Dr. Booker T. Whatley is a guru, the spiritual force behind what we might call the Temple of the Small and Common Sensical.
The guru's sanctum is his home, laden with books and honorific plaques. The disciples and the curious call incessantly for guidance. People pay hard cash for his thoughts. The guru consumes a lot of unfiltered Luckies and instant coffee and he is amused by all the hoorah he's provoked.
The hoorah comes because Whatley is a curious hybrid from the groves of agricultural academe, promoting an idea so marvelously simple that it has given him bigger- than-life status among Americans looking for better ways to reap profit from farming.
Honed to its finest, the idea is this: Farm small, farm intensively, farm for a specific market, farm what no one else farms. Moreover, Whatley has developed a plan for grossing, believe it or not, $100,000 annually from no more than 25 acres.
Such is the parlous state of the American farm economy and so scant the federal government and university research on small farming, that the frustrated and the innovative flock to Whatley's knee, whether he's lecturing on the road or sitting at home here in his easy chair.
In less than two years, subscriptions to his small-farm newsletter have climbed from 500 to 20,000. He gets stacks of mail. He is on the road constantly, outlining his small-farm plan. His seminars have been shown on national and regional television. He's scheduled to go to Saudi Arabia and Haiti this year to advise and consult.
"There's nothing magic in what I'm talking about," Whatley said recently. "It is just hard common sense. Which is uncommon. Nothing at all magic or 'unique,' as these jokers say."
Whatley doesn't name names and he insists he's not looking for trouble, but the "jokers" he talks about are unmistakably the academicians, the bureaucrats and politicians who roll out yards of statistics that demonstrate there is little or no commercial future for farmers on 25-acre plots.
"USDA and the land-grants are just not working to research small farms. The land-grants must have matching money, they have to face state legislatures every year for money. Legislators are concerned about crops that produce money. So the experiment station director will worry about soybeans, cotton or nuts, but he won't worry about purple cabbage," Whatley said. "The research money has gone to those money crops. We all think for anything to be good it's got to be big."
It took awhile for him to reach this point. Whatley, 67, grew up in a black section of rural Alabama. His father farmed and young Whatley went to Alabama A&M to study agriculture. After a doctorate in horticulture from Rutgers, he joined the faculty at Southern University in Lousiana and began work on sweet-potato breeding, picking up some of the loose ends left by the famed George Washington Carver. He did much of the key plant breeding of the Carver and the Tuskegee 100, sweet potatoes grown commonly in the South. He also developed 15 varieties of grapes, including the Foxxy Lottie, named for his wife.
But Whatley always wanted to go home and he got the chance in 1969 when a faculty slot opened at Tuskegee Institute, about 45 miles from here. That seemed entirely proper. He was named in part for Booker T. Washington, who built Tuskegee to world renown. He revered Carver, who did his work there.
"About 1973, it became clear to me that small landholders could make a good living if they grew crops -- like sweet potatoes and grapes -- that will produce a minimum of $3,000 per acre annually. That eliminated all these things that the small farmers were trying to do -- cotton, corn, dairy, and so on," he said.
Whatley published his first academic paper on the subject in 1974. About that time the Rockefeller Foundation was looking for a place to spend some money on small-farm research. The road led to Tuskegee and Whatley, where the Rockefellers plunked down $250,000 for a three- year study.
Whatley set up a 25-acre farm with a small pond and set about calculating ways to turn it into a money- maker for a full-time farmer. By the time he retired from regular teaching in 1981, Whatley had it figured out.
The plan he promotes today is largely the result of that work at Tuskegee. It varies according to types of crops that can be grown in different regions, but it will work, he insists, if the farmer adheres to the guru's commandments.
Some of the rules:
* The farm must be a fulltime operation.
* It must be on a paved road.
* It must have an ample supply of water.
* It must not be more than 40 miles from a metropolitan area.
* It must have a year-round cash flow from crops that mature sequentially.
* It must be run on a membership basis to assure a steady flow of customers.
* It must raise crops the members want.
* They must pick the crops themselves to cut labor costs.
As Whatley describes it, the possibilities are limitless, but his basic production mix calls for sweet potatoes, fish in the pond, rabbits, a quail or pheasant rookery, different types of berries and tree fruits, grapes, all manner of vegetables.
The response to this has been big, but Booker T. Whatley seems to be just starting. He plans to set up a network of model farms around the country next year and he's now hiring state coordinators to help counsel farmers who want to take up the plan. His Whatley Farms Inc. has started a scholarship fund to push bright young high schoolers into small-farm research.
"A lot of folks think I'm running an extension service, but damn, I'm not competing with anyone. There's just so much to do," Whatley said. "And I don't have all the answers. Somebody asked me about my plan for a small farmer who lived 75 miles from a big city. I'm a horticulturist, not a sociologist. I told him to move closer to the city. I'm not trying to save them all."
Ward Sinclair covers agriculture for the national staff of The Washingtoon Post.