Jennifer Taylor’s love of farming began when she was a child, during the summers she spent on her grandmother’s farm in Glenwood, Georgia.
Taylor’s grandmother, Lola Hampton, was a sharecropper who, in the 1940s, had the opportunity to buy the 32 acres she had farmed. In addition to maintaining orchards of peaches, apples, and pears, Hampton raised chickens, goats, and dairy cows—and had a mule, of course. After Hampton could no longer work the farm, the land lay fallow until Taylor and her husband Ron Gilmore took over in 2010 and developed Lola’s Organic Farm.
Today, the operation is much more than an ordinary farm; it’s become a mecca for small organic farmers, hosting workshops and farm tours throughout the year. In her work as a farmer, educator, and advocate, Taylor promotes best organic practices, following the principles of sustainability laid out by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM) and encouraging healthy microbial soil through cover crops, crop rotation, and compost.
“I believe if a farmer chooses to grow good food, they should build healthy soil—that’s the key,” said Taylor. “Building a healthy [farm] environment is a good influence on neighbors. It enhances neighboring land through clean air, biodiversity, and good food.” In addition, she said, healthy soil improves “the whole community, benefiting bees and other pollinators as well as the farmers and farmworkers. It’s not a vacuum.”
In addition to managing the farm with Gilmore, Taylor works during the week as an associate professor at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) in Tallahassee. There, she coordinates Florida’s Statewide Small Farm Program, which focuses on providing education, training, and technical assistance for small farms. Rather than teaching formal classes on the FAMU campus, however, Taylor travels around Florida visiting sharing knowledge and encouraging organic methods. She returns home, three and a half hours from Tallahassee, to help her husband run the farm on weekends.
“Most [farm outreach] programs focus on large-scale agribusiness, leaving 80 percent of farmers [globally] underserved,” she said. In the U.S. and Florida, 90 percent of farms are small scale (although many don’t produce crops commercially). “Traditionally, many small-scale farmers—minorities, Indigenous communities, and women—are resource-poor, and outreach and extension programs often don’t reach [them],” Taylor said. These are precisely the folks Taylor focuses on through her efforts.
Her program visits farmers who invite them, she explained. “They discuss their needs, and we work together to map out a plan to enable sustainable, regenerative farming through education and available resources.”
Taylor also conducts group “capacity-building sessions.” These advertised group sessions offer information on sustainable agriculture and allow the community to see where their food comes from. During these farm-facilitated tours, the public can view the environmental benefits of healthy farming practices. “Farmers are continually learning, and we need to look at the big picture,” she said of these sessions.
Good Work Recognized
Her approach to helping farmers build their soil and improve their environments has earned Taylor a host of accolades, including the 2019 Organic Pioneer for Farming award from the Rodale Institute and a seat on the Institute’s board. Last month, Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture named her Florida’s Woman of the Year in Agriculture “for her many contributions and outstanding leadership within our state’s agriculture community.”
Taylor also served on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), and in 2014, then Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack appointed her to serve on the Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers (ACBFR).
“Jennifer impressed me because of her dedication to mentoring others who want to be organic,” said Diana Martin, director of communications for the Rodale Institute. “She spends her time off the farm advocating for small organic farmers, and she lobbies for those who can’t leave their cows in Wisconsin to come to Washington.”
Martin said Taylor exemplifies the type of people Rodale tends to select for the Organic Pioneer Award, which was established to honor those who have faced the wrath of industrial agriculture.
“Early on, organic farmers faced adversity if they decided to avoid chemicals,” Martin said. “Many researchers had funding cut, so there was not enough research for solutions, and some [advocates] were even kicked out of their churches.”
Following in Her Grandmother’s Footsteps
“My family have always been farmers,” Taylor said. “Even as a child, I liked connecting to the soil, watching a plant grow. I have great memories of the farm, where we spent holidays, weekends, and a few weeks in the summer.” Gilmore had farmers in his family, too, giving them both close ties to the soil.
“Lola’s cows roamed through the woods so you couldn’t see them, but they came when she called them,” said Taylor. “Her chickens ran through the peach orchard, and that helped keep the insects down and provided manure.”
There was never a lack of food, Taylor remembered, noting that Hampton sold much of her bounty to neighbors and sent boxes loaded with fresh produce and canned goods to her family.
“She also made pies, preserves, and canned vegetables, even meat—what we call ‘value-added’ today—so there was always food,” said Taylor. “She made soap and even made moonshine.”
Today, Taylor handles the business end of the farm, while Gilmore takes care of the day-to-day operations. They seldom use heavy equipment, but if they must use a big machine, they hire a neighbor.
The couple farm three of their 32 acres, growing strawberries, blackberries, muscadine grapes, persimmons, apples, and pomegranates, plus several varieties of kale, sweet potatoes, Asian eggplants, ginger, and turmeric. They sell their produce through a local co-op in Glenwood, as well as a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. The portion of their land they are not farming remains woodlands.
Cover Crops and High Tunnels
Cover crops have become an integral part of Lola’s Organic Farm, providing a healthy biomass to the sandy, loamy Georgia soil. In 2013, Taylor and Gilmore received a $9,500 producer grant from Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SSARE) to study cover crops’ role in building healthy soil and suppressing weeds on their farm.
Initially, the farm was plagued by Bermuda grass choking out their cash crops. The rampant turf seemed impervious to extreme weather, and it spread rapidly by above-and-below-ground runners, making it a highly obnoxious weed. Other local farmers used Roundup, burned off the grass, or used tilled the ground to get rid of the grass. But those methods leave dry, barren soil, something Gilmore didn’t want.
During the two-year grant-funded experiment, Taylor and Gilmore tested two plots, growing strictly cover crops such as iron clay cowpeas, buckwheat, and millet on one, and mechanical strategies such as bottom plowing, tilling, and weeding on the other. Their evaluation of the two weed-suppression methods found that the mechanical strategies alone left soil dry and reduced crop yield.
Meanwhile, Taylor says: “the cover crop strategy built healthy soil while suppressing weeds and increasing cash crop yields.” She is now such a fan that no cash crop on Lola’s Organic Farm gets planted without a cover crop incorporated into the soil first.
The success of cover crops in the fields led Taylor and Gilmore to try cover crops in two high tunnels they acquired through a USDA program offering financial assistance to farmers to extend the growing season.
“Tunnels allow a longer growing season, and we can work them during bad weather,” said Taylor.
In one tunnel, Gilmore planted hairy vetch and barley to fix nitrogen, and in the second, iron clay peas to build soil organic matter and resist root-knot nematode. The second season, he and Taylor planted yellow mustard to build organic matter and control soil-borne pathogens—a practice called biofumigation. Taylor said in addition to fixing nitrogen, barley also absorbs heavy metals such as copper, cadmium, and zinc, as well as salt, which can accumulate to toxic levels in high tunnels.
“They’ve done a great thing by taking cover crops into high tunnels for row crops,” said Candace Pollock Moore, Southern SARE program coordinator at the University of Georgia at Griffin. “SSARE grants allow farmers to see how well an idea worked on the farm … There’s as much value in learning what didn’t work.”
Advocating on Capitol Hill
In addition to her hands-on work with small, organic farms, Taylor also finds time for trips to Washington to advocate for her industry. Last year, representing the Organic Farmer’s Association (OFA), she went to the Hill with Rodale’s Diana Martin to secure increased funding in the farm bill for organic research.
“We were successful in raising research funding from $20 to $50 million,” said Martin. “We also protected the Organic Certification Cost Sharing Program, which reimburses up to 75 percent of certifications costs, which are often a barrier to small, beginning organic farmers.”
While the conventional farm lobby is large and well-funded, small organic farmers rarely have to opportunity to take time off to lobby lawmakers. Taylor’s in-person visits to congressmembers and government agencies allow them to have contact with a genuine farmer, not slick professionals. This March, she and Martin will travel to Washington again to visit NGOs and legislators.
In the meantime, Taylor plans to continue the work she and Gilmore have made Lola’s famous for: pioneering organic methods, and training and advocating for underserved farm communities across Florida and Georgia.