Tupelo — Not one thing in Will Reed’s childhood or teenage years foreshadowed a life of farming.
“Saturdays were usually days for yard work, but I did not like any part of it,” said the 30-year-old Reed. “I was interested in tennis and trading CDs of live concerts through the mail.”
That was then.
These days, Reed and his wife, Amanda, are the owners of Native Son Farm, which grew literally from the couple’s first garden of less than an acre in 2010 to today’s 20-plus acres at two Tupelo locations.
And, yes, the couple and their three daughters – Magnolia Jane, 4; Juniper Rose, 2; and 3-month-old Olive Lark – feed off the fruits and vegetables of their labor. Many others do as well.
Native Son Farm feeds more than 200 families through its Community Supported Agriculture program.
How does this work?
The Community Supported Agriculture program is a win-win for folks in Northeast Mississippi and for Native Son Farm. The yearly start-up costs on the farm can be extremely high. The produce grown at Native Son is not marketed until mid-April.
That’s where the CSA families enter the picture.
CSA members purchase annual subscriptions, which provide them with a weekly supply of fresh, local, naturally grown vegetables.
“Families sign up in advance of the season,” Reed said. “They pay for their share up front. It’s a membership that guarantees each family their share of what we’re growing.
“I saw this as a part of right livelihood, a way I could support my family while providing a positive, life-giving service,” Reed said. “I saw it as a way to come home to model an alternative view of things in a constructive way. Plus, it’s hard physical work, and it helps me sleep at night.”
Coming home was not always in the cards for Reed, who was born in Jackson but reared in Tupelo from age 7 to 18.
“I didn’t like Mississippi a lot,” he said.
Like other young people, he looked long and longingly for a way out.
He graduated from Tupelo High School, was in a fraternity at Ole Miss, “but I guess you could say I was pretty immature.”
Reed discovered the National Student Exchange, which provides study-away opportunities among its member institutions.
“I picked Humboldt State University in Arcata, California,” he said.
Reed’s reasons were many – it’s close to the Oregon border, there are redwood forests, six rivers run through it, it’s on the ocean and it’s a five-hour drive to San Francisco.
But the primary reason for choosing Humboldt State? “It was the farthest away,” he said. “I was drawn to this self-sufficiency, living-off-the-land idea.”
For Reed, leaving Mississippi was an initial step in his search to discover himself.
“I did a lot of seeking and searching, living off the grid for seven or eight months,” he said.
Then, he met Amanda. She had grown up on a Vermont farm, off the grid – “she was really grounded.”
“So I spent four years out there. I’d fallen in love, I’d become interested in self-sufficiency, and I was realizing some of the good things about Mississippi,” he said.
Reed met Eddie Tanner, a farmer in Arcata who had a CSA farm; Reed gravitated to the all-in-one concept of building community, creating a livelihood for himself, growing good food.
“Doing what he was doing was a way to live a life with value,” Reed said. “It was what I was striving for.”
Returning to the state of his birth became a real possibility.
“Amanda wanted a family,” he said. “And we thought it might be good to be closer to family. I was getting a pretty unemployable degree (cultural anthropology) and I wanted to be self-employed, so I began looking for a path.”
A trip home to Tupelo offered Reed the time to share with his parents his dreams of farming.
“My parents were rightfully skeptical at first,” he said. “My dad pointed out I’d never mowed grass before. But, they eventually got on board and have been very supportive.”
In fact, Reed’s hometown community showed support.
“We have these people who believe in us enough to support us,” Reed said. “They have had faith in the fact that we can do this. That means a great deal.”
In 2010, back home in Tupelo, Reed found himself with four flat acres off Mount Vernon Road near his parents’ home and a tiller he got for graduation. Amanda began working as a teacher at a Montessori school.
In addition to the acreage off Mount Vernon Road, Reed acquired 30 acres in a residential area that happened to be in a flood plain. In 2014, with a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant and a lot of help, heavy equipment was brought in to grade the land for better drainage.
In total, Native Son Farm is made up of 24 tillable acres in two locations.
By all accounts, Will Reed’s meandering pathway to find himself has led him to much success. That doesn’t mean, however, there aren’t days when uncertainties slip in.
“Doing what we do is up and down,” he said. “It would be nice if there were more certainty. I mean, I have three kids and no other income.
“We’re not growing thousands of acres, but we’re feeding a lot of people.”
He’s pleased and proud to be part of a farm family.
Amanda Reed has what she calls Farm School on Wednesday mornings. Mothers bring their children out to learn about growing things. The two older Reed girls often are seen in their colorful rubber boots, helping pick strawberries and other foods grown naturally at Native Son Farm. Their baby sister is present too, strapped in a sling worn by Amanda as she works alongside her husband.
In farming, there’s little down time, Reed has learned. But, he’s got it down to a well-studied science and his to-do list, though large, is now old hat.
“In January, we order seeds, clean equipment, do soil tests, market the CSA; first of February, we get the greenhouses ready for early tomatoes and peppers,” he said. “When it comes right down to it, it turns out there might be two weeks of semi-down time.”
Truth is, farming is a year-round endeavor.
“I look every year for a way to structure things differently for more free time,” he said. “Maybe that’s growing the farm to the point where we can hire more people. But I love doing this. Sometimes I have to pull myself away from it. But we try to have three meals together as a family each day. We make that happen.”
An avowed fan of writer, environmental activist and farmer Wendell Berry, Reed places great value in sustainable agriculture and providing access to clean, safe, nutritional food to his family and his community, which includes those who work at Native Son Farm.
The farm has 12 employees, and some former workers have moved on to start their own farms.
“I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” he said.
Two of the former employees have farms in Louisiana, one near Jackson, one in Starkville, one in Illinois and one in Wisconsin.
“Many are CSAs too, which is awesome,” he said.
CSA pickup days have turned into a social outing, Reed said.
“All the kids have a great time playing when their parents come to pick up their food,” he said.
In addition to the CSA program, Native Son Farm sells its produce at several farmers’ markets, at various restaurants that offer farm-to-table options and, now, at schools.
Through FoodCorps, a national program working to build healthy schools with well-nourished kids, Native Son Farm is making some of its produce available in local cafeterias.
“We’ve recently delivered 360 pints of strawberries to Tupelo schools,” Reed said.
Watching his dream grow into a successful, community-supported/community-supporting endeavor is a wondrous thing for Reed.
“We create more work than can ever be accomplished,” he said. “It’s a challenge, and I love it.
“I hope I can keep doing this ‘til I can’t do it anymore. We are so fortunate to be here doing this where we’ve had lots of support from lots of folks.”