Sandra Martin Story
Environmental Quality Incentives Program - Sandra Martin
Left to right: Burthel Thomas, assistant state conservationist for South, Ark.; Todd Sewell, district conservationist for Hope, Ark.; and Sandra Martin, organic farmer in Patmos, Ark., discuss her organic farm and hoop house she is installing through EQIP.
Few people get through life without adversity. How they choose to react to it often determines their future.
Sandra (Sandy) Martin emerged from life’s adversities with a passion to redirect the lives of people in need – from the mentally and physically disabled to at-risk youths and adults as they come out of the criminal justice system. For three years, she trained disabled people as cooks and waitresses at a restaurant in Patmos, Ark.
Ms. Martin is a feisty, gregarious woman who insists she be called Sandy. She wants to redirect the lives of at-risk youths and adults with a new environment and new skills by setting up her organic row-crop farm as a training site.
“I want them to learn all about it -- how to plant, manage, harvest and package organic crops to sell at the [Hope Farmer’s] Market,” Sandy said. Starting out, participants will commute to the farm, but she hopes to eventually build residential sites so participants can utilize and engage the whole experience. To make this work, she hopes to form cooperative agreements with two criminal justice systems to train adults and youths in the Hope area.
Sandy’s 108-acre farm in Patmos, Ark., has been in her family for more than 150 years. She remembers stories of how her grandfather died when her father was 10 years old, and the family cut down the plow handles so her father could plow with the mules. This project is her dream.
“I also want to teach them how to ‘can’ produce for their own use. They can do it all here. I already have this [restaurant] place called The Goat Roper,” she said. “My daddy gave me money and Patmos Mayor Milton Campbell gave me a check for $50,000. I was paying him back with interest, but two years later he brought my deed back and wrote the debt off. I was the happiest person you ever saw in your life. It just fell into my lap. This building and property is paid for and just sitting here waiting.” Her nonprofit 501c3 organization is called Country Girl Natural Health Club, Inc.
“Sandra Martin is in the process of building a 30’W x 12’H x 72’L seasonal high tunnel 'hoop house' through the EQIP program, said Todd Sewell, district conservationist at the Hope Field Service Center in Arkansas. It is located close to an existing irrigation pond so she can pump water to her crops, if necessary.
Ms. Martin has a 12-acre organic farm in Hempstead County, a StrikeForce limited resource county that qualifies for 90 percent federal and 10 percent local cost share funds. She received a 90 percent cost-share rate to build the hoop house. Her plans for the hoop house are to extend her growing season by at least two months a year. This will enable her to get her produce to market before most of her competitors and also increase her profits by producing more than one crop per year. Martin plans to plant a wide variety of vegetables such as tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, earlier okra, and greens.
Arkansas is one of three pilot states participating in the USDA StrikeForce Initiative. The initiative is designed to help relieve persistent poverty in high poverty counties by accelerating USDA assistance while working closely with Community Based Organizations.
Ms. Martin plans to use her organic farm and hoop house to train at-risk youths and adults how to farm, package, and market produce.
A self-described “one-man band,” Sandy has grown organic sweet corn, purple hull peas, black chowders, cream chowders, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, squash, English peas, pinto beans, watermelon, cantaloupes, okra, pumpkins and sunflowers on her best six-acre plot for the past three years. “My cantaloupe seeds for this year are open-pollinated seeds saved from my daddy’s 1998 crop. They are not hybrid,” she said. “You can plant them and they’ll stay true for what they were and every year you can save them. My daddy’s cantaloupes were this big (she shapes her hands to indicate the size of a small watermelon). I hope mine are as big this year.”
Another ambitious project Sandy is planning is raising free-range only chickens. “I’m excited to get free-range chickens going, for sure, but I have to get [the training program] going before I can get the chickens. I want organic chickens and organic eggs. My grandchildren and I built a ‘chicken’ tractor about 11-12 years ago, from a book I bought,” she said. The system entails a door that opens to let the chickens roam with a tractor pulling the pen through the pasture. “I’ve used this same principle with pig pens. I got my chain saw out and built it. I started with three pigs, the biggest was Boss Hog. She was alive three years later because I couldn’t kill her. Eventually I had 112 head of hogs and 37 head of goats.”
“We think her father used NRCS services,” said Charlie Williams, Arkansas StrikeForce Coordinator. “When we came out to her farm she had these ridges on her farm. Ms. Martin said, ‘I didn’t know what they were for so I just plowed them down.’ She did not know they were terraces. So, I believe that way back, the Soil Conservation Service probably designed those terraces for her dad. She wants to get those terraces back and begin again to plow on the contour.” District Conservationist Todd Sewell will work with Sandy to reinstall the terraces. Burthel Thomas, Assistant State Conservationist for Field Operations, is coordinating efforts to assure that Sandy gets all USDA assistance available to her.
The talk returns to her goals. “When at-risk youths and adults come in and learn organic farming -- how to set up, run, and harvest an organic farm and market its products -- it will give them knowledge and purpose through a complete program. It all must come together,” Sandy said. “Eventually, I also want to develop a place for [participants] to restore old vehicles and use my restaurant for woodworking. It can be a specialty shop and sell organic food, milk and butter.”
“I’ve been on a mission my entire life. I am a humanitarian to a fault, almost. I’m about people and a rescuer. My vision is to bring this about to help humanity be all they can be,” said Sandy.
“I have all kinds of ideas, I just need to get them going,” she concluded.