It’s hard to picture the 25- to 30-year-old pecan grove’s potential at first glance.
Thick, heavily twisted vines; random roadside debris; and scattered leaves from years gone by fog the vision on Willow Lake Drive in Fort Valley, Georgia.
Then, farmer LeMario Brown, 34, starts raking through leaves with his feet. Pecans appear. Next, he snags vines down. The 5-acre grove of 100 pecan trees slowly wakes up as if they were once stuck in Antebellum South time.
“This pecan grove is my next big agricultural project,” said Brown, chest puffed with a grin. “I can’t wait.”
Working through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Conservation Stewardship Program, Brown is about to revitalize the orchard, which he acquired March 2019. After all, pecans are one of the most popular all-season nuts. They’re a beneficial source of protein, minerals and vitamins. And the Peach State leads the nation in pecan production.
“Their purchase power is yearlong,” he said. “October and November are prime time months to harvest, too.” Brown also owns and operates 3-plus acres on his parent’s property five minutes up the road on Carver Drive. This small enterprise includes goats, pigs, cows, chickens, peppers, collards and squash. “To handle the produce side of things, NRCS also provided assistance with a high tunnel to extend my growing season,” said Brown. “Now, I’m starting to put in my winter greens.”
Brown keeps one foot on the land, the other in local politics. Currently, he serves as Fort Valley’s mayor pro-tem. Already, Brown has helped pass legislation to decriminalize marijuana in the rural city.
“One day I hope we can move to growing it,” he said, “especially since there are innovative farmers interested in agriculture’s hemp movement. I’m looking into possible zones to grow hemp.”
Elected by city council each year, Brown has no opposition in 2019’s Tuesday, Nov. 5, election. He plans to keep agriculture-related projects and programs on his agenda to help move the city into new development directions.
“Politics and agriculture go hand in hand,” he said. “I hope I can continue in this role to develop ways of strengthening our local economy, bringing new industry in and encouraging Fort Valley State University’s ag students to put their talents to use right after graduating.”
Brown earned a bachelor’s degree from Fort Valley State University (FVSU) in criminal justice during 2009. He also interned with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After putting his degree and family farming into practice, he decided to return to the classroom. He then earned a master’s degree in public administration in 2015 at Columbia Southern University.
“Everything I’ve learned works together,” he said. “I look at things now both as a consumer and producer. I have a deeper understanding and respect for various business models, markets and how economics work for a community.”
When he’s not working with city council and on community assignments, Brown helps to train Peach County’s workforce. He is executive director for Literacy Education for Adults in Peach, Inc. He couples that role with volunteering at Peach Concerned Citizens, Inc. His personal mission is to help increase African-American’s participation in the voter registration process.
“My biggest challenge has been getting more young, black folk involved in politics and agriculture,” he said. “Our food systems and who makes the rules for these systems are important. We need to make sure we’re fully represented and at the table when these discussions come up.”
Brown says he stays in constant conversations with community leaders and FVSU’s senior leadership to address economic development concerns and sustainable job opportunities for students in the valley. “FVSU is a goldmine,” he said. “We have to figure out a way for our graduating classes to stay and see the value in investing in Fort Valley. They’re doing so much groundbreaking research in agriculture over there.”
He wants to start putting realistic solutions and actions behind the possibility of pipelining campus agricultural efforts into community ones. Browns connection to Fort Valley and the land is generational. Both his paternal and maternal grandpa’s leased farmland and worked as contractors for larger agribusinesses in the area. “They knew everything from livestock to produce,” Brown said.
Like Black Belt Region farmers before him, Brown knows firsthand farming is a struggle. He’s watched crops rot. Experienced long waiting periods. Spent a lot of money to keep up his family’s farm.
“I still don’t think I’m where I want to be,” he said. “It’s definitely not an instant grits career, but one our community and young folk need.”
It’s an around-the-clock commitment. “As a black farmer, it’s even harder when you don’t have capital as a cushion,” said Brown. “That’s why having networks in the community with neighboring farmers you trust and can rely on is important. Oftentimes, we have to pull our resources together, and that’s OK.”
Right now, Brown is focusing most of his farming energy on the pecan grove. He’s been partnering with FVSU extension program to survey the aged orchard for diseases.
“This project has shown me the significance of technology to agriculture,” Brown said. “I use the extension department’s drones to get better aerial views of the tree tops and other things I might not easily see from the ground. Drones are extremely helpful. I plan to have my grove up and running within the next five years. It’s possible.”
Brown’s 5 actions to build a successful ag biz
+ KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO GROW. “Make sure you have a clear understanding about the type of business you’re trying to pursue,” Brown said. “Put a comprehensive plan in place about the services or products you want to create. Then outline how you will make it all happen.”
+ IDENTIFY THE RIGHT PROPERTY. “Are you going to own or lease? Is it heirs property? Is this land great for growing crops or not? These are all things you have to take into consideration,” he said.
+ FIND A NETWORK OF RELIABLE FARMING MENTORS. “You want to link up with like minds,” he said. “The black struggle is real, so you want to build relationships with ones who truly understand where you’re trying to go. Having mentors helps you eliminate a lot of mistakes along the way.”
+ ATTEND CONFERENCES RELATED TO YOUR AG INTERESTS. “I love hearing other farmers’ testimonies,” Brown said. “Conferences are some of the best places to get these stories and new information to grow your agribusiness.”
+ DRESS FOR THE JOB. “Sounds silly, but a lot of folks wanting to get into farming don’t really understand what all comes with it,” Brown said. “That includes dressing for the part. Have the right safety equipment and proper clothing on at all times. Sun tan lotion applies, too.”