Book details the growth of Bonnie Plant Farm#039;s continental garden

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 29, 2003

Somewhere around 1918, Livingston Paulk planted two pounds of cabbage seed in a small plot in the backyard of has bachelor uncle's house in the Sardis Community.

From that two pounds of seed, Paulk produced a "garden" that now covers the continental United States.

The story of the "rags to riches" success of Bonnie Plant Farm is one that deserves to be told and Betty Paulk Adams put all of her time and energy during the past two years into doing just that.

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This past week, Adams proudly held the fruits of her labor in her hands.

Her book, Bonnie Plant Farm - A Grandaughter's Memoirs, chronicles the lives of Livingston and Bonnie Paulk, their family and the growth of Bonnie Plant Farm in Union Springs from that first cabbage harvest to the pinnacle of vegetable production.

"I grew up right next to the plant farm and I have fond memories of the farm, the people that worked the farm and, of course, my grandparents," Adams said. "I don't think anyone could have had a better childhood than I did on Bonnie Plant Farm.

"Some of my fondest memories are of the days that I spent out in the fields."

In the spring, Adams liked to watch the workers drive the tractor and plant rows "as straight as an arrow."

"I loved to watch the tractor move slowly over the fields, sowing seeds into the soft earth," she said. "The rain and sunshine would nurture the seeds into tiny green plants and, when the plants gently pushed the soft earth aside, a light lime-green blanket covered the fields as far as the eye could see. It was a beautiful sight. I'll never forget it."

And, Adams will never forget those who labored in the fields.

"When I was young, I went to the fields with my granddaddy and he let me pull plants with the women workers," Adams said. "Most of them wore men's pants with a dress over them. They wore work boots and usually had a red bandana tied around their heads to keep them cool in the warm spring sun."

Adams said even today, if she sits quietly, she can still hear the sounds of laughter and song that floated across the fields of the plant farm.

"The workers would talk, laugh, hum and sing," she said. "Songs like 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' and 'Lord, I'm Coming Home.' It was hard work but they didn't seem to mind because they liked to be with one another. The workers were good, dependable people that could be relied on for an honest day's work."

Adams said it was Mother Nature, not fate, that brought Livingston and Bonnie Paulk to Bullock County to grow cabbage, raise and family and prosper.

"I love the story of how Bonnie Plant Farm began," she said. "My granddaddy had gone to Florida to try his hand at vegetable farming, but that year - 1916 - the worst freeze to hit Florida in 30 years wiped him out - him, and everyone else that was trying to grow fruits and vegetables."

One day the fields were promising with beautiful growing vegetables. The next day, the plants were limp and flat from the freeze.

Livingston had met, fallen in love with and married Bonnie Brown and the couple packed their meager belongings and left the flat woods truck farm for the big city of Boynton Beach. There they found work and saved enough money to purchase two train tickets to Livingston's hometown, Union Springs.

"When they got off the train, they had $50 in cash and the clothes on their backs," Adams said. "They went to live with my granddaddy's uncle, Whitfield Pitts, who had a farm in the Sardis Community. It was late June, when they began farming. They planted 30 acres in peanuts and managed to gather a good crop."

However, the couple found it hard to get through the long winters with no income.

"And, they were just barely realizing an income from their row crops," Adams said. "My granddaddy began to look for a crop that would bring in some cash during the winter months. He remembered when he was a boy that his daddy raised cabbage plants in the winter and sold them to local merchants. They decided to try it."

From two pounds of cabbage seed, Paulk grew a crop that was easy to sell. He peddled large, lush heads of cabbage around the countryside in his buggy. He sold all he had grown and could have sold more. So, he decided that a truck farm might do well in the ridges of rural South Alabama.

"As my grandparents' small farm began to flourish,

they had a need for stationary and other office supplies," Adams said. "My granddaddy went to Union Springs to order from the printer at the newspaper. The printer asked my granddaddy what name he had given to the farm and he quickly said, 'My wife's name is Bonnie, so I will name it Bonnie Plant Farm.' And, so that was the beginning of Bonnie Plant Farm."

Paulk added tomatoes, onions and bell pepper to his farm and more people in the Sardis community began to find work at the farm.

Plants had to be pulled, bunched, gathered, stacked and transported to the wrapping house where they were prepared for shipping.

"The plants moved quickly from the field to the stores," Adams said. "Often they go out the same day they were pulled."

Bonnie Plant Farm prospered and soon other plant growers were contracted in Florida and Texas. And, it took Livingston, Bonnie and their six children to keep the business moving at its rapid pace.

The number of plant growers continued to increase and business was good.

When Livingston Paulk died in 1963, his oldest son, Adams' dad, Jim took over as president of the company, a position he held until 1975 when the Paulk family sold the business to Alabama Farmer's Cooperative in Decatur.

Today, Bonnie Plant Farm operates nationwide with more than 300 trucks in service. The trucks travel more than nine million miles each year. In 2003, more than five million seeds were planted and deliveries reached nearly 100 million.

"That's a long way from two pounds of cabbage seed, a horse and buggy and a dream," Adams said.