At five years old Ronnie Mathis, of Mountain Earth Farms, knew he wanted to be a farmer and grow fresh, nutritious produce for his community. Born and raised on a 175-acre apple and vegetable farm in Ellijay, Georgia, Ronnie and his seven brothers and sisters learned about different kinds of farming practices early on. It was their nightly tradition to discuss and give advice about farming practices over dinner as a family. Farming was the Mathis’ livelihood, and according to Ronnie, this lifestyle was very typical of the people in North Georgia. Although there was plenty of work to be done by all of the Mathis family members on their farm, Ronnie asked his father at the age of five if he could have his own garden. His father was resistant at first to this demand because he didn’t want to have to take care of his 175-acre farm as well as the garden started by his five year old son. However, Ronnie was so determined to begin growing his own produce, that his father finally agreed to help him with the first planting as long as Ronnie took care of the garden from then on. Ronnie was a natural at farming from the start, his only upset being when the cows got out and ate all of his corn. Since then he has ridden the ups and downs of the farming life, and he is still going strong.
Ronnie began his farming career as a conventional farmer; however, about 20 years ago he began growing apples and other crops organically. During that time it was very difficult to transition to organic farming because there weren’t many products to control pests and disease organically, and it was not a common farming practice. According to Ronnie, farmers didn’t know back then that if you kept the soil healthy, the plants would be healthy too and you wouldn’t have as many bugs or disease — a key theory to organic farming. Ronnie still finds that most people are skeptical of organic practices and don’t think it is possible to have the same or an increased yield of product.
Currently Ronnie is growing on 40 acres between 2 different plots of land located in Clarkesville, Georgia. He has a couple of acres of strawberries and blueberries, and the rest of his acreage is taken up by a variety of vegetables, including squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, corn, and greens. His products can be found at the online market —Northeast Georgia Locally Grown, at the Clarkesville Farmers Market, and well as at other outlets like rest stops in the Habersham County area. He has also supplied produce to the youth of Habersham and Rabun County through the farm to school program.
About five years ago Ronnie and a colleague went to the local school board, the school administration, and the nutrition department of Habersham County schools to convince them to start a farm to school program that got more local, nutritious food into the schools. With approval of those key groups Ronnie met with, he started doing taste tests at various schools in Habersham County with the produce he grew. This helped build a foundation for Northeast Georgia Farm to School to begin doing work in Habersham County. Ronnie is so pleased with how much the program has grown since it’s inception. According to him farm to school is “a phenomenal idea!” Both the schools and farmers gain something from the program — schools supplying healthier food to their students and farmers getting to sell their product. To date Ronnie has served about 10,000 to 12,000 students smoothies, vegetables, and fruit from his farm.