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Farm to Fork

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by Starke Jett

Like other counties in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, Middlesex, Lancaster and Northumberland are primarily rural and there is an economic emphasis on agriculture.

However, purchasing locally raised livestock and eggs can still be challenging. Virginia Cooperative Extension agents in each county can be contacted for lists of alpaca, bison, cattle, emu, lamb, pig and poultry farmers. There are also seasonal farmers’ markets in many towns and a plethora of roadside stands throughout the region selling fresh fruit, honey and vegetables.

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Sometimes there is just a sign by the road indicating that local produce can be bought up the driveway.

Such a sign leads the way to Willow Oaks Farm at 11704 Mary Ball Road near Kilmarnock. Thomas and Susan Smither describe their 40-acre homestead as a retirement home for animals. They have 50 chickens, 14 cats, four dogs, four sheep, three horses, two ducks and two goats.

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The Northern Neck Farm Museum in Northumberland County holds a Farm to Fork dinner featuring all locally grown products.
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Brian Barnes feeds the hogs on his farm in Lancaster County.

They started selling eggs to help defray the cost of animal feed when they found they couldn’t give them all away. They get between one and two dozen blue and brown eggs every day. They are not motivated by the bottom line but rather just a plain love of animals.

“This is the home of happy hens,” said Susan as her cats followed the couple at feeding time. “We know them all.”

Acquiring local farm products has been made easier by the advent of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). The system was started in Japan 50 years ago, according to Northumberland-based certified naturally grown organic farmer John Cooper. He is the owner of Olin-Fox Farms in Reedville, a founding member of the Family of Fine Farms, a regional farm group that adheres to very high growing standards and sells year around through Olin Fox’s CSA system.

Cooper said the first Japanese CSA organizers had become concerned about where their food was coming from, so they devised a system under which clients could sign up with local farmers. They paid in advance to receive a share of produce each week during the growing season, thus assuring them of where and how their food was produced.

This system has proven effective around the world and has been proliferating in the U.S. over the last two decades. One of the first local farms to market through the CSA system, Olin-Fox Farm is in its 12th year of selling that way.

“I got into this for the love of a good tomato,” said Cooper. “I grow over 200 different kinds of vegetables now. The CSA is great for both the client and me. They get a steady supply of high quality produce and I get a steady, dependable cash flow.”

Holly Hill on Waterview Road in Middlesex is a member of the Family of Fine Farms. Iris Keister owns and operates the naturally grown, certified organic farm.

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Iris Keister of Holly Hill Farm has a new 2,100 square foot grow tunnel.

Her husband Frank, son Jim Fellers Jr., and his children, Jim Fellers III and Emily Fellers, are all fully involved in the enterprise. Like Cooper, she uses no pesticides or chemical fertilizers, but she has been farming this way for 25 years.

She recently added a 2,100-square-foot grow tunnel to produce crops throughout the winter months. A grow tunnel is different from a greenhouse, she said. It has no heating system except for passive solar heat from the arching plastic roof that also produces constant condensation moisture.

A January visit to the farm featured a walk through rows of healthy green and red vegetables growing in the tunnel. Chinese cabbage, kale, leaf lettuce, red poc choi, ruby red swiss chard, spring onions, cilantro, basil and parsley were among the crops cared for by the Keisters. In the summer they also will produce Asian eggplants, blueberries, heirloom tomatoes, squash, strawberries, sugar baby watermelons and zucchini. They also have apples, Asian pears, pears and persimmons.

Like Olin-Fox, the eight-acre Keister farm employs the French intensive method of cultivation to maximize their available space. Crops are planted close together in raised beds. Iris said she is also a fan of the CSA system and she usually has 50 members each year.

“Our return members have been really great,” she said. “Some decide what they want and some let me fill their orders.”

Brian Barnes sells produce from farming part time through the CSA system and agrees that it is beneficial. For about $15 a week a client would get a “bushel box” of a variety of produce, he said.

“It’s gotten quite popular,” said Barnes. “It helps everybody, especially a small grower like me to know how much demand there will be in advance.”

Barnes also raises Duroc pigs on his farm near Kilmarnock, where he has about eight acres dedicated to growing produce and raising his livestock. He said the “all American breed is known for its taste.” He breeds female pigs to sell the young to other farmers, not for market slaughter. Each female can produce up to 20 babies a year.

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Luke, Mitch, and Lexi Simpson help around the family farm. They are also raising their own cow, Candy, for a 4-H project.
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John Cooper of Olin-Fox Farm in Reedville runs a Community Supported Agriculture market.

“I’ve only been selling the piglets, mostly to people up in the Shenandoah Valley,” said Barnes. “Raising your own meat is really big up there.”

The lack of a local slaughterhouse has made selling pigs for their meat difficult because of the logistical costs of traveling out of the region twice (drop-off and pick-up) to get the pigs butchered, said Barnes.

However, a new venture in Miskimmon could change that.

Mama Payne’s Meat and Feed will soon open in a new 1,600-square-foot cinder block structure owned by Robin and Neil Payne on Courthouse Road in Northumberland. The enterprise is the culmination of a lifelong dream for Neil, who learned his trade as a youngster in Stafford County, where he worked for his grandfather, Warren Harden.

“I always wanted to be a butcher,” said Payne. “This has always been my dream. I’ve got a line of people that want me to work for them.”

Payne has been butchering deer for hunters and to donate to the Hunters for Hungry program for the several years. 

His operation will be the only commercial slaughterhouse in the Northern Neck, he said. In early February Payne was waiting to get the last of his equipment from Canada and final health inspections. He hopes to be open for business by the end of February and will employ two other people beside himself.

Payne will be seeking USDA certification, which may take up to a year.

Emily Simpson is excited about the new slaughterhouse. She and her husband, James, co-own Simpson Farm a short distance down the road from Payne. She usually has a couple dozen Hereford and Red Angus cattle and a dozen lambs that she raises to sell for their meat.

Currently she has to travel more than two hours each way, twice every three months to get her livestock butchered by a USDA certified butcher. She said there are only five certified butchers in the state.

“I’m so excited to have him opening so close,” said Simpson. “Now we can go a mile down the road and get freshly butchered meat. I am sure he will get USDA certified. Having that processing facility is huge. It will benefit everybody.”

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Fritz Wildt cares for up to 60 bison each year on his farm in Richmond County.
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Neil Payne of Miskimon is fulfilling his lifelong dream of opening a slaughterhouse.

She said her livestock eats grass and grain, a feeding method called “grass fed, free option,” which means they have both available. It is generally considered the best method. Simpson said the cows usually prefer the grass.

Her farm is certified all natural by the USDA, which means she uses no antibiotics, no hormones and no steroids, substances normally found in feedlot raised livestock. It is also an open farm, meaning she will sell to anyone who wants to stop by and pick up just a couple of steaks or any other amount. 

“There has been a huge influx of people interested in eating naturally,” said Simpson. “It is always cheaper and healthier.”

The 280-acre Simpson Farm is a family affair. Their four children, Lexi, 14, Maddie, 13, Mitch, 11, and Luke, 8, pitch in with all the chores of feeding, cleaning and cultivating. Mitch said he is particularly fond of using the red 1948 Farmall tractor to grow hay and other crops.

They are virtually self-sufficient, said Emily. They bake their own bread, make their own goat’s milk soap and can their own produce. She said they only go to the grocery store for a few items, such as oranges, that they might crave, but don’t necessarily need.

“I am just totally happy here,” said Simpson as three of her children petted their one-year-old cow named Candy. “All our cows get touched every day. They all have names.”

Black Angus beef can be bought in the Middle Peninsula from Fox Hall Farm, owned by Douglas Trainham Jr., who has 20 free-range, grass and hay fed cows on his 80 acres.

Trainham is a neighbor of the Keisters on Waterview Road. He lives in a 300-year-old farm house that he has restored. He said he really enjoys the “hands on” aspects of the operation, such as building fences and repairing buildings.

He has owned the farm for 15 years, but just started his cattle operation a few months ago. His cows can reach 1,400 pounds, he said. A 1,000-pound animal will yield about 400 pounds of meat. Currently, he is operating by word of mouth.

“I am just trying to find a niche,” he said.

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Douglas Trainham Jr. recently began raising Black Angus cattle on Fox Hill Farm.

Another niche livestock market is bison farming. There are two bison farms in the Northern Neck. Edmonds Farm, owned by Don and Kim Edmonds since 1997, is a 135-acre facility near Ottoman in Lancaster. Wild T Bison Farm, owned by Fritz and Kerry Wildt since 2000, is a 128-acre ranch near Haynesville in Richmond County.

The Wildts care for a herd of up to 60 animals a year, with two breeding bull bisons named Wild Bill and Blackjack. The male animals can reach sizes of over 2,000 pounds, while the females only grow to a paltry 1,300 pounds or so.

“You never turn your back on a bison,” said Fritz after he had delivered hay on a tractor to part of his herd. “They are wild animals, unlike cows, and much more aware. They are as fast as a quarter horse for short distances. If one just accidently brushes up against you, you’re in trouble. And our lead cow is particularly peculiar.”

As he was trying to spread the hay out for the big animals, that female, number 56, started coming close to where he was standing with a intense gaze on her furry face. Her approach prompted his quick exit from the pasture under the 10,000-volt electric fencing. His rolling dive seem to be a well-practiced maneuver.

Wildt’s wife, Kerry, related the time Wild Bill had tried to jump over a holding pen, while she and Fritz were standing on a platform just on the other side.Wild Bill got hung up halfway over the six-foot-high steel railing. They were able to get the animal back into the pen with prodding staffs, but neither cared to repeat the exercise, so they added an extra foot to the height of the safety railing.

Raising bison meat is a growing market, according to Wildt and data from the National Bison Association (NBA). From a low of only 1,000 at the turn of the 20th century, there are now over 220,000 animals in the U.S. The NBA website maintains that the meat is higher in protein and iron and lower in cholesterol and fat than beef, appealing traits to health conscious customers.

“What is enabling them to grow again as a species is that people are eating them,” said Wildt. “The more that people eat them the more they will be farmed.”

The movement to buying locally grown food is also a growing trend, according to Bernadette Barber and her daughter Charlotte of Tall Trees Farm in Nuttsville, where they raise cattle and pigs. She said livestock raised in commercial feedlot operations, also called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO’s), is inhumane and unhealthy. Buying locally can assure a customer they are eating healthy, well-cared for animals.

“One reason we are moving back to locally grown foods is the dangers of feed lots,” said Barber. “Their methods are cruel and unsanitary. It’s all hidden. They don’t want us to know how bad they are for the environment and the livestock. Those places are like concentration camps for animals.”

“Our animals are indirect objects of our humanity,” said Charlotte. “The way we treat them reflects the way we are.”

Contacts
Barnes Farm: Hogs, produce; Brian Barnes,
804-761-7197.

Edmonds Farm: Bison, emu, chicken, duck, hogs;
Kim and Don Edmunds, 804-462-9904,
804-366-4730, edmondsfarm.com.

Fox Hall Farm: Black Angus beef;
Douglas Trainham, 804-832-8173.

Holly Hill Farm: Fresh produce;
Iris and Frank Keister, 804-758-3639.

Willow Oaks Farm: Fresh eggs;
Susan and Thomas Smither, 804-435-2566.

Mama Payne’s Meat and Feed: Slaughterhouse,
Robin and Neil Payne, 540-832-3440.

Olin-Fox Farm: Fresh produce; John Cooper,
804- 453-4125, olinfoxfarms.com.

Simpson Farm: Beef, goats, lamb;
Emily Simpson, 804-580-6466.

Wild T Bison Farm: Bison; Fritz and Kerry Wildt,
804-333-9960, wildtbison.com. 

posted 02.25.2011

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