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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
Additionally, some of the “locals” introduced
me to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture
and the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living at Wison College
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
Deep customer and farmer
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
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