A Visit to Sandlin Farm, by Market Manager, Lisa Beasley
Holly Pond, Alabama, Cullman County
13 acres, 4+ under cultivation
Driving onto the Sandlin’s farm is a bit like stopping by a country store. Folks in the neighborhood stop by to pick up a bucket of strawberries and chat a while. Jacob Sandlin stops whatever he’s doing to visit with those who want to pick up something fresh from the farm. On this day, it’s strawberries, and the air smells sweet with the scent of freshly picked Cullman County berries. Sitting under a shed at this small barn, like many other Alabama farmers, Jacob leaves out buckets of strawberries and relies on the honor system. If you pick up something from the farm, you pay – even if no one’s around to take your money.
Jacob and Peyton Sandlin both grew up in farming families. Peyton in Chilton County, surrounded by farmers and peach orchards, for as long as she can remember; Jacob on the land he’s farming now, in the Cullman County community of Holly Pond.
Jacob’s parents sold produce, fruit, and flowers at the Market at Pepper Place for years. Jacob grew up helping them in their tent each Saturday morning. But seven years ago, everything changed. Jacob’s parents decided to retire from farming and sell out. Jacob bought part of the farm, married Peyton and settled down to work raising fruit and produce like his father.
Peyton left her hometown of Clanton and moved north to Cullman County to work side by side with her husband. Jacob says that first year of marriage, and farming, was hard, “I planted 1,500 heirloom tomato plants at the same time – 15 rows of tomatoes! I hadn’t learned my timing yet.” He says that first year he was out working in the field after dark taking care of heirlooms. He says they all ripened at the same time and they were flooded with tomatoes. Looking back at that time and laughing, Jacob tells us he learned an important lesson, “you don’t need unlimited heirlooms even at Pepper Place Market!”
Sandlin Farm’s heirloom tomatoes at the Market
Since those early years, Jacob and Peyton have made many changes to the property his family farmed for 3 generations. They’ve turned their energies to using high tunnels and not just relying on planting in the fields. Jacob says the high tunnels have changed everything for him.
Using pastureland which had never been farmed, this land once owned by his grandfather is now home to Jacob and Peyton’s 4 high tunnels and seedling house. While smaller in size than field planting, the high tunnels allow Jacob to plant tomatoes, and other produce, closer together vertically, “I can fit 640 tomato plants in here using the vertical method.” This allows him to control the temperature and means he uses little to no chemical sprays or treatments on his vegetables and herbs. What little he does use are all organic compounds. This growing method also means he can manage the farm without having to rely on hired help.
This winter, he and Peyton planted spinach, arugula, lettuce, cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes. In March, he lost 600 tomato plants to frost, and, like other Alabama farmers, Jacob has struggled to make sure his early produce and fruit survives the chilly spring weather and rains. But this spring his yield was high and the results were beautiful.
Jacob says he’s come to love working inside a high tunnel for early spring and late fall and winter crops. He tells us, “this method produces way more per square foot than out in the field and that’s a fact. I love it and the yield is better.”
That’s not to say the Sandlin’s won’t sow anything in the field this year. In fact, Jacob showed us a field he’s readying for summer corn and another for squash. Yet another field is prepared and ready for more summer produce with plastic in place and rows ready for seedlings.
But Jacob and Peyton’s favorite places is in their grow house. This is where all seeds are started. They nurture the seeds in trays, warmed on heating pads, throughout the chilly winter days and nights. As they grow, the seedlings are moved and sometimes set outdoors to get a bit of sunshine but placed back indoors at night to protect them until time for planting. Jacob says, “This is my favorite thing to do. I take a lot of care and concern about how things start off.”
After seven years of working the land on his own, Jacob is embracing advances in farming and doing things differently than his father or grandfather did. But, as many other Alabama farmers do, Jacob and Peyton both work off the farm, too. Jacob works for the gas company and Peyton is a middle school teacher. Both work on the farm in the afternoons and on weekends. With a new baby boy, their family is changing, just like their farm. He and Peyton are committed to farming and seem just the kind of dedicated and hard-working farmers our state needs and loves! So stop by and talk to Jacob and Peyton at the Market this year and be sure to check out all the lovely produce they bring each Saturday morning.
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