A new chance for an old farm
Sandra Kay Miller takes a chance on a crumbling old farm in central Pennsylvania and finds, after a number of humbling lessons, that meat goats just might be her salvation.

By Sandra Kay Miller
Posted March 9, 2006

 

I’ve always been frustrated by people in agriculture who have a complete lack respect for the environment. For nearly twenty years, I worked on cattle ranches, horse farms and lived in commercial orchards where there was always a heap of old vehicles somewhere, ditches filled with trash and heavy use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, antibiotics and hormones.

The only way I figured I was going to make a difference was to buy my own farm. Living in southern California meant purchasing property was not in the budget so I returned home to south central Pennsylvania.

I bought a twenty-acre Civil-War-era Pennsylvania farm using the Internet, telephone and fax machine in California. And from the realtor’s pictures, it was obvious there would be a significant amount of garbage with which to contend. After all, I wanted a fixer-upper. Call me crazy.

A close friend who lived in the area took the first look, praising the layout of the farm—woods, pines, fields, a livable house and a "cool old barn" in a nice neighborhood, but she warned me that for a while I was going to be the ‘trashy neighbor’.

The best description came from my neat-freak, perfectionist brother, Dave. “That place is awful,” he wailed over the phone after visiting the farm. He made sure to communicate exactly what was wrong with the property, in detail. Based upon his assessment, I knew it was exactly what I wanted.

But it was the realtor who delivered the clincher. “You can get up to six parcels out of that property,” she said, “The house and barn are close together so you won’t have to split them up. The place will pay for itself.”

Angered by years of witnessing fertile farmland turned into cookie-cutter housing developments and big box shopping centers, saving this small family farm became my mission. The farm would pay for itself, but through the bounty of the land and not by the surveyor’s tape.

When I arrived in Newburg, Pennsylvania, the spring of 2000 with my long-time companion, Ralph Jones, two dogs, a cat and my horse, we were just happy to be done with our 3,000-mile journey. Papers signed, we danced in the front yard toasting the farm and our impending adventure.

And then reality hit—we were going to be living in the middle of a garbage dump. To make matters worse, our second week there a thunderstorm blew several large sheets of corrugated tin off the roof, nearly decapitating Ralph and the horse.

Just from looking at the pictures we figured the barn would be torn down. However, upon closer inspection of the interior, the barn was a solid structure of hand-hewn timbers—definitely a keeper.

For the next six months, we worked endlessly on nothing but clean up. Six 40-cubic-yard roll-off dumpsters were filled with trash that could not be burned, buried or recycled. Two full truckloads of unidentified containers of sludge, powder, paint and oils went to the local hazardous waste clean up day.

By the end of our first summer, we had a clean palette from which to begin building a farm. And that’s where I ran into my first major disappointment.

Learning from place

Our original plan for the farm was to plant several acres of organic white peaches and raise organic meat rabbits. Unfortunately, in 2000 our township was under stone fruit quarantine due to the Plum Pox virus. Long-time family friends who had grown fruit in Adams County for over 50 years counseled against investing in a stone fruit orchard after they had lost 600 three-year-old peach trees.

“You’re just getting started. It’s not worth the risk.” I consider those words some of the best advice I’ve ever received—and not just when it came to the fruit tree decision. Before considering an investment in the farm, I always examine the risk. “What do I stand to lose if this fails?” and “What type of return will I get?”

Another hard lesson I learned was, "Something that is successful in one part of the country may not work in another area." Meat rabbits were my instructors for this lesson.

In California, Ralph and I had raised a small herd of meat rabbits for several years. Sticking with the plan to start small, I purchased a group of well-bred does and a buck from a breeder in Maryland. They grew well, reproduced and then winter came. Without a heated barn, year-round breeding was extremely difficult and replacing our historic 140-year-old chestnut timber barn was not an option. The bottom line was meat rabbits were not going to provide much return, and they were phased out.

The third venture—black raspberries—also proved a disaster. We were in a hurry to get a jump on growing a crop so I installed a high-tensile trellis and planted canes the first year. Winter proved to be even harder on the berries than it was on the rabbits. I hadn't guessed our location on the top of a hill would mean harsh winter winds and devastation for the canes. At least the rabbits lived.

Going to goats

The choice to raise meat goats came to us in a round-about way. I was working for a software company with several Muslims from Pakistan. During casual conversation I began sharing my peach/rabbit/blackberry challenges. My coworkers suggested meat goats. I had worked with just about every breed of livestock except small ruminants so I did some research. After seeing the numbers with my own eyes—over 450,000 meat goats imported in 2000—I knew what would eventually grace my pastures.

“I’m not milking goats,” was Ralph’s response. Not a problem. Meat goats aren't bred to be used as dairy animals—think Black Angus versus Jersey cow. I started my herd with a small group of crossbred does and a borrowed full blood Boer buck. Boers are meat goats from South Africa bred to be thick, have a quick rate of gain, produce multiple births and be hardy.

When I began goat shopping to increase my herd I was extremely dismayed at the quality of animals people were offering as breeding stock. With the rapid growth of the meat goat industry, it seemed anyone with registered Boers considered all the animals they produced to be of breeding quality just because they had papers. And I’ll admit I made a few mistakes purchasing "papered" goats of poor quality.

I also ran into a number of get-rich-quick pitches for top-dollar purebred animals. However, commanding top dollar for these animals entails constant campaigning through breed shows and extensive marketing—all very expensive.

After experiencing a few breeding seasons, I realized that my cross-bred does faired much better than their papered counterparts at being nannies, raising multiple kids with ease, conceiving, and resisting parasites and hoof problems. In the end, I decided to reach my herd size goals by breeding instead of buying. By investing in high quality sires, the crossbred does’ offspring were much better than what I could have purchased elsewhere.

Getting the land ready

Before any agricultural product—vegetable, fruit or livestock could be grown, there needed to be serious work in the fields—fencing and fertility. One takes money and the other takes time.

Fencing represents a significant investment when you're raising livestock. In my previous ranching experience, building fences was always on someone else’s dollar. Besides, a few strands of electric or barbed wire sufficed for horses and cattle.

There’s an old adage that says, “If the fence won’t hold water, it won’t hold goats.” Believing this to be absolutely true (and wanting an attractive addition to the farm), my first fencing project consisted of woven wire and wooden posts driven into the ground. The first fencing project, a quarter acre next to the barn, cost more than my truck. Estimating the cost to enclose the remainder of my property in similar fencing, I realized that it would come out to nearly half of what I had paid for the entire farm! My mistake was choosing what was pretty instead of what was practical.

The next pasture project grew off the failed berry fencerow using the same posts, but with electrified six-strand high tensile. This was cost-effective and kept the goats contained. Last year I found that three-strand electric on T-posts also contains goats. Had I settled for practical instead of pretty in the first place, my entire property could have been fenced for half the cost of my first project.

You can have plenty of money, but building soil fertility and good pastures takes time. And listening to the "experts" isn't always what it's cracked up to be.

The local agricultural and County Extension cooperative offices each visited my farm, took a single soil sample and told me to tear out the overgrown pines, spray 2-4D or RoundUp® and chemical fertilizers, and then plant pasture with grass hay. When I relayed this to the older gentleman down the road who had a nice herd of meat goats, he said, “ Why, that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. Why on earth do you want to kill all the weeds and take out the pines? That’s what the goats eat. Broad leaf plants and brambles are higher in protein than grass. Didn’t you tell them you had goats?” He went on to point out that the pines created a natural windbreak and shelter.

Additionally, some of the “locals” introduced me to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (www.pasafarming.org) and the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living at Wison College (www.wilson.edu), both of which have provided invaluable resources that have helped make a success of the farm’s turn around. Talking to other farmers successfully doing what I wanted to achieve proved the most valuable.

But I didn’t ignore the “experts” all together. After years of intensive Christmas tree farming and neglect, the pastures were woefully acidic and had few nutrients. For the past four years, I have spread lime, manure, compost and trace minerals. The soil is improving but has yet to reach “optimal” when tested.

Successful farms don’t happen overnight. I’m going into my sixth year on the farm with a great appreciation for multi-generation operations. Although many second- and third-generation farmers are fortunate enough to inherit their farms, it is feasible to start from scratch. Bear in mind that just as much off-farm work will be required at first in addition to the farm work.

My primary goal with all livestock has always been to break even the first year. For the goats, my first kid crop just covered their upkeep because I was only selling the male offspring. For the poultry, I included the initial stock’s cost and housing. The net profits for the first year were low, but continue to get better as the years go by.

We only complete projects that can be paid for in full to avoid carrying consumer debt, which requires a lot of patience, and capital expenditures for cleanup and renovation have been subsidized by my non-farming work.

That being said, we are hardcore recyclers. Shameless when it comes to dumpster diving for useful materials, we’ve salvaged thousands of dollars of lumber, roofing materials and fencing. All of the goat shelters have been built from completely recycled materials—garage doors, pallets, metal roofing scraps, wooden shipping crates and even silo chute covers. Actually, one of the unexpected benefits of our fixer-up farm turned out to be part of the junk pile—a 1949 Ford 8N tractor. I had budgeted money to purchase a tractor but Ralph was able to fix the old iron that had sat idle for many years.

Deep customer and farmer
satisfaction

The meat market has already netted a profit thanks to a waiting list of customers acquired by word-of-mouth. An added bonus I didn’t expect was the depth of gratitude from my customers. Many are immigrants from the far reaches of the globe. With food as the backbone of many cultural traditions, the availability of a quality meat goat, instead of a dairy goat cull, has provided many families with a taste of “home” for their holidays and special occasions. At my customers’ requests, I also allow on-farm halal and kosher slaughtering for a fee, further increasing my bottom line.

The goat herd is growing and, despite Ralph’s edict, I’ve added a few milking goats and, most recently, a pair of heifers—a Jersey and a Tibetan yak—with plans to start a micro-creamery for making artisan cheese and butter.

I’ve gauged the profitability of my farm by how many mortgage payments I am able to make from on-farm income. The trend has been increasing by one each year, meaning that in 2005 the farm made five mortgage payments. By adding value-added products such as cheese and butter along with cost-reducing projects like transitioning to renewable energy resources, I’m working toward increasing income while decreasing expenditures to meet all of my living expenses from on-farm income by the tenth year.

Being a good farmer means being flexible, having patience and learning to weigh risks when making business decisions. With these traits and the willingness to put your soul into the soil and your heart into the farm regardless how frustrating and disappointing times become, you can make old farms productive again—and successful.