It’s 4:30 in the morning on a small, 60-acre farm about a mile down a dusty road somewhere between Fairhope and Foley. The sunrise is still more than two hours away, but Stewart Perkins is awake before the cocks crow every Saturday morning, pouring coffee and getting ready for the farmers market. He’s made this journey each week since starting his organic farm nearly 5 years ago, and he’s got the routine down to a science.
His wife, Kelly, helped pack a small refrigerated trailer the night before with cartons of eggs, plastic bins of lettuce and eggplant, and a chest freezer full of ground beef, whole chickens and cottage bacon. Everything filling the 6-foot-by-10-foot trailer was grown and raised — and in some cases, processed — right here on Nature Nine Farms. All Perkins has to do is climb in the small SUV and drive off towards a day of visiting with customers and selling the fruits of his toil.
He calls himself an outgoing introvert; his winning smile and easy conversation with customers belies a man who is happiest working the earth alone or with his wife and two small children by his side. But time spent visiting with customers at both the Palafox and Fairhope farmers markets is an important part of Perkins’ work. An eager crop of educated consumers looking to source healthy, locally grown food makes its way around the market stalls, eyeing the offerings and chatting with farmers. This is how Perkins finds most of his customers, for a chance meeting at a market can result in a lifelong customer who shops seven days a week on his website or via email. These markets are Nature Nine’s lifeline.
Perkins wasn’t always an organic farmer. Not so long ago, he was a man living a fairly conventional life with a nine-to-five insurance job in Mobile, a mortgage, a car payment, a fiance and plans to get his MBA. He remembers working too hard, carrying too much debt and struggling to get ahead as he followed the traditional path in life towards the American dream. But Perkins’ vision for the future slowly began to change when he started binge-watching documentaries on Netflix about the American industrialized food system, organic farming and healthy eating. He followed with books such as “The Omnivores Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” introducing him to the idea that we have a broken food system: We use too many chemicals and antibiotics, grow animals and plants as big as possible as fast as possible on as little land as possible, and our bodies and the earth are suffering as a result. While finishing his graduate degree in business, Perkins pored through books on organic practices, and by the time graduation rolled around, he had a new goal for his life.
Hard at Work
I try to keep up as Perkins explains the ingenious adaptations he has incorporated into his seeder, germination chamber, greens washing station and more. A small hand-built pole barn is chock-full of makeshift workstations where I can track the life cycle of his produce, from seed to delivery carton. Most steps along the way are aided by a hack of some household appliance. The germination chamber is really an upright home freezer — the kind you’d have in your garage filled with unidentifiable packs of frozen meat and a 10-pound bag of Tater Tots. This adaptation is equipped with a thermostat switch that kicks on the freezer motor when the temps get too high or a pair of Crock-Pots filled with warm water when the temps dip too low. Whatever the sweet spot for the specific seed, this contraption can maintain it, creating the perfect environment to sprout, say, cilantro in the summer when you’d otherwise get nowhere.
Farmers have always been known for their ingenuity, their ability to overcome and improvise. It appears these traits have continued as well with the digital generation of farmers, like Perkins, who interact with more like-minded farmers on Facebook and via blogs than they do at the local feed store. It was online that Perkins figured out how to hack a household dryer to make it a giant salad spinner for his freshly rinsed lettuces. He certainly improvises anywhere he can, but the majority of a farmer’s life involves good old-fashioned, backbreaking work.
Right on cue he shifts over to a row of radishes that needs to be harvested before the sun rises above the trees and wilts the greens. Kneeling down while be talks, Perkins tosses the scrawniest root vegetables aside, gathering the best looking hot-pink specimens into bunches, then securing the leafy tops with a rubber band and packing them side-by-side into a Rubbermaid. While working, he talks about wanting to grow and raise healthy foods without the immense amounts of toxic chemicals used in conventional farming. He believes food should be wholesome, seasonal and prepared with care. He also wants to set an example of hard work for his kids and to feel that his career has given back to the world in a positive way. Although the impact of a small farm like Nature Nine seems limited in the grand scheme of things, producing healthy food with minimal environmental impact for local families in Mobile and Baldwin counties and the Pensacola area is enough for Perkins.
What began as a meat-chicken business in April of 2015 quickly grew into a multifaceted farming operation, producing pork, beef, turkey, eggs and myriad of fresh vegetables, depending on the season, in addition to the fresh whole chickens for which Nature Nine first became recognized. But more is not always more profitable. Perkins has tried many products in his short life as a farmer, but he puts his MBA to good use monitoring spreadsheets, calculating margins and factoring percentages to best maximize his 60 acres.
Although he has never used his degree in the business world, the principles Perkins learned have been invaluable to his farming operation.
“There are so many things on the list for growth,” he tells me. “We want to take over another 15 acres, buy a bunch more cows, get a larger hen coop — this one is maxed out, we will be stretching it next year with 500 hens. On paper that all looks great, but we need a new packing and processing building first because we have outgrown our infrastructure. We’ve put a hold on that other stuff, we are putting a pause on growth.”
The demand, however, is still there. This past year, Nature Nine sold 170 dozen eggs per week, “and I was turning people away,” he says. The new processing barn will house a large walk-in cooler to help his produce and eggs stay fresh between deliveries and allow the farm to settle into smart growth.
On top of the everyday farm work, Perkins says that last year they built a house, had a baby and doubled their sales. “Something had to give,” he tells me, so Perkins and his wife decided to focus on the most profitable aspects of the farm first and only pursue other things when and if time allowed. He used his wealth of information about which products have been most profitable with the least amount of input, coupled with his desire to eschew debt and live simply, and for 2020 his streamlined plans include just beef, produce and eggs (excluding the herd of sheep that just refuse to be caught). Prioritizing is a big part of what keeps Perkins living and working in balance.
The change in Perkins’ life from insurance underwriter and MBA student to organic farmer did not happen overnight. What started with documentaries and late-night reading led to time spent turning soil alongside his grandfather, a retired soybean producer from Fairhope. After completing his MBA, Perkins walked away from the high-tech, high-finance business world and never looked back. He instead pursued apprenticeships on small organic farms in Virginia, such as Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, where aspiring farmers flock to learn from the author of “Folks, This Ain’t Normal.” Salatin, a legend among those who follow the local food movement, was featured in both documentaries that were transformational for Perkins.
For two years, Perkins worked small farms in Virginia, learning to make cheese, raise cattle and plant using organic methods. “In Charlottesville, Virginia, there is a high concentration of small organic farms that are similar to mine. I’m kind of the lone guy down here.”
Living close to the land, however, does not have to mean living as simply as the Perkins choose to do. That desire to leave the conventional conveniences behind —like fancy cars, a big house or even (gasp) air conditioning — stems from a transformative mission trip to Romania that Perkins took while on his path to discovering organic farming. The people in Romania, he saw, had very little. Their main worry was growing enough food to get through the winter, yet they seemed truly happy and close with their families.
“Most of the folks on our mission trip felt sorry for them,” Perkins remembers, “but I envied them.” A simple life, close to the land, with his family nearby is all this farmer needs and is what gets him up at 4:30 in the morning to keep Nature Nine moving forward.