One, 21, has been farming for three years.
The other, 75, has owned a farm that had been in the family for generations.
But both Jacob Pope and Alexander “Sandy” Morehouse have something in common. They both believe that farming is vital, a way of life and a hard way to make a living.
“Farming is not a good business,” Morehouse said. On the day he was interviewed for this story, it was sultry, hot and a storm was brewing. “We’re supposed to be combing (harvesting) wheat. The wind and the rain laid the wheat down making it difficult to combine. If it gets too wet, it gets moldy and can’t be sold.”
Farmers are dependent on the moods of Mother Nature, Pope agreed. “Every farmer knows this: whenever you get an operating loan of $35,000 to a million, you have to rely on Mother Nature. It’s scary, a pretty big hole to jump into.”
But farming, they both agree, is in the blood.
Deep roots in farming
Morehouse is the owner of Burge Plantation in Mansfield. The farm has been in his family since 1809 when Wiley Burge bought a 203-acred tract of land and settled down on the land. He married the daughter of a neighboring land owner, and by the time he died, the farm had expanded to over 280 acres.
His son, Thomas, added even more land to the plantation –approximately 500 acres between 1830 and 1858. By then, the family owned slaves and the plantation was, Morehouse said, most likely growing cotton.
Thomas Burge died in 1858. His widow, Dolly, stayed on the farm through the Civil War, remarrying and moving to Oxford in 1866. Though she continued to manage the farm as an absentee landlord, it became a share cropper and tenant farmer operation. In the 1920s, a descendent of the Burge family, Merritt Morehouse, settled with his wife, Ida, returned to the farm where they lived and farmed until their deaths in the 1950s.
Once more, the farm was put in the hands of managers, where it remains today.
That’s not to say that Morehouse, who was a stockbroker in Atlanta until his retirement 20 years ago, isn’t involved in the day-to-day operation, though he suggests that “at my age, I drive around a lot and buy stuff for the farm.”
What he also does is encourage or suggest ideas that diversify the farm’s production. Over the last few years, Burge farms have introduced an organic garden with a CSA subscriber base; and a chef’s garden which the venue’s Chef Andrew Featherstone uses in meals catered for weddings and private events.
The organic farm, managed by Josh Plymale, supplies a number of restaurants in Atlanta as well as the local and Atlanta-based subscribers who invested in the CSA program. Produce is also sold at Morningside Farmer’s Market and Peachtree Road Farmer’s Market during the season.
Presently, rows of kale, Swiss chard and beets are ripening in the organic garden. Also ripening, or rather curing, are the bulbs of the garlic-leek, or the “Garlington Leak,” as it’s called around the farm in honor of one of Morehouse’s ancestors, Garlington Leak. Found growing around the plantation’s old slave/sharecropper cabins, the garlic-leek produces three organic cash crops in a year: flowers in the spring, leeks in green form, and, finally garlic bulbs.
The garlic-leeks sell for $2 a small bulb, $8 a pound, said Plymale.
Morehouse said a specialty crop like the garlic-leek is how money is made farming. “There are a lot of people growing wheat and soybeans, but the market for the ‘Garlington Leek’ is minute.”
It’s a niche Burge plantation can fill—and is working on filling, he said. “We dug them up and propagated 50 the first year,” Morehouse said. “The next year, we did 200. Now we’re growing between 2,000 and 3,000. We triple our crop every year.
“I can’t find anyone else in Georgia who’s growing them,” Morehouse said. “ If I had my druthers, we’d grow nothing but garlic leeks. The deer won’t eat them.”
Some of the 1,200 acres of farmland is used to grow cash crops, such as wheat, sorghum and hay, which are not organically grown. Pine is grown and harvested for lumber, and sunflowers and millet are used to feed sporting birds.
Morehouse continues to encourage trying different things. For example, a few years ago, an organic orchard was planted, and while it was not as successful as they had hoped, it did produce crops of Asian pears and figs.
“Though the farm has been in my family for over 200 years, you don’t feel like you really own it. It’s a birthright, something to pass on to your children, and you can’t pass on something that’s losing money.”
Morehouse said his three children and nine grandchildren love the farm, and seems confident their love for the property will keep it in the family. He’s already given them most of his shares in the business, but says his goal in life “is to pass on to my three children and nine grandchildren the farm in better shape then I got it in. If it isn’t making money, it will be sold.
“It’s a lot to look after for the 12 people who work here full time,” Morehouse said. “Farming is not an easy way to make a living, but it’s fulfilling.”
Reigniting a family tradition
Up until shortly after his 16th birthday, Pope had no plans to go into farming. No, he wanted to join the military to serve his country.
A few days later, everything changed.
“Ten or 11 days after my 16th birthday, I had a heart attack,” Pope said.
Diagnosed with Myocarditis, a viral infect that gets in the heart muscles and enlarges the heart, weakening the pumping action of the heart.
“If caught in time, your life can be saved,” Pope said. “If not, you die.”
Though he still gets heart flutters, and says his health is better than it has been, the heart attack ended his dreams of joining the military. For the next two years, as he finished school, he thought about his future and what he would do. Living with his mother and grandparents, he had been involved in his grandparents farming operating.
His grandfather, Tom Bally, farmed land around the junction of U.S. Highway 278 and Georgia Highway 11, known as the “hub junction.’ He’d also owned a stockyard at one time.
Pope’s grandmother, Kathy Bally, had also had a vegetable garden, growing corns, squash and tomatoes she sold at a farm stand set up at along the road running by the family home.
“We made enough income to do it every year,” Pope said.
By the time he turned 18, he knew what he wanted to do. “I told my granddaddy I’d like to farm for myself,” he said. Just as his grandfather was getting out of farming, Pope said he “wanted to go bigger.
Farming, he said, was in his blood and he loved doing it. “I realized it was something I could do every day and devote myself to something that will do good for someone else. [It] is the best feeling in the world. It’s connecting with people.
“Agriculture is something everyone should get into it – whether it’s a small garden, or a 10,000 acre farm,” he said.
Pope currently farms 250-acres. Right not, winter wheat is being harvested and will be milled in Barnesville. Soybeans will be planted next. Both crops will be sold to the Cargill plant in Gainesville.
Pope is a row crop farmer, which is a cultivation method that uses sequential planting strategies while maximizing the production yields of the land. Crops are rotated every two years, which helps “fertilize the soil and keeps it from disappearing,” he said.
“We work hard to avoid erosion and keep the soil from washing away,” he said, adding that he consults with the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). That includes planting terraces and using different methods of plowing in certain areas.
It requires knowing the soil, whether it’s deep or shallow, erodible or non-erodible, acidic or alkaline, and which crops grow best in which soil. For example, he said, “soybeans love to put roots deep; wheat likes a lighter soil.”
As a row crop farmer, he says the most stressful thing is planting. “You want the straightest row possible; what you start with, you finish with.”
Rows of crop are planted wide enough apart to allow machinery to till or cultivate plants. Crops are sown by a machine that drills a seed into the ground and covers it.
“It’s a cultivation practice that requires practice so you don’t plow up a row of corn or soy beans,” Pope said. “Being straight helps when it’s time to do weeding and harvesting.”
A licensed applicator, Pope said he keeps detailed records of what pesticides were used on what crops, and when they were applied. That’s true for the herbicides that are applied, as well. “When we spray [herbicides], we make sure it’s on days with little wind so there’s no drift. We take every precaution.”
Family farming can be challenging and intimidating.
“Every farmer knows this: whenever you get an operating loan of $35,000 or a million, you have to rely on Mother Nature,” Pope said. “That’s scary. It’s a pretty big hole to jump into.”
However, for Pope, farming is not a job. “It’s a fun thing to do. You get a lot of pride and joy in farming. A lot of days, you cuss at it; a lot of times you make a lot of money.
“The rest of the time is in-between,” he said. “Farmers keep on growing until something doesn’t work. So far, I have made enough mistakes to realize what not to do.”
He makes enough farming to pay the big bills—seed, fuel, machinery. To pay his monthly bills, however, he works in shipping and material handling at General Mills.
“I really like it out there [at General Mills],” he said. “I like the schedule. It allows me to work and pay the every month bills; the farm pays all the big bills for fuel, seed, fertilizer and machinery.”
At General Mills, Pope fixes the conveyor belts and other equipment that breaks down. It’s experience that translates to farming easily.
“I like working with my hands,” he said. “I like to see something work, to watch it tear up [the ground when planting], but I never seen a piece of farm equipment not break down, even if it’s new.”
There is a sense of satisfaction in watching things grow, he said, in the seasonal nature of farming, in the knowledge that what he does will benefit others. It also keeps him busy.
“Farming takes time,” he said, “but there’s always something to do.”