Thirty acres of fruit and vegetables: that’s a lot of food any way you cut it.
“It’s basically like a backyard garden times 1,000,” says Mitch Lawson, owner of Rise ‘N Shine Organic Farm, which is expanding its operations in Curryville, north of Calhoun, on Ga. 156.
The operation, which provides completely organic-certified food via a Community Supported Agriculture service, serves customers in Rome, Dalton and metro Atlanta areas like Marietta and Kennesaw. It runs using leased land Lawson has been farming for the past few years in addition to the recently-acquired land on the highway.
This most recent purchase allows for visibility from the road. There is a newly-constructed, large barn on it that will house produce packing operations and an egg washing machine. A pole barn shelters about 3,000 laying hens right now and will take on chicks in a few months.
Lawson hopes this facility is the last stop in a series of moves that began shortly after he started farming. He and his wife, Elisabeth, starting Rise ‘N Shine in 2005 in Ranger with two acres of rented land and a barn built from scrap material. They worked their way up to a five-acre garden on a leased farm in Chickamauga in 2006. They moved to the Rosedale area in 2007 and purchased five acres, adding to their holdings with leased land for a total of 10 planted acres. They eventually added the Curryville property they now lease before selling the Carpenter Road Farm last year and buying the new property.
“Hopefully, the nomadic farming is done,” Mitch says. “Moving a farm is awful. It’s a big task, so we’re looking forward to staying here in Curryville for a long time.”
The couple met at Berry College. Mitch, who is from Toccoa, Georgia, majored in sociology, and Elisabeth, who is originally from Thomasville, Georgia, majored in art. She now teaches fourth grade at Darlington Schools in Rome, while Mitch runs the farm full time. Elisabeth is also involved in the local food scene, though. She’s spearheading a new farmers market in Rome, which will open in early May.
The couple has two daughters, Laine, 7, and Camille, 9. They participate in the family business to the extent that they can right now, accompanying their father as he works on the farm or participates in food events.
“They’ll come out and play while I’m doing something in the field,” Mitch says. “they love doing the markets.”
Mitch worked with the Coosa River Basin Initiative for four years after graduating from Berry. When he began considering getting into farming, he apprenticed for a time on a farm in North Carolina. That experience helped him implement some of the infrastructure and practices he still uses today.
He says his liberal arts background also helped a great deal as he worked to establish himself with CSA customers and expand the workforce that it takes to manage 30 acres of planted food. He had to reach beyond planting and fertilizing knowledge to come up with ways to market the CSA and to effectively direct the workers who help him with planting and harvesting. He manages at least five people most of the time, and that number jumps to 12 during peak season in the summer.
Rise ‘N Shine Organic Farm grows 40 types of produce, along with pasture-raised eggs. The Lawsons rely on innovative models to make sure they are delivering wholesome food to the public. On a chilly March morning, hundreds of chickens mill around in an enclosure near the new pole barn. Mitch explains that he’s planning to turn them out on a nine fenced acres soon. Two Great Pyrenees watch dogs will ward of predators.
Around the corner, on his leased land, he has four large greenhouses — an acre and a half of “high tunnels” — set up to protect row upon row of beets, lettuce and spinach. Drip tape — long, perforated rubber strips that deliver moisture — and micro sprinklers keep the plants watered, and the cover allows for their growth during winter and especially rainy times.
Outside the greenhouses, bright green stalks shoot up from garlic bulbs. Clover covers the ground in between plants. The low growing ground cover “helps hold the soil and creates a nice footpath,” Mitch explains.
All of these small innovations come together to allow the Lawsons to produce the food that they deliver via the CSA service.
“We try to make it as easy as possible for people to eat good, and local food,“ Mitch says. “It was important for us to make sure we’re growing food by feeding the soil using Cover crops and using organic inputs.”
The Lawsons plan to rotate produce on the new land on the front six acres, along with a couple of fields in back of the barns. Mitch plans to add some permaculture crops like blueberries, BlackBerries, asparagus and figs.
“They tend to do pretty well here, depending on whether, Mitch says. “we might get into doing a you-pick. I think right here on the road is a great location.”
They already sell some value-added products like strawberry jam, sauerkraut, pickled okra and tomato sauce. They’re experimenting with honey-strawberry popsicles. They also offer resale products from other suppliers, such as grits, cornmeal, grass fed beef, pastured pork, honey, granola, pecans and cheese.
“We’re just trying to add a few things at a time,” Mitch says.
For now, the goal is to finish out work on the new property and continue endeavors like traveling to Atlanta to sell food at the Freedom Farmers Market at the Carter Center in Atlanta. Mitch says he’d also like to add more Gordon County customers to the CSA roster, and he’s looking at instituting a drop point in Calhoun.
As Rise ‘N Shine approaches its first growing season on the new land and the Lawsons head into their 15th year of planting and harvesting, organic farming still seems to be a fit for Mitch.
“I love self sufficiency,” he says. “I love watching things grow.”