STORY AND PHOTOS BY PATTIE BAKER
“How are you with hopping fences?” the slim, blue-jeaned farmer asked me, as he bounded up and over, leaving me still trudging through the mud where we left the car, cows already surrounding and licking it. He reached out his hand, always a gentleman, but he was already looking ahead, as usual—this time to the field on the other side of the fence. He wanted to show me how he had interplanted turnips there with clover to crowd out weeds, provide a “green manure” of organic matter and supply nitrogen to the next season’s crop while still getting a harvestable crop this season.
I knew this about him already, his tendency to look ahead. I hopped the fence and hustled to keep up with him, as usual. It’s easy to forget when you are with him that he is 83 years old. I first met Rod Pittman one hot, summer day shortly after he moved to Atlanta four years ago, at a grassy field that a small group of us, mostly strangers, were hoping to turn into a community garden. Since then, I’ve seen him plant cover crops every year for the next season’s benefit, asparagus for the next 15 years and fruit trees for the next 30.
I’ve seen him teach people from a span of four generations how to create a garden right there on their lawn with nothing but a switchblade and a few seeds, build a balanced compost system and shake a fruit tree clean while he himself dangled precariously on the end of the highest branch, all so we would know how to do those things for years to come as well.
I’ve even seen him rushed to the hospital right from the garden’s greenhouse on the only day I’ve ever known him not to be well, and witnessed with awe how he came back mere days later to work on the many ongoing experiments he has in there—the seed bed, the overhead irrigation, the solar heating barrels, the strawberry tower.
And I’ve seen time and time again the sheer joy on his face when he creates something completely original, like that “goat mower” idea of his where he put a few pygmy goats in a moveable cage he built with holes for their heads to poke out so they could “mow” the sweet clover path between crop rows, dragging the cage along as they go.
On the day of the fence hopping, we were at The Veggie Patch at Bouchard Farms, a Certified Naturally Grown and USDA Certified Organic farm in Commerce, Georgia, about an hour north of Dunwoody where Rod and his bride of 54 years, Jerrie, moved to be closer to family in 2009. Rod, with organic farming experience from Europe to Mexico to California, had been setting up a pheromone-based insect control system at his daughterin- law’s cousin’s farm in North Georgia when a man named Dr. James Bouchard found out about him. Dr. Bouchard, the founder and medical director of Allied Ankle and Foot Care Centers around metro Atlanta, discovered a kindred spirit in Rod and hired him as an organic farming consultant on the first phase of his live/work/play master plan for the old dairy farm he owns.
Rod drives up to The Veggie Patch seven days a week, stays from sunup to sundown, and makes his rounds, doctor-like, throughout the farm, checking for insects, crop maturity, moisture levels, fertilizer needs and planting schedules. Dr. Bouchard, who considers Rod to be a genius, says that having him on the farm is like having a living, breathing internet there all the time. As Jerrie puts it, “He travels 140 miles round trip every single day to go play in the dirt.”
Clearly this relationship between Dr. Bouchard, his farm and Rod is a match made in heaven. By the end of this story, you may see that truth even deeper. But first, the goat mower. I hadn’t yet seen the goat mower and I asked him if he had given up on that.
“Given up?” he replied, cocking his head to the side. “No, I haven’t given up on that. I’m going to try it again, but with bigger goats. The pygmy ones didn’t work right. I needed too many to pull the cage. But I just don’t have the time right now—I’m so busy!”
And then he showed me the papaya trees. He has them in large pots in a massive temperature- controlled greenhouse, heated sustainably by felled wood from the property, from which peppers, tomatoes, herbs, a wide variety of transplants and more (along with literally dozens of varieties of crops grown in a bunch of hoop houses and on about 35 acres outdoors) make their way to Whole Foods Market locations in four states, farmers markets and the farm (also available online). He says these papayas will bear fruit in only one year, as opposed to the others he has that take two to three years. When I prod with more questions, he throws up his hands, smiles and says, “I don’t know anything about them at all—but I have 70 of them”.” His other ones are producing beautiful fruit, so he believes these will, too. As far as he can tell, his papayas will be the only commercially grown organic papayas in the world, and, as always, he wonders what else is possible. And that’s how Rod works.
“I’m self-made,” Rod told me. “That means I’ve made just about every mistake that can be made. I’ve grown the wrong varieties. I’ve planted them at the wrong time. I’ve overwatered. But I watch nature, and I try different things and I learn.”
From the age of 9, this son of a pharmacist in Duncan, Oklahoma, who was raised during dirt-poor Depression days where dinner meant squirrel or catfish or whatever else they could trap or catch, sped off on his bike every Friday after school to spend the weekend at the farm of a Texas millionaire on the edge of town. He eventually learned to ride horses and rope and wrangle, went on to ride bulls and wrestle steers in rodeos and simply knew in his heart of hearts that farming was his calling, even years later when he joined the Air Force and became a jet engine technician working on F-86 Sabre jets during the Korean War. He lost most of his hearing as a result of that assignment (which is why a sign at The Veggie Patch says “For assistance, honk horn 5 times”), but he gained a lot, too. He visited farms all over Asia and learned from every technique he saw, reconfirming his commitment to the land. He requested his discharge in the great farming region of the Imperial Valley in Southern California and set off on what he calls “his life’s work.”
Unable at first to afford hearing aids, he found great joy and comfort alone in the fields, first as a cattle rancher and then as an insect controller. He then became a pest control advisor and qualified applicator, discovering in the process, a passion for the scientific study of insects called entomology.
This led to the creation, with his business partner, of a nontoxic pest control system for farms. They showcased it at a trade show in Monterey which led to a life-changing chance encounter. Rod happened upon a lecture by Dr. Elaine Ingham, the world-renowned soil microbiologist, and questioned her about what was really possible downstate in the hot climate where he was growing. Every single thing he thought wasn’t possible to grow organically, she countered with, “You can.”
And thus began the next phase of Rod’s life— helping farms reduce their use of pesticides and convert to organic growing through improved microbial life in their soil and more effective natural insect control. In addition to many farms in Imperial Valley, he has consulted on a strawberry farm in Switzerland, an apple farm in Germany, a broccoli farm in Mexico and a dairy farm in Parma, Italy, that uses its milk to make the famous Parmesan cheese. As a result of his more-than-50-years of organic growing experience, Rod wholeheartedly believes that “compost tea is the key to the kingdom.”
The Veggie Patch at Bouchard Farms is sort of like coming home to Rod and not just because he says it’s shaped like the state of Oklahoma. “Here I use all the accumulated knowledge of my life,” he explained. “And the soil is so beautiful and rich in minerals, like the soil in Imperial Valley.”
Now, let’s go back to the idea that this farm and Rod are most probably a match made in heaven. Rod understandably doesn’t like to talk about this, but it’s a major part of his life and it helped shape the fearless man he is so it’s hard to leave out. When Rod and Jerrie’s daughter, Debbie, was 17, she was checking plants in a field for her father one day to earn a little extra money. She didn’t come home on time. She had been murdered. Her picture graces the mantel over the fireplace in Rod and Jerrie’s home, and Jerrie talks openly and warmly about her time spent raising two children during her younger days with Rod. “I feel that God gave me an angel for a little while,” he told me. “And that my angel watches over me every day of my life. And so I strive to live the fullest life I can.”
And strive he does. He has plans.
He’s investigating the best fish species to use for an aquaponics addition to the greenhouse at The Veggie Patch. “There’s a salmon that thrives in the natural water temperature in our climate so it doesn’t need to be heated,” he told me, his eyes lighting up.
He’d like to go to Costa Rica, where a friend has a farm he’s been meaning to visit. He’s looking forward to interns from the University of Georgia working at the farm this summer.
He loves mentoring John Herron, a young man he met at the community garden who now comes to the farm frequently to work on the large compost operation they’re developing together.
And there’s still those papayas to watch grow. “There’s nothing very technical about me,” Rod told me. “I’m really very simple. I guess I’m what you’d call an idea man.”
I don’t know exactly what Rod did that day after he and I got home from the farm, but I’m pretty sure it included taking a few moments to jot some notes in the log book he’s been keeping of his daily activities for more than 30 years. He told me he doesn’t write these down as history. He writes them down as notes to himself for next year. Just like when he planted that asparagus, everything Rod Pittman does is with an eye to the future. He’s always looking ahead.
Pattie Baker is a metro Atlanta-based writer specializing in sustainability for publications and corporations. She blogs at FoodShed Planet and is the author of Food for My Daughters: what one mom did when the towers fell (and what you can do, too).
HANDS-ON TIPS FROM ROD PITTMAN
- Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
- Compost tea is the “key to the kingdom.”
- Plant tomatoes every two feet.
- Plant head lettuce every 12 inches.
- Feed all veggies with liquid fish once a month.
- “Companion plant” with cover crops.
- Cut clover at the bud stage to maximize nitrogen in the soil.
- Use pheromones to control insects.
- Be sure to add calcium to your soil.
- And never forget this: Every plant has a survival gene, so it can handle more than you realize. (Sort of like people?)