Love is Love Cooperative Farm: EP11 | Show Notes
View/Download the PDF
Read The Transcript
Andy Chamberlin (00:10):
Today’s episode takes us all the way down to Mansfield, Georgia, where we visit with Monica and Russell of Love is Love Cooperative Farm. Myself and a few other colleagues visited in October 2022 as part of a farm tour focused on wash pack design and produce safety. This project was titled SCRUB, Sanitizing and Cleaning Resources for Your Business. From this project, we were able to learn what market gardeners needed in order to improve their produce safety, and we either collated or created resources to help improve the cleanliness and reduce produce safety risks. If you’re interested in some of these resources, you can visit the project page at go.uvm.edu/scrub.
The visit to this farm was an honor. To see a place that was in the early stages of growth, and we also helped to design their wash pack space and recommended some tools and products that they could improve their efficiencies with. This episode is a unique one where two of the owner members share in what it’s like to build a business with a cooperative farm model, raising fundraising and investing in infrastructure right out of the gate. Russell also shares a bit about the Oggun cultivating tractor and why he decided to go with that machine as the primary cultivation tool.
To start off the episode, we’ll have Russell give a little bit of an introduction to himself, his crew and the farm, and then we’ll get into the tour starting in the pack shed.
Russell Honderd (01:56):
Hi, my name is Russell Honderd. I’m one of five worker owners here at Love Is Love Cooperative Farm. The other four worker owners include Monica Ponce, Joe Reynolds, Demetrius Milling, and Judith Winfrey. We are located about 45 minutes east of Atlanta. The total farm property is about 70 acres, but we are currently growing on seven and a half acres. That includes five high tunnels that are 96 by 30, a double bay greenhouse that’s 56 by 72 feet. In the greenhouse, we grow all of our transplants for production. We also grow out transplants for two retail plant sales, one in the spring, one in the fall. And then we’ve also started exploring wholesale transplants to other organic farmers in the area, which seems to be growing business that’s getting traction.
In addition to our transplant production, we serve 350 CSA members 34 weeks out of the year. That’s split between two 15 week sessions running from the early spring to early winter, and then a four-week distribution that happens every other week starting at the end of January and running to the beginning of March. In addition to our CSA customers, we also serve restaurants and food aggregators in the Atlanta area. That makes up about a third of our revenue.
Our wash pack is a total of 36 feet by 48 feet. Half of that is enclosed and that’s where we do most of our packing and washing. A third of that is dedicated cooler space split between two coolers, both 12 by 24 feet. One, we manage as a warm cooler that we keep around 55 degrees. The other is a cold cooler that we keep between 38 and 45 degrees. And then the last sixth of our wash pack is undercover but not enclosed, and that is where we keep our AZS rinse conveyor that pulls a couple different jobs for us. It washes all of our root vegetables and some of our summer fruits, and then it also serves as a bin washer for us. All of our harvest bins and all of our round trip totes are washed and sanitized through the AZS. It’s been a really significant time saver for us. Two people can clean bins in about a tenth of the time that it has taken us previously when we were doing it by hand.
In addition to the AZS, we also rely on two stock tanks for washing greens. Both of those are connected to the same jacuzzi motor for bubbling to add in the washing process. We also have a speed queen green spinner that we retrofitted using the instructions on the U of M website. We pack primarily on two large stainless steel tables. Everything pretty much in our wash pack that is mobile or that could be mobile is on wheels so that we can rearrange tables, U-boats, bins in any type of layout that we need in order to fit the tasks that we’re taking on at the time and to adjust for the number of people. So it’s a very flexible space and it’s very easy for one or two people to completely rearrange it based on their needs.
In addition to [inaudible 00:05:53] and U-boats, our metro shelves holding all of our supplies are on casters. And then a relatively recent addition to our wash pack is a retractable hose, which gives us a lot of flexibility. It’s used for spraying off stuff that might still have a little bit of dirt on it, rinsing surfaces in our wash/rinse sanitize process, and it just keeps things clean and orderly, keeps the hose up off the ground.
Andy Chamberlin (06:24):
This conversation starts off in the wash pack where Russell is talking about building their pack shed.
Russell Honderd (06:31):
I guess we started working on this with y’all in early 2020 and we finally lined up a contractor in late 2021. And they told us that we have this steel prefab building over here, which is what we had started with as the parameters of the design. And the contractor said that it would probably cost him as much to set up that prefab building as it would to just build it new. And so that’s what we decided to let him build it new and we’ll set that up, figure out some other use for that building some other time.
Andy Chamberlin (06:31):
In your own time.
Russell Honderd (07:16):
Monica Ponce (07:16):
Russell Honderd (07:18):
Again, similar story to what Alana and Zach said about their barn where the contractor said that they’d be able to… I think we finally lined them up in November and they said it was start time end of December, beginning of January, and it’d be done by the end of January. And the start time was actually mid-March…
Monica Ponce (07:41):
Russell Honderd (07:41):
Or early April.
Monica Ponce (07:43):
Russell Honderd (07:44):
And they finished, it was probably June, beginning of June before we were actually able to get in here and start working.
So we were well into the season. We’d been doing all of our other washing and packing before that under the carport and running water in one hose, municipal water off of the house. We didn’t have any cooler space. We were renting coolers from a place in town called Common Market, which is like a aggregator. They had tons of cooler space. It was super cheap. In retrospect, it worked really well for us for where we were and what we needed, but it also meant that we were running… This is Joe-
Monica Ponce (07:52):
Russell Honderd (08:28):
…Joe Reynolds. Joe is one of our partners. He started Love is Love 14 years ago. This is the third site that it’s occupied.
Russell Honderd (08:41):
Third and final. Judith is one of our other worker owners, and then Demetrius is our fifth worker owner.
So we were taking all of our produce into coolers an hour away in Atlanta up until probably about early June when we got this space up and running. But now we’ve got two 12 by 24 walk-ins, which we’re running off of cool bots. It’s our warm cooler, which we’re keeping it at 55 degrees. We had to move them around a little bit. They were set up to have dividers in here with the entrance that’s supposed to be over there. So it was like a retail walk-in, so you could have different sections or whatever. We’re still, I guess, figuring out the best layout for it. We keep our cut flowers in here on shelves in the back, and then we can wheel in two or three U-boats in here pretty comfortably with all the pallet space as well.
Andy Chamberlin (09:43):
So that’s worked pretty well, the U-boat in [inaudible 00:09:46]-
Russell Honderd (09:46):
It works great. We had talked about pallets, but the doors aren’t big enough for pallets. So U-boats are the best solution for moving a lot of stuff around at once. And we can keep stuff, it’s really easy to pre-pack it for CSAs when they’re going out. Or for wholesale orders, it’s all pre-packed on U-boats. Someone just has to wheel it out and load in the van.
So we’ve got a mix of plastic and wooden pallets in here. We’ll probably get over to plastic pallets eventually, but we’re just kind of collecting them for free as we can. We’re doing mixed vegetables and cut flowers here, but with our CSA, we buy in products, expand the offering to customers. So Riverview does, they grow corn organically. Their processing facility isn’t certified, so it’s cornmeal grits, polenta that we distribute to CSA members. We do a coffee share with a work around cooperative of farmers in Central America that imports to a really cool project here in Georgia in [inaudible 00:11:04]. We have partners with pork and beef producers. Rock House Creamery, which y’all passed coming here, is our dairy provider for us. So we do milk and different cheeses that we sell. So it’s been a way to expand our income as well as give customers more options.
I don’t know if you noticed how bright it is in there, but we used y’all’s, the lumens per square foot calculators. It’s great. When Demetrius walked into the coolers for the first time, he was like, “It’s so bright in here. I can see everything.” And then cold cooler is pretty much the same. We don’t have any of those cross panels in there, it’s just one big open space. I’m trying to put everything on wheels. We’ve still got, I looked into casters for these stainless steel tables, which are available. I just never heard back from the company and then never called them back. So we got an AZS rinse conveyor, so we get all the dirty bins on a U-boat and bring them out here, load them in this end, they get washed, come out this end, and then we load them up back up onto the empty dollies or onto an empty U-boat to dry and then put them where we need to.
So we’ve got this set up. We washed bins this morning and we’re just starting to get back into root season down here. So we’ve been running turnips through here, a bunch of radishes. I really enjoy it ’cause it’s like… Well, before this we were hand washing all of our bins. So it probably cut our bin washing time down to a fifth or a sixth of what it had been previously. And then we also, on a harvest day, it’s like I wash and sanitize it once, run all the produce through it, drain it, rinse some of that extra mud out and then run all the bins through and sanitize them and it just like it’s a dream. It’s really awesome.
I mean, there are still some features that we haven’t utilized. We’ve got the sanitizer injector and we’ve got the pump over there that we just haven’t set up or worked out. And there are things that we haven’t run through yet that we’ll have to kind of figure out or dial in, but it seems it’s pretty straightforward as long as the high pressure is getting enough water. Which it normally does. If I’m trying to wash bands and we’re trying to water two blocks, then we’ll start to have issues. But I think the high pressure is 14 gallons a minute or 12 or 14 gallons a minute. We’ve got all of our food surface cleaning stuff up on to the left of the door, and that long blue handle brush is really great for this thing. I can just…
Andy Chamberlin (14:19):
[inaudible 00:14:19] brush.
Russell Honderd (14:18):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And get all up in there. I can get all the top of this and then I’ll lift it up and get all the bottom, which is the surface that would be on top. So there’s still roots or leaf debris or stuff that gets stuck in there. We also are using three inch lay flat to move water around, and we are kind of artificially cutting off the flow to prevent water hammer from blowing out our lines.
Monica Ponce (14:47):
Yeah, I think we bought this after we designed this space, so it was kind of like, how is this fitting in the puzzle? Yeah,
Russell Honderd (14:55):
Well, and that’s where having wheels on tables fits in. We can push, if everything was on wheels, it’d be easy to push everything to the side and make plenty of room if we’re doing a big soup potato harvest and have to run everything through the AZS.
But it’s also, I mean, I think it works really well where it is out here. This is our root washing area anyways, and that’s what we’re using this for. I think it’s a flexible space that it has a lot of options, which is what we were hoping for. And it’s like it’s working.
Sweet potatoes, we’re harvesting next week, and so that’s going to be the first real test. And our tentative plan is to see whether things really need to be pre-washed. One thing that’ll happen with this, especially when washing bins or after washing roots is the water and the reservoir just gets so muddy that it’s just washing everything with muddy water and then your bins come out and they dry with a dust coating on them. So being able to get a lot of that stuff out first before it goes into water that’s being recirculated, I think is going to be a big help.
Monica Ponce (16:05):
Yeah, Demetrius said a minute ago too, just all the runoff, we don’t have gravel yet, and then we put two inch lay flat on the…
Russell Honderd (16:16):
Monica Ponce (16:18):
The overflow to go towards the drainage ditch. But yeah, we-
Russell Honderd (16:21):
That that’s helped a lot as long as it doesn’t get kinked, as long as it’s working. So when we were getting this permitted, if we were to put a hand washing sink in here, they said we’d have to take it to septic. So instead of doing that, we’re washing our hands on the outside off a spigot, which isn’t a whole lot of water. This is a whole lot of water. And you can see that was from, I turned the well on this morning and some of these spigots were open and it’s still wet out there, so we just can’t… Initially, I think one of the ideas was this would be the main load-in area. This is where produce would come off and that way it would either be going right there to the root washing or right in there to the wash tubs. This area just stays so wet. And we also don’t have well established drive lanes coming from here that everything is coming through here, coming through the main big doors.
But again, this just stays so wet that it can be hard to get vehicles if all the AZS water is draining out there. So I’m talking about a large French drain that would just sit right here, hopefully catch the drip too. We don’t have gutters on the building, so it catch the drip from there and just move it all down. There’s an established drainage right along that windbreak and it takes it down to the creek formed by the spillway. So I’m still really excited to be in here and not the carport, and it still doesn’t feel totally complete. So there’s still stuff that I want to work on in here. One thing, working on the drainage for these wash tubs, the center drain that we have isn’t big enough to… If we just open it all the way, it’s not big enough to manage all that water.
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s… I don’t know. I mean it’s working really well for what we’re doing now, and I think it’s a little bit more than what we need right now, but also we’re going to be getting bigger. So I think it’s probably a good size. And again, just the flexibility of the space has been really beneficial and I think is something that we’re going to appreciate later on.
We got these bins based on, I think some suggestion of Billy’s, which is like we were using a bin in the bin system for field harvest, and then we got a second style of bin that we got for free. So that was like, it was hard to say no to that. We got more of the shallow bins because they are easy. A lot of the stuff that we pick into shallow bins, we can then store in those bins as well. So we have a mix of bins that are kind of just for harvest and bins that we harvest and store in, and then some bins that are just for storage as well.
Monica Ponce (19:28):
It’s also great to show it off to y’all since y’all helped us figure out all the questions, all the whole design. So thank you for coming and seeing what we built. And for all your help.
Russell Honderd (19:46):
Some of the improvements that we’re going to do is cut a hose that we’ll just feed this so we don’t have this big pile here. And then we also have this windup hose over here that’s on the floor that we’re going to mount up here, so that we just… And that’s what we’ll use in here for rinsing and washing.
This is our hand washing station.
Andy Chamberlin (20:09):
Russell Honderd (20:09):
Got soap mount-
Andy Chamberlin (20:14):
Can I take a picture of that?
Russell Honderd (20:14):
Andy Chamberlin (20:15):
That is [inaudible 00:20:15] and I like it.
Russell Honderd (20:15):
Oh yeah, this is pulp. The four Ps drive Georgia agriculture: peanuts, poultry, pulp and pecans. Peaches aren’t part of it. That’s the trick. Yeah, that’s the trick. That’s the curve-ball.
So Monica and I got out here and started in 2021, May of… A little bit before May of 2021?
Monica Ponce (20:45):
Russell Honderd (20:46):
And we set up this high tunnel first. We call it our propagation house. It’s unheated. Now we’re using it a lot for microgreens, seeding out, media storage, fertilizer storage, that type of thing. And then this, starting in January-ish, we built these greenhouses. Our two bay greenhouses, they’re 72 by 56. We just got the gas hooked up two days ago, three days ago.
But we grow all of our transplants. We also have two plant sales, a fall plant sale and a spring plant sale that we grow all the transplants out for in here. And there was a greenhouse company banner based in North Carolina that did a lot of organic transplant production for farmers in the area. They were bought by Bonnie’s a year ago or two years ago. And ever since then, growers have been getting orders canceled last minute, just not coming through. They cut the variety selection, all this stuff. So this fall we did our first foray into wholesale transplants to other growers. Rahul being one of them. And it worked out really well. I think if we fill up one house, one bay, it’s about $9,000 worth…what?
Monica Ponce (21:21):
It was like 10.
Russell Honderd (22:17):
$10,000 worth of plants. So it’s like one year would pay for a new bay as long as the demand is there, so.
Monica Ponce (22:27):
I’m doing most of the seeding on a vacuum seeder, so that makes it go by a lot quicker.
Russell Honderd (22:33):
Yeah, we’re waiting. We installed overhead irrigation in the greenhouse this summer. But again, we’re just, all of our water moving out in the fields is all being done with lay flat on the surface. And so we get blowouts. The water also heats up in there, and so it takes 20 minutes of bleeding lines before you get cold water to water transplants. So we kind got to wait until we get buried irrigation to run the-
Monica Ponce (22:33):
Russell Honderd (23:02):
Y’all need to bury it to keep it from…
Monica Ponce (23:04):
Wow. I’m like trying not to burn brassicas with piping hot water.
Russell Honderd (23:11):
Yeah. But we’re hoping the NRCS has come out and they’re helping us figure out what programs will work for us and they’re going to help us get permanent irrigation lines in. So that’ll be a big boost once we get there.
Andy Chamberlin (23:28):
Where are these houses from?
Russell Honderd (23:31):
Atlas Greenhouse or Atlas Manufacturing, which is down in South Georgia at [inaudible 00:23:37].
Monica Ponce (23:42):
Russell Honderd (23:44):
I think most of the folks we talk to get their structures from them. We looked into Remmel and Farm Tech and Nifty Hoops and all those folks, and it’s just coming from up north. That doesn’t make sense.
Monica Ponce (23:59):
Yeah.We were using a blue leaf flat, which we thought was enough durability for the pressure we had, but it turns out it wasn’t.
Russell Honderd (24:10):
It’s enough. There’s the blue and the red, and the blue handles up to 80 PSI. And we were like, “Oh, that’s plenty.” Our wells running at 60 PSI. And what we didn’t factor in was water hammer.
Monica Ponce (24:25):
Russell Honderd (24:25):
So whenever we turned that on or whenever we drove over with the tractor, we would get… Yeah.
Monica Ponce (24:31):
And so Ellen [inaudible 00:24:33], we hired her as a consultant and she recommended the iron sides. So we spent a bunch of money just chucking all the blue stuff out and replacing it all with iron sides. And-
Andy Chamberlin (24:45):
Is that the red stuff?
Monica Ponce (24:46):
Mm-hmm. Yeah. There’s some lines of it right here.
Andy Chamberlin (24:50):
We’ve now migrated away from the pack shed, past the greenhouse and towards the field where the conversation pivots a little bit and starts to talk about some of the equipment.
Russell Honderd (25:00):
This is our brand new tractor. We got this in a week ago-
Monica Ponce (25:00):
Russell Honderd (25:05):
…two weeks ago.
Andy Chamberlin (25:06):
[inaudible 00:25:06] plastic on the seats.
Russell Honderd (25:07):
Yeah, just trying to keep it clean for as long as possible. What we’ve got going over here is we’ve got six, five and a half acres open here, and then another half acre up front, which we’ve been managing with a 70 horsepower tractor. And that was sufficient for this space. But we’ve also are leasing another 27 acres about a quarter mile down the road. So if you’ve got this six acres open now, we’ll have an additional seven open by the end of next year, possibly as early as next spring. And we were just like with the windows we had available to us to do tractor work, it was just not enough tractor. And so we went a little bit bigger so we can go a little bit faster. And then also they’re actually pretty comparable in terms of we can do everything with this tractor that we can do with our smaller tractor, except this doesn’t have a creeper gear. So we don’t have a front end loader on this and we can’t pull the transplanter. But everything else, they can be interchangeable.
Andy Chamberlin (26:18):
What you can’t see is that I’m admiring a rather large set of disc arrows.
Russell Honderd (26:23):
Yeah, yeah, those are heavy for sure. I brought that down from Tennessee and took it off the trailer with our neighbor’s tractor. And this whole project has been a series of learning experiences. I had a strap that got cut on a sharp piece of the tool and it broke as I was lifting off the trailer and it swung forward and it was just like by chance it stopped before it came to the cab. I was just like…
Andy Chamberlin (27:02):
[inaudible 00:27:02] flash before yours eyes.
Russell Honderd (27:06):
Yeah. And now it does everything we want it to. Now it’s great.
Andy Chamberlin (27:09):
Russell Honderd (27:10):
Monica Ponce (27:11):
Andy Chamberlin (27:11):
It’s here now, it’s down.
The next segment of the show talks about their business structure and how they run this farm as a cooperative model.
Russell Honderd (27:22):
So we incorporated as a cooperative in December, 2020. And the cooperative bought out Joe and Judith to buy the name Love Is Love.
Andy Chamberlin (27:36):
Okay. All right.
Russell Honderd (27:37):
And so we formed as a new business called Love is Love Cooperative Farm. And that has existed in business meetings up until we got this land. And so this land has always been the cooperative.
Andy Chamberlin (27:54):
So the business partners in the cooperative, is there a specialization in terms of crops or parts of the farm?
Monica Ponce (28:04):
Yeah. So there’s five of us and the cooperative part is we’re all worker owners and share equal stakes in the business. And we did kind of identify managerial roles that a farm would need and then who could fill those roles while still working collaboratively. So we basically just… I think there’s two managers per every big bucket or role or manager. So Joe and Judith are like the sales team. Joe and Demetrius are the harvest team. Demetrius and Russell are the field team. You and I are the wash pack team, but it’s mostly you. And then Joe and I are greenhouse team. But one person just has kind of naturally taken the lead on any one of those. But it’s nice to have a-
Russell Honderd (28:58):
Monica Ponce (28:58):
…companion. Yeah, to just bounce ideas off of or just when you need more support or…
Russell Honderd (29:05):
If that person is, one of the reasons we wanted to form as a worker owned cooperative was so that we could maintain or try to maintain some quality of life, where the farmers don’t get if it’s just one or two folks running a farm or managing a farm. And so having that kind of dual manager also means that if one person is gone, everyone knows who to go to ask questions or for instruction-
Andy Chamberlin (29:33):
Stop in its tracks.
Monica Ponce (29:33):
Russell Honderd (29:34):
Andy Chamberlin (29:35):
And then you have staff beyond the cooperative members?
Monica Ponce (29:40):
Andy Chamberlin (29:40):
Are they also sharing equity at all?
Monica Ponce (29:46):
No, we do have plans to start onboarding new worker owners in 2025. We need to write that process down. There’s a lot of ideas floating around in the air, but we do want to be able to offer farmers who were like us, like assistant managers or the field manager or whatever at whatever farm to be able to buy in and have equity in the farm and kind of like…
Russell Honderd (30:13):
We’re technically registered as a C corp. We’re organized as a worker owned cooperative.
Monica Ponce (30:17):
Yeah. Our bylaws are cooperative. Yeah.
Russell Honderd (30:21):
In our bylaws we have three criteria for new worker owners. One is a thousand dollars buy-in. One is two years of farming here, two years working with the co-op. And then third is fulfilling requirements set by the board.
Andy Chamberlin (30:46):
Other duties [inaudible 00:30:48].
Russell Honderd (30:46):
Monica Ponce (30:51):
Russell Honderd (30:51):
So we have a little bit of a grace period before any of our employees could say, “Hey, I want to be a worker owner. What do I need to do?”
Andy Chamberlin (30:59):
That’s two years of paid work?
Monica Ponce (31:01):
Russell Honderd (31:01):
Andy Chamberlin (31:02):
Russell Honderd (31:02):
I mean we didn’t specify whether it was two full-time equivalency, if it’s-
Andy Chamberlin (31:08):
I’m an incorporation of bylaw geek.
Russell Honderd (31:10):
Monica Ponce (31:12):
These are great questions for us to…
Andy Chamberlin (31:14):
I won’t ask you about your buyout [inaudible 00:31:16].
Monica Ponce (31:19):
There’s that too.
Russell Honderd (31:19):
These are all really important questions and questions that we’re still working on.
Andy Chamberlin (31:23):
What you’re doing is brave.
Russell Honderd (31:25):
So we got this land through Krisztian, the Conservation Fund. And we have an agreement with them that we can purchase the land after five years. They’ll put an easement on it just before we purchase it to drop the purchase price. But what that also means is that it’ll always be a farm. And so having this type of ownership structure where there is built-in continuity in the business, it’s not relying on someone’s kids to carry it on or finding someone who can buy you out, I think makes… We’re hoping it’ll make the future a lot easier and just keep it protected and operating in perpetuity.
Andy Chamberlin (32:14):
How did that seed idea start? Was this just chatting among peers?
Russell Honderd (32:23):
I think we had all kind of talked to the Conservation Fund at different times. And the five of us were all interested in farming. Monica and I had talked a long time about starting our own farm. I think Joe had been working on expanding production and opening up access to new markets, new space in a couple of different capacities. And when the Conservation Fund was really serious about finding land, Joe reached out to Monica and I and was like, “Hey, we’ve got this piece of land that the Conservation Fund thinks they’re going to purchase for us. Would y’all be interested in figuring out some way of doing it together?” And I think we were like, “Yeah, but we want to be owners too.” And so that’s how we came to the idea that a worker-owner cooperative fit with all of our values and would fit with everyone’s needs for starting this. Monica and I have both started different farms, and different farms for different people or different farms that other people ended up taking over, running. And so we were like, if we were going to do this again, it’s going to be our last.
Monica Ponce (33:42):
Russell Honderd (33:43):
At least for a while.
Monica Ponce (33:45):
Russell Honderd (33:47):
One of our good friends, Matthew Bagshaw, worked at the Intervale for a while. And then we also had a lot of great resources here. There’s the Center for Cooperative Development, which is a nonprofit based in Atlanta that helped us out a lot. They were a great resource. And Roland Hall was our lawyer who helped set us up, and he had done a lot of work with… He was like the cooperative lawyer in Georgia, the only one. We all collect a base salary and then we hope to get to a point soon where we’ll also get… Yeah there’s patronage.
Monica Ponce (34:26):
Patronage, yes, patronage.
Russell Honderd (34:29):
So yeah, the profits, as the board we’ll decide how the profits are divided. And 50% of the profits go back into the business, the other 50% get distributed based on hours-
Monica Ponce (34:41):
Russell Honderd (34:42):
Yeah patronage hours, and then-
Monica Ponce (34:44):
And then even then, some of that money goes into your individual capital account that the business can use. But yes, and then in five years we can start paying out our individual capital accounts or we can just-
Russell Honderd (35:03):
Yeah, I mean that part is an accounting thing-
Monica Ponce (35:06):
Russell Honderd (35:06):
…where you don’t have to pay taxes on it, but the business can use it for investment and you don’t have to pay taxes on it until it’s actually distributed back to the member or something like that.
But yeah, I mean what it’s really doing is we have to, we can’t be farmers who are relying on selling the farm to retire.
Monica Ponce (35:32):
Russell Honderd (35:32):
We have to focus on building a profitable business in order to retire. Or building skills that we can market profitably later on.
Andy Chamberlin (35:43):
And recruiting replacement owner members, right?
Monica Ponce (35:43):
Russell Honderd (35:48):
Mm-hmm. Exactly. Well, I mean not necessarily too. We could decide that we don’t want to take on any more worker owners and say, actually the board has decided to liquidate all of our assets and cash out and then distribute that if we wanted to, but.
Andy Chamberlin (36:05):
Would have to be a group decision.
Monica Ponce (36:07):
Russell Honderd (36:07):
Yeah, exactly. We’d reach consensus.
Monica Ponce (36:10):
Russell Honderd (36:10):
We do all of our decision making, big decisions are made on an amended consensus model, which was brought over, borrowed from the housing cooperative that Joe [inaudible 00:36:24]. We have a lot of discussions about what we’ll do year five and beyond, but at this point they’re really… We’ve talked about potentially having a space to develop for worker owner housing or kind of like a dense little community similar to what’s at East Lake.
Monica Ponce (36:41):
Or short-term rentals. Things to add…
Andy Chamberlin (36:44):
Russell Honderd (36:47):
So we came from the rural countryside, we’re moving towards Atlanta. And if you kept going that way… Well we have, our other parcel is just up the street a little bit… And that is actually bordered by a old railroad [inaudible 00:37:03] that’s been converted into a bike path. And that bike path goes into Covington, which is the big town around here. And it will eventually tie into Stone Mountain and Pinola Mountain bike paths which go into Atlanta. So we see there being a real big potential for tourism and agritourism out here, especially as that gets developed. And trying to pull bike tourists who have expensive bikes and money to burn. Yeah, we’ll definitely have to get the pigs going, because those cyclists need more calories than just veggies.
One of the things the Conservation Fund talked about in terms of getting farms started out here is they really wanted to focus on a three county area. Because studies have shown that having three similar scaled organic farms in a county has increased the success rate of all of those farms. And so Rahul just got 200 acres and he’s 30 minutes from here. And just thinking through the challenges that we’ve had, the challenges we’ve overcome, one of the biggest successes I think that we’ve had was our fundraise, which we did using a local… What’s it called? Georgia’s Investment Exemption or something.
Andy Chamberlin (38:30):
And what’s the experience for the investors?
Russell Honderd (38:33):
It’s essentially like selling a bond, I think. Where we sold, we had thousand dollars shares and an investor buys a share and we say… What we told them was, we’ll shoot for 3% return annually on your investment, the first three years you should expect a 1% return in farm credit. And then we’ll work from there. And that our plan is to start buying them back in year 10. We kind of laid out a plan or an outline for how we would try to buy them back. And so we raised close to $850,000 raising money that way. And it’s opened up a lot of access to equipment that has really been the difference between being able to go from zero to six acres in a year with a small labor, like actual labor input.
But also we have all these great tools that we’re only going to be using a couple times a year, like the potato digger, or we’re about to get a used no-till drill delivered hopefully beginning of next week. But having all these farms being developed and moving in close by, it gives us a real opportunity to help out with some type of cooperative tool bank or something like that, which is also something that we’ve talked vaguely about. But we’re all, I don’t know, we’re all about cooperation, whether it’s in a formal cooperative or just helping each other out.
Monica Ponce (40:10):
Yeah. Judith sent a podcast about how Ben and Jerry’s had a similar buy-in model. Instead of going public, they went public to their community and asked community members to buy-in when they wanted to expand.
Andy Chamberlin (40:25):
Georgia [inaudible 00:40:26].
Monica Ponce (40:25):
Listening to the podcast, it was like, this is exactly what we’re doing! Yeah.
Russell Honderd (40:29):
The first share that was purchased was someone who heard about us through Instagram and dropped a giant check off. A literal… like a gigantic-
Andy Chamberlin (40:43):
Russell Honderd (40:44):
Which is why we wanted to keep it. I think if anyone, in terms of the brand recognition in Atlanta, it’s the farm. I think the only one that… Crystal Organic, which is down the road, and I’ve heard them claim that they’re the oldest certified organic farm in Georgia or longest certified organic farm in Georgia. But I think if anyone in Atlanta knows anything about the local farm scene, they know Love is Love, for sure.
And Joe and Judith have done an incredible job of supporting the broader community and working in different capacities outside of just farming that have supported a lot of other farmers and food access and stuff like that. So they’ve brought a lot to the table and moved the broader community forward in a lot of great ways as well. And the Conservation Fund chose Metro Atlanta because we are losing farmland to development at a faster rate than anywhere else in the US. And case in point, when we finally settled on this land, they were like, “Well, it might be too expensive.” It was like 12 or $14,000 per acre. And they were like, “It’s a little bit on the expense of end, but we need to put y’all on some land. Y’all are first farmers. We need a win. We need to buy this.” And six months later, there’s a bunch of farmland heading up towards 20 that have for sale signs on them, and those are now $20,000 an acre.
And just over the course of the year, Facebook data centers being built, the big Rivian manufacturing plant was announced and is going in just north of 20 from us. All of these development things are moving forward and happening, so it’s like we got in just under the wire and the thing that the Conservation Fund is working to prevent is very much happening at a really rapid pace out here.
Andy Chamberlin (42:54):
While Russell was talking, we could tell that it seemed like him and the other locals in the area weren’t a fan of this development, so we asked him to elaborate just a little bit more.
Russell Honderd (43:04):
No, I mean, I think there’s probably a lot of different reasons, and some of them are probably weird and some of them are probably good. But I think by and large folks who are living out here moved out here so that they could have 10 acre tracks with their McMansions and play farm and having this plant come in that’s going to bring in, I don’t know, 30,000 jobs or something like that, 20,000 jobs, is going to turn it into a suburb. And everyone is pissed. Rivian is getting the largest tax break in Georgia history. I think it’s like a $3 billion tax break. And all the infrastructure that it’s going to require is not going to be covered by the tax break for accommodating all those new people and all that new infrastructure. But I think it’s one of those things that the gov, it’s really unpopular in this area, but the governor is like, “Look at all the jobs I’ve created.” So outside of this area, I think it’s a real feather in his cap for a lot of folks.
This is Highway 11 and it goes up to 20 and then down to Jackson Lake. And so there’s a significant amount or pretty constant traffic down this highway. And our fall plant sale we had… Our markets are in Atlanta. We’re trying to get more folks, local folks out to the farm, purchasing our food, that type of thing. But our markets and where we’re known is Atlanta, and so we have this plant sale that’s out here now. And so trying to get folks from Atlanta out here is just a different task in and of itself. But we were having people, as we were packing up and breaking down the plant sale, people were still coming in and stopping just because they saw the signs. And so again, our markets in Atlanta, that’s where we’ve developed, that’s where we anticipate our sales coming from. We really want to offer what we’re doing to the folks around us. And it seems like there’s a lot of support and a lot of interest in it. It’s just kind of like… I don’t know. It seems like it’s all done by word of mouth, drive by signs or Nextdoor and Facebook.
Yeah, I mean, when we came out here, this was pasture with pines between that size and maybe 50% taller than that sporadically growing throughout there. We didn’t have a well or anything. It was the house that had a foundation that was caving in. There was a collapsed barn over here. It was just about as close to zero as you could get without having to clear a forest.
Monica Ponce (46:02):
But the soil was good.
Russell Honderd (46:04):
Monica Ponce (46:05):
The previous owner bought it during the housing crisis or whatever, and just rented the house and would have this mowed once or twice a year. Didn’t even lease it for hay or nothing. I think our neighbors told us that some tenants had goats or something and a little garden and stuff. But other than that, nobody did anything to the soil or sprayed it. So we were able to get certified as soon as we could. And the soil probe in certain areas just went all the way down to the handles.
Andy Chamberlin (46:40):
Monica Ponce (46:40):
Yeah. Yeah. Field A.
Russell Honderd (46:44):
We can go out and look. Some of our fields, you can see there’s a line cutting across the field where it goes from heavier clay soil to just more sandy silt.
Monica Ponce (46:55):
The soil probably went in a little shallower up on the hill, but.
Russell Honderd (46:57):
Yeah. Yeah, that edge down there is just dark, dark. Certainly for Georgia, it’s no muck soil, but.
Monica Ponce (47:07):
Yeah. And then we’re building our high tunnels. You can see the ground posts up on the horizon. Yeah. We also have a winter CSA, so that’ll be nice to have all those greens coming out of those tunnels.
Russell Honderd (47:21):
A lot of folks down here will put shade cloth on them and grow peppers. Peppers do a lot better under shade in the tunnels, and folks will get lettuce and carrots further into the summer using shade and overhead in tunnels. So just whatever y’all do in Vermont, think the opposite and that’s what we use it for.
Have y’all seen a Oggun?
Andy Chamberlin (47:47):
That one’s an Oggun?
Russell Honderd (47:48):
This is the Oggun, too. Yeah. I really like it.
Andy Chamberlin (47:52):
Russell Honderd (47:53):
No, I do. I really like it, but it also isn’t like… There’s definitely a learning curve to this that there isn’t to other tractors. It doesn’t come with a manual. So yeah, I don’t know. It’s pretty sweet. They make them in Alabama. Painted Rock, which is like five or six hours away. Do y’all know the story behind it? So it was designed as a tractor that could be exported specifically to Cuba. It was designed with Cuba in mind when those relations were warming a little bit. And it’s built all out of stock steel parts. So you can buy the plans for $2,000, go source all the steel yourself and assemble it. You can buy a kit for, when we were looking at it was like $14,000 and then they send you the plans to assemble it yourself. Or you can buy an assembled one for $16,000. I think now it’s like 20 or 18 or $20,000. But it’s all hydraulic driven, so it’s got zero turn capability, which is really awesome for mounting belly mounted implements. You can just turn on and off of them.
But yeah, I mean, it’s what we use for seeding. We’re still figuring out the cultivating side of things, just dialing it in. Dialing in the different tools and toolbars that we had. But it’s all, the kind of philosophy behind it is all open source. It’s basically going in the opposite direction of John Deere. Yeah, it’s been really sweet. We thought a lot about whether we would buy this or the Tilmor tractor and the Tilmor was $8,000 more. This has a little bit more clearance. And so we ended up going with this. I think Tilmor probably has a little bit better customer service. I’ve really loved it. It’s like driving a go-kart.
I was told they’re working with some ag engineering students in Michigan State to develop a solar kit for it.
Andy Chamberlin (50:00):
Russell Honderd (50:01):
So we were trying to decide, I think climate change and impending climate disaster is on all of our minds. And so thinking about how we would run this farm as our access to oil lessens and there are more disruptions to this global supply chain, how can we power this farm and run this farm without petroleum is something that we’ve been thinking about. And we almost got a diesel engine for it. But then the guy was like, “There’ll be a solar kit in a year and a half that y’all can buy for the same price as upgrading to the diesel engine.” So I think we’ll probably end up just doing that, which will be nice ’cause this thing is loud as hell.
But yeah, this is just for cultivating. You can get a PTO kit, you get an extra hydraulic tank PTO kit, and that’s, I think, 1400 bucks extra. And we’ve thought about it. The only place that we might use it would be once we get our tunnels up, but we’d also then be buying a whole new suite of equipment to run it. And we haven’t really fleshed that out a whole lot, but I imagine we’ll probably go with a walk behind tractor for the tunnels or something kind of smaller. It’s definitely a tractor that’s pushed me to be more mechanically minded. I really want to learn how to weld now, which is probably something that every farmer should know how to do anyways. For someone who is into tinkering or someone who likes to build their own tools is already doing that, this is a great cultivating tractor. It’s very affordable.
Andy Chamberlin (51:46):
He mentioned tinkering and not everybody is a tinkerer, so I asked what kind of tinkering does this tractor require?
Russell Honderd (51:54):
It runs great. The engine runs great. It moves great. Just in terms of, there are a few things that are a little bit… So this is a category zero hitch, so just kind of like… Yeah, some of these top links and stuff, if I could cut them in half and weld them back together, shorten them some, it would just get better angles on stuff.
What we have been doing, we have another toolbar just like this, so we have a second bar on that we bought Tinder hoe knives for. But the issue that we’re running into is that that second bar, all the pressure, all the stress is put right here, and that second bar keeps breaking this weld. So we’re going to weld another piece that comes from here to here to try to share some of that… We’ve struggled to find other farmers in our area who… It seems like the south or the southeast is in the midst of this kind of broad scale up from farms that have been one or two acres, two wheel tractor managed market garden. And now we’re seeing folks around us really start to get into the 5, 6, 10, 15 acre range and using these tools.
Monica farmed at Rogers Greens and Roots, which is kind of the big… When they started, when Ashley started that farm, it was a big deal ’cause it was a big farm for the Atlanta farmer’s market scene. And I think she started out at six or eight acres, and so she was starting to implement that stuff. But all of these tools are tools we’re buying from folks in Pennsylvania or Minnesota. And when we talk about the soils that we’re working with, they either say they don’t know or they just say it doesn’t work. Not because they know it doesn’t work, but just because they haven’t seen it work in this type of stuff. And so it feels, I mean, I know this isn’t totally true, but it does feel like we are learning a lot of this on our own just through trial and error.
And that’s one of the reasons why having such a successful fundraise has been such a game changer. We can actually afford to make some mistakes or buy it, take time to learn whether or not this tool works for us. We don’t have to make sure that it’s paying for itself right away. And with five worker owners, we’re also able to say, “Hey, I’m going to take six hours of this day to set this tool up and dial it in and figure out how it works while y’all go plant the stuff that needs to be planted.”
Yeah, there’ve been so many moments where we’re like, “Oh, we got to go weed this or hoe this,” and it’s like we’ve waited so long or we haven’t gotten that tool set up, so we just got to go do it by hand. It’s like, I know it feels like it takes a long time to get this thing started, but once it’s there, it’ll save so much time. And taking that first step is always the hardest. But again, to know that the stuff that needs to get done is getting done while the stuff that’s going to move you forward is getting the attention that it needs.
Andy Chamberlin (55:41):
We got to get back in the sun.
Russell Honderd (55:42):
There is a really great research professor up at UGA right now. His name is Tim Coolong, and he’s helped us out a lot. Whenever we talk to him, he’s like, “Oh man, they got me doing all this industrial hemp stuff right now. I really don’t… I want to be doing something else, blah, blah.” But that’s what I think one of his research partners is going to be doing a research project with us next fall regarding using no-till cover crops to convert Bermuda pasture into vegetable production. Cassie Duffy?
Andy Chamberlin (56:19):
Russell Honderd (56:20):
I was like, “You’re paying us for this, right?”
Andy Chamberlin (56:24):
Trying to get anything.
Russell Honderd (56:27):
It’s so wild. I remember years ago, the soil and water conservation districts, going to one of their demonstrations and they showed, they were like… They had their four different soils that were treated, managed in different ways, and they had their Bermuda grass pasture. They had a bare tilled soil, they had a cover crop soil. And then they put a bunch of water on top and show you how much percolates, how much runs off. And the Bermuda grass pasture had the worst. It was worse than a conventionally tilled field.
Andy Chamberlin (57:01):
Russell Honderd (57:02):
Yeah. And it’s because the roots are so shallow and there’s so much compact… People do that for horses or for hay production, so there’s so much compaction, there’s nothing breaking it up. And so a lot of those different districts around the state rent out no-till drills and things like that. But it’s one of those things where we know it’s bad for the soil and bad for the ecosystem, but most people are still being told it’s the best thing to plant. And then the other half of government officials or government programs are being like, “No, do something else.”
Andy Chamberlin (57:52):
I am Andy Chamberlin, and that was the Farmer’s Share. I hope you enjoyed this episode with Russell and Monica at Love Is Love Cooperative Farm. Be sure to check out and subscribe to our YouTube channel to see the walk around video of the Oggun tractor or clips from other episodes. The Farmer’s Shares on Instagram, so please give that page a follow. And you can visit thefarmersshare.com to check out more episodes and interviews. If you enter your email on the website, you’ll receive the photos and links right into your inbox when the next episode comes out.
If you’re loving the show, I’d love it if you could give me a five star review. In Apple podcast, just click on the show, scroll down to the bottom, and there you can leave a comment and a review to help encourage new listeners to tune in. This podcast is supported by the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association and the Ag Engineering program of the University of Vermont Extension. If you enjoy the show and want to support its programming, you can make a donation on our website by visiting the farmersshare.com/support. Thanks for listening.