spring is April 15th. So in order to get stuff in earlier that’s frost sensitive, all the summer stuff tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, yeah the hoop house is the way to do it. Because we’re growing and marketing and vegetables for a living, the earlier that we can get these things in the better. Because people, our customers are highly anxious to start getting those first summer fruits in late spring.

Did you plant some outside too or just  all of your tomatoes are in the hoop house?

This year we did a 3rd planting outside, because our first 2 plantings were inside so our hoop houses were full. We did a 3rd planting in August outside and we harvested those tomatoes up until our first frost around late November.

Is there something you would do different on your farm next year or want to try/new?

Medicinal herbs and plants

Something that I have really gotten interested in this year is medicinal herbs and plants. We have started into that, primarily we grow vegetables, we do have fruit, also chickens for eggs and the hogs. So obviously we’re very diverse, but I really have enjoyed opening another layer of diversification through these medicinal herbs. Our customers have  really been interested in it as well. I think as people learn more about the healing powers of plants and herbs. These are the people shopping with us anyway for their fruits and vegetables. They’re very anxious to try these things. So I’m excited about doing more of those things and learning more for next season.

Do you want to tell us any medicinal herbs you planted this year? Give us some examples?

Comfrey is one non-edible, that’s probably  the first thing I got started with. I had a customer who gave me a plant, she didn’t tell me a whole lot about it, but I attended an herbal class at Georgia Organics Conference, which is our  local or state’s non-profit that educates folks on organic methods. I learned about the healing powers of comfrey making a salve with it. I guess I started that as a Christmas gift, the people gave me such great feedback, I  decided to make it and sell it, here at our farm market. It sold really quickly, people were telling me that it was helping heal all sorts of skin conditions,  with minor skin conditions, like rashes and minor cuts and bruises.

Ginger and turmeric we grew as edibles for culinary use. Then I started looking into the medicinal qualities of both those plants. So we dried a lot for tea, I’ve just started making tincture with those as well.

One of my guests, Patti Armbrister talked about if there were 2 herbs to put in the ground was Comfrey and Borage I think because not only because of the healing, I want to say it’s because they bring in the pollinators. 

Yes! The bees love the comfrey flowers, they’re so beautiful, similar to Borage in that  they are bell shaped, when it blooms in the spring I notice the bees all over it.

Tell me about something that didn’t work so well on your farm this season.

Well we have a lot of fire ant pressure here, it’s our number one pest each year they actually get worse! There’s only one thing that we’re aware of that you can use organically, its called spinosad. It’s very expensive, I did splurge on some, the ants eat certain seeds like beets, hard to tell with the seed underground, but when things don’t germinate we start looking at the soil and we see a ton of ants, and I have seen ants carrying off some seeds. Not only do they eat the seeds, once they germinate they eat the plants, they just chew at the stems before the plants can get started. What they are doing now is even on the mature plants, they will start feeding at the base of the stem and weaken the plant until it dies. So fire ants are a huge problem for us.

I would love to participate in some university study for an alternative to see if there are alternatives to the spinosad, because number one it’s expensive, and number two you have to spray the mound or the ants, directly. We have tried the bait granules, whichI didn’t find them to be effective, but they are also expensive  so I didn’t find test them any further. So that’s something we always struggle with, but they seem to be worse this year.

So I don’t know if this would help you, but there was a guy, Peter Jordan in Canada I interviewed that’s starting to produce these things called Seed Havens that are a white plastic tray type of thing and they work to get rid of crawling insects. He’s up in Canada, I’m not sure they are availab in the United States yet. I think it might be on a small scale for a home gardener, I don’t know if it would help you on a big scale but someday down the line maybe? They had a problem with crawling insects where he was.

I suppose they bite too.

Yeah and it’s painful.

Is there something that you find is easy to grow and is generally successful every-time.

Yeah, a few things that seem to be relatively carefree for vegetables.

Garlic is one, we always have good luck with garlic. We save our seed each year, which I love being able to do that. We’re not really set up to save a lot of the seed on our farm, because we’re a small farm, so we’re focusing on production so we don’t have enough time to devote to it or isolation distance to keep the seed pure. For garlic you just save the bulbs and plant cloves from those bulbs for the next season. I love being able to save the seeds from the garlic. Because the fire ants don’t eat it, as of yet, deer don’t eat it, no major pests or diseases as of yet.

Sun chokes are one of my favorite crops because they are so carefree. Jerusalem artichokes, is the root of a sunflower. It’s edible, very delicious. It’s a very nutritious crop, because it’s native to this area, I believe it’s native to the whole eastern US. It’s  very drought tolerant and  just carefree!

They have those pretty little sunflowers. 

Yeah! Which is great for bees when not a lot is blooming in late August/September. That’s a really nice time to have some pollen and nectar for the bees.

Something you would steer new gardeners away from that you find is typically challenging to grow in your climate.

We have a big problem with squash vine bores, so for winter squashes we typically just grow varieties of the Machata species, butternut squash, some other examples are Long Island cheese, which is like a round pumpkin, it looks like a pumpkin even though its technically a winter squash. Pennsylvania Dutch which is a crookneck is another type. Seminole. These are all varieties in that Machata species. What happens with those is the stem of the plant gets woody really quickly so they are more resistant to the vine bore. I think, I hear home gardeners say they have trouble with pumpkins, and I think that is one reason, because of the vine bore down here. But also planting early is key for a lot of people here.

I think people think pumpkins fall, so they try to plant mid summer, but the pest pressure is too high, that’s when we have our hottest temps. So if you can plant those things earlier, harvest them late summer they will store until the fall.

Wow! You’re full of great information! Maybe I haven’t had a lot of people from the south so I think a lot of listeners will be excited to hear this episode.

Which activity is your least favorite activity to do on the farm?

I really don’t like dealing with row cover, so that is like a thin sheet to cover them up to protect them, either from frost or pests, I love the benefits that row cover provides, but it’s just something I don’t like dealing with. It’s usually windy on the day we decide to put it out and it’s flapping everywhere and I just really do not like it!

What is your favorite activity to do on the farm?

So many things! I love harvesting especially things that are in the ground, like the sunchokes I was talking about earlier. Sweet potatoes, it’s like digging up a little treasure every time you find one! That’s  probably one of my favorite things digging roots in the ground.

We have an on farm market at our farm every Wednesday April through December and I love dealing or interacting with our customers! They come to the farm to pick out their produce and so they can walk around and see the pigs and chickens and all the crops so I really love that aspect of our business too! Just having people on the farm, seeing where their their farmers grow the food! That’s one of the things I love about direct marketing.

Did I see something on your website about helpers?  It’s not just you and your husband for 5 acres right?

Yes, right. We take 2 apprentices each season, they’re seasonal, they start typically in February and work through November. This is different from the WOOFing apprenticeship that Chris and I did. With Woofing there’s typically no money exchanged. Usually its more people interested in traveling and it’s a different type of experience that are WWOOFing not necessarily seriously interested in agriculture as a career.

Apprentices at Jenny Jack Sun Farm

Our apprenticeship is set up with the idea that we are helping to grow farmers. Each year we take on 2 apprentices, not everyone has gone on to farm, maybe 1/2 in our 8 years. It’s a good way to get a full season experience, what it’s like to be on a farm, work on a farm, the lifestyle, so it’s a good way for people to figure out if it’s something they want to pursue. So we have those two people with us and we have volunteers that come, not every week and it’s  not something to rely on heavily. But volunteers definitely help us with big projects like planting strawberries and garlic.

Then we have one part time employee who’s local.

That comes back all the time?

Yeah, that’s new for us. We only had one apprentice this year, it just worked out that way, we only hired one person. One of our best customers expressed interest in working part time, she came on in February and it just worked out perfectly. So luckily she’s gonna come back next year. We’re still gonna take on 2 apprentices. I think with increasing the medicinal herbal part it’ll be good to have extra hours she’s gonna help me with that.

So did you say they were gonna get paid then?

They get paid, food from the farm, and housing.

Tell us about the best crop you ever grew.

That happened with the ginger, I have been wanting to grow ginger for a few years, but it’s so hard to get the seed, because it’s in such demand. Most of it that comes from one particular farm, in Hawaii, so I’ve been on the waiting list to get their seed.

So I got the seed this year, planted more because  it’s difficult crop to get high yield, but we had lots of fresh baby ginger, much more then our CSA members could use, when we have extra things like that we typically try to sell those chefs in Atalanta and we were able to move it all to these high end chefs in Atalanta.

Did you save any of that seed?

It doesn’t make much sense for us to save ginger seed. Because it’s tropical it has to be kept above 60º, we don’t keep a greenhouse warm in winter, so I think for us to provide the right conditions, it would cost us more in energy then to order the seed from the company. Also we retail it from $10-16/lb. It only costs $8/lb even with shipping form Hawaii.

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