Rebuilding soils and community

Reverence Farms taking ‘local’ to another level

By Joel McNair

Saxapahaw, North Carolina — Quite frankly, what is taking place here at Reverence Farms is almost too much to describe.

There’s the 45-cow dairy herd with its rapidly growing raw milk sales program, plus the possibility of a further-processing venture at some point in the future. There’s the Jersey linebreeding program and bull/semen sales based on genetics that do well on no-grain rations and mediocre forages, along with a variety of milk qualities ranging from ultra-high solids to A2A2 genetics.

Then there are the pastured pigs; 70 last year, with 150 targeted for 2019. Add in the 30-cow beef herd, the purchased beef steers and heifers, the 80-head ewe flock, the 700 laying hens, the 4,500 broilers, the 200 turkeys grown annually and the dozen livestock guardian dogs — all of which are on pasture — and you’re looking at plenty of multispecies complexity.

None of the above is marketed through auction barns or cheese plants or any other conventional wholesale channels. The majority of farm’s production is sold through online ordering and drop-point pickup, plus at the Reverence Farms Café a few miles distant.

And all of the above is happening in a hot, humid climate on a worn-out, red clay Piedmont property where just a few years ago 0.5% organic matter readings from individual pastures were the best of the sorry lot, and much of the topsoil nearest the milking facility had been scraped off by an overzealous logger.

While some of the pastures are approaching dairy quality, others have bare spots interspersed with ragged stands of Kentucky-31 tall fescue, johnsongrass and a variety of weeds.

With trees in greater supply than open pasture, Reverence has embarked on an ambitious plan to convert up to 100 acres of dense woods to silvopasture.

Meanwhile, a new milking facility is under construction, value-added convenience foods are being introduced, and markets are being added on a regular basis to feed a seemingly insatiable demand for good food here near North Carolina’s famous Research Triangle.

Altogether this represents a huge undertaking that presents a myriad of challenges each and every day. Suzanne Nelson Karreman understands why someone might question her sanity.

“A huge part of this farm is faith,” acknowledges Reverence’s founder. “I have my moments where I ask the question, ‘How are we going to pull this off?’”

Starting as a customer
Farming and selling on this scale were not in Suzanne’s original plans. A suburban Chicago native who went on to become an investigative journalist, in 2007 she quit the rat race of Washington, DC, and headed off to homestead here in central North Carolina.

She had followed the alternative agriculture movement and sought out healthier food while still working as a writer. “I started this whole thing as a customer, not a farmer,” Suzanne explains. “I was the ultimate knowledgeable consumer.”

From its beginnings with a house cow and a few small stock on rented acreage, over the next few years the place grew in scale to include a dozen milk cows, a 50-ewe flock, a layer flock, a seasonal pastured poultry operation and enough direct-market sales to actually turn a profit from the little place.

Suzanne was developing at least two philosophies in those early years. One evolved from seeing how her management practices were improving this long-abused farm. “I found that I love healing land,” she explains.

And in talking with the people who were purchasing the fruits of her efforts, Suzanne found there was more healing to be done within communities hungering for personal contact with the farmer providing their food.

“I saw that we could heal communities with these eye-to-eye transactions,” she says. “I feel that we are healing the wounds not just on the land, but with the people.”

By 2012 Suzanne was so committed to her mission that when the landlord pulled her lease, she emptied a retirement account to purchase a 60-acre parcel.

The venture was about to get a lot bigger. Suzanne’s father, Bruce, a retired corporate executive, saw promise in her business and provided the capital required to purchase three additional parcels over the next five years that brought the land base to 400 acres, with 150 acres now in permanent pasture.

Her brother, Connor, left his information technology job on the West Coast to become “bureau chief of management services” (everyone on the farm has a funny title), taking care of the myriad logistical challenges and making sure the trains run on time. Ownership is in a family trust.

“We’re a multi-generation family, but all of us are new operators,” Suzanne notes.

Along the way Suzanne met and married Hubert Karreman, an internationally known holistic veterinarian who for many years was based in southeastern Pennsylvania. Hue still does veterinary work in addition to helping with the farming operations.

Just over a year ago, Heidi Tafel (sister of Graze writer Adam Tafel) was hired, and as the farm’s manager oversees most day-to-day operations.

Almost no organic matter
The land they’re dealing with has soils worn down by many years of cotton and tobacco production. Early soil samples taken from across the farm and analyzed by the North Carolina State University laboratory showed many organic matter readings in the 0.2%-0.5% range.

Notes Hue, “Coming from Lancaster County (PA), this has been a wakeup call for me.”

And at least those acres have some topsoil. The first logging firm hired to clear land near the dairy facilities scraped most of it off some 50 acres, leaving a subsoil hardpan that struggles to grow even foot-tall sorghum-sudangrass. While plans call for returning the mounded-up soil, for now the situation is severely limiting the amount of grazing that can be done by the milking herd.

Last year Reverence imported 75% of the feed consumed on the farm. That share should decline, as the dairy herd is being reduced to 45 head from 60, and the St.Croix/Dorper flock will be grazed away from the main farm.

But Suzanne and Hue say that the land must be healed if this farm is to achieve a goal of growing most of its own feed. First they tried organic-approved commercial fertilizers, but saw little progress due to their lack of organic matter and a climate that makes OM tough to build.

So to improve their soils they decided to spend money on imported grains and forages. Poor-quality hay is rolled out on pastures, providing both organic matter and seed.

“It’s amazing how just adding the organic matter to these red Piedmont soils really makes the biology come alive,” Hue notes.

Higher-quality forages are also purchased, brought in as either certified organic or in transition status. Some of the better hay comes from Hue’s home territory in Pennsylvania.

The cattle are followed by broilers in pull-ahead pens and layers in an eggmobile. All birds consume certified-organic grain purchased locally.

Pigs are the best renovators
As do the pigs. While the farm’s other stock certainly contribute to this farm’s regeneration, Suzanne says the heritage breed feeder pigs, purchased at 70 lbs. and marketed in the 300-350 lb. range at eight to ten months, are the best soil builders on the farm.

The pigs occupy half-acre temporary paddocks with interiors bounded by double hot wires for two or three days before moving to the next patch of ground along with their cell feeder, water source and shade. Except in very wet weather, the pigs are moved only when they’ve consumed the one ton of feed in their feeder, about the limit for a paddock’s ability to handle manure and disturbance.

Pigs in brush
Pigs are the best soil renovators at Reverence Farms. In little time they can help turn a weedy, brushy patch like the one above into the beginnings of a quality stand of ryegrass and clover (below).
Boot in pasture

Pigs usually rotate through individual paddocks just once each year. These paddocks will not host pigs again until the sward has regenerated, although the other species can graze them in the meantime.

Group size is capped at 50, as they’ve found that this limits the abuse of smaller and less aggressive individuals. No ringing is done: Suzanne says the goal is to disturb the hardpan to stimulate regeneration. The frequent moves have been effective in preventing serious damage.

In any event, the system seems to work in healing the land: Hue says recent testing shows organic matter climbing toward 2% where the pigs have foraged.

Adds Suzanne, “The pigs are far and away the most cost- and speed-effective method” for improving pastures. She says two rotations through with pigs will turn poor swards into decent pasture, and that four rotations will create dairy-quality pastures with high percentages of perennial ryegrass and crimson clover in addition to the KY-31 that is always in the soil. Ryegrass is overseeded on some acres, and a seedbank has developed in the soils.

The beef cow/calves of mostly Devon genetics are being crossed to South Poll to improve heat tolerance. Reverence also purchases 15 beef steers annually, along with five to ten Devon cull cows per year to add fat to the Jersey ground beef.

Some of the Jerseys are bred to a Devon bull, and Reverence is trying some Wagyu to get more beef out of the dairy herd. All of the Jersey bull calves not selected to be breeding bulls are sold to local restaurants as veal at six to nine months.

A passion for dairy breeding
As for the dairy venture, “It’s the part I’m the most passionate about,” Suzanne says. Years ago she developed an intense interest in breeding and developing a herd of cattle that would be productive without grain and overly fancy forages.

For her foundation herd, Suzanne purchased cattle and semen, mainly from Holterholm in Maryland, but also from Holt Creek Jerseys in Nebraska and a local farm, Chapel Hill Creamery. Breeding animals are aAa analyzed and A2 tested, with BB and BB kappa-casein emphasized. Suzanne pays particular attention to animals that seem to handle KY-31 better than their herd mates. With the exception of four cows kept as brood cows for their genetics, the herd is entirely A2A2.

With bloodlines tracing back to the New Zealand bull Beledene Dukes Landy, Suzanne has been learning the science and art of linebreeding. Reverence has been selling semen, plus about 20 bulls annually.

Says Suzanne, “My goal is to create a herd of cattle that are able to effectively and gracefully turn solar energy into butterfat and protein, and do so in a way that is in concert with the land. And I want to do more of it every year.”

The current dairy facility is an open-sided shed that includes a bedding pack of long-stem straw, plus a feed alley and locking headgates where the cows are milked. A nearby semi-trailer serves as a milkhouse.

Early this year a six-unit flat parlor (expandable to 10 units) was going in one end of the shed. The bulk tank is going on a trailer in what Suzanne calls a “plug and play” unit that will allow for direct transport of raw milk to where it will be packaged.

Cows are milked once a day, with a peak of 35 lbs. on DHIA test and wintertime solids running at 6.3% butterfat and 4.6% protein. Suzanne says she’s aiming for 7% BF and 5% P.

With quality pasture in short supply, baleage and dry hay make up the majority of the ration for a herd that freshens bi-seasonally in spring and fall. The cows are lured to come in for milking with an energy supplement.

The aim here is to make only enough milk to satisfy their own market demand. Reverence once shipped to an area cheese plant, but Suzanne was not satisfied with the pay price.

A hefty percentage of their milk currently goes toward raising calves. After running a nurse-cow herd for several years, they’ve switched to raising calves on their own dams for as much as an entire lactation. Suzanne says the change has resulted in better calf health and happier cows.

It has also allowed Reverence to run all dairy animals in one herd, which streamlines labor in addition to providing better grazing outcomes. Half the herd passes through the barn without being milked.

While much thought has gone into further processing, and that may happen down the road, at this point Suzanne has no interest in building and operating such a facility.

Building a raw milk business
“It’s looking like were going to sell a lot more milk as raw milk. I don’t think we’re going to be able to keep up with demand,” she reports.

To date all such sales have been under a “Pet Milk” label in gallon and half-gallon plastic jugs (average price: $12 per gallon) through online orders and at the farm cafe. Last year North Carolina passed a herdshare law, and Suzanne says Reverence will consider a share program as a means of guaranteeing sales volumes. For now, though, she likes the simplicity of the Pet Milk business.

Bacteria testing is done weekly through an independent laboratory, and having an on-farm veterinarian with vast experience in preventative management and alternative treatments helps the cause.

While this farm certainly presents its challenges, it does have at least one major advantage: Reverence is located in the midst of a region that includes several major universities and thus an unusually high population of well-informed food customers.

Two full-time employees and one part-timer work in marketing. Suzanne refuses to send any milk through a conventional dairy processor, any stock to a sales barn, nor any locker plant she has not personally approved and inspected for humane practices.

Deceit in ‘local’
There is competition within the area retail and wholesale markets, and Suzanne complains that too many of these people are trading on their “local” identification while using insecticides and conventional feeds and fertilizers in their efforts to keep costs in line.

“I think there’s more deceit in the local food movement than in industrial organics,” she asserts. Reverence Farms, she says, can fill a niche that goes beyond just being local. “You can’t lie to people for that long. There is an incredible craving for authenticity,” Suzanne explains. “Our core philosophy is that we won’t have our customers eat something that we won’t eat ourselves.”

The Reverence name emphasizes that this farm cares about everything involved in its food, from soil all the way through to the customer. Says Suzanne, “Our goal is that who we are as shown to the outside is really who we are on the inside.”

Internal relationships are important here, what with six full-time employees on the farm and some 20 people working at least part-time at the café and in marketing and sales. Suzanne says Reverence is doing its best to create a positive workplace culture.

“I want to demonstrate that all of these things can come together and do the right thing for the people, the animals and the land. But the end of the day it’s all about people.”

Profit also matters. Suzanne says the goal is to break even on operations this year, and to operate in the black in 2020. The plan is that with soil quality improving, feed costs can decline even as poultry and pork sales are anticipated to grow 40% this year. The silvopasture project (see photo) will open up new opportunities for the pigs in particular.

Silvopasture project
The farm’s silvopasture project aims to open up 100 acres for shady grazing. At three-quarters of an acre per day, the one-man logging operation is slow going and less profitable up front compared to conventional logging. But the Karremans are excited about renovating the ground with pigs, spreading grass seed, and having tremendous new grazing options during long periods of hot weather.

Suzanne says that with major capital improvements completed, and a very good labor force in place, Reverence is just beginning to reach its potential.

“Everything we are doing here takes a really long time to build,” she notes. “With everything we’re building here, you have to have some vision.”

Joel McNair is editor and publisher of Graze and has a small farm in southern Wisconsin.