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Ed Perkins

May Profile

Ed Perkins' Sassafras Farm, nestled within the dark, sloping hills of Athens County, radiates life. Butterflies, caterpillars, a pair of dogs, and a kitten romp in the kitchen garden and the rows of vegetables bordered by bright flowers.

The pacific lull and the blossoming fields belie the farm’s difficult beginnings. When Ed purchased the farm in the 1970s, the land was overgrown, abandoned by farmers who moved to town looking for industrial jobs. Athens’ topsoil is notoriously thin and depleted. Ed addressed the problem using "the basic organic principles of good soil care" –building up organic matter and soil fertility with cover crops and crop rotations. Ed collects horse manure from neighboring farms to create compost. He learned many of these principles from some of Rodale’s early volumes, including The Rodale Book of Composting.

The farm has grown slowly but steadily in productivity over the past 30 years. He bought the farm after graduating from Ohio University, where he earned a Master’s degree in botany and met his wife, Amy. They decided to stay in the area when Amy took a teaching job in Athens County. Ed wanted to settle on a farm because he wanted to put his botany and ecology studies into practice, having been a part of the 1970s environmental and back-to-the-land movements. Early on, the farm took a back seat, however, to Ed’s top priority: raising two young children.

Ed uses fairly straightforward farming principles. First of all, he realized that vegetables would bring in the most profit for his small farm. He knew that grains would not fetch a high profit on the same amount of land. Ed employs his own hand labor, so his machinery needs are restricted to a 1954 tractor for tilling. Coupled with the savings from not using chemical inputs, these strategies have added up to one profitable farm. Ed eventually made his farm so efficient that his wife was able to move from a full-time to a part-time position.

Ed measures his success in terms of the increasing income he earns at the Athens farmers’ market. Ed has seen a stable or upward trend in profitability that spans three decades.

Early on, Ed's most important source of knowledge was trial and error. While Ed knew he wanted to farm for a market, he did not start out farming with any budget or master plan. Instead, Ed gave himself room for failure. Ed says, "The nice thing about farming is, every year is a new year, a clean slate. You get that renewal period every year, so there's a lot of opportunity to learn that way."

On the other hand, Ed advises farmers to do what he says and not what he did. Ed believes new farmers should get a good farm internship and attend farm tours. He says that OEFFA provides all the background experience necessary to become a successful farmer. Ed believes that if he had done these things to begin with, he "would have wasted a lot less time making mistakes."

Ed gained much of his farming knowledge from OEFFA farm tours and annual conferences. Now Ed is happy to give his own farm tours and share his knowledge with others. His favorite part of OEFFA is the local chapters, which he calls a grassroots component that "encourages people in the community to get together and form their own group. The best thing is when you can get together and visit other local farms, and OEFFA provides a base for that."

Ed is president of the Athens Chapter. As president he organizes local farm tours, pot luck meals, and a group seed order in the spring. In the winter, Ed arranges for guest speakers or moving showings. The chapter meets about four times per year.

While Ed has been one of OEFFA’s most active and notable members, Ed sees himself as contributing to a social movement that extends beyond OEFFA and his local network. He believes that his “small” farm and local contributions are part of a sustainable movement . Today’s sustainable farmers are "just the nucleus" of what the future holds. While Ed does not consider his farm to be the only model of success or the perfect farm, he does get a lot of satisfaction out of knowing he is part of the solution.

With a small amount of land, few inputs, and an old tractor, Ed has been able to accrue a modest but comfortable livelihood. "Living frugally is a reward," Ed says, "knowing that you can live simply and comfortably without tapping into all the money, and the finance, and the credit, and the debt. You just avoid the whole thing.” His personal health and the longevity of the farm’s productivity testify to this fact. But, if you can believe it, success is more than that. An important part of farming for Ed was “just being able to create [his] own livelihood."

As the clouds clear and the sun shines Athens, Ed’s daughter ,walks past the garden, butterflies and grasshoppers fluttering in all directions like little balls of light. The health of the farm dug into the sloping hills becomes even more apparent and colorful. “There’s nothing more important than growing food,” Ed says. But, I think, Ed is growing much more than food.

About the writer: Danielle Deemer is working on her master's degree in Rural Sociology at the Ohio State University. Danielle, through her OEFFA internship, profiled some of the organization's most accomplished members and their successes, creating OEFFA’s Profiles of Success series. Lauren Ketcham has updated and edited content. This series is being unveiled throughout OEFFA's 30th anniversary celebration year.