As it turns out, it’s possible to feed a lot of people a year-round diet of healthy produce from only three acres. Sam McLemore is doing just that on his Bountiful Harvest Farms, his produce farm located just outside of Starkville, Mississippi. McLemore sells his naturally grown fresh produce to locals through CSA boxes, local farmer’s markets and direct to restaurants.
McLemore’s methods prove that limited space isn’t a barrier to a healthy food supply. His secret sauce mixes a lot of hard work, perseverance and an inquisitive spirit to grow ingredients that will inspire even the most hesitant home cook.
Small Spaces Grow Big Flavor
It’s an overcast, foggy morning in the unseasonably warm Mississippi late winter when I first step foot onto the plot of ground that has been home to Bountiful Harvest Farms for only one year. It seems much more established.
Although the drive to the farm takes you down a short tree lined gravel road then over the railroad tracks on a short drive-way, it’s really adjacent to a major four-lane highway. On this day, you’d barely know it because the frogs in the adjacent bogs are beckoning in spring with a symphony of bass-throated harmonies. The dew glistens on the leaves of the first tender strawberry blossoms and the sweetest carrots I’ve ever tasted are being pulled by hand.
What started as an experiment in growing food for his family – then a group of ten friends in a community supported agriculture (CSA) group in 2011 necessarily relocated and expanded to meet demand. Today, McLemore requires at least two more employees to help him keep up with his high-touch, organic-esque food farm. His three acres produce enough groceries year-round to provide premium fresh produce items to a handful of local restaurants as well as a bevy of farmer’s market customers at three markets. This spring he will offer 85 CSA boxes for the spring ten-week season with each box holding five to seven items weekly.
I wish I lived closer.
McLemore’s Farming Methods of Choice: Hard Work & Perseverance
McLemore’s Bountiful Harvest Farms is Certified Naturally Grown, a farmer to farmer certification following National Organic Program standards. He tells us that at times, it’s challenging, especially on a new piece of dirt where the weeds are still fighting to maintain their territory. But he’s persistent.
McLemore and his farm cohorts plant by hand, weed by hand, harvest by hand. The only mechanization aids on the farm are a small antiquated tractor and what he calls a “walking tractor.” This souped-up version of a garden push tiller boasts exchangeable pull behind implements, and it’s a new toy to McLemore who is proud as punch to have “finally” acquired this tool. But like a tiller – it must still be pushed by a person walking behind it. Hard. Work.
McLemore takes a break from the work to tour us around the farm on video, and he tells his story and explains his methods best. He shows how covered beds in the fall “weed” the soil before the spring planting. He also shows the lightweight cover that he puts over more tender veggies on cooler nights. It serves as a mini greenhouse to protect radish, arugula and baby greens.
He plants ground covers to give nutrition back to the soil and uses bed covers to prevent weeds from ever encroaching, all dependent on the crop.
In my farming legacy, we talked about land in acres. But in McLemore’s world, “beds” are the measure of productivity. At Bountiful Harvest Farms, a growing “bed” is 3 feet wide by 100 feet long. And as it turns out, a lot of produce can be harvested from a “bed” even over the chilly winter months.
At Bountiful Harvest Farms in Starkville, Mississippi live with Sam Mclemore
Posted by Eat Y’all on Wednesday, February 8, 2017
…there’s no arguing with the outcome: McLemore’s growing for flavor.”
His methods may seem antiquated to some. To others, a nearly lost art form. But after one bite of a sweet dark red carrot straight from the soil, there’s no arguing with the outcome: McLemore’s growing for flavor.
What’s in Season? Inspiring Fresh Ingredients.
When we visited the farm, there was a cornucopia of produce being harvested – and even more with a head start towards the early spring harvest. Bountiful Harvest Farms’ meager three acres produces in a rotating cycle, so there’s something always in season.
In early February, McLemore and company were harvesting rainbow carrots. As he walked down a row, he pointed out as he plucked a dark red carrot from the soil, “Originally, carrots were purple or red in color.” Only later they were bred for the orange that’s more familiar today, he adds.
Several varieties of beets and Swiss chard were also available – albeit at the end of their season. There was a beautiful bed of Collard greens – tender and right sized. I couldn’t help but reach down and take a bite of the fresh leaf – the winter cold had stolen its bitterness and left a sweet, tangy flavor behind. There was arugula, too. McLemore pointed out Red Russian kale. “A fast grower that gets very big very fast,” he said.
McLemore says the French breakfast radish is one of his favorites to grow because it’s not as spicy, but has a good crisp, bright flavor.
His garlic beds were nurturing several varieties including elephant, Russian red, California white and more. He sells green garlic for some, scapes (the flowers) to some chefs and then as the garlic is drying down in May, he hangs them in his greenhouse in bunches to sell in the coming months at the farmer’s markets as customers have a need.
He’s found a bit of a niche local market growing maroon things, an homage to Mississippi State University, the land grant university, that’s across the highway. He laughs saying that he’s grown burgundy kale, maroon beans and okra, purple sweet potatoes and more. It always sells out.
He said one bed of salad greens would produce 40 pounds of greens a week in season. Y’all, that’s a lotta leafy greens. Even better, he explained why a pound of fresh-picked farmer’s market greens were a better value than grocery store greens.
“Local greens haven’t traveled as far or been picked as long, so they last for nearly two weeks in the fridge as opposed to just a few days for salad greens from the grocery,” he said. Plus, there are the obvious benefits of knowing your farmer and his growing methods.
And then there were the STRAWBERRIES.
There’s nothing more fun in spring than a field of strawberries. In McLemore’s case, it’s his first foray into “beds” of strawberries: 4000 strawberry plants to be exact.
He planted two different varieties on landscape fabric-covered beds. No weeds are gonna crowd out these beauties. He’s growing berry varieties pegged for sweetness and flavor, not shelf life or hardiness of the fruit. He can do this because his customers are nearby, and he will pick by hand.
He says he hopes to harvest a pint of ripe strawberries per plant. When we were there, the first blooms weren’t surviving because the nights were still too chilly. McLemore said they can’t make it below 30 degrees. But he said they’d be covering the rows on chilly nights until harvest to save the berries. Definitely save the berries, friend.
These strawberries alone are shaping up to be worth the roadtrip.”
His strawberry crop forecast looks bright. I’m gonna go out on a limb and recommend that you strategically plan a visit to Restaurant Tyler in Starkville (one of McLemore’s customers) around late May. If I were a betting person, I’d bet that a Bountiful Harvest Farms strawberry dessert of some sort will don menu specials around that time. And in my book, these strawberries are shaping up to be worth the roadtrip.
The Spring Crops
The empty beds we saw during our visit were to take on 10,000 onion plants the upcoming weekend. Planted by hand. Wow.
Then, the heirloom tomatoes being nurtured in the greenhouse will be transplanted into their own beds, too. Beds are being reserved to grow ten different pepper varieties for Chef Ty Thames proprietary hot sauce recipe.
The first harvest of tomatoes will be as soon as the end of March. Maybe that’ll coincide with a strawberry dessert special.
Breaking the Bounds of Space
McLemore says he’s “nowhere near the potential of this property.” Those are big words for a three-acre farm.
He learns how to maximize his space and improve his methods through continuing education and networking with other like minded Southern farmers. Staying connected to customers and ongoing education is important to his success. Instagram has been a connector for McLemore, who is known to post some stunning shots of his small farm at @mclemoresam. He also says he’s found invaluable support and education by participating in conferences like the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference.
He plans to continue to add new beds and irrigation and plant more of more varieties.
And he’s raising funds now to erect a farm stand and produce washing station as well as to install a walk-in cooler on the property. He wants to give savvy shoppers the opportunity to visit the farm, connect with the process and purchase produce right on the farm.
He’s even planning a farm to table dinner on the farm for June.
It Doesn’t Take a Lot of Land. But It Does Take a Village.
Local farmers like Sam McLemore at Bountiful Harvest Farms can’t farm for flavor and contribute to the growth of the local culinary scene without the support of their community. It really does take a village – but as it turns out – it doesn’t take a lot of land.
To learn more about how to join the Bountiful Harvest Farms CSA or to invest in the expansion of their farming operation, visit their website.