May 25, 2022
California transplant boosts Alabama’s organic farming scene
Deep in the Heart of Dixie, a Southern California transplant is bringing organic produce and natural production practices to a part of the U.S. that is not known to be an organic stronghold.
Lifetime Natural Organic Farm LLC is adding acreage and building a produce packaging facility that will bring more organic produce to Alabama and the South. The company is considered one of Alabama’s largest organic growing operations.
Inspired by the agricultural legacy of George Washington Carver, Nelson Wells (pictured above), one of the company’s founders, is a surfer and former West Coast athlete who fell in love with the South and sees potential for organic produce in the region. He wants to change the world of organics.
“We want to be one of the best providers of beautiful organic produce in the country,” stated Wells.
Located in Tuskegee, Alabama, between Montgomery, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia, Lifetime initially grew a large variety of vegetables. The lineup included leafy greens, different types of kale, green bell peppers, “lunchbox” mini-sweet peppers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and herbs. To better meet its customers’ needs, the company modified its portfolio by growing specific varieties in much larger quantities. Those are butternut squash, yellow squash, zucchini, kohlrabi, edamame, onions, sugar snap peas and Brussels sprouts.
In 2019, the operation began with 30 acres owned by the Macon County Economic Development Authority. A handful of years later, it is purchasing more land and planning to expand to more than 2,000 acres. That will include 300 acres of contract sales a season to one of the nation’s largest grocery chains. All of Lifetime’s produce is USDA Organic Certified.
Following an infusion of financial support, Lifetime is constructing a processing center that will sort, grade, slice and package vegetables for retailers such as Kroger and Whole Foods, as well as an African firm that produces ready-made meals. The production center will provide uniformity in cubing and packing vegetables grown in its and partner farms.
The plant is expected to open in 2023.
Called to agriculture
Organic farming wasn’t a career path many would have predicted for the San Diego, California, native Wells, a towering figure of 6 feet, 6 inches who he says “popped out of the womb” athletically coordinated. He began walking at just seven months and in grade school, beat his peers in sports. Wells played on the Junior Olympic basketball and track teams, was recruited into high school sports and graduated from the University of Southern California with a full scholarship, where he played basketball and football.
Tired of football after college, Wells in the mid-1980s followed his mother to Alabama and never left the South. He was a project manager for Fortune 500 companies including Coca Cola and Domino’s and, in the late 1990s, became director of business-to-business integration for a technology company where he met his business partner John Simon.
Wells ran Verbena Hills Organic Farm, a part of his family’s prison ministry. He left after wanting to take the nonprofit operation in another direction.
While searching for a location for Lifetime in 2017, one of Wells’ advisors recommended visiting the George Washington Carver Museum at Tuskegee University, and to watch the video about the agricultural legacies of Carver, an African American scientist and inventor who transformed U.S. farming practices, and Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee’s founder.
When Wells and Simon walked through the museum and learned more about Carver, considered the forefather of organic farming, Wells, who is biracial, discovered his life purpose. He realized he wanted to do in organic farming what Carver did to sharecroppers: give back to people by showing other growers how to grow organically.
Good growing practices
Growing practices favoring the soil are a priority. Biointensive farming, which allows growers to grow and yield more in smaller areas, are employed. Biointensive agriculture also brings weed control benefits. As plants don’t emit scents attractive to insects, the ecosystem fosters improved soil that discourages pests from attacking plants. Growing plants in closer proximity creates canopies that shield the ground from the sun, limiting weed growth.
Because raised beds increase airflow and harvested crop volume, Wells expects to harvest as much as four times more than normal production methods. As ground remains softer, water moves directly into the ground, minimizing water loss.
No-till farming practices also control weeds. With roots drilling 20 feet into the ground and not fighting each other horizontally for water and nutrients, plants can be positioned in closer proximity.
“Our goal is to be as much as no-till as possible,” said Wells. “All we are doing is shaping the beds each season but not killing the ground by tilling, killing the microorganisms, the bacteria and not doing a lot of things that hurt the soil.”
Lifetime is also looking into companion planting as a pest management method. Planting basil or fennel alongside tomatoes discourages pests. It also improves production efficiencies through precise quantities needed before planting. Lifetime grows during the spring, summer and fall.
During a visit to Duncan Family Farms in Goodyear, Arizona, the owner shared growing secrets with Wells and his farming director, Chuck Trolley, tips that would’ve taken the two a quarter century to learn.
“They have no bugs or weed issues,” said Wells. “He gave us a trove of information that we would never have known without him or without experience. It’s truly a blessing to be in this organic family because it seems like all of us have the same desire and goal to help each other and change the world in how we eat.”
Lifetime relies on agronomic expertise provided by neighboring Tuskegee and Auburn universities. University specialists have provided Lifetime invaluable support on organic pest control, plant pathology and soil regeneration. Lifetime looks forward to working with them on organic research grants to expand knowledge in organic farming and developing improved techniques and technologies to increase yields and streamline operations, said Wells.
Lifetime wants to do everything it can on its property, including generating green electricity, refining its own biofuel with its field corn crop and raising cattle for manure fertilizer. Area firms that dispose of dirt, trees and bushes will pay Lifetime to dump on Lifetime’s property, allowing for waste composting. A year of composting and the addition of soil amendments will allow Lifetime will return the waste to the soil and promote a healthy ecosystem.
Processing center waste will also be composted. “Nothing we have will be wasted,” said Wells. “We will not lose anything. Every aspect, even some of the soil amendments, we will create here. Sustainability is very important for us.”
Though Lifetime considered Georgia and Florida, Wells chose Alabama because of a climate favoring long crop production.
Aside from planting and harvesting, crops can be grown in the region 265 days. “We had to mitigate the risks of being in Alabama and the state not being an organic state,” Wells detailed. “The humidity is astronomical here, as are bug issues. It’s not a perfect place, but if you grow correctly and get your soil right, there’s nothing you can’t grow here in this zone and grow it well.”
The way Wells views it, strong financials are critical to organic farming success. Most organic farms will be successful because of economies of scale, he said. Buyers won’t purchase smaller operations’ produce because the farms aren’t large enough to provide consistent supply throughout the season, said Wells.
As organic growing is backbreaking work, smaller operations can’t make any money because of their limited size. “You can only do so much and most will fail because they aren’t making any money,” related Wells.
Also, many small organic growers don’t understand the importance of grading and processing, the value-added component. “Why so many farms fail is because there’s a line of demarcation,” Wells said. “To get past that, you have to have money. That’s the difficulty. If you don’t have money, where will you get money to get to the next level? It takes a good chunk of money to make it. But once you get there, it’s truly exciting.”
That is one reason Lifetime exists. Alabama is not known for organic farming, even though during his 47-year career as a researcher and instructor at Tuskegee, George Washington Carver developed essential elements of organic farming.
“Our vision is to help organic farms throughout Alabama,” Wells said. “We want to teach and share with them so they can grow their own produce and eat from their own backyards. It is our dream to put Alabama on the map as a leading supplier of organic produce.”