The pasture-powered network

Family farming can be an isolating vocation, as chores begin at sunrise and end at sunset — or later, if there are sick or birthing animals to tend to. It’s also a challenging vocation, as farmers work to keep their animals and pastures healthy while making a profit.

Jesse Straight leads visitors on a tour of Whiffletree Farm. He and his wife Liz have been farming since 2009. Photo by Kay Beatty.
Jesse Straight leads visitors on a tour of Whiffletree Farm. He and his wife Liz have been farming since 2009. Photo by Kay Beatty.

To surmount these obstacles, a group of area farmers, with the assistance of the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), have formed an alliance called the Pasture-Based Enterprise Network. Farmers in the network exchange contact information and meet monthly at various farms around the Piedmont, including Rappahannock County. Each gathering has a theme that is covered by PEC and hosting farmers, but the main purpose of the meetings is networking.

“Farmers operate independently, but they realize there’s a lot they can learn from sharing ideas with one another and coaching one another in both production and marketing,” said Sue Ellen Johnson, PEC’s director of agriculture and rural economy programs. “This is simply a group of people working on some level on growing a business on feeding animals pasture-specific products. They work to take the best care possible of their animals and the pastures that feed them.”

Johnson and the PEC became involved in January, at the prompting of area farmers who are in a Holistic Management International (HMI) group.

“With the help of Sue Ellen and the PEC we have branched out to more pasture-based farmers,” said Cliff Miller, manager of Mount Vernon Farm in Sperryville. Miller has been a part of HMI for years.

“We all have something to learn from one another, and this is a great opportunity,” Miller said. “I’m really glad Sue Ellen is making this happen.”

Miller, who in 1998 was given the task of running his family’s almost two-century old farm, said his connecting with another Rappahannock County farmer helped make Mount Vernon Farm the successful venture it is today.

“[Farmer and veterinarian] Joyce Harmon introduced us to the homeopathic farming techniques we utilize to this day,” Miller said. “She even pastured some of her livestock on our farm for a while. It’s always advantageous when farmers find a way to work together.” Miller, along with his staff, raises cows, hogs, lambs and laying hens at the farm. Although his farming experience gives him a lot to share with novice farmers, Miller sometimes learns something new.

“One farm we visited raised meat chickens, something we haven’t done on our farm,” he said. “It got me to thinking of the possibility of expansion.”

Miller noted that farmers gain moral support from one another, as well as information. “You realize that other people are struggling with the same issues as you and some come up with different solutions,” he said.

Tom and Clare Mansmann, owners of Dominion Star Farm in Huntly, also participate in the Pasture-Based Enterprise Network and attribute networking to the success of their farm.

“We started out in HMI to learn to be the best possible stewards of our land,” Tom said. “There we met some other farmers that were willing to pasture some of our cattle, since we didn’t have enough space for everything we wanted to do.”

During a gathering at Wiffletree farm in Warrenton, Tom Mansmann (left) asks host Jesse Straight (right) a question about raising hens, while PEC’s Sue Ellen Johnson, Cliff Miller and others listen. Photo by Kay Beatty.
During a gathering at Wiffletree farm in Warrenton, Tom Mansmann (left) asks host Jesse Straight (right) a question about raising hens, while PEC’s Sue Ellen Johnson, Cliff Miller and others listen. Photo by Kay Beatty.

The Mansmanns raise Wagyu cattle, which are a Japanese breed known for tenderness and a heart-healthy distribution of fat. They’ve been raising Wagyu cattle since 2003, when Clare’s father moved cattle from his drought-ridden ranch in Texas to Dominion Star. The Mansmanns liked the breed so much that they decided to specialize in Wagyu cattle and sell it to area businesses and the general public.

“We wouldn’t be able to sustain our business without the other landowners,” Clare said. “And it’s beneficial to all parties involved since pasturing eliminates mowing expenses and enriches soil quality.”

The Mansmanns plan to continue with the Pasture-Based Enterprise Network and host a gathering of the group at their farm sometime this year.

“There’s always something to learn from one another,” Clare said. “Our group has their hearts in the right place. We want to do our best, and, together, we can have greater impact locally and nationally.”

The Mansmanns got to know quite a number of Rappahannock County farmers through the group, including Mike Sands, who leases a farm in Flint Hill and has worked in agricultural research and development for most of his life.

“I’ve worked as a volunteer with HMI and PEC,” Sands said. “I was pleased when the local HMI farmers partnered with PEC to expand.” A senior associate with the Liberty Prairie Foundation in Illinois, Sands founded and is currently working with the Farm Business Development Center, a “business incubator” in Illinois that, as stated on its website (prairiecrossingfarms.com), supports the development of successful family farm enterprises by focusing on the production and marketing of organic foods for local and regional food systems.

“Helping family farms make a go of it has always been important to me,” Sands said. “PEC’s pasture-based enterprise group is an asset to this community and I hope more area farmers will utilize all of PEC’s services.”

He, too, considers networking crucial to success.

“By together focusing on more intensive pasture management systems, we have a better opportunity to make more money while reducing the environmental impact of our production,” he said, noting that the consumer also wins by receiving top quality local products, while continuing to enjoy the beautiful fields and clean streams of Rappahannock County.

“It’s a win-win scenario, all around,” he said.

For more information about the Pasture-based enterprise group or other PEC programs, call 540-347-2334 or visit pecva.org. For more information about Mount Vernon Farm, visit mountvernongrassfed.com, about Dominion Farm, dominionstar.com.

To learn about one of Mike Sand’s farming and environmental projects in Illinois, visit prairiecrossing.com.

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