Grounded: Organically Connected
“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”
~ Michael Pollan
Truer words have never been spoken. In a world of fast food, processed products, and an overabundance of sugar, the pleasure of eating responsibly sourced produce and meat has been lost. Lives are busy, time is short, and everyone runs around from task to task with little thought to what is being put into their bodies. Many of us no longer know what it’s like to eat fruits and vegetables that have been picked fresh from the vine. Arugula, fresh from the garden, is robust and peppery. Free range eggs fresh off of the farm have rich yellow yolks and a taste that will leave you wanting more. Strawberries picked that morning, at the height of ripeness, burst with flavor and sweetness: natural sugar that is combined with fiber to help your body digest it properly.
Over the past decade, amazing resources have materialized to make farm fresh meats, produce, and other products more accessible than ever. Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) are in almost every town. Farmer’s markets happen weekly and market seasons are getting longer, as most are adapting to a year round growing cycle. As the demand for these products increases, prices are coming down. Many CSAs will even deliver straight to a place of business if they have multiple families enrolled. Farm to table restaurants are beginning to appear everywhere. It is becoming easier to eat responsibly. Now, people want to support the local farms, the local chefs, and, in turn, the local community. It is possible to eat fresh and tasty food straight from the farm at home and in many restaurants. It’s time to get grounded and go back to our roots!
FIDDLEHEAD HOLLOW FARM
My wife, Paulette, is a fiber addict. When we married ten years ago, I did not know this. We lived in Five Points in Athens, Georgia in a 1920’s Bungalow situated on four tenths of an acre. Life was good and easy, in retrospect. We had cats, dogs, a few chickens and a duck or two. Paulette would raise and release orphaned squirrels. We had one that would come down from the trees and sit on her shoulder when she called. We had recently completed a major renovation of the house, making it perfect for us. Then, one fateful fall evening as I sat on our screen porch, our neighbor called Paulette over to his yard. He told her our squirrels were eating his sweet potato vines and that he was going to trap and kill them. In tears, Paulette informed me we were moving. Though I comforted her, I scoffed at the notion of leaving our little slice of paradise.
Three months later, we stood on the rotting porch of an Oconee County foreclosure peering through the windows of an almost complete house. I had conceded on looking for a larger piece of land, initially believing the urge would fade into winter. I had flatly refused to look at this particular house. At 7,500 square feet, it was too large. With no foundation plantings, it was hulking and unsightly at best. It did have 32.5 acres of land, a pond, two streams, and sat in a hollow down a gravel driveway. Peering through the window that afternoon, I knew my battle was lost and the early emergence of this fiber addiction peeked in that window with us.
Two months later, Five Points was gone. Our little slice of paradise had moved 18 miles down the road and expanded exponentially. My first toy was a 70 horsepower New Holland tractor with a bush hog and a front end loader. The gentlemen who delivered it had to show me how to start it. Did I mention we both grew up in cities or at least large towns? The closest I came to farming was helping my grandfather pick cucumbers from his large garden. But, life is to be lived, and Paulette does believe in living it to the fullest.
Back to that fiber addiction. Let me define it. Better yet, I will begin to describe it. Knitting is the gateway drug. It seems innocent enough. You are watching a football game and your wife begins pulling out two small sticks and a ball of yarn, shoos the cat away and whittles away making a scarf to keep your neck warm. This morphs into trips to the yarn store, an ever increasing shelf full of more yarn, more knitting needles, and a hat being made.
From there, the addiction shows its true nature. For us, this began with a sheep named Chops. He was small and cute and ate grass, which is key when you have 12 acres of grass that you have now enclosed with fence. Chops needed a friend. So I found myself loading two goats, Walt and Abbey, into the back of my BMW SUV and driving home. Goats eat not only grass but briars and brambles as well. However, goats, or at least Walt and Abbey, did not produce “fiber,” which is the only reason I can assume I next found myself purchasing a small herd of alpacas: Shia, Nina, Resi, and Nicholas. Much like fencing, alpacas are expensive and look good. Unlike fencing, alpacas have little use, though many promises of making and selling yarn danced in my head. Our chickens multiplied. Chops was lonely, so Daisy soon joined. I then learned goats can produce fiber known as Mocha, Thing 1 and Thing 2, all Angora goats, joined the flock. Stew, another goat, found his way to us from just down the street, and we realized that livestock protection is important with coyotes howling in the woods. This led to the addition of Peaches and Polly, two mammoth donkeys, whom I was assured would stomp coyotes flat. Then Arena, a cross between a Great Pyrenees and an Anatolian Shepherd, both LGDs, or livestock guardian dogs. However, one LGD apparently is insufficient so Mini, a Great Pyrenees completed the guard.
This evolution occurred in relatively short order and required feeding, watering, and care of a growing flock of animals. With the blooming of spring came an idea, maybe just a notion at first, that we should try and find a way to make this farm productive, not just a collection of ragtag animals. This began with a name, Fiddlehead Hollow, so named for the ferns popping up in the woods all around the hollow in which the farm sits. We also were learning that goats induce what we term “goat rage.” They are pushy, aggressive, and annoying. Of course, that could stem from the fact that, as babies, we sat them on the sofa to watch football with us. Neither of us wanted to kill anything so raising animals for meat was strictly out of the question, and cows are much too large to easily handle alone. Anyway, Chops and Daisy were endearing and sheep seemed the better route. Milking sheep and making cheese seemed a viable option. After all, who doesn’t like cheese? Most people do not realize it, but a large portion of European cheese is sheep’s milk. Though sheep milk is little different from cow milk and can be used interchangeably, sheep’s milk is higher in fat content making for a richer cheese. Unfortunately, you have to milk a lot more sheep than cows to get the same amount of milk.
We soon thereafter discovered that a cheese maker in nearby Elberton, Georgia offered an intensive three day workshop on cheese making. We signed up and learned the process including milking, actually cheese making, storage, and affinage, or the process of aging cheese in a cheese cave. After three days, we drove home tired yet determined to become cheesemakers. In fact, that very night I scanned Craigslist and purchased a very large stainless steel cheese making vat from a dairy in Oregon and arranged shipping to the farm. While Paulette began researching sheep breeds, I also tracked down and purchased a bulk milk tank for storage. We were well under way.
Back to the fiber addiction. Though East Frisians are the most prolific dairy sheep, we learned that one particular sheep breed, Icelandics, are considered “triple purpose:” they often have multiple lambs, as many as four, or even five, and therefore produce good milk. Their fiber makes excellent yarn, and their meat is outstanding. Though we have no desire to raise sheep for food, the fact is that with half of lambs being boys and only a few are required for breeding, something must be done with the boys. It appeared Icelandics were the way to go, and though there were flocks in Florida and South Carolina, the largest and seemingly best dairy in the nation was just outside of Minneapolis. Paulette phoned the shepherd. The next thing I knew, I was boarding a plane to experience four days of “lambing,” the process of lambs being born. Little did I know this was an audition which we must pass in order to purchase a starter flock.
We arrived, after a day of work, at 1:30a.m. to find the farmers heating two lambs in a bin. Apparently they had grown too cold in the April night. After 36 hours of little sleep and no food, I think they liked us, and we spent days and nights feeding, caring for, and helping ewes give birth. It is an exciting and messy event, but Icelandics are excellent mothers and often pop out their lambs with no assistance at all. As we prepared to leave that Sunday, having made friends and arranged the purchase of a starter flock, one of those two lambs from that first night had survived. With a flock of 500 sheep and an anticipated 300 lambs, this farm had little time to raise a bottle baby, so Paulette decided we would take Peanut home with us, tucked under the seat in front of her in a cat carrier. I was less than keen about this idea as I was certain we would be arrested or at least kicked off the plane. TSA had us remove him from the carrier and did not say a word. No one at the terminal asked a question. In fact, all seemed too perfect until we landed in Atlanta and Peanut gave a loud “bahhhhh” to welcome himself to Georgia, drawing awe and laughter from other passengers on the plane.
Our Icelandic herd had begun.
A few months later, before it grew too hot for travel, yet after the lambs had grown larger and strong, Paulette boarded another flight to Minnesota where her uncle and a friend had driven from Georgia with a livestock trailer. After picking up our starter flock, they drove 24 hours straight back to Georgia and unloaded 23 sheep at Fiddlehead Hollow.
Now, there is a problem with owning approximately 50 animals – – they take a lot of care. I practice law. Paulette was a mortgage banker. We naturally grew into her reading, studying, and caring for the animals while I managed the pastures. As spring grew into summer and temperatures regularly hit 100 degrees, our sheep, stressed by the move, began to suffer. Paulette found herself spending more and more time on the farm and less time at work. That first summer was difficult. We lost several animals to parasites and battled to protect our farm. We separated the lambs from the ewes each night, hand milked in the morning before I left for the office and put the sheep back together for the day. Upon return from the office, there was always more work whether trimming hooves, distributing hay, or filling water troughs, but we made it. With fall and winter, the parasite load dropped and we settled into a routine. The sheep were broken into breeding groups and we prepared for the spring arrival of the first lambs born on our farm. I made cheese in the kitchen, not having enough milk to fire up the bulk equipment. All seemed right as I watched football, and Paulette continued to knit.
As we divided animals into separate pastures, we added llamas as additional protectors whose fiber could also be spun into yarn. Then, after a trip to the Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair, we added several Wensleydale/Teeswater cross sheep to the herd. These were strictly “fiber” animals with gorgeous long curly locks that could be spun into other yarn. We also received our first batch of yarn from our fall shearing and Paulette purchased a spinning wheel. Life bumped along as life often does.
Then, two years ago, two revelations arose somewhat simultaneously. First, in the fall of 2013 Paulette told me that she did not feel that she could continue working at the bank and care for the farm. Mind you that the farm was far from turning a profit but somehow, much like with the move from Athens, she convinced me that quitting her job was the best option. We also realized that our current farm was too small. Not only did we have insufficient pastures to adequately grow our flock, we needed to invest in a milking barn and cheese room, which I was unwilling to build on a farm too small to suit our needs. Our second slice of heaven was, therefore, listed for sale. A search for the perfect land ensued.
In this world, I refer to certain events as “Pauletteisms.” Whether it is the serendipitous meeting while traveling that leads to a night we will never forget, or things just working out when I do not see how they might, Paulette has an infectious optimism that either finds or leads to events which would not occur without her. As she sat on the porch one evening, I believe a lamb in her lap, she showed me a listing for land in nearby Oglethorpe County. Much as with the house in which we currently sat, nothing appealed to me about this tract of land. Though it was 83 acres, it was accessible only by a 20-foot-wide easement that ran 3,000 feet along the border of a 44 acre tract between it and the road, entering across wetlands which I felt certain could not be used for a driveway. Paulette’s response was that it would be perfect if we would get the 44 acre tract. Begrudgingly, we drove to this tract while I argued the 44 acres would be listed for sale if they wanted to sell it. Yep, as we pulled in the driveway, the 44 acres had “for sale by owner” signs lining the road. It turns out that two brothers inherited the two parcels when their father passed away, and both parcels were for sale.
Though the road to selling our Oconee County farm was long and arduous and involved multiple contracts as well as our looking at many more farms, in May of 2015, we closed on the purchase of the new farm. With 127 acres of land, two ponds, and 84 acres of pasture, we feel certain that this farm will meet our growing needs. It lies thirteen miles from my office, cutting my drive by more than half, and is surrounded by a large timber tract offering privacy. The drawbacks were the fences needed complete replacement, and neither of the two houses were habitable. One was a 1920s four room shack with no water, power, bathroom, or kitchen. The other was a 1952 brick ranch with a failing roof and a rear addition which was caving. Optimism has its limits. Yet, in one month, we had fencing installed and the shack saw the addition of power, water, heating and air, and a wall dividing a room into both a kitchen and bathroom. We moved from 7,500 square feet to less than 1,000, leaving most of our belongings in storage. Though we originally planned to renovate the ranch minimally as our home for a few years and then for a farmhand after we build on the rear of the property, our vision had changed, as we awoke looking out at our sheep through the bedroom window. After a complete renovation and master bedroom addition, we will be moving in, in just a few days. Meanwhile, two new barns were constructed for the animals.
Back to the farm. Our animals struggled again with stress of the move and the heat last summer. We came close to calling it quits as we lost several sheep, llamas, and alpacas. However, as they settled in, we have never seen them healthier and have been able to all but cut out supplemental feed as they now have sufficient pasture. However, with the move came yet another revelation – – my wife is a fiber addict. Her heart and joy are not in milk and cheese. Fiber production and textiles make her happy. Therefore, at least for now, the cheese making equipment, which now includes a brand new milking machine we have never used, remain stored in the barn.
We sell eggs from our flock of approximately 75 chickens at Daily Grocery, a local Co-op in Athens. Our chickens, though not technically organic, are completely free range, supplemented with little to no food. They produce brightly hued eggs of chocolate brown, pink, blue, and green all with dark orange yolks that you cannot find in a conventionally pasteurized egg. We may soon supplement these with duck eggs from our growing flock of Khaki Campbell ducks. We shear our Icelandics twice annually, the other sheep, alpacas and llamas annually, and have their fiber spun into yarn. This year, we are producing Lopi, a somewhat heavier weight yarn traditionally made from Icelandics. We also sell raw fleeces for handspinning. Our yarn has been knit into sweaters featured in a fashion show for Georgia Sewn, a project encouraging use of textiles produced solely in Georgia. Sanni Baumgärtner, a local fashion designer and owner of Community, a sustainable clothing boutique in Athens, is also currently designing a fashion line incorporating our yarn. And, as our herd has grown, we have recently sold our first ram for consumption. Icelandic lamb is often considered gourmet lamb which is prized for its delicate flavor and finely grained texture. With the addition of over 20 rams this spring, our sales of lamb will continue to grow.
As our farm develops, we contemplate the addition of Ossabaw Island hogs which would be strictly for meat production as we complete fencing of additional pastures and soon look to construct a large barn for both animals and storage. We are currently teaming with Sea Island Indigo, owned by a friend who teaches courses on natural dying focused on natural indigo which produces the most beautiful blue, for dying of some of our yarns. We consider ourselves foodies and, as such, I still dream of the day when we might produce cheese. But for now, we are enjoying the serendipity of Fiddlehead Hollow and seeing where it might lead us.
I am absolutely thankful to be a farmer. It takes patience, faith, hope, and a responsible care to be the best. At the end of the day, I know that we are humble and honest.
Answered by Paulette
What are the things that are missing in the world?
Exposure to and tolerance of other cultures.
What is the role of your farm?
We provide sustainably and humanely produced fiber and textiles, eggs, and lamb. In addition to the tangible products, we teach others about wool and fiber production.
Do you like living and working in the same place?
Yes! I was concerned that I would be lonely or get tired of being on the farm full-time. We have tons of visitors. Sometimes, I wish I more time alone!
Where do you find your inspiration?
The natural beauty of the animals and the fiber, as well as other creative people
How much time do you spend on the farm?
I work full-time on the farm, only leaving to run errands, and for happy hour on Fridays at the Globe!
What does your farm mean to you?
EDaily learning and growing, and the ability to share what I learn with others.
How does the space where you work influence your work?
The majority of my time is spent outside – feeding, watering, vetting, cleaning, and sometimes just observing the animals. When the weather is not conducive to being outside, I go inside and catch up on record and bookkeeping.
What is your next project?
Our wool and alpaca fiber comes in many beautiful natural colors, but it is time to branch out and add some color to our yarns. I am working with Sea Island Indigo to develop a color pallet based on natural dyes. Also, I am working on crossing two sheep breeds to try and get a southern hardy dairy breed.
Describe a normal day.
7a.m. – Get up, make breakfast, see my husband out to work
8a.m. – Make sure all of the animals have clean, fresh water. Feed the sheep, ducks and chickens, weed and water the garden. Clean troughs and animal areas. Trim hooves and check animals for parasites.
11a.m. – Head in and clean up for lunch. Check emails and work on business development, labeling, etc.
3p.m. – Check on animals and make sure everyone has cool, fresh water.
4p.m. – If I’m lucky, I get to chill out, read or knit, until my husband comes home around 5:30.
** During the two months of lambing each year, all bets are off! The sheep must be checked every 2-3 hours 24/7. You never know when one of the ewes might need help.
Is there spirituality in your work?
Yes! I am not traditionally spiritual, but every day I stop and look around at the natural beauty that surrounds us. Almost daily, I stop to think about how lucky I am to be doing what I love!
What is your advice to a young man or woman wanting to get into farming?
Farming is a lot of mentally and physically challenging work, but if you love it it is worth it all! Also, don’t quit your day job! The mortgage would not get paid if my husband did not work off of the farm. It takes a lot of money to get started, and it takes a long time to break even. I thought I wanted to see our wool being used by big designers, but now I know that it is virtually impossible, on a small scale, to make a profit selling yarn or raw wool at wholesale prices.