It’s hard to believe the trip to Georgia was almost six months ago. Now that fall has officially arrived springtime seems long ago and far away.
Along our farm journey we’ve made certain to visit as many farms as possible, many of which we’ve been profiling in our Farm Hopping series. One of the most exciting visits (for us personally, not because something exploded or we won the lottery or anything) was our trip down to Nature’s Harmony. Ever since we got all wrapped up in this farming stuff we’ve been fans of Tim and Liz Young, who run the show down in Elberton, GA. They always struck us as a little bit different and I always admired their ability to ask “why?” when they started farming. Some people view their questioning of current farm practices as being a bit presumptuous, but I always found it inspiring. It takes a lot of courage to challenge an industry that is so well rooted in its practices.
So, Who is Nature’s Harmony Farm?
Nature’s Harmony has been around since 2007 and currently produces grassfed beef, pastured pork, heritage breed turkeys, free-range eggs, pasture-raised rabbits, and farmstead raw milk cheese. The farm recently underwent some changes and scaled back on grassfed lamb and some of its other farm enterprises and appears to be shifting the focus to more cheese production. You may have noticed that there’s a lot of “grassfed” and “pasture-raised” animals in there, which means it was perfect for us.
Another aspect of Nature’s Harmony’s farming model that appealed to us is their focus on specific values. Tim and Liz take a firm stance on issues they believe in and they stick to those beliefs better than just about any other farm we can think of. Among the many examples are a consistent focus on reducing the use of unsustainable outside outputs (i.e. corn, soy and other feed), raising cows on grass-only diets, creating an environment for pigs to forage and farrow as nature intended, and many others. In a nutshell, Nature’s Harmony is about as close to the Little Seed vision as any we’ve seen, and we were really excited to visit.
What we did
The primary purpose of the whole trip was to go to “Farm School”. Tim and Liz offered a number of Farm Schools in the past, but have recently stopped, so we were lucky to get in while we could. Farm School consisted of two full days on the farm walking through the various farm enterprises that Nature’s Harmony operates. We learned about their pastured pork, grassfed beef, grassfed lamb, grass-based dairy, pastured rabbits, free-range chickens, heritage turkeys, and even a little bit about forages, feeds and infrastructure (or lack thereof). Beside all the farming stuff we also spent a fair amount of time on Tim’s approach to farming as a business. One thing I always appreciated about Tim was that he was a businessman at heart and he intended to make Nature’s Harmony a profitable entity. If it’s not profitable it’s not sustainable and if Sweetbreads and I are going to leave our jobs and start a farm it better be sustainable!
Of course, the time we spent on cheesemaking and milk production on pasture was our favorite part. Since Nature’s Harmony was more diversified back then it wasn’t the central focus of the weekend, but we did get to spend a few hours milking the cows and touring the cheesemaking facility. It helped to see an example where the process was just getting going. We’ve been to lots of larger cheesemakers where they have the day-to-day stuff down pat and for the most part things are humming along without a hitch. Seeing firsthand the differences between operations that had been going for many years vs. one that had only been producing for a year or two at most helped reassure us that we too could start out small and slowly build up.
Another interesting dynamic that we haven’t found at other cheesemaking farms is a strict diet of grass an grass alone for the dairy cows (although a few others do exist). We’ve been to lots of farms where the cows are “grass-fed”, but in reality those farms are also feeding plenty of grain. It’s amazing what a little bit of grain can do to milk production levels. Even a couple pounds a day will get multiple times the amount of milk that Tim and Liz get. Since we also aspire to develop a grass-based dairy we knew we could learn a lot. It helped us understand grass-fed milk production levels and what that means in terms of cheese output and forage requirements. For instance, in the first year on a grass-only diet their cows were only producing about 1.5 gallons per day. That compares to upwards of 6 gallons per day for conventional cows. Another key takeaway was that bringing on animals that were previously fed grain and transitioning them to grass is a long process and cannot be made immediately. It upsets the cow's rumen and may lead to malnourishment and death. Unfortunately, Tim and Liz found that out the hard way.
As if I wasn’t focused enough on the business aspect side of the business, this trip also really helped me hone my focus. We gained a better appreciation for layering different farm enterprises and how a diversified farm can be profitable in a low-input, low-volume model. We discussed various methods of distribution and the pros and cons of each. Nature’s Harmony has tried everything from farmer’s markets, to CSA’s, buying clubs, farm stores, and direct, so they had a good (if brief) perspective.
A side benefit of the visit was that we met a ton of new and interesting young farmers. It was a mix of people just getting their feet wet and some people that actually owned land and animals. We’ve stayed in touch with quite a few and it’s been a great help to be in contact with other people that are facing the same hurdles.
All in all it was a fantastic trip and it's sad to see that no more Farm Schools will be offered in the forseeable future. Hopefully they'll bring 'em back!
Farm Hopping Tip
We've been bad about giving tips, so I'll give a couple. On this trip we learned to plan for all types of weather. It was hot, cold, sunny and rainy over our two days, meanwhile it was FREEZING in NY. We should've packed more warm weather gear.
Also, not only should you come ready with specific questions, but you should also come with no fear of asking those questions. Don't be afraid to ask something stupid! If you want to get the most out of a trip like this you should take advantage of your time. It'll be much harder to get a response after you leave.
'til the next Hop
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