published Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Person to watch: From gamer to farmer

Shawn Schuster sits by the fence while two of his donkeys look on at White Ivy Farm in Higdon, Ala., on Monday. Schuster is the editor-in-chief of the AOL tech gaming website Massively, and he also owns and runs the all-organic White Ivy Farm.
Shawn Schuster sits by the fence while two of his donkeys look on at White Ivy Farm in Higdon, Ala., on Monday. Schuster is the editor-in-chief of the AOL tech gaming website Massively, and he also owns and runs the all-organic White Ivy Farm.
Photo by Alyson Wright /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
FACTFILE

ABOUT HIM

• Name: Shawn Schuster.

• Age: 36.

• Education: Associate's degree in electronic design from American Academy of Art in Chicago.

• Family: Wife, Sarah Schuster, and daughters Tabitha, 14, Julianna, 9, and Eleanor, 9 months.

• Hometown: Hammond, Ind.

FAST FACTS

• First gaming system: Atari 2600.

• First game he played: "Combat."

• First online game he played: "Legend of the Red Dragon."

• Average gaming time: 10-15 hours per week. (Formerly 40-50 hours a week.)

• Favorite games: "Guild Wars 2" and "Lord of the Rings Online."

As editor-in-chief of AOL Tech's Massively.com, Shawn Schuster makes his living digging into the latest online games. Last year, he started a different kind of digging altogether.

Schuster, 36, has loved video games since receiving an Atari 2600 as a Christmas present when he was 10, but years ago, he became fascinated with organic farming.

"It's just something inside of me," he said. "I don't mind getting dirty -- I enjoy it -- and I like doing things myself.

"I like knowing where my food comes from and who fixes my car and not relying on too many other people to provide things for me."

Schuster's agricultural skills are largely self-taught, and he used to keep a small vegetable garden while living in Red Bank. After receiving a letter of reproach from the city for having chickens on the property, however, he traded suburbia for a more rural life.

Last September, Schuster and his family left behind a fiber-optic Internet connection and nearby shopping for the pastoral landscape of a six-acre farm in Higdon, Ala., about 40 minutes from Chattanooga.

Now, Schuster leads a double life.

By day, he works from home to manage Massively.com's writers and to contribute articles to Tecca.com, a technology website.

During the evenings, he and his wife, an administrative assistant in Chattanooga, tend crops and care for a growing menagerie of livestock, including dozens of chickens and rabbits, a pair of pigs, a flock of geese, seven pygmy goats and a trio of donkeys, one of whom wandered onto the property and refused to leave.

Q: How does country living compare to your expectations?

A: I love it. I love being able to go outside and see the stars, and raising our own food is incredible. There are some times we'll eat using only what we've raised ourselves; that's always been the ultimate goal. We don't trust processed foods, and we're trying to get away from all that for our health.

Also, we love all the people around here. They've been great to us. We love the peace and quiet. Actually, it's been better than expected.

Q: What is your background in agriculture?

A: I've always ... just bought 100 books and went online to teach myself to do something. For years, I've been reading things online and going into forums to find out the best way to grow this or grow that.

My family grew up in the city, and the only farmers in my family are two or three generations back. Even my parents think I'm crazy, of course, but it's all self-taught. [Laughs.]

Q: How steep was the learning curve for farming?

A: You learn 200 percent more by doing it yourself. We had a garden in Red Bank but never to this scale. Once we got out here and started doing it on a much larger scale, you learn a lot about things like watering technique and soil and things like "Oh, that's why that crop died. Next time, I need do it this way." On top of the book learning, it's been a lot of learning hands-on. It never stops. It's going to be a continuous process.

Q: Were you concerned that going organic could make the transition to farming even steeper?

A: That was never a question. It was something we knew we always wanted to do. With a lot of conventional farming, it's done with pesticides and herbicides for weeds, which actually makes it more costly. This way is just more hard work, and I'm not afraid at all of doing hard work. To me, it tastes better and the food is healthier.

Q: Between farming and writing about technology, what do you get the most enjoyment from?

A: The truth is, I like farming more. Somewhere down the line, I would eventually like to make the transition to farming. That's why we're trying to set up [a] community-supported agriculture program. Once we get more of our land producing vegetables, we're going to sell to the farmers markets and make that my wife's and my career, eventually.

Q: Have you found ways to integrate your love of technology into the farm?

A: I like doing things pretty back-to-basics when it comes to farming. I have an old tractor, and I use a lot of methods that were used 100 years ago, but at the same time, I'm also not swearing off technologies.

There are some things I'm looking into ... [such as] hydroponics, which is growing plants without soil in tubes of water. I like the technology of it, but at the same time, it's not very organic.

Currently, I start my seeds inside and use some pretty state-of-the-art LEDs to get them growing. LEDs are so cheap these days that it's a good way to go.

Q: There are games about farming such as "Harvest Moon" and "Farmville." Have you played them, and are any agricultural elements of those titles true to life?

A: I don't play ["Harvest Moon"] myself, but my wife does and my kids do. It's pretty amazing that some of those games will actually teach you a little bit about farming.

Unlike "Farmville," I don't spam my neighbors asking them to give me cows or anything, which is what "Farmville" is about. [Laughs.] "Farmville" isn't anything close to farming.

Q: What is your Internet connection like on the farm?

A: In Red Bank, we had fiber-optic service and loved it, so we knew we were spoiled and that, wherever we moved, it would be bad. Out here, we get a 5-megabit [per second] line, which is not good at all, but it's not as bad as I thought. I can still game and even stream movies ... but it's considerably slower than in Chattanooga.

Q: Will you eventually choose one career or continue doing both?

A: Farming is our ultimate goal. We made up our minds a while ago that this is something we want to do. The CSA will be a big part of it and selling at farmers markets will be a big part of it, but until we leave our jobs, we can't devote 100 percent of our time to it. In the meantime, we've been devoting all our spare time to it, which has been a real adventure.

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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