Taking a stroll around Homestead Farms Greenhouse and Nursery in Coldwater, MS, I found myself in a wonderland of plant diversity. I wandered through this maze of densely-arranged pots featuring flowering magnolias, budding butterfly bushes, adolescent pear trees, and many plants I had never heard of before. “I want to provide things that no one else does,” says owner Robert Kubler. He has surely succeeded in that goal, with Homestead providing a polyculture of fruit trees, bushes, ornamentals, vegetable seedlings, and many species native to the South.
The history of Homestead Farms reflects the journey many American farms have taken over the past four decades. After working in plant nurseries for years and aspiring to become self-sufficient, Mr. Kubler established Homestead as a two-acre farm with vegetables, animals, and a greenhouse in 1977. The community business has flourished over the years, though the focus has shifted towards house plants, ornamentals, and providing landscaping services for north Mississippi and Tennessee. In hindsight, Mr. Kubler warned our tour, “Don’t get big. We fell into that ‘getting big’ trap by wanting to fill a need. And pretty soon, you’re a slave to the bank.” Though Homestead has thrived—expanding to 28 acres and 35 greenhouses in Coldwater as well as a half-acre retail nursery in— this has cost Kubler some of the self-sufficiency that he sought when he originally opened the business. “If we can get out from under the bank, we will be able to do what we want.”
Homestead has begun to transition back to its roots, focusing more on its vegetable fields, orchards, and animals like chickens and beef cattle. Kubler’s commitment to sustainability runs deep, informing his growing practices and designs. When speaking about the outlawed use of DDT as a pesticide in the US, Kubler draws a map in the air with his finger; American chemical companies still produce DDT, ship it overseas where regulations allow farms to use it on their crops, which then get shipped back to American distributors. “You don’t truly know what you’re getting at the grocery store,” he says. Though his greens might have a few holes in the leaves, he points out, “If I’m not poisoning my bugs, I’m not poisoning you.” Though he does still use some commercial fertilizer, he is anxious to move beyond that.
What is his plan, you might ask? It starts with an understanding of the foundational earth cycles and a talent for creating well-designed systems. “Every time you remove a radish, a leaf of kale, a tomato, you are taking something from the system. We have to give something back to the land so that it is better than when we found it.” Whether it involves using straw mulch, cover cropping, or composting animal and plant waste, his goal is not only to conserve, but to enrich the soil. His ideal farming system would employ one-third of his acreage in production, one-third in cover cropping, and one-third resting and rejuvenating. This helps to build up the soil and nurture the animal and microbial life that calls it home. In addition to the permaculture techniques he practices, Kubler also stacks the deck in his favor, using native plants like plums and persimmons that are well-adapted to the climate in north Mississippi. His extensive array of perennials, such butterfly bushes and hibiscus, also helps attract beneficial insects for pest control and pollination.
Homestead plans to remain financially sustainable throughout this transition by evolving and adapting the business as part of a community. “If we’re doing something nobody else is doing, we won’t have to compete,” Kubler says. Homestead currently sells its vegetables and some animal products at the Hernando Farmers Market, though he points out that food safety regulations (particularly regarding food processing) are tailored to favor large producers over small, independent farms. “I can sell whole pea pods, but I need a special license to sell shelled peas? That doesn’t make any sense.” Kubler believes that it will take community support to change these regulations to support more local businesses and farmers. Perhaps most importantly, Kubler is committed to passing on his knowledge and fostering a community that recognizes the human dependence on the earth. “Everybody used to have a garden and chicken coop at home. People don’t have that training from parents and grandparents anymore.” Always committed to biodiversity, he advises us, “You need to grow some weird stuff in school gardens to show kids just how much is out there. Kids don’t know that there are hundreds of different species of plums.”
You can visit Homestead Farms at 255 Hardin Lane in Coldwater, MS, just minutes east of I-55, about 30 minutes drive south of Memphis. Also visit their website and like them on Facebook to stay up-to-date on the beautiful things they have growing!
By Robert Raymond, FoodCorps Service Member
Photos by Danny Klimetz