Green in Granite Country


ELBERT COUNTY - Deep in granite county, off the paved roads at the end of a winding gravel trail, there is an organic oasis. Flatwoods Farms, located in the flatwoods area of Elbert County, is a certified organic farm owned and operated by University of Georgia physics professor Tim Heil and his retired wife Lucy.

The Heils wanted a lot of land to build their dream home. The original terrain was a mixture of Georgia clay and sandy loam, but within the muddle of depleted earth were plots of rich soil perfect for produce. They then made the decision to revive the entire grounds to its former vigor.

The history of the land is as rich as the soil.

The Heils' contemporary wood cabin sits on the highest point of the property that was once a cotton plantation and later a commercial pine tree operation. Just behind their home is a small graveyard, the final resting place of the owner's family and the slaves who worked the land.

The old plantation's soil was depleted in many areas, worn out by crops that rob the land of nutrients. The Heils decided the best way to restore the soil's vitality was to implement an extensive organic program. The have progressively enriched the soil by growing clover and companion crops, such as wheat and oats. By repeatedly growing and plowing under these crops, the Heils have reinvigorated the soil.

The decision to go organic was easy. Pesticides were never used on the land so receiving organic certification happened quickly. Most farmers who seek organic certification from the United States Department of Agriculture must go through soil and water testing on an annual basis. On average, farmers in Georgia spend three years performing tests and complying with rules before they earn the "certified organic" designation.

The Heils obtained organic certification almost immediately. Then the hard part began.

Organic farming demands mental and physical toughness in equal measure. The Heils operate the farm together, and until this year they did most of the planting and reaping of produce by hand. Now they have incorporated mechanical equipment and occasionally have an intern to assist them with operations.

Organic farming is an expanding business nationally and in Northeast Georgia. Today, there are more than four million acres of organic farms in the United States.

There is no conclusive evidence that people who eat organic produce lower their risk for major diseases or live longer. But organic farming has many benefits.

"You do get away from using a lot of pesticides and things like that which are essentially poison, reducing the amount of materials like that is always a good thing," said UGA horticulturalist Dr. George Boyhan.

To the Heils, organic farming is a rediscovery of tradition. "Really all we're doing is going back to the techniques of the 20's and 30's before all these chemicals from World War II were put into pesticides," said Heil. "So we're really going back to old time farming."

Fighting insects without conventional pesticides is an ongoing battle. "We can't go out and nuke the pests, we have to [farm] in an ecologically responsible way," said Heil. By encouraging species that feed on the pests and harvesting crops before they are infested, the Heils are able to overcome the pest problem. "Of course it cuts down on production and its more labor." And labor is the most costly part of Flatwoods Farms' operation.

They are able to turn a profit by growing a small number of crops in bulk. In the spring and early summer they focused on cantaloupe, and then shifted to zucchini and two varieties of tomato in the fall. This past summer, the Heils sold their entire summer harvest.

Earth Fare and Whole Foods are their two big clients, with one in Athens and the other in Braselton. The stores are close to their Elberton farm creating a smaller carbon footprint than vegetables trucked in from other states.

Organic farms reduce the amount of toxins put into the earth, but if their produce is shipped long distances it still has a harmful net effect on the environment.

Though the work is difficult, Tim and Lucy Heil are happy with their decision to grow organic crops and to produce food for themselves. They rarely need to go grocery shopping, except when their grandchildren visit and want peanut butter or ketchup, said Lucy Heil.

Their farm also attracts game animals including turkeys, deer, and wild hogs. The Heils, who are both avid hunters, find succulent meat to go with their fresh vegetables in their own backyard.

And Tim Heil says they have never been healthier. The work they do outdoors is great exercise and has gotten them in shape. "She loves it, and I love it, so we're happy."

Story by Jordan Sarver

This article and video were originally published on the WNEG-TV web site on Friday, 30 October 2009.

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From L-R: Katie Smith, Jordan Sarver, James Hataway
From L-R: Katie Smith, Jordan Sarver, James Hataway

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