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All natural: Pleasant Plains couple make organic farming a full-time job

By Emily Van Zandt

This article was originally published September 23, 2012 at 12:00 a.m. Updated September 21, 2012 at 9:51 a.m.

brandon-gordon-and-catherine-morris-pick-kale-at-five-acre-farms-outside-pleasant-plains-the-couple-use-organic-farming-practices-to-grow-vegetables-on-about-three-fourths-of-an-acre-the-produce-is-sold-locally-at-farmers-markets-and-to-individuals

Brandon Gordon and Catherine Morris pick kale at Five Acre Farms outside Pleasant Plains. The couple use organic farming practices to grow vegetables on about three-fourths of an acre. The produce is sold locally at farmers markets and to individuals.

— The white lettering on the roadside stand on East Scoggins Road may say Five Acre Farms, but the hands-on operation in Pleasant Plains is much smaller than its name implies.

In beds that cover just around three-fourths of an acre, Brandon Gordon, 31, and his girlfriend, Catherine Morris, 29, have built a full-time business growing vegetables without the use of chemicals commonly found in fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. It’s grueling, sweaty, dirt-under-your nails work, but the couple don’t mind.

“It’s almost too much fun to be a real job,” Gordon said, “but it’s hard, hard work.”

After graduating from the University of Arkansas, Gordon worked at an ornamental plant nursery in Oklahoma for three years before he moved back to his childhood home of Pleasant Plains and started work on his goal of running a sustainable vegetable garden on a 5-acre plot of his family’s land. Gordon tried using tractors and tilling the ground by machine his first year, but it didn’t go as planned.

“That [first year is] officially referred to as the failure garden,” said Morris, who began working at the farm full time with Gordon in May.

Now Gordon prefers to do everything by hand, setting up permanent beds with constant crop rotation, building his own drip irrigation system — a blessing through this year’s drought — and opting to stay organic.

“I’m not certified organic, and I probably never will be, but I’m up to their standards,” Gordon said. “I’d rather know the customer and have them come out and see the farm. They’ll believe me more than a government agency.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies products as organic if they avoid certain growth methods such as genetic engineering and certain chemicals. Instead of chemical fertilizers, Gordon and Morris use compost to nourish their plants and turn to techniques such as planting cover crops to replace nitrogen in the soil over the winter months. While they occasionally have to resort to organic pest controls, the couple emphasize that they use the sprays sparingly.

“We don’t use them at the drop of a hat and coat the whole garden when we see one bug,” Gordon said. “This year, we had a blister beetle problem, and you have to deal with it or they’re going to destroy everything.”

Gordon used a chrysanthemum-based pyrethrum to rid his tomato plants of their beetle problem this summer. While he’s happy that customers are more interested in finding vegetables that aren’t treated with chemicals, Gordon was frustrated when he first started selling his goods at the Searcy Farmers Market.

“It was a little discouraging because you had a lot of people coming out there thinking they’re going to get cheap produce,” Gordon said, “but farmers need to get a fair wage, too.”

Over the past three years, a loyal following has grown around Five Acre Farms’ produce, with customers returning to the Searcy Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays to restock. The farm’s supply changes through the seasons, but the couple keep a big variety of vegetables and herbs in rotation: squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green onions, garlic, lettuce and greens, radishes, carrots, beets, turnips, bell peppers, sweet potatoes and okra. Tomatoes are by far the best-selling, and the couple picked as much as 500 pounds a day when tomatoes were at their peak this summer.

“People say they just taste better [than those from the grocery store],” Morris said. “People are getting really interested in them, asking us what kind of tomato it is, what it tastes like, whether it’s a hybrid or heirloom variety.”

Many of their customers are also surprised at how long the vegetables they buy from Five Acre Farms stay fresh once they bring them home.

“A lot of the organic produce in stores is shipped from states away,” Gordon said. “People are always shocked when our lettuce stays in their fridge for two or three weeks. That’s because we picked it nearly that day, and it’s not on a truck for a week.”

In addition to the farmers market, Five Acre Farms produce can be found at Garden Girl Farm Fresh Produce in Pleasant Plains. The couple hope to keep the farm growing year-round this year with kale, onions, carrots and more growing under high tunnels, greenhouse-like tents that protect plants in the ground from the elements. Those interested in buying produce after the farmers market shuts down, likely before the end of October, can get in touch through the Five Acre Farms Facebook page or email 5acrefarms@gmail.com to be added to an email list for more information.

Gordon and Morris see the farm as a lifelong project and career, with expansion on the way. Soon they’ll be planting blueberries and blackberries. They’ve started a beehive and hope to start honey production. After that, maybe egg production from free-range chickens, a few dairy goats, fruit trees and expanding the vegetable garden to 2 acres.

Before Morris quit her job at a nonprofit in May, she had never imagined working on a farm for the rest of her life. Now she is sometimes up at 6 a.m. with Gordon, weeding and picking and getting things ready to drive to Searcy. In the afternoons, she’s been making jams and jellies to sell.

“It’s really nice being outside with no one calling and griping at me on the phone,” Gordon said. “It’s very laid-back and very simple.”

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

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