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Screven County Success Stories

Walker (PDF) (194 KB) html (2011)
Walker (PDF) (226 KB) html (2010)

EQIP Continues to Help Small Farmer Transition into Organic Farming

Relinda Walker is a woman on a mission. Not only is she determined to grow high quality organic produce, Walker is also very conscious about conserving invaluable resources.

Over the last nine years, Walker has worked around the clock to convert several acres of her family’s farm into certified organic fields. Simultaneously, she has had a water management challenge on the Sylvania property.

Through her involvement in her community and the local USDA Service Center, Walker was able to acquaint herself with programs offered by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). District Conservationist, Austin Blackburn, has worked with Walker over the last few years.

Although the process of getting assistance took a lot of patience, Walker said, “I knew there was a natural fit, but I didn’t know what. In spite of goodwill, the programs didn't really fit this type of operation. To be honest, I was very frustrated in the beginning; there was just barrier after barrier. In the end, Austin made it happen!”

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provided the financial assistance that Walker needed to build a solid-set irrigation system on six acres. This was a 2009 contract. “It’s a low pressure system that puts out about inch an hour one section at a time,” Walker explained. “The solid set system is absolutely key. It’s probably the single most important thing I’ve done as an organic farmer,” she added.

A new 2011 EQIP agreement will also help Walker install an additional solid-set irrigation system on five more acres on the farm. Walker has also been able to construct a hoop house on her farm through EQIP. Hoop houses extend the growing season of certain crops. In Walker’s case, she is able to extend the season for the more expensive greens, lettuces and winter salad mixes.

“I think we made a really good choice and did a pretty good job of building it. Having a hoop house will have an enormous impact on business,” Walker said. In addition to the water management plans underway on the farm, Walker is in the process of converting 17 acres of the property to become certified organic land. 50 acres of the farm are already considered certified organic.

The Organic Initiative program, which is funded under EQIP, is assisting Walker with this conservation project. As part of the process, Walker uses cover crops and monitors weeds. “It’s work. It’s really hard. It’s no picnic. Weeds are the biggest problem for an organic farmer. Pigweed is giving everyone problems,” Walker said.

Even though organic farming has been tough, Walker said that NRCS’s involvement through technical and financial assistance has been a big help. “I think what the NRCS is doing is just wonderful. It’s a big organization that helps a lot of farmers in a really specific way, “Walker said.

She hopes to share her experience with the agency with other farmers so that they know about the assistance available to help them meet their production and conservation goals.

Screven County is a designated StrikeForce county in Georgia. The USDA StrikeForce Initiative is designed to help relieve persistent poverty in high-poverty counties.

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Organic Farmer Finds Niche Market

Relinda Walker has spent her life transitioning from one career to another, but from the day she was born, her fate was sealed--she would become a farmer some day. “My dad bought his first tractor the year I was born,” she laughs.

Like many children raised on a family farm, she grew up, went to college and moved away. “I started life as a math teacher, then worked for an educational testing service. Later, she moved into management with technology companies in New Jersey and was an executive when she learned that her mom was ill.

“After my mom died, I moved back,” she said. She convinced her dad to let her use the land to transition to organic agriculture and he was right beside her every step of the way. “I can’t imagine how I would have done it without him,” she said. “He’s taught everyone here (small community of Sylvania, Georgia) how to check to plant a seed at the right depth,” she added.

She sought out various USDA agencies to help. “when I moved down here, I made the rounds--Farm Service Agency and then Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS),” she said.

“I knew there was a natural fit, but I didn’t know what. In spite of goodwill, the programs didn't really fit this type of operation,” Walker said. “To be honest, I was very frustrated in the beginning; there was just barrier after barrier. In the end, Austin (Blackburn, NRCS district conservationist) made it happen!” she added.

She eventually heard about a job with Georgia Organics and ended up experimenting with conservation tillage and, like her father, sharing her knowledge with other farmers.

She received some matching funds from the Georgia Association of Conservation Districts to retrofit pivots.

“I had crops up a hill--peanuts, peas, onion seedlings, we were watering with a traveler. I hated every time we cranked it up; we were wasting water; there was too much pressure and all of the crops got water whether they needed it or not,” she said.

The cost-share helped her install a solid set sprinkler system.

“The water savings is tremendous! I really think it is one of the best investments I’ve made on the farm,” she said. “It’s expanded my ability to do intensive management of my vegetable crops and to grow things with less water. I would say I’ve saved money--definitely saved a lot of labor,” she added.

Although no longer a math teacher, Walker continues to educate and share her newfound knowledge throughout the southeast. She supports the NRCS mission too. “I like the mission side of it (NRCS)--what you’re there for and what you’re trying to do,” she said.

Worth noting, Walker Farms is among the first to successfully grow an organic onion seedbed and she sells organic onion seedlings to other farmers.

After planting two crops and watching them fail, her perseverance paid off and Walker Farms harvested the first Georgia crop of certified organic peanuts to go to market in the spring of 2007.

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