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My Story…

Never Say Never…

A lot of people who visit the farm ask me what I did to prepare myself for a life of sustainable farm living. Some of my friends and visitors only know that I had a career in corporate America, most recently with Xerox, and of course it would be easy to be confused about how a sales career with Xerox might prepare one for a life on the farm!

Family Pic 1960

Some people would say that I had a tough childhood, but I know that God uses all circumstances for His good and His purpose. My childhood helped to make me stronger and shape me into the person that I am
today.  I was born in Humboldt Tennessee, but moved to Texas when I was 2 years old. My mother and father unfortunately had marital difficulties, which ultimately ended in their separation and divorce, and
my mother eventually moved my brother and me back to Tennessee so that she could raise us around her supportive family. Mom was the oldest of 11 children, with her youngest sister only 3 years older than me. My grandparents, aunts, and uncles were very good to us and provided wonderful role models for my brother and I to look up to.

During this time, we lived on a small farm rented to us by my mother’s sister and brother-in-law. My brother and I learned how to work on the farm in the large garden that we had behind the house. That garden provided a substantial amount of food for our family that we could not have done without. My mom’s job only paid minimum wage, so that garden made a huge difference in how well we ate throughout the year. We also learned farm work from Uncle Brance and Aunt Joyce who let us work for them by chopping weeds out of the cotton fields. It was hot, hard work that taught me the value of a dollar and kept me out of trouble.  It also motivated me to go to college so that I did not have to do farm work the rest of my life. I specifically remember telling my family “I will never, ever marry a farmer or live on a farm.” 

You never should say: “Never;” God has a way of making you eat your words.

As a typical teenager, I would have said I hated working in the garden, chopping weeds, or canning vegetables, but there are some things I remember now that bring back a lot of great memories… my mama’s candy pickles, canned green beans, purple hull peas, grape jelly, and peaches. If we hadn’t moved back to Tennessee I would’ve never learned all the wonderful things that my mother taught me, in the summers during the garden season. I still remember all the smells of pickling, blanching, and canning all the wonderful fruits of our labor.

In Tennessee I was able to make the deep-rooted relationships I’d missed during our nomadic days in Texas. Mom took us to church every Sunday, and I know that my faith has brought me through some difficult times.

My mother insisted that we go to college. She did not want us working minimum wage jobs, like she was forced to do after she and my father split up.  Since we didn’t have a lot of money, I knew that I needed to get scholarships to be able to go to college. So I worked hard and because of my grades I received several scholarships that allowed me to attend Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro Tennessee, although I still had to work (more than one job) during college. After I graduated. I had several job offers, and I took the one that paid the most, as a Kroger store manager trainee starting at $19,000 per year…Not bad money for the 80s. Kroger at that time was promoting women and diversity in their stores and corporate office so I had an eight-year career with them, first in store management and later in floral merchandising.

In Kroger’s excellent management training program, I learned how to cut meat, merchandise the store, ensure food safety, human resource skills, inventory control, and relationship management with the union. Retail hours were not fun but I advanced quickly and thoroughly enjoyed my career. One of the most memorable experiences I had was being able to visit all of the floral growing areas in California. I flew into San Francisco and the Wesco rep drove down the coast all the way to San Diego. I not only learned a lot about the floral business but I also learned a lot about produce being grown in California. I had never seen an artichoke or avocados growing in the field until that trip.

During my tenure at Kroger, I lost my mother to a sudden, fatal heart attack.  She was only 47 years old.  I cannot tell you how much that event has shaped my life from that point on.  I was very close to my mother, who had devoted her whole life to raising my brother and me in the best way she knew how.  I was 24 when she died and the void that was left in my heart could never be filled.  Time and faith has healed my wounds,
but there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her and her many sacrifices to make sure our family stayed together. I learned that every day is a gift from God and I want to honor her and our family by living life to the fullest and serving others…a meaningful legacy that she would be proud of.

Mom

Leigh in 1990 with Allison

Shortly after my mother passed away,  I married and five years later, had my daughter.  I realized that retail hours were not conducive to family life. Sometimes I would close the store at midnight and have to be back the next morning at 6 AM so it didn’t take long to get sleep deprived, especially with a newborn. So I started looking at some of the vendors for Kroger for possible job opportunities and found the plant manager position at a regional fresh vegetable processing facility. This position afforded me regular hours and a more flexible schedule with my newborn daughter. The food processing plant helped me to learn about production requirements, quality control, tight inventory turn and much more. After three years in plant management, I moved into a regional marketing director position, and learned valuable marketing skills such as branding, sales, and customer relationship management. I also had the privilege of rolling out a new product line, which was fresh fruit that would last 10 days with no preservatives. The process was unique and involved boiling the fruit (like cantaloupe and honeydew) for a specified amount of time to kill all bacteria on the fruit’s outer skin. The boiling time was critical so that it did not cook the fruit. It was a total secret because we could not patent the process and we didn’t want competitors finding this out.

During my marketing director term, I discovered that the owners of this regional company were positioning it for sale nationally, so I began searching for another career, and was eventually hired into a corporate sales position with Xerox. Xerox definitely had one of the best sales training programs in the country, and I was blessed to have the opportunity to work there. This was hard work of a different kind, but I stuck it out and developed a successful career path over the next 17 years. I started out as an account manager working with a local territory and ended up as a production sales specialist covering parts of seven states. The large ticket equipment I sold yielded a very generous compensation package…for which I felt very blessed.

During my 17 years at Xerox, I went through a divorce, continued to raise my daughter (with a lot of help from her father), then met and married my soul mate, Olin Funderburk, and, despite my earlier promise to never find myself back on a farm, moved with him, all but ‘kicking and screaming’, to a small 15 acre farm in Williamson County.

Leigh and Olin married

      The rest, as they say, is history.  (To be continued…)

 

                “How I Fell in Love with our Farm”