Adapting to Change When Change is Necessary
Phillip Jennings grows a wide variety of produce, including black Spanish radishes, Swiss chard, microgreens, onions, carrots, squash, beets, lettuce, eggplant and more.
Photos by Chris E. Marsh.
Phillip Jennings lives and farms in Treutlen County, Ga., about 5 miles south of I-16, which goes from Savannah to Macon, where it connects with I-75 and goes on to Atlanta. After graduating from the University of Georgia with a degree in agriculture, Jennings returned to Soperton to live.
He has been a turf producer for several years. Phillip Jennings Turf Farms, founded in 1998, provides turfgrass for golf courses, residential lawns and athletic fields. He markets to most of Georgia and several surrounding states, as well as offering international export of turfgrass. He also patented three turfgrass varieties and provided turf for Super Bowls in Miami and Jacksonville. However, the recent financial crisis necessitated a change in his plans.
After researching his options, Jennings decided to try growing nutrient-dense vegetables. The plan was to sell them to grocery stores and high-end restaurants, as well as at farmers' markets. If he had enough volume, he would also sell to wholesalers.
Jennings developed a proprietary growing medium with a base of bark and soil with worm castings added. This is the soil medium he uses in one of his 150-by-50-foot climate-controlled greenhouses. He grows at least 13 lettuce varieties, giving him the option to have heads of lettuce or bags of mixed greens. Lettuce varieties include romaine, bibb, butterhead, Summer Crisp, oak leaf, leaf lettuce, and some leaf lettuce blends he gets by planting several types of lettuce seeds in the same row.
Around 12,000 plants can be grown at once in these aeroponic towers, versus about 5,000 in a conventional greenhouse.
He also grows purple, Genovese and lemon basil. Other herbs include sorrel, cilantro, oregano, fennel and rosemary. Kale, Swiss chard and strawberries are grown in greenhouses and in the field. Jennings' son, Phil, noted that they experiment with new crops, learning how to grow them and determining if there is a market.
Another greenhouse features aeroponic Tower Gardens by Future Growing (http://www.futuregrowing.com). Currently, these units are used to grow lettuce, which is much easier to harvest because the plants are closer together.
Around 12,000 plants can be grown at once in the aeroponic towers, versus about 5,000 in a conventional greenhouse. With this system, small plants are placed in the holes on the sides of the towers. A fertilizer mixture is placed in the tanks and pumped to the top, then showers back down through the holes to provide the nutrients necessary for plant growth and maturation. The fertilizer includes calcium nitrate, a trace element mix and potassium sulfate, with water acting as the carrier. If the pH gets too high, Jennings uses a proprietary solution to correct it. Through the use of greenhouses and the aeroponic system, Jennings can speed up production and avoid certain environmental risks associated with growing outside, such as adverse weather - especially drought and heat.
Microgreens are grown in conventional plastic trays or hydroponic trays on tables. Once the microgreens are planted, they are ready to be cut in seven to 10 days. These nutrient-dense greens are popular with many chefs.
The majority of greens are grown in a highly enriched soil that has been composted.
Tomatoes are grown in a raised bed system in a traditional hoophouse. It is heated in the winter, but there is no mechanism for cooling during the summer months. Heat is mitigated in a variety of ways, including exhaust fans and shade materials that diffuse and reflect sunlight. The sides on the house can be dropped to increase air movement. The raised beds are irrigated by a drip system, and natural fertilizers are added as needed. The Brix level of the tomatoes is measured on a regular basis.
The tomatoes are trained to grow vertically, using a spool and hook system. The tomato crop consists of a beefsteak variety, a cluster variety and Roma-type tomatoes.
Field-grown vegetables include:
- 7 acres of sweet potatoes
- 1 acre of purple sweet potatoes
- 0.5 acre of white sweet potatoes
- 1 acre of black Spanish radishes and red, white, pink and purple radishes
- 2 acres of beets
- 1 acre of lettuce
- 5 acres of Indian corn
- 1 acre of eggplants
- 3 acres of string beans
- 3 acres of cucumbers
- 5 acres of squash
- 5 acres of zucchini
- 4 acres of orange, purple and yellow carrots
- 8 acres of Vidalia onions
- 0.5 acre of red onions
In addition, Jennings has patented a Satsuma-type orange that grows well in east-central Georgia. Due to the latitude and inland location, this area has colder winters, ice and snow more often than areas on the coast, so apparently Jennings has developed some cold tolerance in his new orange. The Satsuma orange tree, which can tolerate some cold, is grown in Louisiana and on some of the islands around Hilton Head, S.C.
Fortunately for Jennings, who still has 550 to 600 acres of turf on the same property as his vegetable operation, some of the equipment he uses for his turf farm can also be used for his vegetables. Tractors, trailers, loaders and some tillage equipment are used in both operations.
In order to spread out his risk, Jennings has diversified even further - in geographic areas and in types of crops. In addition to his turf and greenhouse site, he has several farms around Treutlen County where he grows pine trees and miscanthus and other grasses for biofuel.
Jennings is an example of someone who adapts to circumstances he has no control over. He also has an eye to the future. His long-range marketing plan is detailed for each crop and is set up for growth and expansion. As the "know your farmer, know your food" movement grows, many consumers will want food grown close to home.
How long-range is your plan?
Chris E. Marsh, M.Ed., lives in Statesboro, Ga., and has a small farm. He also consults on worksite safety and health matters.