Twin brothers Irucka Ajani and Obiora Embry approach farming in an unconventional way. Instead of relying on the usual row crop methods or the use of pesticides to give plants a leg up, they instead look to ancient history and a loving, symbiotic relationship with the land that has been long forgotten in many parts of the world. And while it is too early to judge the results of this experiment, there are reasons to believe these guys are on to something.
Nothing about their Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, farm is typical. It’s not just the farming methods they employ, but also the story of how this land just south of Greenville, called Martin Acres, came to be in the possession of a black family—years before the Civil War—that makes this farm singular and interesting.
Unlike other places around the Deep South, slavery had a few unique contingencies in this commonwealth. Lourenza Dow Martin, the great-great-great grandfather of the twins, “was born into slavery somewhere in this general vicinity,” Obiora said. “In Kentucky, enslavement was different than it was elsewhere. Here you could work for other people to gain money outside of working the plantation for your master. He saved enough money to buy his own freedom, but then told his master he didn’t want it yet.”
Martin had met and fallen in love with a woman named Minnie Melvina Reynolds. Unwilling to leave the plantation and buy his way out of bondage alone, he informed his master that he would remain a slave and work for him until he’d saved enough money to buy her freedom, as well. And that’s what he did. The couple was married shortly after leaving the plantation and they settled on the land that is now Martin Acres, farming it and passing it on to future generations.
Herbert Martin (1896-1968) was in charge of the farm during the height of its success; he was a well-respected farmer once featured on the cover of Progressive Farmer magazine. His death, in the late 1960s, marked a transition for the land. Many family members who had been active in farming life began trickling north to work factory jobs, letting others lease the land. By 1980, there was no more agricultural activity happening within the family, although some land remained leased, and other parts were under a conservation reserve program throughout the 1980s. The farm, more than 1000 acres in its heyday, was also used for strip mining, timber, and gas and oil extraction.
But now, agricultural pursuits have returned, thanks to the twins. In 2012, Irucka, an environmental engineer, was attending a presentation at grad school when his eyes were opened to some ideas he hadn’t previously considered. He learned about the concept of an edible forest garden, a polyculture method of farming that uses multipurpose perennial plants mutually beneficial to one another. He also saw the 2009 documentary short film “A Thousand Suns,” which explores the sustainable farming methods and culture of the Gamo people of the Ethiopian Rift Valley and how they approach agriculture and spirituality.
“I called my brother and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” Irucka said. “An edible forest garden. [The Gamo] had been farming the highlands of Ethiopia for 10,000 years on the same plot of land. And still, the soil is black and fertile. They grow well over 100 different varieties of food. Polycultures. They’ll grow 20 different varieties of millet, of this grain, of that plant.
“You don’t need external input of water or fertilizer. It’s all right there. If you feed the microbial communities in the soil, you have everything you need in terms of nutrients.”
So Irucka and Obiora set about the task of taking two acres of land on the family farm and creating an edible forest garden. “We were expecting two acres of regular land,” Obiora said. “Not something that had been recently cleared and looked almost like a war zone…My brother and I just said, ‘Let’s just go with it,’ though.”
Obiora started trying to create a forest garden from scratch, planting apple, pear, peach, black cherry, sugar maple and hickory trees. Soon, all of them had died. “What do we do now?” Obiora asked. “We spent all this money and have nothing to show for it.”
Determined to make it work, the brothers figured out what would grow in the clay soil they had, and with the help of a nearby nursery they began planting with more success. Two years ago, the brothers started seeing the literal fruits of their labor.
“I started off making jellies and jams,” Obiora said. “I make my own pectin, too. We started off small with the jellies and we’d do posters and postcards that we made from my photography business.”
From there, Obiora got creative. In addition to making salsas and interesting syrups made from hickory, he started using the diverse plants growing on their two-acre project to develop products such as dandelion jam, a concoction that is reminiscent of honey with a balanced bitterness that might surprise you.
“When using dandelions in recipes they’ll say to remove the green stems,” Obiora said. “But I don’t remove anything. They say it makes it bitter. And I say bitter is good. I learned in a workshop that we generally don’t eat enough bitter foods. It actually helps with our digestion.”
Part of the equation for the brothers is multiple plants on the same plot that complement one another and have multiple uses, whether as food, for medicinal purposes, etc.
The Martin Acres product line is always in flux, changing with the seasons and with the whims of this unique farm’s owners. It’s the ultimate in creative farming.
On their website, gettingback2nature.farm, you may find an appetizing tea, a fruit jam, a plant that will help purify the air in your home, some of that sweet dark hickory syrup and more. Offerings may change at any time, so if you visit and see something you like, you’d be well-advised to get it now.
Martin Acres’ latest success story is just another chapter in a long story of family tradition and determination. Irucka and Obiora are taking their knowledge and philosophy and putting it to work in order to make their sustainable operation a model for what they believe should be the future of farming everywhere.
The brothers thank the land for what it gives them, literally. They talk to their plants like old friends. They make it clear that they love the land that produces for them and they give verbal encouragement to grow and remain healthy—something they value far more than any pesticide available at the farm supply store.
“From early on our goal was to heal the energy in those two acres by putting out vibrations of love,” Irucka said. “Vibrations, whether positive or negative, hurt or heal. We’ve all been in rooms where it…felt horrible because the energy in the room was horrible. And we’ve been in rooms where everyone enjoys being there…That’s all vibrations.”
“It’s an experiment,” Irucka said. “It’s been a progression of success and failure. We choose to build upon those successes and not focus on the failures.”
Progress through traditions of the distant past while bucking the status quo is a fitting description of this farm, considering its origins and how it continues to survive, and the theories being employed here seem to be working. There is a wealth of information to be learned from the farming methods and ideology of these brothers who are as unique as the land over which they preside.
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