In her varied working life, Relinda Walker has tried a number of other things. But now, with the Screven County farmer's selection by Georgia Organics as 2011 Land Steward of the Year, she has won statewide recognition for what she sees as her most important role.
"I have a very checkered past. I've done really a lot of things. But this is the most important thing I've ever done in my life, to grow good food for people and to help other people do that, to help them learn how to do it, to inspire them that it's a worthwhile thing to do, and just being a part of this whole movement," she said, explaining what it means to her.
"And so to be recognized for something that I feel is so important was just overwhelming to me."
When Georgia Organics, a local-foods and organic farming advocacy group with about 1,200 members, held its 14th annual conference March 11-12 in Savannah, Walker Farms, near Newington, was on one of the places that hosted farm tours on that Friday. Saturday night, the conference culminated with the Farmers Feast at the International Trade & Convention Center, where dishes prepared by Georgia and South Carolina chefs from all organically grown ingredients, obtained locally, fed 820 guests.
It was there that a previous Land Steward honoree, Shirley Daughtry of Effingham County, presented the plate-shaped award to Relinda. Daughtry was Georgia's first government-certified organic farmer, and she and Relinda together founded Coastal Organic Growers.
Relinda's Screven County farm has been in her direct line for three generations, since her grandfather bought the land in 1925 from a Walker cousin. But its transformation began in 2002, when Relinda returned to help her father, Frank Alston Walker, who had been farming the land since he returned from World War II. Her mother Marilyn died the previous year, and her father was diagnosed with a Parkinson's-like illness.
Before coming back to the farm, Relinda started out as a math teacher. Then she went to work for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., writing test questions and doing statistical analysis. From there she evolved into technical writing, then marketing and management, for companies making things like fiber-optic and semiconductor testing devices.
Meanwhile, her father continued to grow commercial staples such as corn, peanuts and soybeans, but was locally famous for his watermelons, his one produce item. He became her mentor, and long before he passed away last October, Frank Walker came to support what his daughter saw as her mission for the farm.
"He was pretty skeptical about it, and he was guardedly supportive in the beginning, but he became a big supporter and he said, at some point, ‘I think you got into this at the right time,'" she said.
Now everything grown at Walker Farms is certified organic: the sweet onions, carrots in several colors and fingerling potatoes, the winter and spring greens and summer sweet corn, the onion and leek plants now being drop shipped on behalf of a Maine seed company to gardeners in other states, even the rye she plants as a cover crop.
The Land Steward honor recognizes Relinda both for what she does on the farm and the leadership she has shown beyond it, explained Michael Wall, communications director for Georgia Organics.
"It has been awarded to farmers, agricultural professionals and researchers who have cared for the land, cared for their community and want to make both as healthy and as alive as possible," he said, reading in part from the award criteria.
Besides being a co-founder of Coastal Organic Growers, Relinda has put on workshops for other farmers and gardeners. She advised Vidalia onion growers seeking organic certification and serves as an official mentor in Georgia Organics farmer-to-farmer program.
In addition to farm markets, restaurants and grocery stores, Relinda supplies food through what is known in the movement as a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture subscription network, with 300 members.
"She has a great reputation with the whole state for her dedication to land stewardship. She's got a dogged determination to promote organic farming, and she's always willing to share her knowledge with everybody," Wall said.