By Heather Smith Thomas
The Gails were successful with starting a small farm for profit. They started with sheep and it grew from there.
Schuyler Gail and her husband Colby started farming several years ago, and she has been going through a Holistic Management Beginning Women Farmer Training Program. “We got our first sheep eight years ago when we were caretakers for the farm where my grandmother grew up. We needed to find a way to get rid of the tall grass around the barns, and someone gave us eight sheep. We fenced off the barnyard and let the sheep have that part of the farm. They hadn’t been sheared for three years and they were so shaggy we couldn’t even tell which ones were male or female. We’d never had sheep before,” says Schuyler.
“We had them sheared soon after they arrived and discovered we had three rams. We kept one ram and processed the other two,” she says. The sheep started having lambs, and Schuyler and her husband sold the meat to friends and acquaintances, starting a small farm for profit.
“After we had sheep and had to take care of them—and couldn’t leave home as easily—we got chickens. The first year we had 25 chickens, the next year we had 100, and the year after that we had 1,300. Until I took the beginning farmer class, we did everything by trial and error,” she says.
“That’s how we started farming. We realized very quickly that parking sheep in a barnyard is not a good long-term plan. We branched out to pasturing other parts of my grandmother’s farm, and the sheep kept having more lambs. We learned about moving them to different pastures to make this more sustainable, and then we learned to divide the pastures with electric net fencing,” she explains.
Their friend Morgan Hartman (of Black Queen Angus) is a grass farmer, and he helped them learn more about creating a grazing program. “We started going to conferences and discovered HMI (Holistic Management International),” says Schuyler.
“Our animals were turning the pastures into a golf course and we realized they soon would not have enough food. They accomplished the goal of mowing, but we wanted to be able to feed them year-round. At that time our goal was just mowing, and now it’s managing for meat,” she says.
The majority of their farm livestock now is free range pig farming, several different heritage breeds including Mulefoot, Red Wattle, Large Black and Old Spot. “We are starting to farrow our own pigs. We feed them dairy, gleaned fruits and vegetables from produce farms, and whey from local cheesemakers. We are experimenting with planting forage like mangles for winter feed. The pigs probably get 10% of their food from purchased local grain, so we are trying to eliminate purchased grain.”
Most of the pigs range in the woods. “We had them on pasture last year but they didn’t seem as happy as they do in the woods—where they are harvesting more of their own food and have more room to explore,” she says.
“We just started a CSA and are in a cooperative venture with our neighbors and a friend, Cynthia Creech, who has been raising grass-fed beef for 30-some years, and with the Abode Farm—a horse-powered vegetable farm. Cynthia raises Randall cattle (a rare breed that originated in New England). When she started there with her cattle, there were only nine of these cows left. She has a genetic program that helped build several herds,” says Schuyler.
“Through our CSA, we sell chickens, turkeys, eggs and pork. We also raise grass-fed lambs. Most of our business is done through restaurants and stores,” she explains.
“When we moved to our new farm two years ago, we had our laying hens fertilize the area where we wanted to put a garden. Then we put pigs there, then a cover crop, and then had our neighbor till it last spring. Now we are starting to grow forage there—mostly mangles and turnip—for the pigs and sheep.”
Two years ago she and her husband were able to purchase 20 acres through the Land Conservancy—a piece of land that had not been farmed for more than 50 years. “We bought it from a family who had owned it as a second home. They had waited 12 years on a land match program for a farmer who would want to lease it. Once they found us they were so excited about it that they sold it to us,” she says.
“When we moved here it had been brush-hogged a few times over the past 50 years or so but was mostly goldenrod (taller than me!) and brambles. Everyone who came to visit asked if we were going to have it mowed, but we didn’t. We rotationally grazed the pigs, sheep and poultry for a year, and now the fields look like fairly decent pasture again. There is some bramble and goldenrod left, but there is also a lot of clover and other desirable plants returning—without having to seed them. In the woods, our pigs are clearing out the underbrush and brambles, and we have pasture grasses and clover moving in where the pigs have been,” says Schuyler.
“So now we own 20 acres and are also leasing from a neighbor who asked us to farm her land in hopes of getting an agricultural exemption for tax purposes. We have a one-year trial lease with the neighbor, trying to see how much of her acreage we can get this ag exception on. It’s 370 acres and only half a mile from our house, so this was wonderful luck,” she says.
“In our area, leasing is very helpful for farmers and landowners both. The land that we are leasing was seized by the state in the 1990s. It was going to be put up for auction and developed, and the current owner bought it so that it would not be developed, to keep it in agriculture. Property taxes are very high in New York State. It’s nice that the landowner can get a break on taxes because it is once again being used for farming.”
Before the Gails moved here, the land they are leasing had an unfinished foundation for a giant house with a helicopter pad—a flat area created by blowing the top off a mountain. That area is just shale, with no topsoil. “One of the reasons the current landowner is leasing to us is that she wants us to rehabilitate that land, and get some soil and plants growing again. We will put animals there in the winter. It will have a lot of manure to start building some soil. This is a huge long-term project,” she explains.
Starting a Small Farm for Profit: Lessons Learned and Class Benefits
There are several beneficial lessons from the class she’s been taking. “We didn’t consider ourselves in our planning, before. Now, as things progress, we realize we need to plan for ourselves and our family as well as our animals and our land. We want to be able to have more time to play with our kids,” she says. It’s hard to juggle everything for a money-making agriculture business.
“In the beginning, we didn’t have a financial plan, and we are still working on that. We had never examined our various enterprises to see what was making money and what wasn’t. Now, based on our plan, we raised the prices on our eggs and chicken, and I explained to our customers the reason for this. I don’t think any of them would like the fact that we were losing money to produce food for them. People who are buying the kind of food we produce are doing it at least partly for a social reason and if we are not making any money doing this then they won’t want it,” she says. Farmers have to be able to make a living producing food.
Schuyler enjoys the people in her class. “We have continued to use one another for second opinions on various things. This has been helpful. When you have friends that aren’t farming, your life is so different from theirs that they just don’t understand.” The group of women farmers in her class has been friends, mentors and support group when needed. This is a rewarding experience for all of them.
Challenges of Starting a Small Farm for Profit
“A lot of people think our life is very quaint and simple. Some of the people I know from high school tell me that I’m living their dream—having kids and farming. The dream and the reality are probably very different,” she says.
“In this part of the country there is an unrealistic image of farming. I saw an article stating that the popular thing to do when you get out of college is to spend time on an organic farm for a couple of years. But how can farming be sustainable if we are expecting new people to do it, and only briefly, and we’re not taking care of the people who hold the knowledge, who are in it for the long term,” she says.
“Farming is a really great thing for young college graduates who want to try it, but I wonder how farming can continue to exist for families with young children. We need to be able to provide for our kids, and this system makes it hard to do that,” she says. Most people in agriculture are underpaid because Americans spend less than any other nation for their food—and tend to take their food for granted.
“The fact that organic farming is touted as the new, cool thing for young people is also hurting it, and it is using these young people as free or cheap temporary labor,” says Schulyer. Some people stick with it and do it because they love this way of life, but it can be very difficult to make a living at it.
Another problem with today’s small farms is that most people who try this are new at it. In earlier times almost everyone had ties with the land. Then there was an exodus to the cities and fewer farmers had to raise more and more food. The farms got bigger and more mechanized. Now there is a move back to the land, but the people coming back grew up in cities and don’t know about farming, and it’s like starting all over. We’ve lost a lot of people who know how to raise a pig for meat.
“Most of the things we are learning today was known for centuries, and then got lost. One thing we’ve tried to do is become friends with older farmers who are the age of our parents and grandparents. If we work together with them, we can learn from each other. For instance there is a dairy farmer here that we know and love, whose family has been farming the same land for many generations. He is doing it largely the way his ancestors did it, but is selling all his milk to the dairy co-op. If he were to milk his 80 cows differently and market the milk a different way, he could be making money instead of losing money every year. Old farmers and new farmers could share knowledge and improve their farms and businesses together.”
A Good Place To Raise Kids
Children who grow up on a farm have advantages over city kids. They are more grounded in the realities of life and where their food comes from. “A while back, a chef made us head cheese and offered some to our six-year-old son. Our son asked what it was and the chef told him it was pig head. Our son said it was really good. Most kids would not have even tried it,” says Schulyer.
“One of the sweetest things our kids said was just after we had a runty pig that was here longer than her littermates. We don’t usually name the animals, but our son called her Funny Eyes because she had blue eyes. When it was time for her to go he was so upset that he wouldn’t even say good-bye to her. When we got home from the slaughterhouse he asked if we saved her heart and we told him we did, and asked him why. He said, ‘Now we can eat it and save all of her love.’ I thought that was a very meaningful thing for a little boy to say.”
Visit the Gails at climbingtreefarm.blogspot.com.
Originally published in the January/February 2014 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.