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Macon County organic farmer cultivates ambitions with ag startup

TUSKEGEE, Alabama – A startup, minority-owned organic farm in Macon County is expanding its crops and customer base, fueled by an ambitious vision to carry on the region’s rich history of agricultural innovation.

Lifetime Natural Organic Farm, which includes about 25 acres of raised-bed bio-intensive organic vegetables, this year invested an additional $500,000 to increase plantings and seek new business.

The move, which brought the farm’s total capital investment to $1 million, is paying off in a big way. Lifetime, already a supplier to Whole Foods stores in Alabama, recently began selling to the grocery chain’s Braselton, Georgia, distribution center that serves 400 locations.

The farm also is now selling to Albert’s Organics, one of the largest organic produce wholesale distributors in the U.S. It also supplies Publix stores and has begun supplying Alabama schools, with orders for nearly 30,000 heads of organic lettuce for Elmore County Schools’ summer feeding program over the next two weeks.

Lifetime is believed to be the largest USDA-certified organic farm in Alabama, and owner Nelson Wells wants to grow it even more, to the largest in the Southeast.

At the same time, he wants to deepen its roots in Tuskegee and Macon County. Wells was drawn to the area after one of his advisors invited him to Tuskegee University to watch a video about the institution’s history, its founder Booker T. Washington and the work of George Washington Carver.

Learning more about the famous African American scientist and inventor Carver – who developed hundreds of uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans and transformed U.S. farming practices during his tenure at Tuskegee – struck a chord with Wells and his own biracial heritage.

“That changed my heart,” he said. “It made me want to be a part of the rich history of Macon County and Tuskegee, Alabama. I’m half black and half white, and I saw how important it was to continue the legacy of what George Washington Carver was to the world. He was at the forefront of modern agriculture.”

Growing Relationships

Wells isn’t your typical Alabama farmer. The 6-foot-6-inch California native is a vegetarian and former surfer who played football for the University of Southern California before he moved to Alabama to be closer to his family.

Promoting healthy living through clean eating has been a lifelong passion for Wells. He and his family have been involved in running another organic farm in Verbena, and he and his partners courted Tuskegee for several years with their plans for a commercial organic farm.

Carver’s imprint on the region was a big draw, as was the opportunity to collaborate with agricultural researchers at Tuskegee University. Wells has begun building relationships with professors and students.

Lifetime started last year as a joint venture with the Macon County Economic Development Authority. The MCEDA provided the land, a former hayfield purchased and owned by MCEDA as a potential industrial site, as a “proof of concept” farm.

That growing season went well, and this year, Lifetime expanded its farming area from 10 to 25 acres and tweaked its crop mix to match the demand of its existing and targeted customers. Products include all types of bell peppers, sweet peppers, watermelon, tomatoes and leafy greens.

Gaining Access

Across Alabama, there are 20 to 25 certified organic farms and possibly another 100 or so that follow organic practices but are not certified organic, said Don Wambles, director of Agriculture Promotion for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.

To his knowledge, Lifetime is the largest USDA-certified organic farm in the state, he said.

Wambles and his office assisted Lifetime with gaining access to markets and also provided direction on applicable USDA programs.

The state offers many advantages for all types of farmers, he said.

“Alabama has a great climate and abundant water resources to allow agriculture to be bountiful. We are a very diverse state, which allows producers to choose whether they want to grow organically or conventionally. We have an abundance of customers for either production system the farmer chooses and we support all farmers.

“With Lifetime’s commitment to grow even larger, they will be able to meet the demand for locally grown organic produce while creating jobs and assisting the economic health of their community and surrounding communities,” he said.

New Growth Sector

An organic farm isn’t a typical economic development project, but it’s one that is well-suited for rural areas, said Joe Turnham, director of the MCEDA.

“As economic developers, we’re all so programmed to go out and get industrial sites, and we should, but very rarely do we think about going out and getting a tract for an ag startup,” he said.

Lifetime has provided new jobs for 20 to 30 people in the community, and it represents new business for utilities and other local services, Turnham said.

Another notable benefit is that the type of products and processes involved in organic farming are not common in the South, so Lifetime is helping to forge a new growth sector.

“Our strategic plan has always called for an agricultural component of economic development in Macon County,” Turnham said. “We’re the home of George Washington Carver, and we really wanted to have a purposeful, high-value project for that agricultural vision. This fits perfectly.”

In addition to the farm’s land, MCEDA has provided in-kind services and also helped the farm’s operators make valuable connections, such as those with state agriculture officials and others at Tuskegee University.

“Last year, they hit every milestone and had beautiful crops. It wasn’t quite what buyers wanted, but they proved they could do it. This year, they are growing to meet the demand profiles of Whole Foods and Publix,” he said.

Turnham said he is excited about the farm’s growth potential.

“We have a gentleman’s agreement that once they’re really profitable, maybe there will be a small rent or royalty that comes back to MCEDA that we can put toward helping the next company.”

Building on a Legacy

Along with expanding its existing customer base, Lifetime aims to do more in promoting organic farming from its home base in Macon County.

The farm is participating in Sweet Grown Alabama, a new marketing effort by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries to promote farmers and products across the state.

“Our goal is to have a vegetarian restaurant here in Tuskegee, and we would also like to do farming and cooking demos here,” Wells said. “We want to increase the understanding of the importance of healthy eating and its effects on the body and mind.”

Beyond that, Wells wants to continue growing ties with Tuskegee University and collaborate on research involving organic farming.

“My dream is to continue the legacy of George Washington Carver and Tuskegee University that was the forefront of modern agriculture at one time,” he said.

“This could change the world in organics.”

Click here to read the original article on madeinalabama.com.

PPP Update - Over $100 Billion Still Available!

There is still a large amount of money in the Paycheck Protection Program fund. If you need assistance, contact your lending institutions to make applications for these funds. Recipients will have until December 30th to expend the funds.

The President signed the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act which made the following changes:

  • Increased the loan forgiveness period from 8 weeks to 24 weeks
  • Decreased the 75/25 rule (payroll/other expenses) to 60/40
  • Provided safe harbor provisions for attempts by employers to re-employ
  • Increases maturity on payback from 2 to 5 years
  • Affirms that the last day to apply for a PPP loan is June 30, 2020.

Since its inception, over 5,400 participating lenders in America have made over 4.5 million PPP loans totaling $511.3 Billion. Overall, the average loan size is $113K.

In Alabama, our lenders have made 61,576 PPP loans totaling more than $6.1 Billion. The PPP fund still has a bit more than $100 Billion remaining.

Auburn engineers repurpose CPAP machines into emergency ventilators

By Dawn Azok | April 02, 2020

Auburn University engineers have developed a way to convert CPAP machines into emergency ventilators, a valuable tool in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The design, called RE-INVENT, is one of several efforts at Auburn to aid healthcare workers in Alabama and beyond. Faculty and staff also have produced hand sanitizer and 3D-printed protective face shields to boost a critical shortage of medical supplies.

RE-INVENT is an accessory that would create a functional ventilator from a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine. Such machines are used to help people with obstructive sleep apnea breathe more easily while they sleep.

Tom Burch and Michael Zabala, faculty members in Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, and Hayden Burch, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, initiated the project. They received help from other faculty members, alumni and medical professionals.

“What started as pure intellectual curiosity quickly grew into an emotional race against time to potentially save lives,” Zabala said. “We wanted to know if we could design a solution to solve the ventilator shortage problem.”

Making An Impact

RE-INVENT is efficient and economical, two key considerations for the development team.

The device can be assembled in four hours using about $700 worth of parts in addition to a standard CPAP machine, compared to the typical hospital ventilator price tag of $25,000 or more.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has provided guidance to health care providers that may allow them to use RE-INVENT to help increase the availability of ventilators and other respiratory devices during the pandemic.

The Auburn team is continuing to work on the project and exploring options to share the design with healthcare providers and manufacturers. More info is available here.

“These are difficult times,” Burch said. “Everybody who understands the gravity of the situation wants to do something to help, so it feels good to think you’ve helped with something that may have an impact.”

Auburn engineering faculty and staff also have donated personal protective equipment and supplies to East Alabama Medical Center, including 10 gallons of hand sanitizer mixed in a campus lab and 400 3D-printed protective face shields.

A group of volunteers from engineering, the College of Agriculture and the College of Architecture, Design and Construction has been producing the face shields using a network of on-campus 3D printers.

They plan to keep running the printers around the clock, with the ability to produce about 150 face shields per day.

Click here to read the original article on madeinalabama.com.

Travel center, restaurants coming to Exit 38 in Tuskegee

By John O'Connor | October 23, 2019 at 4:38 PM CDT - Updated October 23 at 7:16 PM

TUSKEGEE, Ala. (WSFA) - There is a major project underway at Exit 38 off of Interstate 85. It’s considered a gateway to the city of Tuskegee.

The project represents around a $20 million investment. Businesses are opening, under construction and on the books for the future.

On Wednesday, there was a ribbon cutting for a new Popeyes restaurant. Across the street a $7 million travel center is under construction.

The travel center will offer several eateries, fuel and the only electric vehicle charging station on that stretch of I-85. The restaurants include Huddle House and Little Caesars.

These two projects will bring in over 125 jobs. It represents a community-wide commitment to economic development.

“Literally in some people’s lifetime they have not seen commerce take place here. We’re at a point now where we have close to $20 million in projects either done, coming out of the ground or in the planning stages," said Macon County Economic Development Authority Director Joe Turnham.

A chicken place and a travel center may not seem like a big deal for a community, but it is.

“This will ad about 20 percent to the coffers of Tuskegee alone. Then you add the school system, the county government, and the economic development authority, this is a huge deal," Turnham said.

For businessman and Tuskegee native Jeff Potter this is personal. He has a history on this spot that has sat dormant for decades.

“Somewhere between [when I was] 8 to 9 years old, my father worked third shift. This was a Chevron site," Potter said. “Only God could take a young man and 50 something years later put you in place to be doing a $7 million project where there was a little kid - I used to be happy every night to come with my father to work.”

It’s a story of what can be for a native son a story of what was meant to be.

“It just shows that a person’s destiny is set long before he gets to where’s he’s going," Potter said.

Copyright 2019 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.

Click here to view the article on WSFA.com

Bringing New Life to Macon County

TUSKEGEE, AL. There's a new farm in town, and it's growing organic.

Kai Lee hangs out on a John Deere, overlooking the fields as the summer harvest begins.

Nathan Wells, one of the founders of Lifetime Natural Organic Farms, is a California transplant who's taken with the history and possibilities of Macon County. He has a great respect for the history and accomplishments of George Washington Carver and wanted to honor that. "We came here because we felt that Tuskegee and the history here, with George Washington Carver--that we could be a part of that history and provide another avenue for Tuskegee and their community to have something to be proud of," he said.

Lifetime Natural Organic Farm opened earlier this year in Macon County. As the largest USDA Certified Organic farm in Alabama, they're focused on growing their produce and their presence in the community. "Our goal is to give back to the community," Wells said. "Our goal is to give a living wage to anybody that works for us, including insurance. We're here for the long haul and we want to be a big part of the community. We're excited to be a part of it."

This season's crops will include several varieties of tomatoes, purple and white kohlrabi, cauliflower, Nubian eggplant, Toyha edamame, rainbow chard, and spinach.

The farm uses bio-intensive farming, which is an approach that priorities maximum yields from smaller areas. It also involves monitoring and promoting biodiversity and sustaining the soil's fertility in a natural way. An organic farm like this has been Well's long-time plan. "This is my baby," he said of the farm. "This is my vision, this is my dream, and this is my ministry."

The Macon County Economic Development Association (MCEDA) has also been involved in helping the farm find its footing and grow roots. The Board helped the farm establish itself on MCEDA property, and is hoping to see it grow. Joe Turnham, director, said, "We've always wanted to have an agricultural component to economic developing, and we think it's a great slice of that here." He's also looking forward to seeing the farm's impact on the community. "In addition to environmental practices," he continued, "we're hopeful that a full-scale commercial farm will be like a new industry to Macon county, employing maybe several hundred people and generating a lot of local tax revenue."

All produce is delivered within 48 hours of harvest to ensure maximum freshness, and Lifetime Natural Organic Farm's customer Demand Profile helps eliminate food waste.

Lifetime Natural Organic Farms currently sells its organic produce to premium grocery stores and natural food stores like Whole Foods and Publix, as well as some restaurant chains. To find out more about this exciting new farm, visit their website or find them on Facebook.

By Leigh Daniel

Contact us

Joe Turnham
608 Dibble Street, Suite 7
Tuskegee, AL 36083