Story by Shaila Creekmore, Photos By Dero Sanford
Being environmentally responsible is a top priority for Keith and Jill Forrester of Whitton Farms, a sustainable farming operation near Tyronza. Using natural organic methods, the couple grows a wide variety of vegetables, flowers and herbs, distributing their goods at local markets such as Arkansas State University’s Regional Farmers’ Market and the Agricenter in Memphis.
In a region well known for commodity crops such as rice, soybeans, corn and cotton, Whitton Farms’ method of specialty crop farming is unique to the area. Raised himself on a cotton farm, Keith is a fourth generation farmer who fell into sustainable farming by accident.
“One year for my birthday I asked Keith to order one pound of zinnia seed and 50 pounds of sunflower seed, and together we could plant them,” said Jill. “I wanted lots of flowers for the house and the plot to be visible from the road. I wanted to do something to beautify our neighborhood."
As the flowers began to bloom, their numbers were amazing to Jill and Keith and the work to maintain them was overwhelming. A friend suggested they take some of the cut flowers to the Agricenter in Memphis to sell.
“The following weekend we took several buckets to market, sold out and made just over $400. We immediately realized we could definitely expand on this idea and offer our customers a wider variety of homegrown flowers, vegetables and herbs,” said Jill.
After selling their flowers at the market the rest of the summer, the couple began researching other farms, talking to farmers and reading books on growing specialty crops.
“Four years later, we are the proud owners of our own sustainable farm,” said Jill. “My little gift from Keith essentially turned into our obsession, our passion and ultimately our career.”
The Forresters believe crop diversification is a key component to the success of developing and maintaining a sustainable farm. Jill added that the term “sustainable” has its own meaning among fellow specialty crop farmers.
“We believe sustainability first and foremost means you are able to pay your bills, reinvest in your farming operation and make a profit. The other crucial half of the sustainability equation is simply being good stewards of the land by using the following practices: crop rotation, no till, cover cropping, composting, diversification of crop selection, creating wildlife habitat, natural pest management, seed saving, practicing the three Rs, reducing reusing and recycling whatever you can, and ultimately watching the weather forecast,” said Jill.
Whitton Farms is not a USDA certified organic farm, but all of its produce is raised in a natural organic manner and sustainable farming methods are ingrained into the farming philosophy of being good stewards of the land. The Forresters said they believe the USDA organic certification is a great program for many farmers, but prefer to use the same principles and guidelines of organic farming without the paperwork and expense of a USDA certification.
“We believe local food trumps any organic label or certification,” said Jill. “When you purchase locally grown food, the money stays in your local economy and region. Whether you believe it or not, what you choose and purchase to eat is a political and economic statement. I would rather buy and consume veggies grown by a neighbor who minimally used conventional spray than to eat something shipped in from another country with an organic stamp on it.”
In addition to supporting the local economy, Jill pointed out that produce shipped from other states and countries spends as many as seven to 14 days in transit before they arrive in the supermarket. This method of marketing requires farmers to select varieties of vegetables and fruit that can withstand industrial harvesting equipment and extended travel, resulting in little variety in the produce available in grocery stores and less quality in taste. At Whitton Farms, the Forresters grow more than 300 varieties of vegetables, cut flowers, herbs and mushrooms throughout the year and most of the produce they sell at markets is sold within 24 hours of being harvested.
“There are grocery stores and a handful of restaurants in Jonesboro who do purchase locally grown food and flowers when in season, so pay attention to the labels and signage at your local grocery stores and menus at locally owned restaurants and purchase those items when possible,” said Jill.
Whitton Farms will be back selling produce in Jonesboro on May 2 at the opening of ASU Regional Farmers Market. The market will be open every Saturday morning 7 a.m. until noon through October on Aggie Road across from the ASU farm. The market will be open on Tuesday afternoons from 2-6 p.m. beginning June 2.
For more information about Whitton Farms or locally grown produce, visit their website at www.whittonfarms.com.