Around the Atlanta food world, people know Andy Byrd as “The Farmer in the Chair.” You might have seen him selling fresh organic vegetables at the Morningside Farmer’s Market, or out working the crowd at the annual Field of Greens Festival, a celebration of organic farming and local food held every year at his Whippoorwill Farms in Walnut Grove, thirty miles outside of Atlanta. Perhaps you’ve tasted his vegetables at some of the best restaurants around Atlanta including Cakes and Ale, Leon’s Full Service, and Woodfire Grill.
Andy Byrd had been through more than most of us have survived when he wheeled into Dr. Dretler’s office at Dekalb Medical one day a year and a half ago seeking treatment for pain from an ulcer due to pressure on his buttocks. Over months of sitting at his wife’s bedside while she fought cancer, Mr. Byrd had neglected his own health, leaving him with a debilitating pressure sore. Dr. Dretler was immediately impressed by Mr. Byrd’s intensity and determination. “There was no trace of self-pity or complaint about him. He was one to soldier on,” Dr. Dretler says of his first impressions of his new patient.
Mr. Byrd had had plenty of practice soldiering on. Thirty-two years ago, as he lay completely paralyzed in intensive care after breaking his neck, he could not have imagined much of a life for himself. He was twenty-four years old. Just ten days before, he had been an engineering student and employee of General Motors enjoying the fourth of July with his young wife at his family’s lake house. In the fading light of dusk, he had not seen the rope, stretched across the water from the dock to the boathouse. When he dove in, he felt his neck snap, and sunk helplessly to the bottom of the lake. He knew exactly what had happened, and thought his life was over. Yet he was pulled from the bottom of the lake and when he woke up, his life was changed forever.
One day, as he lay alone in his hospital bed, a fly buzzed into the room. He watched helplessly as it landed on his nose, powerless to do anything. Every time a nurse came into the room, the fly would leave, but when he was alone again, it would come back. “That’s when I really knew that things were gonna be different,” he reflects. “That’s when I learned patience.” In rehabilitation, Mr. Byrd was told he would never be able to move anything but his eyes. But he was not someone to give up easily. After the fly incident, Mr. Byrd devoted himself to rehab with a fierce determination. He was always the first up in the morning and the last to bed at night. He learned to communicate directly with the nurses and doctors to get exactly what he needed, a skill that would serve him well in his future life. After three months, he had defied his doctors’ predictions and was able to move his arms.
He went through a period of anger and despair. A year after his accident, he got a divorce. Still, he would not sit idle. He returned to Walnut Grove and opened a video store and Pizza shop. He joined the city council, and advocated for handicap accessibility in stores and public buildings around town. In his daily work, people constantly approached him to tell him how inspirational he was, and he started to understand why he had been given a second life. Mr. Byrd is a man who draws people to him by his remarkable spirit and strength. Three years after his divorce, he remarried. Hilda was a childhood friend; over his bed in the ICU, Hilda had told his wife of the time, “if you don’t want to take care of him, I will.”
Hilda and Andy worked well together. Andy was a great communicator and leader, Hilda a hard worker. She had a real estate license, and they went into commercial rentals and bought and fixed up houses. They both loved gardening and being outside and when they retired in 1999, they bought a hundred acre farm in Walnut Grove.
Andy was a grocer’s son, and had grown up attending the regional farmer’s market every week to buy vegetables for the store. Around his house, he had planted little patches of vegetables and flowers. Since his accident though, things had changed for him. Despite his tremendous progress, he was still confined to a chair with only minimal movement in his arms. For this couple, buying a farm may have seemed like an odd choice. When questioned about how he managed, and still manages, to do farm work, Mr. Byrd explains, “I’ve got a good finger that I can point. And I give directions pretty good.” They called the farm “Whippoorwill Farms,” after the bird with a beautiful song. Hilda used to joke, “he’s got the whip, and I’ve got the will.”
It started with blueberries. The previous owner of the farm had planted fruit trees and blueberry bushes. When the Byrds realized that they couldn’t possibly harvest and use all of the blueberry crop that first year, they put up a sign on the side of the road for u-pick blueberries. From a small garden and a patch of blueberries, the farm took off. These days, Whippoorwill Farms grows pears, apples, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries seasonally, in addition to vegetables year-round in their greenhouses. Mr. Byrd has become a passionate advocate for local and organic farming, a cause that comes naturally out of his childhood in small town Georgia. He sees this as an old and essential way of life that we are in danger of losing if we do not act now. If you hear him talking about the importance of educating young people on local sustainable agriculture, you can easily forget how much he has had to overcome to get to this point.
Yet two years ago, Mr. Byrd was in danger of losing the life he had built when Hilda, his constant companion and support for twenty-six hears of marriage, passed away. “She was a fighter,” Mr. Byrd remembers, “she was my inspiration. She was the one that kept me going.” When she passed “it was ten times harder to adapt to than when I broke my neck,” he says in a soft voice. It was about a year later when Mr. Byrd first entered Dr. Dretler’s office after unsuccessful attempts to treat his ulcer elsewhere.
Doctors told him he would have to get surgery to remove the ulcer, a procedure that would have required months of bed rest and might have ended his farming career. On a friend’s recommendation, he visited Dekalb Medical for a second opinion. The staff, he recalls, were incredibly friendly and concerned. Despite the difficulty in healing dangerous ulcers such as Andy’s, Dr. Dretler was confident they could do it without surgery. Mr. Byrd recalls that despite weeks without progress, Dr. Dretler urged him to be patient, and assured him that they could heal the ulcer. After eight months of steady treatment, Dr. Dretler’s promise was fulfilled. Mr. Byrd remembers the staff of Dekalb Medical kindly and gratefully; for his part, he left a strong and unforgettable impression on those he came in contact with during his treatment.
Two years after Hilda’s death, the Whippoorwill farm continues to grow. The annual Field of Greens Festival is bigger every year—last year, the festival featured forty chefs from Atlanta and Athens highlighting the food from ten local farms. There were educational programs and musical performances all day, entertaining the two-thousand attendees. Mr. Byrd thinks about his wife every day, as he wheels over the land they bought and cultivated together. Yet he’s far from being alone. An old friend, Virginia, moved in after Hilda’s death to take care of him, driving him to doctors appointments and keeping his spirits up with the help of her two kids Emily and Connor, now 8 and 10. Mr. Byrd takes great joy in the spontaneity and fun they bring to every day. He says proudly, “both of them know how to plant. They love to go to the market. Emily, she is quite a salesman…” He tries to give them the kind of childhood he enjoyed, to teach them the self-sufficiency he believes everyone should learn because of the uncertainty of our future. “They keep me active,” he says, “they make me get well day to day.”
- Emily Strasser March 2012