Two young Charlottesville couples are bucking the national trend and enjoying life on the farm.
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Erica Hellen of Free Union Grass Farm, with chickens
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Joel and Erica Hellen from Free Union Grass Farm
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Cows grazing at Timbercreek Organics
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Erica Hellen from Free Union Grass Farm
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Moveable chicken coop at Timbercreek Organics
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Moveable chicken coop
According to the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, the average farmer is 57 years old. The 2010 Census shows a 30 percent increase in farmers aged 75+ and a 20 percent drop in farmers aged 25 and under, which does not bode well for our future production of food.
However, if you happen to drive out to Timbercreek Organics farm, situated only 5 miles from Barracks Road Shopping Center, you’ll find industrious young farmer Zach Miller, 28, and his wife Sara, 29, producing what they call “better than USDA certified organic” eggs, chicken, turkey, pork, and beef. Their products are pesticide, herbicide, fertilizer, antibiotic and hormone free and can be found in restaurants and specialty stores around the local area. Their mission is to provide the best quality food as close to home as possible in an effort to reduce our carbon footprint.
Inspired by the rotational grazing methods of Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm, the Millers strive to raise their animals in a free-range pasture where each animal not only helps preserve the nutrients and dignity of the land but also creates a more ideal feeding ground for the rotation of the next animal. For example, grass-fed cattle prepare the fields for poultry by mowing down tall tougher grasses that are not palatable to birds, and their hooves help aerate the soil. The chickens come along behind, scratching the cattle manure into the ground and eating the little pests popping up for perfect fertilization of their pastures so as fallowing a fallow period, those same pastures are vibrant and fecund in forage for the cattle once again. In spring, the pigs, which the Millers call “natural tillers,” are busy helping with what they call “a pasture reclamation project” by foraging a good portion of their diet from the land, supplemented with Countryside organic feed. After depleting the resources in one area, they are moved along to forage elsewhere.
The eggs at Timbercreek Organics are true free-range from heritage breed birds that nest and roost in a mobile house that moves in rotation behind the cows. Most of their diet is derived from foraging, but they get additional nutrients from organic feed as well as the pigs. The turkeys are seasonal but live a similar lifestyle. I can vouch from this past Thanksgiving that they are deliciously flavorful and tender birds. The beef is of extremely high quality Angus cows that live in a stress-free pasture grazing environment. The flavor and texture of the meat is indicative of the happiness and lifestyle of the cow.
Farther down the road you’ll find Free Union Grass Farm, which is a team effort by another young farmer/foodie couple Erica Hellen, 26, and Joel Slezak, 27. Erica hails from Oklahoma while Joel has remained close to his roots. She apprenticed at Polyface Farm with Joel Salatin as well as at Caromont Farm with chef-turned-farmer Gail Hobbs-Page until she decided to make a go of it with her farmer boyfriend Joel. He grew up raising cattle on his family farm and is familiar with the dirty lifestyle. He is a familiar and handsome face around Charlottesville as he was a former cheesemonger at Feast! where he and Erica met while she was delivering Caromont cheese.
They now have their own piece of land and raise pastured chickens, ducks, and 100% grass-fed cows. They sell their eggs and meat to local restaurants and specialty stores, as well as putting in face time at the City Market during the farmer’s market season. The name of the farm implies that grass ties everything together. “Grass feeds our animals, supports the soil, and helps us provide food with noticeably superior flavor.” No one else in the area is making the effort to raise ducks, partly due to the fact that they are much harder to process than chickens. From what I understand, the feathers are much more difficult to remove and the amount of effort that goes into duck production is greater than most birds. Erica and Joel are a dedicated team and it shows in the quality and taste of the meat.
We need more young farmers such as these couples making moves to further sustainable and organic farming practices not only in this area, but everywhere. At least here we are spoiled by what we have, and can only hope for more.