By Jasmine Nicole Thomas
Many stories begin with a girl on a farm, but none quite like this. Jennifer Taylor, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Florida A&M University (FAMU), coordinator of the FAMU Statewide Small Farm Program and a proud farmer.
Taylor owns Lola’s Organic Farm, which she describes as “a great, great joy.” The land, which was once owned by her grandmother, encompasses 32 acres, with only four to five acres being used for farming, is a USDA certified organic farm in Glenwood, Ga. An array of fruits and vegetables including ginger, kale, turmeric, garlic, strawberries and more are produced there.
Growing up, Taylor’s family would often receive what she calls “care boxes” from her grandmother’s farm filled with fresh produce. Her mother, who grew up on that farm, instilled in her daughters the importance of eating fresh food.
“My mother was all about fresh food,” recalled Taylor. “She was all about finding farmers all around the Tallahassee area. She would buy their milk to make butter and their peas to shell. She felt that was better than a hamburger — and we wanted so badly to eat a hamburger.”
Even though her family benefited from the grandmother’s farm, they associated farming with a hard life.
“Everybody didn’t want to return to that hard life kind of thing,” she said. “You know, growing your food wasn’t as appealing as the work that they had chosen to do with their lives.”
However, the work was appealing to Taylor. She began teaching organic farming during a time where it wasn’t as popular as it is now. She said she doesn’t really remember how her focus sharpened. “The life of the soil and growing healthy food is what I was interested in early.”
Taylor earned a bachelor’s in agronomy from FAMU, a master’s degree in agronomy from Iowa State University (Ames) and a Ph.D. in vocational and technical education from Virginia Polytechnical University (Blacksburg). She later worked with the Peace Corps in Niger, where she concentrated on sorghum and millet.
Recently, Taylor travelled to Kutztown, Pa., to attend the annual Organic Pioneer Awards at The Rodale Institute, where she received an award for her work in organic farming. The Rodale Institute grows the organic movement through research, farmer training, and consumer education. Taylor impressed them by epitomizing all of that.
“We were struck by Dr. Taylor’s family’s connection to the land she farms and her commitment to regenerative, organic agriculture in a region where organic farms still make up only a small portion of the landscape. Dr. Taylor isn’t just a farmer; she’s an educator, an advocate, a pioneer, and a connector to the long history of organic farming,” said Jeff Tkach, chief impact officer at the Rodale Institute.
“We felt that Dr. Taylor embodies Rodale Institute’s mission of research, farmer training, and consumer education, and we are so thankful for the work she has done and continues to do to innovate and move organic agriculture forward. It was because of this, we were honored to present her with the 2019 Organic Pioneer Award.”
Taylor said she has planned to use her allotted time at the ceremony to advocate for indigenous and other minority farmers who would benefit from receiving information and assistance, and to highlight the roll of the FAMU Statewide Small Farm Program, which is to identify the needs of farmers and provide relevant education.
As coordinator of a participatory program that focuses on organic farming systems, alternative market development and sustainable living, Taylor also planned to discuss possible partnerships.
“I also want to talk a bit about the success of the program at FAMU and why it is that they should want to engage and become partners with us as an institution,” Taylor said. “That would be so great for our college to have a globally renowned partner that’s at the forefront of the organic movement.”
The FAMU Statewide Small Farm Program has aided multiple farmers in the Tallahassee area and has hosted capacity building workshops that provide information, training and technical assistance to underserved farming populations throughout the state of Florida and the nation. Taylor’s research in organic farming and her interest in creating programs for communities is what brought her back to FAMU to develop the Statewide Small Farm Program, along with a series of academic courses.
“How do you engage people and develop programs that they want to be a part of, that they take and own for themselves,” Taylor said, “and can run with it, without you leading the way? If they have the skill and the knowledge, they can take it and run with it. So that became my interest.”
Florida’s 2019 “Woman of the year in agriculture”
On Sept. 23, 2019, Taylor was named “2019 Woman of the Year in Agriculture” by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried had this to say about Taylor and her most recent award:
“Your service as an educator; your development of a statewide small-farm program with a focus on food systems and sustainable agriculture, and the hands-on-training and technical assistance you provide in alternative [agriculture] systems, organic farming systems, alternative market/food systems development and sustainable living for underserved farming communities, makes you the perfect recipient of this award.”
Taylor, who is considered a pioneer in organic farming, said she didn’t always know what career path she’d take. While growing up, her grandmother’s positive account about her farm and her farming experiences inspired her.
“All of my grandmother’s stories about living on the farm were good ones,” Taylor said. “Her joy and love for her farm and the life that she was living on the farm — that was where she wanted to be. She was happiest there. In the back of my mind, it was painting a good picture. . . a picture that could be a good thing, if you wanted it for your life.”