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Alabama-grown: Chilton County farmer cultivates her dream

THORSBY, Alabama – Taylor Boozer Hatchett didn’t grow up on a farm, but she has a passion for tending the land and sharing its bounty like many who did.

Her father, Bobby Boozer, worked with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Auburn University and spent his 26-year career helping farmers throughout the state, particularly fruit growers.

As a child, Hatchett sometimes tagged along with him on farm visits, while he scouted orchards, inspected crops, set out insect traps and visited with farmers. As she grew older, she and her family helped sell peaches for local farmers and eventually planted their own peach trees and other crops, establishing Boozer Farms in Chilton County as a fledgling summer project.

Today, it’s no longer just a summer job, and Hatchett is a full-time farmer. She and her dad run Boozer Farms, which provides fresh produce to communities across Alabama through restaurants, local farmers markets and a growing Community Supported Agriculture program.

Despite early agricultural ambitions, Hatchett didn’t follow a direct path into farming. She planned to study nursing in college and even worked briefly in the medical field, before she returned to her first love.

“I am honored to work to bring our community fresh, local, quality food and narrow the gap between tables and farms,” Hatchett said. “I am thankful to work in an industry full of some of the hardest working and most dedicated individuals you will ever find.

“Farming is my joy … it’s in my blood.”

NEW GENERATION OF FARMERS

Boozer, 37, isn’t your typical Alabama or U.S. farmer. Federal agriculture statistics show the average farmer is over 58 years old, and their numbers have been dwindling for decades.

However, there are signs that more young people are taking an interest in farming, amid generational shifts and growing interest in food sourcing and supply, said Hunter McBrayer, commodity director at Alabama Farmers Federation and executive director of the Alabama Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

Some of them are full-time farmers, while others work in another industry and do farming on the side, he said. ALFA has an active young farmers group, and the organization’s goal is to provide resources to help them move into full-time food production.

McBrayer, who is 31, said there are a variety of factors fueling the trend among his peers.

“A lot of research says the younger generation wants to know they’re doing good, and what’s better than providing food for the rest of the country?” he said. “Some of them are driven by family traditions, with people who want to get back to the farm. Others have a desire to be their own employer, knowing the harder they work, the more it pays off.”

Many have gone to school to study agriculture, or perhaps even business or marketing, and then bring that back to the farm, to help grow it in a different way than it has in the past, he added.

CSA programs, like the one at Boozer Farms, are a particularly fast-growing source of revenue for Alabama farms right now.

“I think the pandemic has added even more to the CSA programs,” McBrayer said. “People have gotten so used to ordering groceries online or doing pickups. With a CSA, it’s easy for you to expect what you’re going to get. You pay up front for your subscription, and you’re going to have farm-fresh, locally-grown fruits and vegetables.”

WINDING PATHWAY

For Hatchett, the summer after third grade made a lasting impression and was a sign of things to come.

She and her sister began traveling to Slocomb on the weekends to help their dad sell peaches grown by a farmer friend in Chilton County and supplement the family income.

“It always felt like such an important adventure to be included on,” Hatchett said. “We would wake up early on Saturday morning and set up our peaches to sell.  We learned how to cup up peaches into baskets for display, how to help customers and how to make change.

“It was awesome on-the-job training for two young girls, and we loved every minute of it.”

As a teen, Hatchett worked weekends and summers at Petals From the Past nursery in Jemison, and her favorite task was propagating plants in the greenhouses. She learned to make cuttings, start seeds, graft and more, but as college approached she was headed in another direction.

Everyone around her was encouraging her to go into the medical field, based on the availability of well-paid jobs. So, the summer after high school, she took a job as a tech in the surgery department of a local hospital, but it was a true fish-out-of-water experience.

Hatchett then scrapped her plans to go to nursing school at Auburn, and after taking her dad’s advice, she decided to study the field that she loved, settling on Agronomy and Soils. Still, she thought she would just complete her basics at Auburn’s College of Agriculture and then transfer to some type of medical program.

“I was required to take Basic Crop Science my first semester, and that was it,” Hatchett said. “I’m not sure how many weeks in my mind shifted, but I never again considered switching majors. I was absolutely fascinated by that class.

“It was so exciting to learn the science behind so many things I ‘knew’ about but really only had surface knowledge.”

STARTING OUT

Looking back, that semester was also when Hatchett decided that one day she wanted to farm. But she viewed it as more of a retirement plan, after she had worked and made money.

“Although I grew up around farmers, I didn’t grow up with farming resources. My family owned seven acres – and half of that is woods – and had never even had a riding lawn mower, much less a tractor. I knew I wanted to farm, and I felt like one day I would be able to. But it wouldn’t be like other people sitting next to me in class who had multigenerational family farms to return to,” she said.

During college, Hatchett went back to peddling peaches as a summer job. She and her siblings set up in a parking lot across from Ag Hill in Auburn, selling peaches grown by Chilton County farmer Henry Williams, who had supplied the produce she sold as a child.

Eventually, Hatchett talked her dad into planting their own peach trees, as well as blackberries, and Boozer Farms was born. By the time Hatchett graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 2005, the family had a small blackberry patch well established, along with nearly two acres of peaches on land a neighbor allowed them to use.

“Both of those orchards are no more, but the memories made in them I will cherish forever,” Hatchett said. “There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears left in those fields, but I wouldn’t trade that time with my family for anything. Each summer we would add another location or stop to sell, and by the end of my college years we had built up a wonderful summer business.”

Even after she graduated, Hatchett continued working the tiny farm, and the sales at markets each summer helped cover college expenses for her and her siblings.

Meanwhile, she went on to get a master’s degree in Plant Pathology at Auburn and then started her career following in her dad’s footsteps as a Regional Home Grounds Agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

TURNING POINT

It was a sweet time in Hatchett’s life, as she supported backyard gardening education, as well as Master Gardener programs in her region. But the medical field beckoned again, and she was offered the job of quality control director at a medical device manufacturer.

“Looking back now I wish I had followed my dad’s advice to seek joy and not money, but the salary offered was substantially more than I was making and with my husband in school full-time I decided it would be the best decision for us,” she said.

“I spent two years at a job that I was not created to do, and to say I was miserable is an understatement.”

In 2011, after a series of devastating tornadoes ravaged Alabama, Hatchett volunteered on a cleanup team with her church and caught a ride home with Joe Mims, a longtime educator, cattle farmer and sod farmer in Chilton County. He was also the neighbor who had loaned her family the land for their peach orchards years earlier, and he had long been a grandfatherly figure to Hatchett.

During that ride, she poured out her heart over her misery at her current job, and he joked that she should take over his farm.

Several days later, however, it wasn’t a joke anymore. Mims, who was ready to retire, contacted Hatchett with a proposal, which she saw as a miraculous answer to years of prayer and a door to the life and career she truly wanted.

“He laid out the most beautiful lease agreement that gave me access to his sod farm, his equipment, his entire business and in a way that I only paid him if I made money,” she said.

“It was one of the most gracious gifts that I have ever been given. He proposed that I work under him part time and begin to learn the ins and outs of the sod business and work towards running it fully by myself.”

So, Hatchett switched to part-time at the medical device company, working three days a week there and three days a week farming. That arrangement worked well for about six months, but then Hatchett’s boss said he needed her to go back to full-time.

BECOMING A ‘REAL’ FARMER

For Hatchett, there was no going back.

“I had a taste of a job that I had dreamed about,” she said. “Three days a week it didn’t matter how hard I worked, how early I started or how late I stayed, I had found the job that brought me joy. I remember looking up with tears in my eyes and telling my boss he would have to consider that my two weeks’ notice. I couldn’t walk away from my chance to farm.”

In February 2012, Hatchett marked her first day as a “real” farmer, a title that makes her smile because she’s still amazed that this is her life.

Hatchett is involved all aspects of farm life, but sales and customer service is her main task, while her dad’s primary focus is production. She stays busy communicating with customers, marketing the farm’s CSA program – which is its primary means of sales – and establishing new markets.

While there are plenty of challenges involved in farm life – finding reliable labor and balancing her roles as a wife and mom chief among them – Hatchett is committed to the long-term.

She hopes the farm continues to move forward, always providing quality produce, being open and honest about growing practices and staying up to date with new research and farming methods.

“I want to continue to farm in a way that ensures that our farm, both the people and the land, are sustainable,” she said. “It does no good to sustain your land if you can’t keep an environment where people want to work.”

Hatchett said her ultimate long-term goal is to keep farming, since many small farms don’t have a long life expectancy.

“When I look at all that God has blessed us with and how He has grown the farm it never ceases to amaze me,” she said. “I still have just a little head knowledge and just a little experience but He has been so gracious to allow me to continue to work every day at a job that brings me genuine joy.”

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)