On Farming as a First Career

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The hum of friendly chatter mingles with a singer-songwriter’s crooning as the Athens Farmers Market fills on any given Saturday morning.  “Hi, how are you doing today?” bandies back and forth from grower to consumer and back again.

Derek Pope and Sydney Buffington of Ladybird Farm are new to this market but have already established a following of customers. They stand out with a fresh aesthetic, a well-presented variety of produce offerings with a flair for the unique and, of course, their youthful demeanors.

“We are the youngest people here by far as owner-operators,” Sydney said. “Most people do this as their second career and I’m really happy that we’re doing it as our first.” 

After about a year living in the college town of Bellingham, Washington, and experiencing firsthand competitive farming in the Pacific Northwest, they realized it was time to return to Athens, Georgia, where their connections run deep both with family and in the restaurant industry. Derek and Sydney simply had the feeling that the farm-to-table and farmers market scene were more vibrant and honest here.

In Washington, Derek struggled to find work in localized fisheries despite his east coast education at Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at UGA. Sydney managed a lavender farm and worked on an apple orchard with a small vegetable garden.

“I was in a bunch of really competitive markets in Washington,” Sydney recalled. “They were really intense because the cost of living there is insane but the prices [of vegetables] are lower there somehow.”

When Ladybird Farm checked into the Athens Farmers Market, they expected that level of rigorous paperwork and regulations. What they found was a community of growers. Carter Dodd of Diamond Hill Farm, for whom Derek was working when they first returned to Athens, sold them their farmland and offered tips on how to price produce. Every farm is aiming to find that happy medium of living wage and affordability for the consumer; no one would ever undercut intentionally.

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This ethos translates to the direct-to-restaurant business too. While at the market, Jessica Rothacker, owner of Heirloom Café and big supporter of Ladybird Farm, stops in to their booth to shop for produce for her home. This is the kind of loyalty and community connection that sets Athens apart. Restaurateurs, chefs and consumers want to really know their farmers.   

“It makes it a lot easier to sell wholesale when you have that in,” said Derek. From years working in restaurants, including Heirloom Café, he understands the important things like when to come with deliveries, how to best process orders and what chefs are looking for.

Derek and Sydney are growing some selections that will primarily be for wholesale like Mexican sour gerkins or jelly melons. They are up for an experiment, occasionally driven by a glass of wine or two while ordering seeds, and that is a fresh perspective to see at the market.

“One of the biggest things I hear about the farmers’ market is that ‘I go around and see the same stuff at every stand, so why wouldn’t I buy everything from the first stand’. I mean, fair enough,” acknowledged Sydney. “I want people to come to us because we have something that they don’t have over there. I think we’ll get there in time for sure.”

For now it’s about figuring out their farm and what works for the livelihood of two young farmers.

“As soon as food started happening, the farm was paying at least for our bills,” said Sydney with pride. “And now [Derek]’s out of service industry and I’m only doing it one day a week. And I don’t necessarily have to do that but…I like nice things, so I’m okay with a little pocket change.”

While balancing every pursuit they have in mind, the couple isn’t afraid to have a side hustle or two, to take risks, expand their business and to be able to hire another hand soon. These may sounds like big milestones, but Derek and Sydney aren’t afraid of aspiration.

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Written and Photographed by Erin Wilson

This story was created in partnership with Georgia Organics. The 2020 Georgia Organics Conference & Expo is Feb. 7-8, 2020 in Athens, Ga. Get excited!

This story was created in partnership with Georgia Organics. The 2020 Georgia Organics Conference & Expo is Feb. 7-8, 2020 in Athens, Ga. Get excited!