Romantic Outing at Livestock Auction Precipitates Founding of Sustainable Stokesberry Farm
June 27, 2013 | Hana Lurie
Jerry and Janelle Stokesberry spent one of their first romantic outings at a local livestock auction, and over 30 years later find themselves running an animal farm of their own. Stokesberry Farm of Olympia, Washington raises a variety of livestock with a passion for providing nutrient-filled, local meat to their community. They feel strongly about the accessibility of their product as well as working with Mother Nature rather than against her.
I recently spoke with Janelle Stokesberry to learn more about the farm’s beginnings, challenges, and future goals.
Q: What is the story of how your farm came to be?
Stokesberry: My husband and I met back in the 70s and a few of our first dates involved nature and animals; one was going to the local livestock barn sale and picking up a couple of pigs for him to raise. When we got married, we decided to raise our own animals. In the city of Tacoma we had turkeys and other animals. When we got our piece of property here 35 years ago, we raised every animal imaginable except for horses – we were never interested in raising horses. We raised animals for meat and had our garden. Our dream was always to be able to provide food for more than just ourselves and immediate family. Five or six years ago, we noticed ourselves getting gray hair and wrinkles and thought, if we are going to do this, we’ve got to do it. We only own five acres and it’s mostly wooded – not very conducive for raising animals. Our friends close by had some pasture that they weren’t using, so we started with that. At first we raised some chicken and beef. Before we knew it, it was a real business and I had to quit my other job.
Q: How did you find the money to lease/buy the land that you are farming?
Stokesberry: This is really important to think about because if you are going to farm, you cannot afford to give your food away. On the five acres we own, we have quite a few animals. For the pastured animals – the true herbivores – we needed a place to grow grass. We went to our friend and said, ‘hey – can we use your land, and we’ll fix the fences?’ She hadn’t used it for years, so we traded whatever we had to give her. Then we expanded to another piece of property, so it keeps evolving. It is a challenge in that every time you get another piece of property, you have to take care of fences and get the soil to be nutrient [rich] again. So many people living around us mow acres rather than utilize it.
Q: What do you grow/raise on your farm?
Stokesberry: We have the pigs here because they root up pasture, so they’re out amongst the trees. Out on the pasture we have eight momma cows, icelandic sheep year-round, and spring summer and fall we move the broilers – the meat birds – out to the pasture. Icelandic sheep are a very primitive breed, and they essentially take care of themselves. We really enjoy the challenge of working with animals.
We also grow ducks and turkeys – a variety of poultry. We buy the poultry day old, and we haven’t bought any pigs, cattle and sheep for years. The goal is to not have to buy any more large animals.
Q: Is your farm certified organic?
Stokesberry: All of the poultry is certified organic, including the eggs. The other animals are not certified organic, but we only feed organic and the land they are on is all certified organic.
Q: When and why did you decide to embrace sustainable practices?
Stokesberry: It’s just a no-brainer for us. It just makes sense to let nature do as much of the work as possible, and we just facilitate her. If you fight with nature, you are going to have a big fight on your hands. If we can learn from her practices and try to duplicate that whenever possible in a way that manages the animals and land well, then we will be okay. For us, it’s common sense.
Q: Can you describe some unique, sustainable practices that you employ on your farm?
Stokesberry: We have a few solar panels, but here in western Washington it’s not particularly cost-effective. We use very little equipment to move and manage the animals, so it’s all pretty much manual labor. We don’t use electricity to move the feed or water the animals. We do use an electric fence – battery operated – and we do use electric lights to heat the chicks. Other than that, there’s very little involving electricity. In the winter the chickens are housed in a hoop house. They only receive natural light through the plastic and are kept warm by the composting action of the bedding and manure they lay down. No other energy sources are needed. We sprout grains whenever possible. When the cattle and sheep are eating the grass, the chickens go behind them, leaving the manure right there – delivered where it needs to be. We have compost and layer bedding, so we’re recycling. There are no large disposal amounts even though we process 200 to 300 birds a week.
Q: How does your farm make money?
Stokesberry: There are two main markets, and then we sell wholesale to restaurants and co-ops. The profit from these is usually 50/50.
Q: Would you consider the farm profitable or self-sustaining at this point?
Stokesberry: I would call it self-sustaining, on the verge of becoming profitable. We are pleased with that, because it’s not easy to learn everything and keep growing. The demand is so great, and we were overwhelmed at first. We didn’t have a lot of capital to begin with, so everything we made was going back into the business.
Q: What are some challenges that the farm faces?
Stokesberry: Mother nature. Learning how to adapt to everything she throws at you is huge. Our animals are not raised in barns with controlled atmosphere, but instead out in the open and exposed. When it snows here, which is highly unusually, we have to figure out what to do about it. We’ve had some setbacks, but being flexible is an important lesson to learn. I don’t see it as a challenge, I see it as something to learn. The business end of it is also important. The hardest thing I have to do is determine a price. It sounds silly, but I’ve never been taught that, so I’m self-teaching. It’s hard, because if I could, I’d give all of the food away. I feel so strongly about why we are doing this: so that people have access to truly nutritious food. To have to charge someone for that is difficult. But if I don’t, I’m doing them a disservice by not staying in business.
Q: What are the future goals of the farm?
Stokesberry: We ask ourselves that everyday. The goal is to truly be sustainable, be able to say that we make all of our money here, and be calm, cool and collected all of the time. We have a couple of employees, and stability for them is important to us as well. They actually have a more stable income than we do, so for now they’re okay, but we’d like it to be better. I don’t see huge growth happening, but which animals we raise may change. We are always looking for improving the lives of the [community]. It is important that the animals are comfortable, and that we are doing right by the land.