Aerospace engineer returns home to grow organic vegetables and fruit

PHOTOS BY RON BARNETT
The garlic is off to a good start.

After spending his entire life on a chicken farm in the mountains of northeast Georgia, David Lent had things other than agriculture on his mind when he headed off to college. He earned a degree in electrical engineering at the Letourneau Institute in Longview, Texas, and took a job in aerospace engineering in Colorado, then in Warner Robbins, Ga.

He and his wife, Katrina, were looking for land to do some farming on the side in the Warner Robbins area when his epiphany came.

“The more I looked at it and trying to figure out how to pay for everything and maybe do a little farming on the side, I realized that, you know, you can make a living at farming. I thought, why should we work at a job and try to earn enough money to retire and farm when we get old and have arthritis and whatever else, when we could do it when we’re young.”

That’s what led him back home to the valley just outside Clayton, Ga., where he grew up.

David Lent checks his crop of lettuce, which he’s covering for protection from frost.

Now, in his third season operating Coleman River Farms, a certified organic vegetable and fruit farm, he has found a niche in the farmers’ markets of Atlanta and with a community supported agriculture (CSA) operation.

The cooler climate of Rabun county gives his farm a natural advantage in the Atlanta markets: the ability to grow lettuce well into the summer.

The key to growing the high-quality, high-nutrition produce that has earned him rave reviews from customers is healthy soil, and that means careful attention to cover crops and crop rotation, Lent says.

Rabun County bottoms

One thing that gave Lent an advantage in jumping into the organic farming business was the fact that his parents, who still live on the 100-acre tract, hadn’t used chemicals on the land for years. They got out of the chicken business in the 1990s and used only natural fertilizers, such as chicken manure, on the garden next to a creek at the Eastern Continental Divide. So, Lent was able to meet the 36-month chemical-free requirement to become certified organic right off the bat.

“That was important for some of the people who didn’t know us. We didn’t have an established reputation in farming,” Lent said. “It also got us into a market down in Atlanta that was very nice.”

He has divided his 2-acre vegetable plot into five rotational areas on a three-year rotation.

“That’s the key to handling our soil diseases, trying to keep the pests hopping and moving,” he explained.

Likewise, diversity is the key to success on the business side for a small organic grower, he said.

“We try to grow a wide variety so if one crop doesn’t do so well, another one will,” Lent said. “This last summer our baby lettuce did well, but we had slug problems wipe out some of our head lettuce in the greenhouse in the summertime; but the baby lettuce was able to fill in the void.”

To fight the slugs, Lent raised the height of the growing table and put copper around it. Slugs won’t crawl across copper, he said. “We haven’t had slugs since.”

Variety also helps keep sales at a more consistent level. “If you only sell broccoli or carrots or something you have a limited season, and people can only buy so many carrots,” he noted.

Coleman River Farms grows garlic, carrots, spinach, kale, radishes, lettuce, sorrel, a number of types of greens, mustard, mesclun mix, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, several varieties of tomatoes, peppers (hot and sweet), broccoli, cabbage, squash (scallop squash, straight neck squash, zucchini), corn (sweet corn and field corn for cornmeal, a new addition this year), winter squash (including pumpkins) kohlrabi, beans and peas.

He also has an orchard featuring a wide variety of apples, plus raspberries, strawberries and blackberries.

Virtually all of the food Lent and his family consume comes from their farm.

Learning curve

When Lent decided to start a full-time organic fruit and vegetable farm, the clay loam bottomland that was to become his garden was used as pasture.

“I planted a cover crop and started growing,” he recalled. He uses rye, vetch, peas, beans, buckwheat and oats seasonally as cover crops.

It took some on-the-job training and trial and error to get going in the business.

“Learning what was required to be certified organic was a learning curve,” he said. “One of our main hurdles—and we still struggle with it a little bit—is starting the plants.”

Lent grows everything from seed, except berries and potatoes.

Deciding what soil mix to use was an issue he had to deal with first since all the commercial mixes have wetting agents and chemical fertilizers. He eventually made soil blocks using his own soil mix.

“This year I think we may have finally got a mix that we feel comfortable with that we can produce locally,” he said.

It’s harder work than his engineering job, but Lent enjoys his fruit and vegetable business.

He mixes sand, compost and peat moss, wets it and puts it into a block form, then pops out the form, creating 4-inch and 2-inch blocks.

Lent rarely has trouble with pests and diseases.

“Our main focus is to keep healthy soil and learning what that is and what it entails,” he said.

The main way he does that is by planting cover crops that hold nutrients, take in nitrogen and mine out nutrients that aren’t readily available to other crops. The cover crop also increases organic matter in the soil, which helps hold water in drought, decreases erosion and lowers soil temperature in summertime.

He also uses some composted chicken manure to add nutrients.

However, “it’s not the fertilizers that are feeding your plants necessarily. All the cover crops and fertilizers we put down there are predominantly feeding the life of the soil, which will in turn have a symbiotic relationship with the plant roots,” he explained. “If you don’t have healthy soil, you can’t mine something out of the soil that’s not there. Sometimes, even if it’s there, particularly like potassium, the soil life is what brings it to the plant.”

Using chemical fertilizers tends to kill fungi and bacteria in the soil, leaving a vacuum. Nature “is going to fill it with something and often it will be a nasty fungus or bacteria that you don’t want.”

Day-to-day challenges

Lent uses limited irrigation, mostly when the plants are getting started. During last year’s drought, he used drip tape irrigation, primarily on the lettuce, and some on the beans and squash. “Everything else is going to have to fend for itself,” he said.

He uses water from a spring, and last winter added a slow sand filter that purifies the water of bacteria and viruses to produce “absolute pristine water.”

The biggest insect problem he’s had has been with Mexican bean beetles and flea beetles. Lent puts out a predatory wasp that takes care of some of the insects. That’s the only predator he introduces because it doesn’t overwinter. He releases the wasps as soon as he sees the first Mexican bean beetles.

The rotational schedule keeps cutworms from being a problem, although he does have some tomato hornworms, corn ear- worms, brown worms and Colorado potato beetles. “We have those, but we also have soldier beetles and ladybugs and Asian ladybugs,” which are natural enemies of the worms, he said.

The Colorado potato beetles he mostly handles by hand. “We catch the first ones in the spring before they lay eggs. When potatoes come up we check them and take off the eggs and kill all we can find,” Lent said. “They come back in about four to six weeks, but by that time the plants are well underway to making potatoes, so we might have 5 percent leaf damage to potato beetles.”

Proof in the product

The end product is vitamin-packed vegetables that taste as good as they look.

“Our goal is to balance the nutrients,” Lent explained. “There’s quite a science to that—making sure your calcium and your magnesium, your phosphorus and your sodium and everything is balanced so that it provides the greatest mineral content.”

Vitamins, he said, are present in the plants to help them ward off pests and diseases.

“So we don’t shield our plants from pests and disease because we believe that’s kind of a test of mechanisms and therefore its nutrients,” he said. “A lot of these vitamins will fight off whatever is out there attacking it and it is a reaction to it.”

The nutrient-dense vegetables naturally taste better because they have higher sugar and mineral content, he said.

“When you go into a store and you have organic produce that doesn’t taste that good, it may not be that nutritious as compared to something else,” he noted. “We want people coming back raving about how great those carrots tasted or about how that lettuce was the best they ever had and they didn’t know a yellow squash could taste like that.”

The Lents make sure everything tastes good because they eat what they produce, daily.

Balance of the nutrients is the key, particularly the balance between nitrogen and calcium, and calcium and magnesium, he said.

“If you don’t have adequate calcium the plants are not going to be able to absorb adequate amounts of other nutrients,” he said.

He relies on soil tests to show the balance of nutrients, which he says is more important than the pH reading. “You can have the pH at a perfect level and still have deficiencies in the nutrients, because you may have too much calcium and not enough magnesium or vice versa, or too much potassium,” he said. “That can put your pH at the right level, but you’ll have a deficiency in one of the other three or four nutrients; pH is just kind of like a summary.”

Lent still does some engineering consultant work during the winter, but he and his wife are happy to be living their dream as organic growers.

“It’s not the easiest job, but I find it very fulfilling,” he said. “I enjoy it.”

Ron Barnett is a freelance writer and has been a frequent contributor to Moose River Media over the years. He resides in Easley, S.C., and is always on the lookout for new and interesting stories in the Carolinas, Georgia and east Tennessee.