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Genetically Engineered Foods
Oh-so-organic Tune Farm in Falkville

Posted May 2012

Oh-so-organic Tune Farm in Falkville has record year thanks to workers’ hands-on “The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.” — ---Wendell Berry, author

Twenty miles south of Decatur, near the Cullman County line, is the sleepy Southern town of Falkville, population 1,218. It is a town of pick-ups, flea markets, plaid shirts and overalls.

Though rooted in the past and agriculture, the town is also moving to the future. Falkville is the site of Alabama’s first certified organic farm, Tune Farm, home to three farmers, chickens, three peacocks, barn cats and a dog named Carla.

Down a gravel driveway, nestled along the railroad tracks — where the train rumbles past 40 times a day — Diane Tune walks the rows of crops, leans over a plant, picks a pepper and takes a bite.

“Oh, oh, it’s a Joe E. Parker, oh,” Tune said, tears welling in her eyes as she waved her hand in front of her mouth. “I have to taste them because they look like the sweet peppers, and once I sent a bag of hot peppers home with a customer thinking they were sweet. Now my tastebuds are shot for the day.”

And the day had just begun.

It was 8 a.m. on a Friday, known around the Tune Farm as harvest day, and the two acres of turnip greens, tomatoes, okra, beans, lettuce and carrots still needed picking, washing and sorting.

“We go to farmers’ markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Harvest days are Tuesdays and Fridays so the vegetables are as fresh as they can be,” said farm manager, bread baker and vinegar maker Suze Bono, setting down a tub of turnip greens.

As Bono grabbed a scale to weigh the crops, nine chickens stealthily and silently circled the greens, clucking in anger when shooed away by Bono.

“Not only are we farmers, we are also chicken wranglers,” said farm manager Oliver Flowers, blocking the tub with his body. “But they do lay eggs for us.”

With only two weeks remaining in the farm’s fall season — a record-breaking season for Tune Farm — the farmers can’t spare even one leaf for the chickens, even if they do produce protein.

“Last year, the farm made about $8,000. We haven’t done the final numbers yet, but it looks like this year we will at least double that,” said Tune. “In farming, every cent counts.”

The farm’s proprietor credited Bono and Flowers, who spent the last 11 months working the fields, for the success.

In the winter, they built a greenhouse and tended the ground. In the spring, they worked from dawn until dusk hoeing, weeding and planting.

“During planting season, we worked from sun-up until sundown, actually until after sundown. There was so much to do,” said Bono. “I know it’s cliché, but there were never enough hours in the day.”

And in the summer, the self-described “rag tag” duo braved one of Alabama’s hottest seasons on record, waking at 5 a.m., working until 10:30 a.m. and returning to the fields in the afternoon.
“We had to harvest. If a tomato is ready, you can’t just leave it on the vine,” said Flowers, who grew up in Louisiana, graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and worked on a blueberry farm in Maine.

For the farmers, the sweat, aches and sunburns were worth the result, and they sold the crops at the Madison City Farmers Market, the market at Redstone Arsenal and to 15 consumers participating in a Community Supported Agriculture project. They did it, though, not for the money, but for the love of the land.

“Here I have touched, handled and worked each and every plant. These are like my babies,” said Bono, a native of Pennsylvania who worked in farming communities in California and Maine and dreams of owning her own farm with Flowers. Tune agreed.

“There have been times when a buyer was haggling me over a price of a pepper, and I just wanted to say, ‘You don’t understand. This is where I fell down on my knees, tired and exhausted and asked for God to give me the strength to go on,’ ” Tune said.

In a world where success is often judged by the amount of money a person makes and in an era where technology is making living faster and easier, farming is not a life chosen by many. But it is a life Flowers and Bono desire and it is the life Tune, a one-time “big-city girl” who lived in Los Angeles, created.

In 2004, Tune, inspired by the writings of Wendell Berry, transformed the 260 acres of land her father bought in 1968 into a farm.

“I was discouraged and lonely. Berry talks about cherishing the land and tending to it. My family had this land, and we were not doing anything with it. I didn’t know anything about farming, and I’m still learning, but I love this,” Tune said. “If I wasn’t working my own land, I would be working someone else’s. This makes sense to me. It’s joyous.”

Tune envisioned the land as a farm and a wildlife refuge. Where Tune’s father once demolished beaver dams, she allowed them to stay.

“Farmers just don’t allow beaver dams because they flood the land. I want my land to be a really beautiful relationship between human use and nature use,” Tune said. “It is amazing how allowing nature to be has transformed the land.”

Tune received her organic certification in 2003.

After farming the land by herself for five years, the self-made farmer sought help online last autumn. In Maine, 1,300 miles from Tune Farm, Bono and Flowers saw the post.

“We were looking for winter farm work and thought we would stay for only a few months,” Flowers said.

“When Diane asked us to stay, we had to. We have become attached to the land and the people,” Bono added. “I find it funny that my friends now are all farmers in their 60s.”

In the past 11 months they, like Tune, have become part of the land and of Falkville. They know the train blows its whistle four times when passing.

They know picking okra burns. They know how to cook eggplant. And they now know what purple hull peas are.

After taking a break for the winter, it is a land they will return to in February.

“We not only want to provide healthy food, we also want to educate people. We want people to understand that it does matter what goes into their food and where it comes from,” Bono said.

State’s first organic farm

Tune Farm at 85 Old U.S. 31 in Falkville is the site of Alabama’s first certified organic farm. As an organic farm, Tune Farm uses organic hay and materials certified and checked by the state. The farm does not use sprays.

“If there is a bug outbreak on the crops, then we go out there and pinch them with our fingers,” said Suze Bono, farm manager. “But bugs usually mean a plant is weak, and here we don’t have weak plants.” --Bonnie Sims 

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