A Fresh Start on Second-Generation Applecheek Farm with Focus on Pasture Raised Livestock
July 15, 2013 | Hana Lurie
John Clark grew up on his father’s dairy farm – Applecheek Farm of Hyde Park, Vermont – and began working on the farm full-time in 2005. Clark purchased the farm from his father three months ago, and is already diversifying and reengineering the operation. Applecheek Farm raises all kinds of livestock, from hogs to cows, while providing education and agricultural tourism. Clark focuses on sustainability and simplicity on the farm with big dreams for the future of his local food community.
I recently spoke with Clark about how the farm began, the sustainable practices that he uses and his future goals for a food hub on the farm.
Q: What is the story of how your farm came to be?
A: Well I’m a second-generation farmer. My father started the farm – in 1965 he moved here and started dairy farming, and shortly after started maple sugaring as well. In the 90s we diversified in agricultural tourism and educational stuff as well as other animals and meats. We are now moving out of dairy and have poultry, beef, and pork – a little bit of everything. My wife and I are the sole proprietors, and then we have two full-time employees and a couple of part-time employees. The farm is a little over 300 acres – 120 of open land. We live on the farm with our two children – Sophia who is nine, and Forest who is seven. Sometimes they don’t know it, but they enjoy being on the farm. They don’t realize how small other kid’s playground are.
My dad started with a few cows that he had purchased at an auction from the farm he had formerly managed. That’s how the farm got it’s name, actually. He went to an auction in his twenties to get some cows and moved up here to Vermont. The place he was managing down in Beverly, Massachusetts went out of business and the Boston Globe and other newspapers were covering it because it was kind of a tourist farm. Him and his friend were sitting up in the front and the newspaper took the picture [with a caption that read] “Applecheek Boys Bidding at Cherry Hill Auction”. That’s where they got the name “Applecheek”, from their rosy-cheeked twenties.
Q: How did you find the money to buy/lease the land?
A: Dairy Farming was pretty challenging the last few years, and I bought the farm at full retail value so that my father could retire. We funded the farm through private funding and not through the banks.
Q: What do you grow and raise on the farm?
A: We do beef, veal, pork, chickens, ducks, and guinea fowl. Then we have a few touristy type animals – emus and llamas – but not very many. The llamas are for ag tours and treks, and the emus for their fat which is used in oils that are healing. You also get meat from them. My father started the emus and the llamas. There was a big boom of emus in Vermont at one point, so he actually had quite a few at one time and was wholesaling the fat. Then we cut back – a lot of the slaughterhouses closed down and we have to take them 3 hours away to get butchered. Now we’re just keeping one breeding pair and raise young stock out of them sometimes. Our main focus is on meats, which are all pasture-raised and rotationally grazed.
Q: When and why did you decide to embrace sustainable practices?
A: For me, it was primarily food. My wife and I had our first child and we were thinking of growing our own food. A friend of ours was in the Weston A. Price foundation and I went to a talk that he was putting on about nutrition. It started really directing me towards the importance of animals eating grass and being on pasture, not only for the humaneness of the animal but for the nutrition that goes into the person. We wanted to grow healthy food for ourselves, and now it’s at a scale where we’re growing it for everybody else, too.
Q: Can you describe some unique, sustainable practices that you employ on the farm?
A: We do grass-fed beef, so they’re rotationally grazed – we usually move cattle two to three times a day on pasture. They’re always moving off of old pasture and onto fresh grass which promotes healthy regrowth of the grass, and carbon sequestration as well as nutrient density. This creates amazingly healthy pastures – we don’t get any weeds and all of the legumes and grasses grow back exactly as the cattle need. We also follow the cattle with egg layers, about 1,000. They’ll come out, scratch out the cow pass and destroy the parasites that bother the cattle. They do this while cleaning up behind them and producing eggs.
Q: How does the farm make money?
A: We do a little combination of everything. We have a CSA, and we’re hoping to expand it more. Right now we have 30 CSA members, and we’re hoping this year to go up to 100. We really enjoy how it works. We do two farmers markets a week, and we do have a couple restaurant accounts for wholesale. The direction we’re heading is not as much farmers markets but doing more CSA and wholesale. The two days we go to farmers markets is a lot of work. We might start some buyers clubs and have guaranteed pre-orders where we just deliver the product.
Q: Would you consider the farm profitable, or self-sustaining?
A: It’s self-sustaining at this point. I just bought the farm three months ago, so there’s a lot of experimentation. We’re expanding a lot of the meat and trying out new marketing stuff, so it’s the early stages for us.
Q: Is the farm certified organic?
A: We are certified organic in everything except for pork. For our pork we do organic grains a little bit, but we mostly feed them barley from a local brewery as well as crushed apples from an apple cider novice nearby. Neither is certified organic, so we don’t certify the pork. Otherwise, they’re on organic pastures and all that, but we utilize the local waste stream to raise the pigs.
Q: What are some challenges that the farm faces?
A: For us, even though we use minimal grain, the costs are really challenging because they are all certified organic. One of our biggest challenges is butchering. There’s a limited amount of butchering and slaughterhouses [here], but I hired someone full-time this year who is doing our butchering. We rent space in a food hub nearby where we can actually do our butchering under inspection. The slaughter has to be done at a slaughterhouse, though. So we have to bring it to one place to be slaughtered, then bring the whole carcass to a food hub where we break it down into various cuts.
Q: What are your future goals for the farm?
One thing that we would like to do is build our own slaughter and butcher facility here on the farm. This year, we’re trying to put the funds together for a butcher facility for red meats and inspected slaughter and butcher facility for poultry. The cost of all of the trucking gets expensive while being on a very small scale, in addition to slaughter and butcher fees.
Our future goals are to expand in our meats, so we will expand in pork, veal and duck production. We also want to create a food hub type situation where we will have spaces that people can use on the farm, including land. We’ve already had some unique housing situations where people have built yurts, and I had a guy build a teepee here last year. I had someone that rented six acres of land and did a vegetable farm here. This year I have a guy that’s renting an acre and a half. I’d like to have someone who does fruit, and we have good land for doing hops – I wouldn’t mind a brewer. I want to create a space where people can do agriculture, and we could have all of the inspected facilities and everything for processing fruits, vegetables and meats, right from the land. This way we could deliver food to the community all from one sustainable farm.