The Whatley farm depends on diversity and "pick-your-own power" to maintain high profitability and 90% efficiency.
PHOTO: MICHAEL SOLURI
Domino's Farms and Whatley Farms are dedicated to saving 100,000 small farms in the U.S. by the year 2000.
Domino's Farms and Whatley Farms Join to Save Small Farms
They seem, at first glance, to be an odd couple: Thomas S. Monaghan, founder of the world's largest pizza delivery company and owner of the Detroit Tigers... and Booker T. Whatley, a 72-year-old, retired horticulturist from Tuskegee Institute, who over the years, has developed five sweet potato and 215 muscadine grape varieties. On closer examination, however, their partnership makes perfect sense.
Tom Monaghan, who spent much of his childhood in a Catholic orphanage, developed a love of farm life while living in rural foster homes. One of his most vivid memories, he says, was deciding, while shoveling manure, to become a Catholic priest. Though Tom was dismissed from seminary school because, he was told, he "lacked the vocation," his entrepreneurial talents remain well leavened with idealism. That combination enabled him, over a period of 25 years, to expand a single pizza shop into a corporation that, by the end of 1987, had 4,279 stores (158 in other countries) with annual system-wide sales of $1,977,500,000.
In 1985, however, Tom went back to his roots and established the international headquarters for Domino's Pizza on a farm near Ann Arbor. When the $300 million Domino's Farms project is completed around 1990, its 1,500 acres will include a four-story, one-half-mile-long, Frank Lloyd Wright-style headquarters building called Prairie House (already partially built and occupied). The complex, which is open to the public, already includes a petting farm, a horse farm and—its newest addition—a pick-your-own farm designed by Booker T. Whatley.
"When we're finished," Monaghan has said, "I hope that workers in Domino's offices will be able to look out a window and see a cow or a horse looking in at them."
Monaghan's deep interest in farming is not, after all, very strange, because food is his business. The 190 million pizzas his company sold in 1987 required 160 million pounds of flour, 107 million pounds of cheese, 4.2 million pounds of green peppers, 4.5 million pounds of onions, 13 million pounds of mushrooms, 12 million pounds of sausage, 5 million pounds of ham, 22 million pounds of pepperoni and 2.1 million cases of Domino's Pizza's own tomato sauce. So, in 1984, after reading in the Wall Street journal about Whatley's plan to help small farms make big money, Monaghan quickly gave the Alabama small-farm authority a call.
"I said I was pleased but very surprised to hear from him," Whatley writes in Booker T. Whatley's Handbook on How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres (Regenerative Agriculture Association, Emmaus, PA; $17.95 paperback, $24.95 hardback).
"I don't know why Booker would be surprised," Monaghan says. "All of us eat three meals a day, and I haven't heard that eating is going out of style."
The two men met a few months later, and Tom was charmed. In his autobiography, Pizza Tiger (Random House, 1986, $17.95), an intimate and inspiring account of the determination it can take to survive the ups and downs of becoming a business success, Monaghan recalls his first impression of Whatley: "I was completely captivated by this [then] 68-year-old black man. He came on like Bill Cosby imitating Uncle Remus; he had the audience in stitches, but he never cracked a smile, while making sly jokes based on farm folklore and taking pokes at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He has a low opinion of farm bureaucracy."
That opinion obviously appealed to Monaghan, who struggles to keep his own operation as simple as possible and fights moves to increase unnecessary paperwork. It's also obvious, when one sees the two men together, that they think very highly of each other. On June 23,1987, the pair dedicated the 100-acre Booker T. Whatley Farm, based on Whatley's idea of producing a diverse mix of high-value crops for pick-your-own cust omers (in this case, many of whom will be Domino's Pizza employees). By paying a yearly membership fee, clients will be able to buy such organically grown farm products as honey, lamb, Christmas trees, venison, pheasant, quail, catch-your-own fish and pick-your-own fruits, berries and vegetables. Within five years, Booker T. and Tom expect the farm to gross $2.5 million. They also hope that, by the year 2000, the Whatley plan will have saved 100,000 of our country's small farms.
The Whatley Farms Way
A mix of high-value crops is the backbone of Whatley's plan to preserve farmland by making farming profitable.
"The trouble with today's average small farm is that it's nothing but a scaled-down big farm," he growls in a husky baritone. "The guy with 25 or 40 acres is doing the same thing as the big boys: planting corn, cotton and soybeans. He can't afford to! Costs are too high. Returns are way too low."
Whatley recommends that a 25-acre farm have at least 10 components, each with an earning potential of $3,000 a year and each thus representing no more than 10% of the farm's projected gross income. Then if bad weather, disease or some other misfortune wipes out one component, the farm can still operate at 90% efficiency.
The crops grown would vary with climate and local popularity. For example, grapes and sweet potatoes are recommended for Southern farms; broccoli and cauliflower might be choices in the Northeast; spinach can be picked year-round in the Pacific Northwest; and asparagus, which can be harvested toward the end of winter, is a nationwide option. In addition, bees, rabbits and quail can help produce income during the winter months.
Crop diversification is, of course, not a new idea. The farm establishment has been pushing it for some time, but growers were expected to rely on traditional outlets like farmers' markets and cooperatives to sell their goods. Whatley points out, however, that small operators can't afford to pick, grade, wash, package and haul their produce miles to the nearest market. Instead, he recommends that farmers within a 40-mile radius of a population center of at least 50,000 design their acreage for a pick-your-own clientele. Whatley suggests that each member pay a $25 annual fee ($40 if the farm offers fishing) due in January, when farm income is low, and that members then be able to buy produce at 60% of the cost of the same product retail.
In his book (which is already in its second printing), he and the editors of The New Farm magazine go into great detail on how to make such an operation work, including advice on incorporation procedures, insurance, irrigation systems, tillers, mowers, natural pest control and, of course, highvalue crops. The book even includes a sample letter to prospective customers and advice on computer software.
A Central American Connection
When I attended the Rodale press conference that launched Whatley's book this past winter, it was impossible not to be drawn in by the horticulturist's enthusiasm and the personal warmth he extended to the surprisingly large number of admirers and reporters who had journeyed (many for hundreds of miles) to Emmaus, Pennsylvania, for the occasion. Monaghan, who also attended, was obviously proud of his friend's publishing achievement. He also intends to use Whatley's agricultural expertise on a new project he's begun in Honduras.
In 1985, after becoming acquainted with Father Enrique Silvestre, who had come to Ann Arbor to study English, Monaghan began a series of trips to Honduras to visit Silvestre's Catholic mission and was touched by the plight of the people there—particularly the children.
"I hadn't felt that kind of spiritual identification with a group of youngsters since I left the orphanage," he says.
After getting involved with a medical clinic, providing equipment for a small hydroelectric plant and starting a sewing industry, Tom now plans to buy a state-of-the-art tomato-processing plant in Honduras that comes with 8,000 acres. Since he needs only 5,000 acres to produce enough tomatoes for his pizza sauce, he wants to divide the rest into five-acre plots, build houses and sell them to Honduran farmers with no money down—and he wants Whatley's advice on what crops these farmers should grow. Even though both men are primarily concerned with U.S. farming, Monaghan says he has learned, "as every first-time traveler to the area does, that Central America—Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica—is geographically in the back yard of the United States .... I have a feeling that I may find a purpose in Honduras that will be stronger than . . . anything else I've done so far. "
Editor's Note: To visit Domino's Pizza headquarters, contact Domino's Farms, Ann Arbor, MI.
To subscribe to Whatley's Small Farm Technical Newsletter ($16 a year), write to Whatley Farms, Inc., Montgomery, AL . For more information, see `Booker T. Whatley: The $100,000 25-Acre Farm Plan," MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 75.
A while back, Ward Sinclair of The Washington Post said in an article about Whatley, "A lone guru in Alabama has found a way for small farmers to make $100,000 on 25 acres." Whatley laughs when he recalls that he told his wife, Louie, "We better look that word guru up and see what he called me."
In his "guru" role, the horticulturist has come up with the following 10 principles:
1. The farm shall provide year-round daily cash flow. This is essential, Whatley says, and is possible with proper diversification of crops (see No. 8 below).
2. The farm shall be a pick-your-own operation. This requires excellent management and detailed planning, since successful PYO operations must have such conveniences as one place for cars to enter and another place to exit; parking on both sides of the road where the commodity is being harvested; and comfort stations and telephone jacks, so home privacy isn't disturbed. Pets should never be allowed.
3. The farm shall have a guaranteed market with a clientele membership club. This allows control over who comes to the farm, which isn't the case with most PYO operations. One of these 25-acre farms can support the freezer needs of 1,000 households, which constitute a guaranteed market.
4. The farm shall provide year-round, full-time employment. You invite disaster, Whatley says, if you think you're going to work at this business part-time or as a Saturday-and-Sunday farmer. This is a fulltime job.
5. The farm shall be located wisely. It should front on a hard-surfaced road within a radius of 40 miles (people don't like to drive farther than that) of a population center of at least 50,000. The farm should also have an excellent source of water for irrigation.
6. The farm shall produce only what the clients demand—and nothing else. Whatley thinks many farmers grow what they like to grow and then try to find buyers.
7. The farm shall shun middlemen and middlewomen like the plague. Normally, farmers get a small share of a household's food dollar, since harvesting costs—picking, washing, sorting, packing and hauling—make up about 50% of the retail price of food. With this system, the farmer sets his or her own price.
8. The farm shall consist of compatible, complementary crop components that earn a minimum of $3,000 per acre annually. Whatley believes many can earn much more than this, and if a crop isn't earning at least $3,000, it should be dropped.
9. The farm shall be "weatherproof —at least as far as possible—with both drip and sprinkler irrigation to ward off droughts and late spring and early fall frosts.
10. The farm shall be covered with a minimum of $250,000 ($1 million is better) worth of liability insurance. Whatley says that city folks can be a little dumb sometimes about country life, but most of them do know how to sue, and he advises that pick-your-own farmers protect their investment well.