NEW HOULKA, Miss. (AP) - He was a teacher, and she worked in retail – then Schuyler and Jane Oliver Dickson moved to rural Chickasaw County to start afresh in pursuit of a healthy life, healthy soil and healthy food.
To get to Alali Farms, travelers could drive south on Highway 15, and then swing onto a back road. The pavement soon gives out and a sign warns, “Road subject to flooding.”
Press on just a little further down the dusty colored way and before long a few houses, a barn, and rows of greenhouses and raised beds will emerge into view.
This is where Schuyler and Jane Oliver Dickson now call home, with their twin daughters Dot and Aila.
It’s a small farm built out of big ideas.
“I knew I wanted to supply something of value to the community, and I knew I wanted to create something beautiful, and this kind of just appeared,” Schuyler Dickson said. “It just happened. I can’t really take credit. One step follows another.”
On a recent day at Alali Farm, a trio of guineas squawked. Walking between raised beds on one side and a cattle panel bent into a curved trellis grown thickly with swelling beans on the other side, Dickson recalled a few of those steps that brought him here.
In a previous life, not that long ago, the couple lived in Canton, near the state’s capital city. They were back in Mississippi after time away in Chicago, where Schuyler Dickson pursued a master’s degree in creative writing. He dreamed of penning novels and teaching in the heady environment of a university.
Schuyler Dickson still writes novels and short stories, arising early in the morning to do so. But rather than a university cloister, he works in what amounts to a treehouse on stilts, his “writing cabin” as he calls it, at least until the 1-year-old girls get a little older and eye it for themselves.
A few years ago, this was unimaginable.
“We moved back to Mississippi just to figure things out and finish my book,” Dickson said. “A farm was nowhere near any of that.”
And it stayed that way for a few years, with Schuyler Dickson teaching advanced English courses at first one private school and later another.
When children entered the picture, twin girls born in the fall of 2018, the cracks of conventional expectations widened for the Dicksons. The couple spent much of the day apart, working two different jobs, and one person’s pay was almost entirely needed to cover daycare for two infants.
“It fragments your life into a 100 different pieces,” Dickson said of the way he found himself living. “I wanted all of those things to just shrink into one unified life.”
And so, the Dicksons moved to a farm they found in Northeast Mississippi. They’ve been settled there over a year now, their way of working informed by their commitment to sustainable, regenerative agriculture.
What they’re chasing is a more holistic way of living woven into a more holistic way of producing and distributing food – local people growing food for local people, and growing it in a way that enriches the soil and local ecosystems, rather than depleting them.
Alali Farm is certified naturally grown, using no pesticides or chemicals. They may eventually seek organic certification, but the process is arduous.
With no agricultural background, the couple first learned the basics of farming from online videos, books and, ultimately, the stern, demanding teacher of experience. Along the way, they’ve endured their share of calamities, including the loss of a fall crop last year to bug infestation. Then the pandemic upended their original plans for this year.
But that turned into its own kind of advantage.
“The plan was to do farmers’ markets, and then the pandemic hit, and we just didn’t feel comfortable with farmers’ markets,” Schuyler Dickson said. “Then when we shifted to CSA and delivery and online sales, it blew up.”
Jane Oliver Dickson took the often grim mood of the year as an opportunity to embrace her interest in floral arrangements. In each week’s share of the farm’s community supported agriculture program, she included a bouquet grown and assembled at the farm.
“People need something cheerful right now,” she said.
The summer CSA program is at an end, and preparation is right now underway for the fall program which will run from October through November. Beyond that, there will be winter greenery and wreaths on offer.
And like a plant emerging from small beginnings into its full form, the Dicksons find their current path – pitfalls and all – to be one of discovery about both themselves and the world around them.
“Jane I just sat down when we talked about having kids, and asked, what do we want our life look like?” Schuyler Dickson said. “Upon investigation I found out that I’d made a lot of those non-decisions where I’d just fallen into things. It made me start to investigate. What’s true and what’s not? And what’s worth pursuing and what’s not?”
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