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James T. Farmer III has been billed as a gardening guru, a landscape designer, a floral artiste, an interior decorator, a design expert, a Southern chef and an event planner, and any and all of those introductions are apropos for the third-generation Auburn University graduate.
Since founding his James Farmer Designs in his native Kathleen, Ga., in 2005, the 30-year-old ’04 College of Agriculture landscape design alumnus has built an impressive client list that stretches from central Alabama to the southern coast of South Carolina and up into the Tar Heel State, and he and his work have been featured frequently in regional magazines, including Southern Living, which, in December, named him an editor-at-large.
But wait; there’s more. He also has developed a loyal following on his allthingsfarmer.com blog and has appeared on any number of major-market television morning shows, most notably a segment with TV weatherman Al Roker on NBC’s “Today Show” last fall about transforming fruit, flowers and foliage from the garden into guest-wowing autumn tablescapes. We’re talking cored apples as votive holders, limes and pomegranate halves in the centerpiece, croton leaves as placemats and sweet potato soufflé served in orange halves.
“I’m all about weaving the garden and the goodness of the garden into your daily outdoor and indoor life,” says Farmer in his middle-Georgia drawl. “Garden living is my mantra.”
It’s also the subject of his first book, "A Time To Plant: Southern-Style Garden Living," published in September 2011. With 250 photographs, "A Time To Plant" is a coffee-table book meets how-to manual meets Southern cookbook that offers practical, time-tested gardening wisdom Farmer absorbed growing up on a family farm with a garden, treasured garden-to-table recipes he more or less memorized cooking alongside his grandmother Mimi and innovative design, decorating and entertaining concepts built around what’s locally available at the time.
Books two and three, "Sip and Savor" and "Porch Living," were released in April, and the energetic and gentlemanly Farmer hints more will be coming down the pike. His mission, he says, is to teach a new generation of Southerners to love gardening and to make it a focal point of their lifestyles.
“My father is a doctor, so ours was more a hobby farm,” Farmer says. “And, no, we didn’t have peaches; we had cattle and pecans. But that kind of upbringing taught me so much about the land, and caring for the land, and gardening, and I want to share that with the world.”
Even in his company’s early years, Farmer never wanted for business, but his big break came in mid-2008, when both Southern Living and Traditional Home magazines featured a historic Macon, Ga., garden that he had been instrumental in transforming.
“The garden had great structure, but the lady who owns the home is a family friend, and she called me because she said she needed somebody who was a designer and a gardener, not one or the other,” Farmer says. “A designer may say, ‘Put a boxwood here,’ but the gardener will say what type of boxwood. Everything’s got to gee-haw.”
Anyway, the magazine exposure, he says, is “what put me on the map."
Farmer’s rapid and remarkable rise to success has come as no surprise to Auburn Department of Horticulture professor Harry Ponder. After all, it was Ponder, who also is the much-respected undergraduate job-placement coordinator for the horticulture department, who cast the deciding vote on Farmer’s professional future.
“For one of the very few times in my career, I suggested that James start a business right out of school,” Ponder says. “And, he has taken the ball and run with it.”
Born and bred an Auburn man—his maternal grandfather, Napp Granade, is a 1954 College of Ag alum—Farmer enrolled at Auburn in 2000 in the landscape architecture program, but that wasn’t a fit.
“It’s a great program, but it wasn’t plant-based,” he says. The Department of Horticulture’s landscape design major was, however, and, that, along with strong encouragement from family friend and Auburn horticulture professor Dave Williams, prompted Farmer to make the switch to ag.
“It was exactly what I was looking for,” Farmer says. “My classes were great, learning the science of small trees, shrubs, ornamentals, and the College of Ag—well, there’s just something about it. Everybody, students and teachers, they’re all your friends, your family.”
As a student, Farmer, an adept multitasker and an extrovert to the nth degree, didn’t hesitate to get involved at Auburn. In addition to his studies both in horticulture and his minor of art history, he was active in the Student Government Association, was an official Student Recruiter and served as a Camp War Eagle counselor, where, he admits, “I’d tell the students coming in, ‘If you don’t know what you want to do right now, go to the College of Ag; it’s the place you want to be.’”
That the young Farmer was blessed with a mile-wide creative streak and an unusually strong sense of design was obvious early on to horticulture faculty, and even as a student, Farmer began to make a name for himself. He became a self-described “pot dealer,” marketing his striking potted plant and flower arrangements to local garden club members, and as word about this amazingly talented horticulture student spread, he soon was “doing flowers” for various events, including his first-ever wedding reception. (Complete weddings and wedding receptions are now among James Farmer Designs’ specialties.)
Too quickly, Farmer was a senior at Auburn, facing that sobering question of what, exactly, he should do after graduation. He knew what he wanted to do, and that was to go home to rural middle Georgia, to the small unincorporated town of Kathleen, and set up shop.
“There was a need in my area for a good designer, and my dream was to fill it,” he says. “I kept thinking about this architect down in little ol’ Moultrie (Ga.), and how people from Atlanta and all over Georgia would go to him to do their house plans, and I felt I could be that kind of landscape designer in Kathleen.”
That called for a heart-to-heart talk with Ponder, which occurred, they both recall in detail, as they were walking back to Funchess Hall after one of Ponder’s arboriculture labs in the Donald E. Davis Arboretum, discussing the pros and cons of a couple of highly promising job opportunities Farmer had, one with a prestigious company in Dallas, the other in Atlanta, and, of course, the pros and cons of starting his own business.
“Dr. Ponder really wanted me to interview with the Dallas company, and it would have been a great job—great pay, a company truck—but I remember just kind of rolling my eyes,” Farmer says. “Then he told me that would be a dream job for 99 percent of the students graduating with me, but he said, ‘James, you’re the 1 percent.’ ”
It wasn’t a flippant endorsement, Ponder says.
“For one thing, James had already gained valuable experience and contacts while working on the side and going to school,” Ponder says. “Plus, James had such diverse interest and talents that no one job was going to offer him the diversity he wanted.”
But there was another factor at play in Ponder’s mind.
“I had another student very similar to James about 10 years before, and I encouraged him to work for experience and then start his own business,” Ponder recalls. “He was never happy, and he never got the opportunity to start his own business. That episode weighed heavily on my advice to James.
“It’s risky to start right out of school, but James had a vision of what he wanted to do, is blessed with extraordinary creative talent and has exceeded all expectations,” he says. “He is a special talent who has found a special place in our industry. It helps that he is such a good person to begin with, and then you put the talent on top and that is a recipe for success.”
For more about Farmer and James Farmer Designs, go to www.jamesfarmer.com.