By MADOLINE MARKHAM
In a valley lies a farm. On its land lives a farmer. From its ground comes sustenance to feed the people who live around it.
This is what you find on Highway 41 near Mt Laurel, but it’s not common outside most urban and suburban landscapes in Alabama, according to Nick Pihakis, the mastermind behind the restaurant empire of Jim ‘N Nick’s.
This year Pihakis is funding the 25-acre Mt Laurel farm, which is owned by Ebsco, to use as a model for small farmers to sell goods to restaurants like his. Ultimately, he hopes this experimental three-acre farm model (only about three acres on the Mt Laurel property are farmed) will help rebuild the agriculture structure in the South so that farmers are guaranteed a buyer for their goods.
“It’s a good deal on both sides,” said Pihakis, a Mt Laurel resident.
For Keith Caton, farm manager at Mt Laurel, a small model farm like this would be a homestead and also sell veggies. There would be a milking cow to make butter, plus chickens to raise for meat and a couple of pigs.
Today, most people farm for the lifestyle, not necessarily because it is sustainable, according to Pihakis. Farmers spend a lot of time driving around to restaurants and farmers markets to sell their goods.
The question is this: What if you could have the lifestyle and make a good living? This combination is normal in an area like San Francisco, but when Pihakis drove around Alabama and Mississippi with a friend a few years ago, they couldn’t find these farmers.
“If we can do that in every state, if you can say, ‘This is what we need and this is what we will pay,’ I think we can put farmers back to work,” Pihakis said.
With this model in Mt Laurel, Pihakis will determine the startup costs of a farm this size.
“We have six restaurants in Atlanta, some in Denver, some in Charleston,” Pihakis said, “but farmers there don’t know that they can sell to us, a restaurant chain.” He hopes to bridge this gap between farmers and restaurant with this model.
When we visited the Mt Laurel farm in mid-June, Caton showed us a harvest of 1,000 pounds of onions, which Pihakis said a restaurant can use up in a week. A field-worth of garlic was hanging up to dry. Near a field of blueberries were 600 tomato plants along with pimiento and serrano peppers. There were also cucumbers, squash, peppers, watermelon and potatoes.
The ultimate goal is for the farm to be sustainable year-round, so Pihakis has made investments this year with this goal in mind.
With a new greenhouse, Caton will be able to grow greens through the winter and plant tomatoes as early as February so they will be ready in April.
“Restaurants love microgreens and arugula,” Caton said.
In December and January, Caton harvested hickory and oak firewood off the farm’s mountain ridge that he sold to the Jim ‘N Nick’s on Highway 280 for smoking pork. In order to do so, Pihakis bought a wood splitter and brought in Rodney Scott, who chops down all the wood he uses to smoke whole hogs at Scott’s Bar-B-Q in Hemmingway, S.C.
Even with this experiment, the farm is still the community teaching farm that the Stephens family, who owns Ebsco, and Jones Valley Teaching Farm, located in downtown Birmingham, created four years ago. Two sections of the property closest to Highway 41 supply their farm stand as well as the Ebsco Cafeteria and Stones Throw Bar & Grill in Mt Laurel. On those sections they grow squash, tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers, and more that area residents can stop by and purchase from a refrigerated case on the honor system.
The farm-fresh eggs from the 200 chickens that live on the back side of the farm are also popular at the farm stand.
The farm stand is usually open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, May to November or until the growing season ends.
On the education front, the farm uses Jones Valley’s “Seed to Plate” program to teach children about nutrition when they visit. Last year, students from Mt Laurel Elementary School participated, as well as groups from the YMCA and Montessori schools.
“Kids get really excited about it and tell their parents,” Pihakis said, explaining how this creates awareness within families.
The next step is what the farm is also trying to accomplish: availability and affordability.
For instance, kids come to the farm and taste the difference between a farm egg and one from the grocery store. Currently farm eggs cost $5 a dozen. However, if they can have 500-600 chickens on a farm, they could bring the price down to a more reasonable $3 a dozen.
Availability, affordability and awareness for families in Birmingham fit within Pihakis’ vision for a profitable small farm. It’s the farm of the past adapted to be the farm of the future.