To say that Jonathan Hudson is bucking a trend might be an understatement. He's a country farmer in an agricultural world that is steadily becoming automated and doing more with fewer workers.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reinforces that plight, with it indicating there are roughly 930,600 farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers in the U.S. The kicker: The outlook for the next decade is nearly 20 percent of those people, or nearly 180,000, won't be needed.
But Hudson, 26, has a love for the profession, being raised on the family farm in Meriwether County. Hudson Farms, also known as Hudson Orchard, dates to 1838, he says, although it is the generation of his father, Charles, that took the business to the next level about 15 or so years ago.
Hudson Farms grows a host of vegetables and fruits on about 450 acres, supplying restaurants and grocery stores in the surrounding area and beyond.On Aug. 1, the younger Hudson acquired Fat Boy's Farmer's Market on Veterans Parkway, near the intersection of Manchester Expressway.
The market had been owned since 2009 by local businessman and concert promoter Mike Blackwell before closing its doors.
Hudson, who awakens at 3 a.m. each day to truck produce to the Atlanta Farmers Market, returning to his farm and then to Columbus by 9 a.m., says he has plans to expand selection at Fat Boy's. He even hopes to open a butcher shop next summer.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with him recently to discuss his job and life as a farmer, and what it takes to bring food from the field to the dinner table. This interview has been edited a bit for length and clarity.
Tell us about your farm upbringing.
I grew up working on the farm. When we were still the age of first grade to vacation Bible school age, we had a 2½-acre garden at our house ... That's when I opened up my first fruit stand. It was on the end of a dead-end road. It had five people that lived on it, but we had all of this extra stuff, so I opened a fruit stand.
When and how do you remember the farm's business growing, so to speak?
In 1998, we started growing a bunch of watermelons and corn. We always had cows. We raised about 200 head of cattle and about 150 calves every year.
In 2000, we went back to planting peach trees. We started out with our first 5,000 peach trees and now we've got 25,000 peach trees.
And we've always planted turnips, collards, watermelons, corn and stuff like that, as well as muscadines and scuppernongs. We do strawberries and figs. But we also grow vegetables, anything from squash to okra to zucchini to cucumbers to peppers and plums.
My dad used to raise catfish and grow wheat, barley, hogs. Just about anything that grows in Georgia, we grow.
About the year 2000 is when we started doing a lot more diversified farming. My dad had a feed store back then and a fertilizer business.
Is there anything you don't grow?
We don't grow everything for commercial applications. We grow a lot of stuff just because we want to, like blueberries. We don't package them up and ship them anywhere. I've got them for sale here when they're in season.
The things we grow commercially is mostly tomatoes and peaches. I'll grow 200 bins of watermelons or so in one little patch, and they'll get sold wholesale commercially, but we don't have any special packing equipment for that.
You supply restaurants and other outlets?
Every morning I take 400 boxes of tomatoes to Atlanta. When we have a good peach crop, we'll have about 1,000 boxes of peaches go to Atlanta Farmers Market. We supply Piggly Wiggly's Southeast district out of Birmingham with peaches. When we have a peach crop, they'll get about two semis a week. And then places like the Bulloch House in Warm Springs, we supply them with green tomatoes. We supply a bunch of pizza restaurants with tomatoes. We supply a bunch of bell peppers to pizza restaurants.
You don't grow lettuce?
I don't grow spring and summer lettuce because bugs are so bad. I grow fall lettuce. Everything's seasonal. Since I don't grow oranges, but I sell oranges, I've got to buy them from somebody (at the Atlanta Farmers Market).
So produce that comes into Columbus is fresh?
We don't put anything in a cooler. If it's not available that morning, then you can't get it. We always get the freshest stuff every single day. We keep no stock, no inventory.
Why no inventory?
Because produce goes bad very fast. It's either going to go bad on your store shelf or it's going to go bad in your cooler. Speed is important with produce. If you buy a peach or tomato from me here at Fat Boy's, then it was picked within, say, three days at the maximum. Normally it's on the shelf the same day it was picked or within 24 hours of being picked.
But when you buy something shipped to a warehouse and then shipped to the grocery store, the grocery store's products are a week old.
Like the figs I have here today, we picked them this morning. The guys started at 6:30 this morning.
Picking at your farm?
We hire a lot of local people, with some extra part-time work during the heavier parts of summer, which it's starting to dwindle down now. We've got normally about 10 Mexicans that come in with H-2A work visa (credentials) to help pick as well. They're all 100 percent legit.
Then we also do a u-pick, where we let the public pick and fish and stuff, normally while school is out in the summer. Once school starts back, we kind of close that at the farm. We also have a nursery and another fruit stand with homemade ice cream in Woodbury, Ga.
With local farming, do you have to keep an eye out much for disease or fungus on crops?
You've got to stay on top of it. Army worms are a bad problem. We raise bees, too, which we also sell the honey from the bees here.
The main reason we got into bees is we couldn't find any bees to pollinate our produce early on. So all of our squash was dying on the plant before it ever got made.
You hear about bees dying off for various reasons?
Yeah. But this is not for a mass extinction reason. It's something simple and they'll be re-populated in a couple of years.
It's like you couldn't buy a Georgia peach this year before July, and it wasn't because something horrible happened. It's just you had a late-season frost that killed all of the peaches. So the same thing can happen to the bees.
So we've got a later peach season this year?
It's a smaller peach season ... all of the early peaches didn't make it. We didn't have any peaches this year in June. But once we got into August, we had plenty of peaches. Our season, we'll be picking for another two weeks. But we'll be picking tomatoes probably until November. Our longest season in peaches can last up to about mid-October.
Is there anything you grow through the winter?
Collards. Anything green leaf, because during the summer it will be too hot and they'll wilt and fall down, and there's too many bugs and stuff.
Even with your experience, are you still learning as a farmer?
Oh, yeah. We go to conventions every year. There are big educational conferences and stuff. Fifty percent of the state's economy is made up of agriculture. ... There's more information in agriculture than there is in any other commodity in the United States; more studied about ag than anything else.
Such as varieties of things you can grow?
They make hundreds of varieties of peaches every year, just from cross-pollinating stuff. The tomato I grow is a Celebrity variety. I grow Elberta peaches and O'Henry peaches and Paul Friday peaches. Paul Friday invented (many) types of peaches. He's still alive. Of course, he's pretty old.
What do you sell the most?
The biggest thing here is tomatoes, peaches and peas. We sell a lot of peas in the hull, and then we also shell peas here.
But we're going to get flowers in here, and bring in a bunch of nursery stuff -- vegetable plants, fruit trees. I've got a world of crepe myrtles growing.
What do you bring to the table that the previous owner didn't, pun intended?
The big thing is, hopefully, cleanliness. When I got here there was a world of trash and a mess and rotten fruit ... The main thing I'm trying to bring to the table that's different is cleanliness, the freshness of the produce.
Why did you want to operate Fat Boy's?
The man who owned it before Mike, the original Fat Boy's, he used to buy eight pallets of peaches from us, and it used to take an hour to get a parking spot to unload the truck here. And by the end of Mike's reign, this place wouldn't buy but about five boxes of peaches a week. There are 70 boxes on a pallet. They weren't doing any business. The place was just dead empty.
In essence, you were losing a wholesale customer?
That was what made us look into it because we knew what the place used to do, and it's supposed to be selling our peaches anyway. So it was a pretty good customer we lost just by them screwing up their own business.
When I sell to a grocery store, I go in there and make sure my display, with my product that I'm selling in that grocery store, looks good, because if that grocery doesn't have any business, they don't buy my peaches.
What do you have left to do to get the market like you want it?
We'll have everything exactly like we want it, hopefully, by next summer. That's a long ways away, but we've got a lot of crops to plant, particularly just for this place. ... A lot people in this area like field corn, so we've got to plant a bunch of field corn. A bunch of nursery products won't be available until then. We've got a little bit of construction left to do.
How do you figure out what the local folks want, just talking to them?
A bunch of them ladies that come in will tell you exactly what they want. They'll tell you quick what they want. And if somebody says they want something, I'll have it here the next day. If I grow it or have the means of getting it in a high quality way, I'll get it. A lady wanted chow chow and she wanted it yesterday. So this morning I got it. Let's say if somebody comes in and says, hey, we're having a cookout, I need a bag of onions and a bag of cucumbers, well the next day I'll bring it to them.
What's the favorite part of your job?
My favorite thing is the American dream of owning your business and working towards the pursuit of happiness or what you would constitute as happy. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy breathing fresh air and I enjoy kicking the dirt when I want to. I've always liked fruits and stuff since I was a little kid.
And it's something that will always keep you busy. Like I want to get free-range chicken eggs in here. So at my house that gave me a great reason to build a big old chicken coop ... and I certainly don't have to worry about buying eggs. They'll be ready in about three or four months.
Yours is an outdoors life?
I've always enjoyed working outside. But over different winters I've had to find other work besides just farming, because in the wintertime it can get really slow.
I've worked on factory lines. I've worked in rock quarries. I've worked in construction. I've worked in welding shops, worked in junk yards, been a janitor before.
That's another thing I like about (Fat Boy's) is it will give me a lot more to do during the winter, I hope.
What's your biggest challenge or headache on the job?
Tax identification number. (laughs) I just want to make sure I do it all legit, and that just has absolutely nothing to do with growing a tomato. Doing paperwork and a cooped-up life and stuff has nothing to do with putting a tomato in your stomach.
What's the trickiest thing to grow?
A tomato ... and impatiens or bleeding heart impatiens ... as soon as you buy them they're almost guaranteed to be dead. It's kind of like a nursery joke. They're real delicate.
Tomato plants, a peach tree, everything is always supposedly looking for a way to die. And anybody who attempts growing a garden every year, it's like the weeds win and the garden dies.
What's your favorite vegetable or fruit?
My favorite of them all is probably figs. If I had to pick a vegetable, I guess it would have to be collards.