Toombs family aims to earn a living with organic gardening

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Carroll County residents Jon and Kaylynn Toombs have always been interested in organic gardening.

Over the past four years, the couple has worked to turn that interest into a viable business, called Homestead Farm. Jon Toombs said their farm still has a ways go to but noted how far they've come since the couple began dabbling in gardening in 2008. Many organic gardeners, he said, aren't trying to make a living on their farm.

"They're either subsidized heavily through the use of grants or they're just a hobby where someone's retired and they don't really need to make an income," Jon Toombs said. "We are actually trying to create a viable business model."

That business model, he explained, revolves around simplifying technical issues regarding labor. Because organic gardeners don't use big equipment or pesticides, Jon Toombs said it's difficult to replicate certain techniques that large-scale farms use.

"You're not going to derive their economies of scale, so you have to figure out subtle ways to do things that will allow you to get things done more efficiently. You can't make a living wage otherwise," Jon Toombs said.

Being a viable business, Kaylynn Toombs pointed out, would allow their farm to become a part of the community. She said she hopes to eventually serve Carroll County as an employer, and Jon Toombs agreed.

"If it doesn't make enough to hire someone to do it for you, it isn't a viable business," Jon Toombs said. "Our farm is still in its infancy. It's still in the developing phase."

Jon Toombs described how their farm works, saying he and his wife use techniques a home gardener would use on a larger scale. These techniques, he said, include using hand tools and a rototiller.

"We use a rototiller as opposed to the tractor. Primarily, the tractor is used in creating the infrastructure," Jon Toombs said.

He continued, explaining how they avoid using pesticides and herbicides. Though their farm is run organically, Jon Toombs said it hasn't been given the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stamp of approval yet.

"We are not certified organic as of yet. We just haven't pursued the paperwork," Jon Toombs said. "My customers do not seem to care. They know what I do, and they're not concerned whether I have the USDA stamp."

"We know all the regulations to a T," Kaylynn Toombs added.

A big reason many organic gardeners seek the USDA stamp of approval, Kaylynn Toombs continued, is to sell to larger markets such as Ozark Natural Foods and Whole Foods.

"A lot of times what you need that for is when you go wholesale. We can say we grow organically, but I can't put a label on it saying it's organic," Kaylynn Toombs said.

At their farm, Jon Toombs said he and his wife grow pretty much every crop that will grow in the area. He noted that the couple does not grow fruit, saying fruit isn't as efficient to harvest and sell as other crops.

"Think of blueberries for a minute," Kaylynn Toombs explained. "It takes a while to pick a gallon of blueberries, and how much do you sell it for? Other crops produce more and give you more money for your time and effort."

Right now, Jon Toombs said they are mostly focusing on crops that grow annually. He described the process of growing crops; each crop, he said, is planted and harvested according to a strict schedule.

"We try to get a least two crops, sometimes three, in every bed during the season. So it's early spring and you pull that out and the summer crop goes in. Then the summer crop goes out and the fall crop goes in," Jon Toombs said.

He continued, "You're playing a real scheduling game."

Married for 29 years, Jon and Kaylynn Toombs attended Berryville High School together before moving to Alaska. Jon Toombs said he and his wife spent many years in Alaska, raising their four children there. The couple moved back to Berryville at little more than 10 years ago.

"We decided we would at least explore market gardening as an option. Alaska's not a place you can do anything like this," Jon Toombs said.

For Kaylynn Toombs, the draw of organic gardening is how environmentally friendly it is.

"You're very cognizant that what you do has impact. You're trying to minimize the impact so that land is sustainable," Kaylynn Toombs said.

Her husband agreed.

"Organic is more than just not using synthetic pesticides. It has to do with trying to look at the long-term picture. Your soil itself is your primary bank account, and you're trying to build it up," Jon Toombs said.

Creating a sustainable farm, Kaylynn Toombs added, makes everything worthwhile.

"That's why you do it," she said.

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