Think Big, Act Small: Micro Family Farms is About to Get Large

Cover Story
2015
March

The story of Mike Loggins and Micro Family Farms begins in the soil. It was cultivated naturally from the seed of an idea, sown in a perfect climate springing up from the ground. Micro Family Farms grew at nature’s pace, organically.

Since the Civil War, Loggins’ family and their name have been found around Tyler and East Texas. They even have a history of feeding people on this land: Mike’s grandfather opened Loggins Restaurant in 1949. If you’ve been, you know that the place is home cooking, and true to its roots. 

Mike Loggins has been looking to the earth to be sustained for generations, and he continues the calling today. And it is a calling, something he is deeply passionate about. His eyes get wide and the cadence of his speech picks up markedly. When he speaks, you can hear more than just a discussion of the progressiveness of his business plan or the interactivity of his website – both of which happen to be excellent. What comes through is Loggins’ sincere desire to use Micro Family Farms to provide for his community, or more accurately, to allow his community to provide for itself.

Loggins moved to Sonoma County, California, when he was an infant. He grew up in the fertile valley, where “organic” was just the way it was out there. 

“The soil was so rich and grew everything,” Loggins said. “In the third grade, where kids do the little starter cups of seeds for science projects, I asked for a couple of extra and took them home and grew them. It was revolutionary for me, as a third grader harvesting zucchini – seeing these beautiful, big plants grow. It really hooked me.” 

About 20 years ago, Loggins was already – perhaps still – very serious about growing and producing food. He had his sheep, chicken and vegetables. About 80 percent of everything he ate he either grew or had stored and put away for the future. It was a pursuit that fascinated him. “I needed to know it, to learn it. This Generation, Generation X and onward, they just don’t have a lot of that [interest] left. It’s slipped by. I took it on. It was a wonderfully steep learning curve,” Loggins said, with a knowing smile. “[Learning] how to do all that – from curing meats or making pickles – I taught myself all of it.” And he used books, kids. This was before the Internet. 

His father was an architect, so it was a natural progression when Mike excelled in a career of landscape design. He always stayed in that line of agriculture and horticulture, growing food passionately.  And though he has been successful in his career, by any measure, and it is undoubtedly something he enjoys, one gets the sense he might not have always felt fulfilled. “There was just this real… I don’t know… I was seeking some higher purpose if you will, something altruistic,” Loggins said.

Loggins came back to Texas at 15, “a huge culture shock ” to him. It was here that he began his landscape design business. As it continued to grow, he composed a little five-acre farm where he would pour time and energy. In his working life, projects would typically last six months to a year. That’s a long enough time to build relationships beyond the casual “good morning.” He’d talk to his clients about his gardens and farm. They’d hear him talk about food, and he would bring them jars of homemade pickles or sauerkraut.  Eventually clients began to ask Loggins to incorporate a vegetable garden into his design, and he gladly took on the task. But, it was not a storybook ending. “I would be designing these incredible outdoor spaces, quarter-million dollar pools… and they wanted a vegetable garden too. But I’d come back in a year to check up on the project after it was finished and these beautiful gardens would just be weeds and briars – I couldn’t even stand to look at it,” he said, shaking his head. “Tragic.”

That’s not hyperbole. Loggins turned down all future offers to design gardens for years afterward. “After about seven or eight clients, I just stopped doing it,” Loggins said. “People just couldn’t do it, couldn’t keep it up. There’s a steep learning curve and a lot to it.” Even with direction, clients kept failing, until about four years ago. Loggins was designing a pool for friends when the wife started digging in about whole foods and gardening. “She started asking me to put in a vegetable garden,” Loggins said. “Then when I said ‘no,' she kept asking. And asking. Honestly, thank God for her persistence. She has quite a few kids, and that’s what convinced me.” It was during a large gathering where Loggins noticed his sons seemed healthier, livelier than most of the other kids. They didn’t get sick, and they didn’t have purple around their eyes and they loved to eat their veggies. “I made the connection and told her I would figure out a way for her to do it, and make it achievable. That’s what started me on this adventure.”

Loggins knew how to make things grow in East Texas soil, as he’d been doing it for years. But he’d always put in the time and effort – a large family with busy parents and full schedules couldn’t necessarily do the same things, especially without the years of study and experience. So, taking into account what didn’t work with his past clients and what did work at his home, Loggins built something new. It was a garden, with trellising systems, state of the art irrigation and more. “I was able to use decades of experience in landscape design and take cutting-edge design and fuse that with the techniques I learned from a Scottish book about horticulture, written in 1920,” Loggins said. “It became really fun.”

No sooner was that the garden built and then another set of family friends saw it and were enamored. Loggins refined his system further, began thinking of the best use of space available and square footage. He came up with the idea that is now called Micro Family Farms. “It’s a micro-plot, vegetable garden that takes the things that grow best in this soil and can feed year round – or family of 3-4 and have enough to freeze and preserve,” Loggins explained. 

He began to do more. He broke the components down for each family. The setup was the same, but different – depending on the preferences of the family, the size of the property and their financial wherewithal. People make choices, and then Loggins adds and subtracts, his design and growing backgrounds dovetailing, allowing him to accommodate requests and maximize the space. He then understood why the first gardens he built for clients had failed – and he solved that problem too.

“It all started coming together,” he said. “No matter how much I instructed or advised, these families are busy. They’re homeschooling; they have several kids; they’re working 40 hours a week at minimum. Half my clients are doctors. No one has 25 hours a week to be on his or her hands and knees outside, digging in the dirt. What I developed was basically a service that seven times throughout the year I am able to come out with a team and we do the nasty stuff: all the composting, the fertilization, the mulching. It evolved and really, last year we were able to refine the seven services so well that, now, all the families have to do is harvest their fresh fruits and vegetables and peas and peppers and everything else.”

MFF has a service agreement that clients sign each year detailing the services and cost. The micro-plot base investment is $4,500, annually, and more can be added . It may seem like a high figure until you do the math. Organic produce sells for an average of $5 per pound. The Micro Family Farm pays for itself with only the summer crop. There are six more months of harvesting to enjoy, essentially a bonus. 

“Amazingly it works out to not only be a financial incentive, but now these families are for the first time – twice a week, every night – asking ‘What’s for dinner?’ Then they go out to the garden, harvest it, bring it in,” Loggins said, his grin growing ever wider. “That’s kind of our backbone on the website. Our grower, software developer, we are all partners. When you become a Micro Family Farm member, we have asked that twice a year you log into the site and choose and pick things you want to grow, what kind of peppers, okra or tomatoes.” All the MFF families finish in December picking what they will eat in spring and summer. There is an MFF app for smartphones that allow you to manage your garden, as well. If there is concern in the garden, you see a plant looking odd – pull up the app, take a photo and a note is sent to the site. It is tagged to farm, goes to Loggins, goes to the grower and goes to the plant file. A history builds, just like the soil. Families give reviews for the vegetables at the end of each season, what they like, what they don’t and why. Over time MFF is refining the very best selections and they are always trying new things. “Right now I’m trailing ten different Asian greens from Thailand that are doing very well,” Loggins said. “I’ll introduce those next year. You’ve got to stay above that curve.”

MFF has been able to find that sweet point where they can make it viable for the family and a financially successful business. “The technology is what makes this possible, and it wouldn’t be feasible without it, without the software. Put simply: the organic food movement is unstoppable, and one of the fastest of all segments of the market.” From choosing the perfect pears to utilizing advanced biologicals, to proactively combatting harmful insects naturally, MFF is a wonderful mixture of old fashioned artisanship and the most
contemporary science.

“We are learning,” Loggins said. “We’re making a big difference. People aren’t eating as much fast food now. People are eating more whole foods. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t want McDonalds to fail, but I don’t want to give my kids Chicken McNuggets six nights a week, either. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat McNuggets because McNuggets are delicious … but that can’t be your whole diet.”

But they are convenient. And that was the problem MFF had to solve. Loggins always wanted the best for his clients and their families. It simply wasn’t sustainable – and that’s quite a buzzword for Loggins. “People’s time is their value,” he said. “We tried to get people to be self-sufficient, but it wasn’t taking. They spend the money at the store, anyway. Now, it’s a different thing. For example, take the head of a broccoli wrapped in plastic sitting on the shelf. It’s thousands of miles away from where it was grown. Ask your kid sitting in the cart if he wants some broccoli – you know the answer! Now, what if that broccoli is outside in your garden. And the kid sees it and all the other vegetables. He asks over and over if we can pick it yet. Finally, when the time comes, you better believe he’s eating it up!”

Children and education still play a large part in the ventures of Micro Family Farms. They recently broke ground at Good Shepherd School in Tyler. “It’s something I’m passionate about,” Loggins said. “Getting the children connected at an early age is important. Right now, they are eating food that’s brought in. But we’re going to change that. Several family members have kids that go there and have MFF gardens. The model we’re doing there is different – there are more people. But, it allows the kids to take part in the feeding, harvesting and so on. We’re replacing some of their fast food days with fresh minestrone soup. It’s going to be great.”

MFF currently has 20 farms in Tyler, and 20 more planned. Check them out online at microfamilyfarms.com.

Recently, Loggins sent out a survey with a review for the summer crop, and they added a question about how “fun” was the farm. They weren’t sure what the answers would be. “I was reticent,” Loggins confessed. “There are some wonderful things about hardcore gardening: it’s nutritional, it’s beneficial, it’s good for you… but ‘fun’ is never really at the top of most people’s lists. But 100 percent of families gave it five stars and left a comment about just how fun it was … This is much bigger than me. There are software developers. We have incredible service teams. There is the grower aspect of it. It all comes down to this effort to allow families the opportunity of fresh food. That’s what Micro Family Farms is giving families for the first time, and it seems crazy that gardening could be so innovative.”

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