Leading the Way to Organic Farming

Dick Byne has been growing organic blueberries long before organic was trendy. In fact, when he first started his organic blueberry farm in the late 70s, he sold his crop in the conventional market because there simply was no market for organic berries at that time. Byne was so far ahead of the curve that his is the oldest organic blueberry farm in the State and one of the oldest in the country, leading the way in an industry that is only just now catching on here in the South.

Byne laments that there is still not much local demand for his organic product, but he does now have a market for it. His biggest buyer of fresh blueberries, Whole Foods, has enabled him to leave the conventional market and sell his produce at the higher price the more discerning market can bring.

Several things become clear when spending some time with Byne on his farm. He really loves blueberries. He takes a great deal of pride in the Byne family name and all that entails. He has a genuine respect and appreciation for the people who work for him. And he feels a sense of responsibility to use his resources to their full potential.

Agriculture is in Byne’s DNA. His father was a cotton farmer who also sold dairy equipment and got into the dairy business himself. Rooted in farming from his earliest years, Byne always knew that some form of agriculture was in his future. He just wasn’t sure exactly what it would be.

To that end, Byne attended Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. Byne recalls the moment he decided to focus on choosing organic methods that would build the soil rather than simply relying on chemical additives.

“If you start paying attention in class, you can learn something,” Byne said. And he did pay attention. Despite the professors hippie appearance that was a clear indication to the younger Byne that he lacked actual farm experience.

“He comes walking into the class and he’s got long hair, glasses – this is 1976 – no baseball cap or farming tan from here down (indicating the forearm). And I punched the guy next to me and said, ‘this guy isn’t going to know anything about farming.’ But he knew theory… and that’s what you go to college for is to learn theory,” Byne recollected.

“The teacher said if you can raise the organic matter, you will need less water and you can hold on to the nutrients – and that just made sense to me. From that point on, that’s what I wanted to do was to raise the organic matter (in the soil).”

Having decided to use natural methods of farming instead of relying on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the next step was deciding which type of crop to grow. Not interested in growing commodity crops or planting trees, Byne settled on blueberries, sensing a coming change in America’s diet toward more fruits and vegetables.

“I was the first commercial blueberry farm in the CSRA,” Byne said. “Nobody had a blueberry operation back then. If you follow the crowd, you’re just going to follow the crowd the rest of your life and I wanted to do something different.”

And Byne is still doing things differently.

One major point of pride for Byne on his farm is something most people would probably just consider an eyesore – a heaping pile of decaying trees, shrubs, limbs and clippings. The mountain of debris was once a financial burden for the City of Waynesboro, costing thousands to take to the dump where it would serve no purpose beyond further adding to the waste, just more tonnage to be buried in the earth.

But Byne saw the value in all that organic matter, and saw the savings for the City he served as Councilman. At his suggestion, the City of Waynesboro began delivering their tree trimmings and lawn debri, previously slated to go to the landfill, to Byne’s farm. There it is piled like a monument to the circle of life. It’s a place where the dead vegetation is given a chance at renewal: the opportunity to return to the earth, not as waste, but as organic matter rich in nutrients that will feed the plants and build the soil.

It all goes back to that college professor and the seed he planted in Byne’s ear about the soil’s need to be replenished. Byne has seen his own soil improved over the years he has worked the land, increasing from a half a percentage point of organic matter when he started to 5.6 percent today.

“This still blows my mind,” Byne stated emphatically. “When you say you’ve got 1% organic matter, what I’m telling you is that I’ve got 20 thousand pounds per acre. That just blows my mind… so that gives you an idea what it takes to get to 5.6 (percent).”

“When you go to Kentucky and they’ve got black dirt – that’s 30 percent. So, you’re talking about 600 thousand pounds per acre of organic matter, so we’ve got a long way to go. I’d love to have 30 percent organic matter here and that dirt over there (gesturing to the mound of compost) will do that, because that’s nothing but 100% organic matter.”

“We’ve got to be better,” he continued “… why are we throwing grass, limbs and leaves away when that’s basically free fertilizer? It’s just a matter of time. You will take it to a designated area and it will be nothing but a mulch pile. We’ll sell that as a municipality and make money from it.”

The compost being generated on his land from the City’s debris has tested very high in phosphorus and potassium with a low but visible showing of the minor elements with a very low PH. At the moment, the compost is being given away, but once a market is developed for it, it can become a revenue source for the City.

Not only does Byne not use chemical fertilizers on his farm, but he also refrains from using pesticides. He takes pride in the fact that his land is a safe habitat for insects of all kinds – even the pests. Byne believes when left to their own devices, the insects will work things out, creating a balanced ecological system not requiring intervention.

He even discovered that vicious and much-hated fire ant could be an unlikely hero for his blueberry bushes one season when a particularly aggressive insect was decimating blueberry crops across Georgia. His own crops were left unscathed. As it turned out, the larva of that particular insect just happened to be the fire ant’s favorite snack.

Who knew fire ants could have a redeeming quality?

Creating compost from debris is just one of the ways that Byne likes to ensure that resources around his farm are used to their fullest potential. Since entering the blueberry business, he has looked for ways to make sure every berry on his farm finds a home.

“You are asked to farm whatever land you have in your hands. If it’s an acre, what are you doing with that acre? If you get 100 blueberries off and I sell 90 of them fresh, what are you doing with the other 10? Well, I can tell people, I can use every berry … I really like the idea of selling everything that comes off the farm. Because if you cannot sell it, then your loss is taking away from your bottom line.”

Since not all blueberries can make the cut in the fresh berry market, Byne has been quite inventive in finding new ways to use his blueberries and new products to entice even the most hesitant of blueberry eaters.

Byne extended his farm business to include value added products for that very purpose. Realizing that eight percent of his berries did not make the grade for selling in the fresh berry market, Byne began creating products that could make use of those berries which due to size, imperfections or jucyness could not pass muster.

He has come up with a variety of products to appeal to different tastes, because his goal is to ensure that everyone learns to love blueberries!

“My objective was trying to get everybody liking blueberries or something blueberry,” Byne explained. “So, the first products I came up with were jam, jelly and syrup. And then I branched out into desserts and got a sugar-free syrup, I’ve also got a chocolate blueberry, Georgia Bar with blueberries in it, a blueberry salsa, and a blueberry juice.”

Byne Blueberry Farm has always been a family farm. Having started the farm during the 70s with his father and brother, he now continues farming with his own family. Though all four of his daughters grew up helping out with harvesting and packaging, only Janie has returned to work alongside her dad in the family operation. So far. There is some lingering hope, it seems, that maybe others will follow in her path.

Self-described as the more “uptight” of the two, Janie enjoys working with her more laidback dad. “He’s laid back and I’m a little more uptight, so I think we even each other out good.” Byne can’t help but agree. Admitting with some embarrassment that he really doesn’t like to have to be the “bad guy”, especially when dealing with employees.

But aside from occasionally having to take on the role of bad cop, Janie has her own niche on the farm. Bees.

There’s no doubt about it as Janie talks about “her bees” that the hives, their busy inhabitants, and the honey they produce are clearly her domain. Not only do the bees industriously aid in pollination, but they also produce the best-selling product in the Byne Blueberry Farm product line – honey.

Janie, the second oldest of the four Byne daughters, didn’t necessarily plan to follow in her father’s footsteps. But after receiving a degree in marketing from Georgia Southern University and working in Nashville for a few years, she decided that her job in HR for a company with which she didn’t gel was not a very fulfilling way to spend her days.

“I realized I just wasn’t passionate about that company… I do like HR, but I just wasn’t working for a company that long-term, I didn’t care about their goals. The passion that I have for this (farm) didn’t line up with where I was,” Janie explained.

Returning to her family’s farm was just the ticket for reigniting her passion.

“I’ve just always had a passion for it, I guess because we grew up doing it our whole lives. This is what I’ve known since I was small. We’re really sentimental in our family and my grandad was out here when we were little … When we were first starting out, me and my mom and my sisters would all go pick together to have enough berries for the farmer’s stands … From there, we started packing and we were able to get more pickers. Just the journey and the slow progression, we finally got into some good stores like Whole Foods … I just love it!”

Originally published in Issue #3 of Southern Soil
by LeeAnna Tatum