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June 16, 2013

Ridley trades banking for farming

Last year, Jason Ridley worked behind a desk as a loan officer in a bank. These days he rises at 4:30 each morning to pull up weeds, pick vegetables and tend chickens.

Ridley, a Murray County native, had been a loan officer for the past 12 years with Appalachian Bank, First Bank of Dalton and AgGeorgia Farm Credit.

“I was always the agriculture person,” said Ridley, who grew up helping out on his grandfather’s farm.

He said he knew from dealing with farmers that produce farming is a tough business.

“Produce is the only crop you can’t get insurance for. You are at the mercy of the weather. You have to depend on your labor. Most of these guys use immigrants for their labor. But they were doing it on a huge scale, 200 acres, 500 acres,” he said. “I always thought that if I could figure out a way to do it without outside labor, to do it myself and not have any other labor, I’d like to do it.”

He got that chance when downsizing cost him his job last July.

“I was burned out. It wasn’t fun anymore. At first, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to work for anyone else again,” he said.

His wife Andrea urged him to follow his dream.

“Sometimes what looks like a setback or a disappointment is just God blessing you and you don’t realize it yet,” she said. “I told him he should do something he loves to do.”

He started 4 Oaks Farm and Produce, which grows organic produce, freerange chickens and chicken eggs and grassfed beef, and he plans to start raising free-range turkeys. He grows the produce and raises the chickens on 18 acres at his home, and a partner runs the cattle on another farm in Murray County.

“It just all came together. I know how to run beef cattle. I know how to grow produce, and there’s a demand for food that’s all natural, that hasn’t been genetically modified. But there’s nothing like that around here. People have been going up to Chattanooga or down to Atlanta,” he said.

He has sold four cows so far.

“We grow on grass until they reach 900 pounds. Then we put them on feed for 30 days. If you aren’t used to it, grassfed beef has a gamy taste. And it’s tougher than the beef people are used to. The feed makes it more tender and gets rid of the gamy taste,” he said.

Ridley uses a feed he and a partner developed that uses no genetically modified ingredients.

“I’ve got a family, and I’m worried about what they eat. I know a lot of other people are as well,” he said.

Similarly, the produce he grows is not genetically modified and is not treated with synthetic pesticides or herbicides. It is watered from lake on his property.

“They are what are called heirloom plants, that people have been growing for generations,” he said.

Ridley delivers the produce to customers each week. He’s selling about 40 cases a week.

“We pick in the morning and deliver in the evening. That way you are getting it as fresh as it can be,” he said.

“We sell our vegetables in three different boxes, a $15, a $22 and a $30 box,” he said. “A $15 box will feed one person for a week. A $22 will feed two people, and a $30 box will feed four people for a week,” he said. “It’s whatever is in season. We can’t do a custom box. If one person said, ‘I don’t want squash,’ and somebody else said, ‘I don’t want tomatoes,’ it would take us all day to box it up. But we deliver to some offices, and the people there swap things around.”

The work on the farm is constant. Seeds need to be sewn, weeds pulled and produce picked daily. The Ridleys do all the work themselves.

“I usually get up around 4:30, and it’s 9:30 or 10 before I get back in,” he said. “It’s hard work. There’s no doubt about it. But it’s something I enjoy.”

The couple get some help with the work from their three children: Tucker, 8, Kate, 5, and Sadie, 3.

“They love to come out here and check on things and try to help out,” he said. “It gives them a sense of responsibility, and they enjoy it.”

Sadie said, “This is better than watching TV.”


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