WALDHEIM —Nick Usner’s father was an organic pig farmer who suffered a fatal heart attack while jogging at age 44 when his son was just 13.
Though his time with his son was cut short, the impact of Thomas Usner’s long days “in the dirt” with his son was profound.
Only three years after his father’s death, Usner began his own agricultural operation. He soon became one of the state’s first farmers market vendors to gain organic certification.
The farmer, who recently turned 30, now owns 12 acres of land in St. Tammany's Waldheim, five of which he farms along with another 2-acre plot planted with massive 350-foot lateral rows on a neighbor’s property.
His is an unusual operation. In an era of computerized this and machine-driven that, he eschews outside help, rising before dawn each day to till, plant, pick and cut by hand all alone save for the company of Eula May, his black-and-tan hound. He inspects each vegetable, harvesting only when a specimen is at its absolute prime for same-day delivery to chefs and farmers markets.
Unlike his contemporaries who turn to technology for cutting-edge advice, he turns to older farmers for guidance — grafting, with a rare reverence for the old ways, their hard-won wisdom onto his craft.
“Homer Dutch — he’s my adopted grandfather — taught me the nuances of growing red beans, sweet potatoes and heritage blackberries,” Usner said of his octogenarian neighbor. “If not for Homer, I would never have known that after harvest sweet potatoes must be cured for two weeks in a dark place with 80 to 90 percent humidity. This really develops the sugars and makes all the difference. And Pinkie Rushing, another farmer in his 80s, gave me my first Ohatchee Grey game fowl hen.”
Usner bred that first Ohatchee Grey with a heavy egg-laying breed. The result? “Like game birds they are showy and protective of their young, and they forage for food instead of sitting … and taking in feed, but they also produce a pretty heavy egg yield.
“The result is healthier, more flavorful eggs for the consumer,” he said, adding, “The yield is not quite as high as that from a straight-up laying bird, but I will sacrifice production any day for quality. They are also much more interesting to watch.”
Usner grows varieties of unusual, often heirloom, produce. Exquisite root vegetables like baby beets, Easter-egg radishes, nutty sun chokes, and candy-like, brilliantly hued Evangeline sweet potatoes; a rainbow of herbs, lettuces and greens; 35 varieties of plump figs; 50 varieties of crisp, tender okra — many of which he propagated himself; 60 to 70 varieties of vine-ripened tomatoes; tender eggplant; exotic varieties of shelling beans; edamame and red beans.
He’s experimenting with kiwi vines.
The first harvest will be ready next year, about the time Usner and his business and life partner, Linnzi Zaorski, are expecting their first child.
“I am going to pass on this legacy, this way of life,” he said. “I want to raise my child in the dirt, too. Rock on.”