Shawn Peebles of Peebles Organic Farms in Augusta has been farming his entire life, but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that he made the switch from conventional to organic farming. When asked what motivated him to make the change, he laughed, admitting, “I was broke!”
After graduating high school, Peebles joined his father’s farm where he eventually became a partner. However, around 2005, the economy was beginning to shift. Peebles said, “We were just farming soybeans, corn and wheat. We didn’t have good ground and we were in a flood zone. We had sustained several floods and we decided, well, let’s do something different.”
A friend of the family, Joe Taylor, had been trying to convince Peebles to try organic farming for years, but it wasn’t until the economy took a turn that he gave in. “It was the necessity of survival,” he said. His father began growing vegetables on their original 700-acre property, while Peebles decided to finally “give this organic thing a shot.”
Peebles had a farm sale and sold all his conventional farming equipment, a huge risk on a new venture. Taylor, who was nearing retirement at the time, suggested Peebles first try farming 300 acres of his already-certified property. Peebles believes Taylor’s farm was one of the first organic farms in the state, as it was certified around 1989.
“You meet these people that are visionaries every once in a while, and he’s one of those guys,” Peebles said. Though his health keeps him out of the fields, Taylor still has the interest and drive to participate in the farm, so Peebles makes sure to touch base daily and continues to value the experience, and advice Taylor has to share.
Today, Peebles farms 900 acres, including some property bordering Taylor’s farm that they acquired as it came available. “We farm around 1,500 acres—all organic. We’ve been doing it for close to 10 years. We grow edamame, sweet potatoes, processor pumpkins, green beans. We’ve done sweet corn,” Peebles said. But he doesn’t do it alone—Peebles Farm employs between 40 and 50 people from May through November each year.
While many organic farms in Arkansas sell to restaurants or through farmers markets, Peebles’ strategy is unusual for the area. Peebles Farm contracts with several processors every year. Each January, Peebles is told how many acres of which crops the processors would like. This keeps him from playing a guessing game regarding what will sell well the next season.
Ever wondered where your grocery store sweet potatoes came from? There’s a good chance they came from Peebles Farm. “In every acre of sweet potatoes, there are three markets. Not everything can go into a grocery store; it’s not that quality. So we contract with Costco on our jumbo potatoes and they go to make organic sweet potato chips. Our processor-grade crops go to baby food. Fresh, market-premium potatoes go directly into Sam’s and Walmart, places like that,” Peebles said.
Aside from the challenges of weed and bug control, Peebles works to ensure his product is near spotless. “That’s part of the arrangement we have with our processors, that the product will be spotless, which is a challenge in organic,” he said. As a result, every row is hand-planted and hand-harvested.
Peebles is convinced organic is the way to bring back the family farm of yesteryear, saying, “I can take anybody who wants to try and is capable of doing so, and they can take 300 or 500 acres and their family can make a living. There’s no question; it’s doable, but you just don’t see it here in Arkansas, and there is a huge market for the average-size farm that used to be here.”
Though he acknowledges the challenges inherent in transitioning from conventional to organic, Peebles is on several boards in both Arkansas and Washington, D.C. that encourage organic farming. He wants to change the way people farm, because he is certain this is a better way—for both the farmers and the consumers.
To keep things exciting, Peebles is passionate about educating people. His father’s 14-and-a-half-acre corn maze drew about 40,000 visitors last year; though they don’t sell direct to consumer, he uses strategically placed signs around the farm to share information about organic farming. “That’s what keeps it exciting for me—there’s a different way to do things, and we don’t [often] see that in Arkansas. We’re an oddity; we know that, but we think it should be more mainstream. It’s all about educating people.”