Test-driving the future of farming

Dick McNear takes a break from cutting hay in his tractor at Greenwood Farm.
Alex Sharp VIII | Rappahannock News
Dick McNear takes a break from cutting hay in his tractor at Greenwood Farm.

Farming isn’t just a job. For most farmers, it’s a way of life, a family enterprise, a connection with the land and a means of making a living.

The owners and managers of five local farms spent last year analyzing those motivating forces, and in many cases altering their farming operations to improve profitability, sustainability and the quality of their lives.

Tonight (Thursday, May 31) at 7 p.m. at the Sperryville Schoolhouse, those farmers will discuss, in a town hall forum, their experiences in the Future Farms and Ranches program created last year by Holistic Management International (HMI).

For the last 12 months, these local farmers participated in a crash course on holistic management, met on a monthly basis, were lectured by leading agriculturalists and challenged to make changes necessary to improve their operations and achieve their goals. Since it was a volunteer pilot program, the education was free.

“Holistic management is a whole-farm planning system,” said Sandy Langlier, HMI’s communications director, speaking from the international nonprofit’s headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M. “And essentially what it does is takes its cues from nature. With holistic management, we’re really looking for results in three main areas: One is the environment of the land; the second one is people – and if you’re a farmer or rancher, things have to work for the people who are on the land – and the other is money and finances. Because if you’re going to have a sustainable farm, it has to be able to sustain financially as well.

“So it’s really looking at those things and finding the right balance,” she said.

With the success of last year’s pilot program in the county, HMI is opening the door to rural farmers in Virginia’s northern Piedmont region. For $500, an owner or manager of any farm, large or small, can register for the 2012 program, which starts in July. It includes two two-day workshops in Sperryville, four three-hour webinars and 12 months of telephone and peer-to-peer support.

It was Mount Vernon Farm owner Cliff Miller III who brought HMI to Rappahannock County. After attending a conference on holistic management practices in farming four years ago, Miller said he figured both the county and the nonprofit organization could benefit from creating a small-town “movement,” and suggested introducing the holistic approach to county farmers in an intensive, year-long pilot program. He met with HMI’s chief operating officer Tracey Favre; he said she picked up the idea and ran with it.

“When you’re talking about holistic management – and by that I mean you’re looking at the soils and at the grasses and at the economics and at what’s best for you and for the animals – it’s a lot to get your hands around,” Miller said, noting that Mount Vernon’s farm manager, Mike Peterson, also participated in last year’s pilot program. Both have witnessed noticeable improvements in their livestock operation, which has grown to include more than 125 lambs, 48 pigs and about 150 head of cattle. “And you couldn’t do it in a three-day workshop, which is why we wanted to do it this way . . . This is not a canned program that HMI travels around the country doing. This is very much a program that we should feel is ours.”

The ‘biggest pessimist’

Greenwood Farm owner Dick McNear, who’s been farming full time since 1992 (and part time since his father bought the Gid Brown Hollow farm in 1961), raising purebred Black Angus cattle for beef, said that he volunteered for the program somewhat reluctantly.

“I was the biggest pessimist going into this thing,” McNear said, during a break from cutting one of his cattle fields for hay. His 100-head operation, Greenwood Cattle, and four other county farms participated in Future Farms pilot, which involved monthly lessons, a lecture series teaching farming and financial technique, and four webinars. “And then next thing I know I was readin’ more about it. If it did anything, it made me think, not just continue doin’ what I’m doin’. It made me think about what some of the alternatives were, what I really wanted to do.”

McNear describes the holistic management model as a three-legged stool, with equal focus on the social, financial and environmental realities of owning and operating a farm. With only two legs, the stool falls. Early in the program, McNear said the farmers were asked to illustrate their goals in each of those three areas.

“On the social side, my two goals were: To be able to deed the farm to my kids, and to pass onto them a profit-making farm operation,” said McNear, 73, noting that less than a month ago, his three daughters got their deeds. “So I’m just a tenant farmer,” he laughs. “I have the right to live in my house as long as I want, and I have the right to farm as long as I want.”

Cliff Miller likewise hopes to someday pass on an efficient, sustainable and profitable operation.

“One of my goals has been to find people who are young, or relatively young, who want to farm in a way that I want to farm, and who might ultimately take over the running of the farm,” Miller said, noting that his 830-acre Sperryville farm has been in his family for 184 years. “The farmers around here are getting older, and the children have seen their fathers struggle. But in my case, I’m not down at all, I’m really excited because I’m doing things that I think are really improving the land and improving the operation all the time – and that’s not really the way it is with everybody, because you get beat down . . . When you’ve got a 71-year-old man who gets excited about the future of farming on his place, that’s a different spin.”

Miller expressed confidence in Peterson, a 29-year-old former butcher and chef at the Inn at Little Washington, who started at Mount Vernon about four years ago as an intern. Peterson had hoped to gain a more intimate knowledge of the ingredients he used, to return to the kitchen with a deeper understanding of his art. But when the opportunity arose for Peterson to manage the farm, he seized it.

It’s in the rotation

Among the most significant contributions the holistic management method brings to farmers, Peterson said, involves rotational grazing – wherein cattle are moved, often on a daily basis, from one small grazing paddock to the next. Or in Mount Vernon Farm’s case, Peterson moves Miller’s 150-head single herd twice a day, at about 6:30 in the morning and again at 5 p.m.

“The basic concept that we follow is, it’s getting the animals to the right place at the right time for the right reason,” Peterson said. He noted that it’s important to first understand and grasp the nutrition that the animals need, and let them eat only that, and then move them off of that section and onto fresh grass, letting each area recover for one to three months. “This time of year it doesn’t need as much recovery time, but we’re still giving our herd about three acres a day in one-and-a-half-acre paddocks.”

Miller said that their use of what he calls “mob grazing,” which involves consolidating all of his free-range, grass fed cattle into one large herd, is followed by two smaller grazers: lambs and pigs.

“The objective is to mimic the buffalo moving through the plains,” Miller said. “Behind the buffalo would come the smaller animals, and behind them would come other smaller animals.”

Miller said his sheep follow the cows, and pigs follow the sheep a day or so after the cattle have been moved onto another of the 14 fields (with some 70 different paddock options created using internal, mobile, electric fencing).

“One thing I learned going through the Future Farms program this year was I was eating my grass too low, slowing down the recovery period on my grass,” said Belle Meade Farm owner (and county supervisor) Mike Biniek, another pilot participant. “Holistic management teaches you to plot out your moves and make sure the grass isn’t being eaten down too far, so the recovery will be faster. And also the quality of the forage will be better for your cattle if you’re moving them faster – because the first day’s the best, the second day’s not quite as good, and the third day, you’re forcing them to eat the stubs that are lower quality.”

The Piedmont Environmental Council’s (PEC) director of agriculture, Sue Ellen Johnson, who plans to participate in this year’s Future Farms program, described two main advantages to rotational grazing.

“One is to do what’s best for the environment, and two is to improve the quality and quantity of feed that the animals can get off of the pasture,” Johnson said, adding that she first became familiar with holistic management in the 1990s, when she worked for the New England Small Farms Institute. “So you’re improving the distribution of nutrients and pasture regeneration. You’re also increasing the total yield of pasture. You’re improving the total intake of pasture, by each animal, which means you’re maximizing the gain of each animal, and you’re maximizing the gain per acre – without deteriorating the pasture resource; you’re actually building the pasture resource . . . It’s a win-win-win, if you can manage it properly.”

But in fact, rotational grazing is one of the main reasons that those Miller describes as “big farmers in the county” have avoided holistic management.

Required: time, water

Thornton Hill Farm owner Bill Fletcher of Sperryville, who also heads the county’s Bar Association, attended a few Future Farms meetings, but said he decided not to pursue the program. “It was too time-intensive, the idea of having to move the cows all the time, and because of the lack of water on [my] farm, I thought I’d have a real problem with it,” Fletcher said, adding that each grazing field requires a water source. As he told the supervisors last year when they focused on creating a county water resources plan, he said that he’s experienced several springs drying up on his property over the last 20 years.

Brothers Hodge and Brooke Miller (no relation to Cliff) manage Washington’s 600-acre Ginger Hill Farm, and its 100-head purebred Black Angus cattle operation with three herd bulls. Hodge Miller also works as a private fencing contractor; his brother runs his own medical practice in Page County.

“Most people in the cattle industry, or in farming, right now, most of them have other jobs to support themselves – because farming just isn’t doing it,” Hodge Miller said. “And it’s very time-extensive to have the cattle moved, to move the fences, to make sure that everything’s set up so that they can get the water. I mean, we’re restricted in a lot of fields by water, and our water system would make it almost impossible to fence it so that we can rotational graze.”

Biniek, whose 138-acre farm boasts a diverse array of livestock including chickens, pigs, turkeys and cattle, also said that the financial planning encouraged by HMI was perhaps the most important aspect of the program.

“They go into the whole business side of farming – breaks it all down to see if you’re making money, or where you’re not making money,” Biniek said. “I learned to look at my farming operation as a real business, as opposed to more of a lifestyle. So many of us aren’t really making money at it, so we’re really just doing this because we love it – or maybe because we like a challenge. It really directs you to look at your operation, and is it all making sense, and then giving you different options on how to make changes, hopefully for the betterment.”

The financial component of the Future Farms program helps farmers to prioritize what to spend money on, said Cliff Miller.

“For instance, my frustration was: Myself, my dad, and his dad before him always had big ol’ tractors and big ol’ haymaking equipment,” Miller said, noting that he’s in the process of selling off all of his haymaking equipment and focusing on the mob grazing. “We didn’t have but about 80 acres that we were makin’ hay on, and the damn equipment seemed to break all the time, so it was really a frustration. And now I realize that I don’t need any of that, and by managing my pastures differently, I can get to where we don’t hardly feed hay in the wintertime.”

Don Loock, the PEC’s land conservation officer for Rappahannock and Clarke counties, said that the PEC supports the Future Farms program for multiple reasons.

“There are so many beef raisers in our area and we have a lot of pasture land, and a lot of our pasture land is productive pasture,” Loock said. “So trying to figure out a way to make it more profitable for farmers – and at the same time, I like HMI’s approach to looking at whole farm management as not just a business but as a way of life. The quality of life factors into that. Most landowners that I talk to that are farming, when it gets down to it, their quality of life and the fact that they enjoy what they do on the land, is usually the No. 1 or No. 2 aspect of why they’re farming . . .”

While only five Rappahannock County farmers participated in last year’s pilot program – all of whom have said they intend to continue this year – Miller is hoping five times as many upper-Piedmont farmers will sign up for the 2012 program.

Last year’s participating farm owners include Miller, Biniek, McNear, Mike Sands of Bean Hollow Organics and David Schoumacher of Thistle Hill Farm. They and all those who’ve registered to attend are expected to be at the Schoolhouse town hall meeting tonight in Sperryville.