There are many risks in organic agriculture, but one Mississippi farm is not afraid of the challenge. Yokna Bottoms Farm believes learning from the land and understanding it is the only way to flourish.
For Doug Davis, it’s all about the land.
Doubling as both owner of Yokna Bottoms Farm in Oxford, Miss. and an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Mississippi, Davis has directed the focus of a large part of his scholarly work to the agrarian thought process, an ideology that preaches the importance of a healthy relationship between humans and the land. He has studied the work of many crusaders of agrarian thought but has found the work of Wendell Berry to be the most telling.
“Wendell Berry talks about learning from the land,” Davis said. “He says, ‘If you are willing to learn from the land, the land will teach you to take care of it.’ You just have to be willing to learn.”
No words have proved truer for the team at Yokna Bottoms. Before founding the farm, Davis was told it was impossible to grow food organically in north Mississippi. But against the odds, Yokna Bottoms thrived.
“What we’ve found really hasn’t been the challenge, and we thought it would, is our climate and humidity and temperature,” Davis said. “While it does present some problems, it’s also benefitted us.”
All of the farm practices would not be possible without Davis’s hardworking team, including production manager Jeff Stone, permaculture gardener Benjamin Koltain and director of marketing Betsy Chapman. In addition, Yokna Bottoms hosts volunteers of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or “woofers” for short.
“It’s a way to match people who are interested in organic agriculture with farms across the world,” Chapman said.
This fall, woofer Rachel Bollens, 22, of Seattle spent three weeks working at Yokna Bottoms. “I’m really impressed with how rapidly they distribute to their really large group of CSA members for a farm that’s only five years old,” Bollens said. However, it was something different about Yokna Bottoms that captivated her most.
“It’s really beautiful land here,” Bollens said. “It’s very different than the other places I’ve worked.”
And it is that soil that encourages Davis and his team at Yokna Bottoms to persevere in organic agriculture. He believes the unique land, combined with certain aspects of the north Mississippi climate, are the reasons the farm continues to yield large amounts of produce each year.
“It’s amazingly abundant and fertile land. If you go out in the woods in Mississippi, you realize it’s teeming with life and fertility,” Davis said. In addition, he believes the erratic weather of Mississippi allows for a ten-month growing season. For eight months out of the year, they deliver fresh produce to CSA members, local farmers markets and restaurants such as the Ravine and many in the John Currence restaurant group.
But for all of the triumphs Yokna Bottoms has experienced, the farm has also seen its share of challenges. “We’ve probably had bigger losses over the past two years because we’ve been growing a lot more,” Davis said.
“We’ve put more eggs in one basket, so to speak, and we’ve had those baskets break.”
In the spring of 2012, they planted a field of sweet potatoes and several types of beans outside of the deer fence. Davis and his team noticed deer had gotten into the crop. Within a week, the entire crop was devoured. In 2013, winter weather carried into early May. The warm weather crops did not grow as well as expected.
“That put us off to a slow start this year, but then August and September [of 2013] ended up being great months,” Davis said. He understands the risks that come with farming organically and plants other crops as backup in case things goes awry.
“We do a lot of different things at a lot of different times, so if something does happen with the crops, we still have other things available,” he said.