Agrarian roots: Woodland Gardens

John Cooper picks carrots at Woodland Gardens Organic Farm, which he manages with his wife, Celia Barss.

John Cooper picks carrots at Woodland Gardens Organic Farm, which he manages with his wife, Celia Barss.

Driving down Athens Road east of Athens Ben Epps Airport brings back memories for 49-year-old Stanley Barnes. Barnes remembers when much of the land, now speckled with houses, was blanketed with corn and cotton. Four-year-old Barnes would go out to the farmland with his grandfather, Wilson “Tight” Barnes, and sit on the edge of the field while his grandfather plowed the ground, preparing it for new crops.

“He’d come over to the side with me and … we’d eat, he’d go back to work,” Barnes said. “Sometimes he’d put me on the tractor with him.”

Barnes was driving along Athens Road several years ago when he saw a few people picking crops on the land he frequented some forty years ago.

Barnes stopped and went to talk to the group of people, one of whom was John Cooper. Cooper and his wife Celia Barss, manage the 150-acre organic farm known as Woodland Gardens that now exists on the land.

“I was giving them a little history on that land back then,” Barnes said. “It definitely brings back a lot of memories.”

A small, organic farm might not be the first thing one expects to see only five miles outside of downtown Athens, but Cooper is passionate about keeping this piece of green pace a sustainable farm, as well as a thriving business.

The road to small organic

Cooper is no stranger to farming, even prior to joining the management of Woodland Gardens three years ago. He grew up in South Carolina where he worked in his uncle’s plant nursery as a young boy.  His family also had land where they grew heirloom varieties of rice – older types of rice that are no longer commonly grown in large-scale agriculture.

His passion for organic farming came years later, during an internship with a fair-trade coffee cooperative in Southern Mexico, where he worked while getting his master’s in international business from the University of South Carolina.

Soon after returning to the States, Cooper met his wife, Celia Barss, and joined her at Woodland Gardens, which she had started managing around seven years earlier.

“I’m very passionate about organic, sustainable methods of production,” Cooper said. “My wife and I have a son; he’s 14 months old. … When you finish a day in the nursery business or conventional agriculture, you’re covered in these chemicals, and I couldn’t imagine going home like that.”

Under the sun

Like any farm, a fall day at Woodland Gardens often involves planting or harvesting. Cooper and his crew typically spend two days of the week harvesting, and almost every day involves some activity related to planting.

“You’re either ordering and organizing seeds or you’re putting seeds in the ground,” Cooper said. “Take carrots for example. We planted 90 different planting of carrots last year.”

But one of the most important aspects of managing a sustainable organic farm is keeping the soil healthy and rich in nutrients. One way to maintain the soil is through composting – adding a mix of decomposed food scraps back to the soil.

“We pick up discarded vegetables from restaurants that we serve, so we bring back compost to the farm,” Cooper said.

However, the main way Cooper adds nutrients back into the soil is a method called cover-cropping or “green manure.” Cover-cropping involves growing a crop that won’t be harvested, such as clover, and then tilling it back into the ground. Cooper said a farmer then waits about a month before planting a new crop in the field.

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In the office

Though a small farmer has to be at home under the sun, he also needs to know his way around an office, whether he’s working numbers in Excel sheets or coordinating schedules for delivery drivers.

“Farming is a very hard business,” Cooper said. “Not only do you have to know a lot about the science of growing stuff, you also need to be a very savvy businessperson.”

When it comes to small farming, it’s important to pick something to specialize in, such as growing organic, rather than conventional, crops. Cooper said the organic coffee producers in Mexico wouldn’t have been in business if they were growing conventional coffee.

“Conventional agriculture is extremely difficult to be a part of unless you’re a really large company,” Cooper said. Growing organic allows Cooper and his wife to not only do something they believe in but also something that makes good business sense.

Business at Woodland Gardens involves providing produce for over 20 restaurants in Atlanta and Athens, including Five and Ten, the National, and Athens Country Club.  It also means selling vegetables at a farmer’s market and to around 80 individual customers who sign up to buy weekly boxes of seasonal vegetables and fruits, such as blueberries and heirloom tomatoes.

Agrarian legacy

Hugh Acheson started purchasing vegetables from Woodland Gardens for his restaurant Five and Ten around 12 years ago, even before Barss and Cooper started managing the farm. Only six miles from the restaurant, Acheson says small farms like Woodland Gardens continue the legacy of farming in the South.

“I’m going to support people who grow impeccable vegetables down the street because I can and because I want to, “Acheson said. “And because they’re my clients at the restaurant, and I’m their client the other way around.”

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