Farmer Spotlight: Eric Simpson of New Eden Ecosystem & West Georgia Farmer's Cooperative
September 1, 2020
By Lauren Cox
Article: Courtesy of https://thedirt.georgiaorganics.org/
Eric Simpson put his hands in the dirt with an intention to grow something 12 years ago and grow something, he did. His farming journey, from backyard gardener to one of the leading members of the West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative, unfolded as organically as it gets (no pun intended) and continues to set an example for other farmers in how to hold space for building strong community and continuing the tradition of convening and mobilizing, while carving out space for a successful, independent business.
Courtesy of Eric Simpson
Georgia Organics got a chance to connect with Eric, a Georgia Organics board member, to learn more about how he got his start in farming, his work with West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative (WGFC) and his involvement with the Accelerator and Farm to Restaurant program, as well as the Food Fight GA initiative. Spoiler alert: There’s also mention of some pretty cute horses…
What do you remember about those early days when you first started gardening?
I mostly remember the newness of it all and being inspired by the idea of growth, life, and the act of growing food. One of the first things I grew were Sugar Baby watermelons and of course I very clearly remember them being invaded by squirrels. (laughs)
When did you think about farming as a profession?
The simple answer is back in 2007.
After having a successful backyard garden, I wanted more space to grow food and I also wanted to explore livestock. I had purchased a horse a year earlier and was paying to have it boarded on someone else’s property and so I started looking for land and it unfolded just like that. Now I have my own land where I can grow food organically and keep not only my horse but two others!
What are these lucky horse’s names by the way?
My horse’s name is Baby and then there’s Cheerio and Sandy, a Palomino I’m keeping for a friend.
The West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative is one of the oldest Black led agricultural organizations in the south and a huge deal! How did you start working with them?
I found out about them through a neighborhood elder by the name of Ralph Paige. He was the executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives at the time and was once a part of WGFC, having helped to build it many years ago. He told me about the organization and I learned from there how to join and become a member. Basically, I reached out to someone, went to a meeting, and once there was able to see where they had been (how much work they had done), and what they were so keenly positioned to do in the future. After joining the organization, I began to help them with organizing and getting further established.
What would you say was your influence on the West Georgia Farmers' Cooperative?
When I first joined, I was able to bring to the table my relationships with Global Growers, Georgia Organics, and additionally my connection with Brennan Washington, who owned Phoenix Gardens and is currently the Land Grant Liaison and Farmer Outreach Expert at Southern SARE. It worked out that at the time I starting doing business with WGFC they were in the middle of a transition. The older members that had led WGFC in its heyday were retiring so naturally, it was a time of re-assessment and reconstituting the business.
We were focused on trying to keep folks connected and figuring out new business opportunities. It was also the moment when we decided to change our member growing practices to sustainable in order to meet the current and emerging market demand. That was in late 2011/2012.
Cooperative models can vary greatly depending on how they are structured. Can you talk a little about the structure of the West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative?
Of course! So, our cooperative model doesn’t have cooperative land. We bring in the different farms and, in a way, WGFC is a customer but the farms are also owners. WGFC never wants to be exclusive. We don’t want farmers to only have their eggs in the WGFC and not be able to sell outside of the cooperative. We really chose to look at WGFC as a beacon of support for market opportunities as well as technical support for our growers.
How much of your sales come from WGFC and how much comes from other sources?
75% of what I grow goes to WGFC. The rest of my sales come from the local community. I also get income from selling meat birds and goats when I have them, having people come fish on my lake, and selling eggs at the local market.
What are some cool things you have on the horizon for your farm and the WGFC?
Well individually, I am trying to re-establish my goat and sheep herds. I’d also like to expand my peach, plum, and pear orchard and even threw around the idea of re-starting a CSA. I used to have one but of course, there are a lot of moving parts and it’s a lot of time and work. The CSA model wasn’t super conducive to my lifestyle, so I’ve chosen to focus on WGFC and the wholesale market.
As far as future plans for the West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative, all I can say is we have some pretty exciting things in the works. You’ll just have to stay tuned to find out!
Photo via Black Farmers Network and Candace Dantes, click to read her feature on Eric’s work with the West Georgia Farmer’s Cooperative.
Ok! We definitely will! So, following along with the theme of reaching different markets, individually your farm as well as the West Georgia Farmers' Cooperative, is involved in a couple of programs within Georgia Organics. Can you talk about why you applied to these programs and what you’re currently doing with them?
Of course! I applied to the Accelerator Program because I needed to move my farm to consistent and established prominence and prosperity. I saw the program as a way to do that. So far, the program has been promising. I am working on QuickBooks and this Fall will begin some infrastructure projects as well.
The Farm to Restaurant program gave me an opportunity to boost sales and diversity my revenue streams and led to my participation in Food Fight GA, which has been fun and rewarding.
In addition to all the work you do to grow New Eden ecosystem and the WGFC you also have another job! What is it and does it influence or affect your farming?
My other job is in government contract work. It works out because I can work from home and I have a flexible schedule. To be honest, the only thing that affects farming for me is the issue of labor. If I had regular help I could do more and it's that simple. In my case, having off farm work also comes with liability insurance and workman's comp which is an added benefit.
This is all so interesting Eric but you know one thing we have got to ask is...What is your favorite thing to farm?
Watermelon and cantaloupe! I love growing them and eating them although the horses love them as much as I do! That being said, I’ll definitely have to work on my fencing this year.
And what is your favorite time of year on the farm?
I’d have to say it’s a toss-up between Fall and Spring because of the temperature. I can get out there and work all day without feeling the ill effects of the weather.
Has Covid-19 affected your farm and how have you responded?
Luckily, Covid-19 hasn’t affected my farm on site because it’s just me out there. If it’s done anything, it has affected the in-person markets I participate in. A lot of people have reached out to me and the WGFC to get local produce and I think that’s because people want to stay away from hot spots and here in our rural area, the grocery stores are having a hard time keeping up with customer demand. The result is that instead of waiting on the next shipment of food or traveling out of town, people are turning to their local farmers.
Well, thanks so much, Eric, for taking the time to talk today. Our last question is: What do you having going on right now and what are you looking forward to in the coming months?
Currently we still have summer produce like okra, tomatoes, corn, and beans in the ground and we’re beginning to prep for fall planting. To answer your question about what I’m looking forward to in the coming months? Well.... to say I welcome the decrease in pest pressure and disease that comes along with Fall would be an understatement.
Check out the Accelerator program here: www.thefarmerfund.org/farmer-fund-accelerator
The Farm to Restaurant program here: farmtorestaurant.georgiaorganics.org/
Food Fight GA here: www.foodfightga.com/