Paulk finds second career with organic farming work

AFP Correspondent

PARK HILL, Md. (June 10, 2014) — It was a love of gardening that sparked the idea of a second career in organic farming for Navy man David Paulk.
“As my job got more stressful, the garden just got bigger. It was like an antidote to the stress. A way to find joy,” said Paulk who served 26 years in the Navy as an aircraft maintenance manager.
He retired in 2011, the same year he and his wife, Jennifer, launched Sassafras Creek Farm. It was a venture they originally agreed to try out for year.
Now in their fourth year, the Certified Organic farm has grown from five acres to 80 acres. They produce more than 90 varieties of fruits and vegetables, which are sold at local farmers markets, food stores and farm-to-table restaurants.
David’s career in the Navy took the couple around the world to 11 different duty stations, including a stay in Japan, before ultimately landing in Southern Maryland at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
No matter where they were, David said, he and Jennifer always had some kind of vegetable garden.
So naturally, one of the first things they did when they bought their five-acre property in Park Hall was plant a garden.
It wasn’t long before the interest in small-scale farming began to take hold. Jennifer, who is an Environmental Scientist for the Navy, became a certified Master Gardener through the University of Maryland Extension and David said they were quickly growing more produce than they could eat themselves.
Their colleagues at the Naval Air Station were happy to relieve them of the excess produce.
The couple said it was their co-workers’ enthusiasm that encouraged the couple to consider turning the hobby farm into a working farm.
“People were excited about our produce and we had an instant connection with people on the base,” said David.
The same year he retired, David entered the Future Harvest-CASA Beginning Farmer Training Program. He made a 100-mile round trip commute once a week to apprentice with Jack Gurley of Calvert’s Gift Farm in Sparks, Md. David called the training, “instrumental in our farm’s success.”
David and Jennifer are now mentor farmers themselves, hoping to help other would-be farmers get their start. Mentoring other farmers is as much a mission of the farm as anything else.
“Helping other farmers is part of our charter. It can be lonely out there, having the support of other like minded small farmers is important. I do it because I believe it is important to encourage others to get into farming. It helps us build a community and keeps farming on the forefront. If I had my way, I’d hire everyone,” said David.
David works full-time on the farm and Jennifer part-time. They also have a full time farm manager, Chad Briar, from Asheville, N.C., and five part-time employees.
Growing organic fruits and vegetables was a logical decision for the Paulks.
That’s how they grew vegetables in their garden and they wanted to continue that model in the farm business. Their farm is certified organic by Quality Certification Services, Inc., a part of the business that Jennifer oversees.
David said it’s easier to list off the things he doesn’t grow than go through the 90 some varieties he does. Many of his plants are specialty or heirloom variety.
Some are grown by special request, like the Espelette pepper, grown exclusively for Woodberry Kitchen. Chef Spike Gjerde dehydrates the peppers and grinds it to make his own paprika.
David and Jennifer said by working closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and have installed an number of conservation practices including a high tunnel which extends their harvest into all four seasons. David also plants 44 acres of continuous organic cover crop.
He said they planted organic cover crops immediately when they bought the farm, which was previously in conventional agriculture.
“Cover crops are essential to an organic farm. You have to have healthy soil to have healthy vegetables. We keep doing that to improve the soil quality. As an organic farm, we don’t have access to traditional fertilizers, so soil health is everything.”
Sassafras Creek Farm was the first farm in St. Mary’s County and the first organic farm in Maryland to be certified in the Farm Stewardship Certification and Assessment Program through the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts.
FSCAP is a voluntary program that acknowledges farmers who apply conservation best management practices and protect natural resources.
David said his military career helped him establish the foundation he needed for a second career in farming.
“My military training has lend itself to the farm by helping managing people, managing the farm and farm projects and having a get-it-done attitude.
Also, traveling in my military career opened me to seeing the world and being more open-minded to take risk and try different things, such as small scale sustainable farming.”
And he said he doesn’t lose sleep over worries about increase competition from new growers.
“There is such an untapped demand for local produce. We’re only scratching the tip,” said David, “A rising tide lifts all boats. There are so many opportunities for new farmers. There always seems to be room for more.”