With Focus on Pasture-Raised Livestock, Two 1st Generation Farmers Forge Sustainable Path in the Ozarks (Part 1)
May 24, 2012 | Hana Lurie
From 40 acres to 250. From $5,000 to $189,000 in sales within its first five years, Falling Sky Farm, a grass-based livestock farm located in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas about 100 miles outside of Little Rock, has been working to develop a sustainable farming model that it hopes to leverage and share with other like-minded farmers seeking to create economically viable operations.
Falling Sky Farm is helmed by co-owners Cody Hopkins, age 32 and his wife Andrea Todt, age 27. Both are first generation farmers who come from non-traditional farming backgrounds. Cody, a former high school physics teacher, has a Bachelors of Arts in Physics, and Andrea has a BA in Outdoor Education and Biology. They are largely self-taught.
I recently spoke with farmer Cody to learn more about Falling Sky Farm. The interview has been broken up into two parts. Part 1, below, focuses on the origin of Falling Sky Farm, how the couple learned to farm and the sustainable practices that they employs. Part 2 focuses on the financial aspects of the farm from its business model to how Cody and Andrea obtained the necessary funding to purchase and lease land as well as their advice for budding sustainable farmers.
The Interview – Part 1
Q: What is the story of the origin of your farm?
Cody Hopkins: We started our farm in 2007 and my partner and I – now my wife, Andrea – were both living in this rural area of the Ozarks, Arkansas. We were both college grads, and before we met thought about moving away and going to get other jobs because it was pretty difficult to find a job in this particular area. I was looking at going back to college to get a Masters in Economic Development, specifically Rural Economic Development.
Once Andrea and I met we started thinking about how there’s got to be some way, [how] if we want to live here, we can try to make a living here and do something to help the community. We thought it’d be really cool to give farming a shot here in the Ozarks and see if we could create a model that might be replicated in our area and provide jobs for ourselves and a few others.
Q: How did you learn to farm?
Cody Hopkins: We definitely started out with a lot of books – a couple of grazers that were doing grass-fed beef – and we follow a couple of magazines. At some point it became very important to connect with resources locally. We did go and visit Polyface Farm and, still, whenever we travel we go and visit farms that we’re interested in, and we went to a couple of conferences.
But really, we had to connect with locals who had experience in things like welding. What we found is that sure, there are models out there, but each farm ends up having to recreate the wheel in a lot of ways. You have to be able to have access – if you know local farmers who raise beef, they may not use the same systems of livestock management as you do, but they have all kinds of knowledge. So it was a mix of books and locals.
Q: What do you raise on your farm?
Cody Hopkins: We started out with poultry – pastured poultry, meat birds that we raise. We do laying hens now, we have turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas. We do grass-fed beef. We do acorn-finished pork, and we do ducks too. So for now we just grow livestock and grass. We may eventually branch out into other things like vegetables or certain crops, but we just haven’t done that yet.
We got into this as an experiment to see if we could create an economically viable farm and be able to teach others about the way we farm. We realized quickly that the local food systems, at least in Arkansas, have sort of broken down. So we need to recreate marketplaces. We started an online farmers market in central Arkansas to help market our stuff and other farmer’s stuff. Basically, we haven’t been able to expand into other crops because we’ve been so busy having to recreate a food system. That online market now services over 1200 customers and has probably 40 farmers who serve – and gross sales of around $160,000. So it has grown really quickly.
We also just finished the first stages of a USDA butchering facility. We’re not certified yet, but we’ve got the structure built and we’re working towards USDA certification so that we can help other farmers get animals processed. We process our poultry on the farm under an exemption in Arkansas which allows you to process up to 20,000 birds on your farm because we’re only doing 10,000 a year. But for our beef and pork we’re having to haul it. There’s only one USDA butcher in the whole state, so we’re having to haul our animals 200 miles one way to have them butchered!
We’re helping to set up a facility on our farm which would allow us and other farmers to be able to get stuff processed a little closer to the market.
Q: Why did you choose to embrace sustainable farming practices?
Cody Hopkins: Well, it just fit our core values. It was the only way we were going to do it – if we could create a model that we thought was first, humane to the animals. [Humane] to us is defined by doing our very best to recreate the natural ecological environment that they’ve evolved to live in – [for example], cattle evolved on grassland so they’re out in the pasture and we try to mimic their environment by moving them around frequently. We move them once to twice a day. We have the chickens in our pasture, we have the pigs in the woods – in Arkansas we have wild pigs that live in the woods. We live in an area with lots of oak trees, so we arrange the pigs in oak forests and we rotate them through. For much of the year, besides eating the ration that we provide, they get a lot of acorns out of the woods. What they eat makes a difference in how healthy they are, what they taste like. I think it’s Michael Pollan who said “it’s not just what you eat, but what you eat eats.”
So the humane aspect meant a lot to us. And then the quality of the product… [sustainable organic practices] just kind of made sense. If you manage them properly in a way that happens to be environmentally friendly, it makes for healthier animals, you can be more efficient and you don’t end up with these biological concentrations of microorganisms like you get in chicken houses.
Q: Are you certified organic?
Cody Hopkins: No. Right now, the best we can do is a GMO-free grain. So we’re sourcing a GMO-free grain that’s coming out of Missouri. We really don’t have an interest in becoming certified organic. What we do have an interest in doing is being as transparent as possible with our customers. We have a few times a year where customers come out and spend a day on the farm learning about how we do stuff and we have a potluck. We also have an open door policy where you can come visit and ask any questions you want, we’re not going to hide anything from you.
Q: Can you describe some of the unique sustainable practices that you employ?
Cody Hopkins: The pigs in the woods would be one. Just in contrast to what the industrial food system does – a chicken house is the size of an acre, and they stick about 40,000 chickens inside for 8 week, take them out, then stick another 40,000 in there. What we do is we have these mobile huts that are out on the pasture which we move everyday to a fresh spot of grass. When we’ve covered an acre, it will have been the lifecycle of about 600 chickens. [This way], you have the appropriate amount of manure spread out on the pasture, and it fixes fertility issues so that you don’t have so much manure that you have manure runoff and problems with too much nitrogen or potassium. So that’s one way.
The main thing is when you come to our farm, all of our animals are always on the move. So that breaks parasite cycles. Most parasites will have a 21 day lifecycle, so if you give a particular area 21 days of rest or longer, that parasite is not going to find a host to infect.
To learn more about how Falling Sky Farm’s business model and how it came up with the funds to obtain farmland, check out Part 2 of the interview