“Canning green beans right now. . . “The voice of Charlie Hunter ’04 was fading in and out over the mobile phone line as he moved out of the cabin he is using as his home base near Birmingham, Alabama, and into the yard to get better reception. Canning beans? Yes, and okra, eggplant, and making pesto to sustain himself for the winter months and to offset the anticipated reduction in his income as his part-time work on three local organic farms slows after the harvests.
Formmates will likely remember that Charlie spent a great deal of time on the Circle playing music, before heading off to Brown University to pursue a degree in American Civilization – an interdisciplinary degree that combined American folk music folk art, history, and the production of documentary film and radio programs. He also spent a great deal of time teaching himself the banjo and the fiddle and playing local gigs with his college string band. But neither his love of playing American music nor his interest in documentary film production explains his current farming endeavors.
Charlie will be the first to say that upon graduation from college in 2008 he was unsure how he would make his way productively and professionally in the world. Job hunting consisted of a few dead ends and false starts. He returned to his family in Georgia, who were as anxious as he was for the start of his career, to reassess his options. Shortly after his return, a college friend suggested they head out to Kentucky and “WWOOF” for two-and-a-half weeks. WWOOFing is providing labor at organic farms in exchange for meals and a place to sleep. His friend had located the farm in Kentucky through the World Wide Organization of Organic Farms, hence the acronym, and thus Charlie set off on his first experience in the world of organic and sustainable farming.
While in college Charlie had brushed up against the local food movement when he and his string band performed at local farmers’ markets in and around Providence, Rhode Island. It was great food and he enjoyed meeting the farmers, but that was where his experience with farming, much less gardening, ended. His decision to travel to Kentucky was a concerted effort to help him break out of his post-college ennui; he did not expect that he was on the verge of a possible career path. But those two weeks on the farm, learning and laboring in fields, gave him the scent of the trail that he wanted to pursue. He was enlivened and excited, though clearly unschooled, in what it would take to move from the idea of becoming a farmer to a vocation in sustainable agriculture.
Returning to Alabama, he focused on getting the experience he needed. He read, researched, and explored the sustainable farming movement in and around Birmingham. Charlie found the Jones Valley Urban Farm and began to volunteer, then worked on the staff. Jones Valley Urban Farms consists of a number of plots and acreage in and around Birmingham, servicing a 30-50 share Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and a number of community and educational outreach programs. Charlie worked from before dawn to dark picking, packing, and delivering the shares to markets, five days a week during the growing season. After two years working as assistant farm manager, he was sure that he had learned as much as he could from the Jones Valley model, but he wasn’t sure what his next steps should be. He knew he needed to learn more about farms and farming, that there were as many different ways to be a sustainable farmer as there were types of produce and livestock, but how to determine what sort of farming suited him best?
The idea of a month-long bike trip to organic and sustainable farms seized his imagination. He could travel inexpensively in the area that he was interested in farming, meet farmers, volunteer on their farms, ask questions, observe various operations, and eventually approach one or two of the farmers for an apprenticeship. It seemed both a harebrained and yet an elegant solution to his quest. The idea went from harebrained to inspired when his girlfriend, Stella, whom he had first met at the urban farm, expressed, unprompted, a similar desire to bicycle around the country learning about organic farming. Beyond the simpatico expressed in their twin ideas, it became quickly apparent to Charlie that the idea was not so farfetched and would provide him with the experience and insight he lacked.
The trip was planned over the course of the winter of 2010 for a March 2011 start. Farmers had been contacted, routes finalized, training regime undertaken, and equipment collected. Charlie and Stella set off on a five-month journey that would see them labor on 16 farms, have extended visits on eight, and spend time with farmers, volunteers, paid laborers, and neighbors. It became apparent that through each of the farmers he met ran a deep, passionate, and uncompromising commitment to their farms and ideals. It also confirmed what Charlie knew going into the process – that farming is difficult, labor-intensive work that allows most farmers to scrape by at the margins of profitability. Undeterred, he is pressing on, for he was inspired as well.
Regardless of the size of their farms, the very nature of their business demands a broader skill set than simply wanting to work the land. Charlie realized that the farmers he met were marketers, accountants, tax specialists, machinists, mechanics, animal EMTs, weather forecasters, and community activists. Creative and analytical, they were immersed in the day-to-day running of a farm while paying keen attention to market forces and cutting-edge agricultural science. Charlie became aware that in following the path toward sustainable farming he would tap into all of the skills and habits of mind that he learned at Groton and in college in a way that other career paths did not promise.
Back at his family’s cabin in Alabama, preparing for the winter months, Charlie is teaching himself the long-practiced arts of home canning and food preservation and considering his next steps. He will probably undertake an apprenticeship in the year ahead, but in the meantime he will learn new skills and begin to develop a business plan that takes into account how best to pursue a vocation in sustainable farming that will honor his community and enhance his relationships both within his home and beyond the borders of his farm.