When Paul Coleman quit his job at Monsanto more than 10 years ago, he swore he would never work for anyone else again.
As a child, Coleman would collect and sell worms as bait with his father in temperate southwest Florida, and when he quit corporate work, he went back to his childhood hobby.
The Earlybird Farm sits as a monument to days past — two gardens totaling about 1.5 acres are set off Highway 25, with hand-made signs reading, “Live bait” and “We accept EBT” directly in front of them.
Farther back, a small house and several large oak trees lead up to a large, white plantation house, darkened and creaking with age. To the right of the house is a field with cows and sheep, where several chickens and jungle fowl occasionally cluck by.
A pregnant hog rests, panting in the shade of its mud pen. The smaller hogs lay their round noses flat against the ground, sniffing for food in the mud.
Behind the plantation house is a coop filled with speckled rabbits, chickens and roosters.
Hiding from the heat, birds perch in small, violet plum trees several yards from a greenhouse, which for a few weeks in the summer is full of shiitake and oyster mushrooms.
The farm is Coleman’s crowning achievement, although it started as puzzle pieces he slowly acquired through the years.
“This was the only place we ever bought or purchased. Unlike other people, I bought a home and I stayed there,” Coleman said. “They say your first home, many people own three, four, five homes before they finally settle. I bought one and started hauling in washing machines and old boats.”
When Coleman first moved to Hodges from Florida more than 20 years ago, he worked as a control room specialist for Monsanto’s Chemical Division, which is now Ascend Performance Materials.
“That’s when I realized that I was never going to let anybody else be responsible for my economic destiny,” Coleman said. “I threw off that corporate attitude like a yoke — tossed it off like a yoke and I’ve never looked back.”
For years, Coleman barely got by — he scraped and saved money from selling worms, which he started doing after thinking back on his childhood days with his father.
“He would buy coffee cans full of worms from the lunchroom lady for bait, and I had thought to myself, I was working 80 hours a week for Monsanto and I figured, ‘Man, I’m never going to see my children. If there was just something I could do at home, maybe I wouldn’t have to work so much and I’d be able to see my kids,’” Coleman said.
So Coleman started a worm farm.
“We grew our own vegetables and raised worms, and when it came time that Monsanto had spun us off and we were going broke and there was economic uncertainty, I had this other gig,” Coleman said. “The Earlybird Worm Farm was a success, I made a living and I did well, alternatively.”
The stretch of land Coleman bought was sandwiched between two pieces of land around the farmhouse, which had been sold off in segments by the previous owners.
“When we bought this place, I was actually part of a group of people who got first-time homeowners, they got special incentives to buy a home,” Coleman said. “For like, the first six months, we walked around with five-gallon buckets picking up all the little pieces of paper and all the little glass.”
For three years he spent thousands on the little stretch of land and house he had to get it to a livable condition so he could start making upgrade repairs.
“Just bringing it to a state of repair took me three years and $16,000. It’s been an adventure,” Coleman said. “I’ve only been on one vacation in all that time — one vacation.”
Over the years, Coleman was able to buy the other two segments, which included the large, white plantation house that sits in the center of the property.
His farm has everything it needs to sustain itself — fish swim around in large tanks of water before being sold as bait. The water from the tanks irrigate his crops. Slabs of pork and beef are hung up in his freezer to smoke and sell, as well as cook, for his family.
The idea to produce just about everything he needs to live came when Coleman became disillusioned with markets and grocery stores early on in the process of starting his farm.
“Somebody shot the dream down,” Coleman said. “And I was just watching the dream sort of spin. It was ending. The American Dream was sort of spinning out.”
One day when Coleman was buying groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly, he noticed everything he bought came from somewhere else.
“It dawned on me that day — America can no longer feed itself,” Coleman said.
For Coleman, the idea that America only has two weeks’ worth of fresh food inspired him to grow and produce more and more each year.
Mack Durham, the mayor of Williamston, can often be found on Coleman’s farm, learning how to tie up tomatoes or more effectively plant seeds under plastic tarp.
“He’s just got the personality of a teacher,” Durham said. “He’s a repository of some knowledge that is gonna be lost between generations if people don’t actively get out and seek people that still practice the farming techniques and growing their own vegetables and sustainability practices — those are really, I feel like, in danger of being lost.”
It’s easy to get swept up in whatever activity Coleman has going on at the farm — Durham said one day when he visited, they were walking through his garden when Coleman got on his hands and knees to check the soil.
“It’s very easy to fall in love with it, now actually making it work, that’s another thing, but a lifestyle with that type of independence and the self-worth that you create from that and the abundance that you create in your life that you share with others — I mean it is very attractive. It’s easy to fall in love with that,” Durham said. “He’s doing it. I mean, he’s got so many little niches — I don’t know if you’d exactly call what Paul is doing permaculture, but in his own way, it’s very much permaculture. He tries to use everything for what it’s suited for.”
Coleman can’t name all of the vegetables and fruits he grows — it varies depending on the time of year — but includes anything from watercress to cucumbers to zucchini to tea bushes.
He spends very little money in grocery stores each month — there are only a few things the farm doesn’t produce, such as bread. Other items, like canola oil, he uses with byproducts on the farm. Lately instead of buying oil, he’s been using the lard from his hogs.
“You just keep going — it’s a sickness. How much more can you make for yourself?” Coleman said. “After a while, if you don’t have to go here and spend money on this and you don’t have to go here and spend money on that, you can live.”