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#Fridaysonthefarm: From Washington, D.C. to Africa, to Farming in Alabama

#Fridaysonthefarm: Sneaky Crow Web HeaderStory by Amelia Dortch, Suzanne Pender, and Elizabeth Creech, NRCS; photos by Amelia Dortch, NRCS; Sneaky Crow Farm

Each Friday, meet farmers, producers and landowners through our #Fridaysonthefarm stories. Visit local farms, ranches, forests and resource areas where NRCS and partners help people help the land.  CLICK HERE to view all #Fridaysonthefarmstories.


This Friday, meet Gene Thornton of Sneaky Crow Farm in Roanoke, Alabama and learn how he works with Mother Nature to produce organic fruits and vegetables for his community.

#Fridaysonthefarm: Sneaky Crow Web Map 

Working with Mother Nature

Though he’s a sixth-generation farmer, Gene has worn many hats in his lifetime. He worked at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. for several years, many miles from his family farm in Alabama. While stationed in Africa, Gene admired the local farming practices and gained wisdom from local farmers. Inspired by that experience, he set out to transition his family’s beef cattle farm into an organic fruit and vegetable farm. 

#Fridaysonthefarm: Sneaky Crow Web Photo 1

Gene Thornton putting down plastic mulch that helps suppress weeds organically.

Gene has a deep respect for nature and believes in giving back to the earth, not just taking from it. He takes stewardship seriously, with the aim of improving the farm for the next generation.

“We have to pass it on to our descendants and leave it in better shape than we found it.” -Gene Thornton

Sharing Organic Farming Knowledge

Gene is a keen observer of the natural systems on his farm. For instance, he uses trap crops instead of pesticides. Trap crops attract undesirable pests and keep them off his cash crop. His innovations include pest management practices that use pheromone traps as well as a rainwater harvesting system for irrigation. Gene shares his knowledge of organic and sustainable farming practices with university students when they visit his farm.

“We farm organically by dealing with erosion and insects and weed problems using non-synthetic measures," says Gene. "We also deal with intercropping and crop rotations. It’s a big misconception that is more difficult to farm organically than it is to farm using conventional methods."

#Fridaysonthefarm: Sneaky Crow Web Photo 2

 

Conservation with NRCS

Gene also enjoys collaborating with other conservation professionals. With the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, he developed a conservation plan that recommended a variety of conservation practices to boost soil health, improve wildlife habitat and conserve water.  

#Fridaysonthefarm: Sneaky Crow Web Photo 3The Thorntons value the relationships they’ve formed with NRCS and conservation groups. Pictured left to right in group image: Alice Love, NRCS Agricultural Outreach Liaison, Randall Wordlaw, NRCS District Conservationist, Rose Thornton, Gene Thornton, and Eddie May, Retired Executive Director of the Coosa Valley RC&D Council.

NRCS helped Gene to procure a high tunnel that enabled him to extend the growing season. A high tunnel is an enclosed structure that traps heat from the sun, enabling farmers to plant earlier and harvest later. He now grows cold tolerant crops like spinach, carrots, beets, onions, broccoli, Swiss chard, arugula and salad greens during the winter months and can produce tomatoes and beans through December. 

His water saving practices include drip irrigation, plastic mulch and his rainwater harvesting system.
To improve soil health, Gene plants cover crops like ryegrass, clover, turnips, and peas. This prevents soil erosion during the winter and adds nitrogen and organic matter into the soil. 

"It’s a very complex process, but it works," says Gene. "It cuts down on the use of nitrogen. As you can imagine, organic fertilizers cost a lot more than traditional. We try to use Mother Nature and natural resources and we figured out a long time ago that we’ve got to grow cover crops to replenish organic matter and also to get the nitrogen.”

The Naming of Sneaky Crow Farm

Crows help with pests, and their appearance inspired the name “Sneaky Crow Farm.” One day, Gene's wife saw crows eating watermelon from the field and exclaimed, “Those sneaky crows!” 

“We don't harm the crows, because they help keep the environment in balance by eating lots of insects on our farms,” says Gene. This is just another example of Gene working with nature, not against, to grow the healthiest produce possible.

#Fridaysonthefarm: Sneaky Crow Web Photo 4Gene works with nature, not against, to raise a range of organic fruits and vegetables at Sneaky Crow Farm. "Those sneaky crows" are even on board!

Farmer of the Year

District Conservationist Randall Wordlaw regards Gene's commitment to conservation as inspirational, saying, “You have so many people who don’t do things the way the Thorntons do and it’s good to see him doing it with so much passion.”

#Fridaysonthefarm: Sneaky Crow Web Photo 5All of this innovation and care for natural resources has led to Gene being recognized as the 2018 Alabama Farmer of the Year.

#Fridaysonthefarm: Sneaky Crow Web Photo 6

Gene provides his farmers market customers with fresh, healthy organic produce from Sneaky Crow Farm.

Visit the NRCS website to learn more about voluntary conservation opportunities near you, or visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/organic to learn more about NRCS assistance for organic producers.

Join the Conversation

Follow the #Fridaysonthefarm and other voluntary conservation stories on @USDA_NRCS Twitter and @USDA FacebookView the interactive ESRI storymap of this #Fridaysonthefarm feature.