Mechanical Engineer Breaks Away to Simpler Living, Starts ‘Beyond Organic’ Farm
July 16, 2013 | Missy Smith
About ten years ago, a former country boy was sitting in his office at a successful engineering firm in Bethlehem, Pa., wondering what he was doing with his life. As he gazed out the window at a nearby farm, Nate Thomas became nostalgic for his childhood days on his parents’ Lancaster County farm, where he helped to raise animals and enjoyed nature and adventures through a young boy’s eyes.
During his seven years working in the real world, he became increasingly unsatisfied with his professional life. “Even though financially it was a very good decision, my soul wasn’t satisfied,” says Thomas, who broke away from the real world to run a farm on land adjacent to his parents’ farm to fulfill a desire to live sustainably and self sufficiently. The deliberately named Breakaway Farms represents Thomas’ resolute drive for personal freedom, self-sufficiency and a life more in line with what he experienced growing up.
“The older I get, I realize that [Americans] have this pseudo freedom,” says Thomas, explaining that people have the illusion of choice within an obligatory working world. With an arsenal of quips about how modern society can be limiting, Thomas is more than happy to share his opposition for this system. “I’m not willing to be a cookie cutter guy in a cookie cutter development, working for the man for a little security,” he says.
“My childhood was fantastic,” he says. “I had daylong excursions in the woods, playing army, building forts, chasing invisible creatures—every boy’s dream. When I was a kid, I realized the virtue in that. When I was in my late teens, I ran from it, thinking I don’t need it. It wasn’t until I got out into the real world that I realized it’s a big bad world out there. I got thinking about my childhood and realized that I had it better than most kids, and I wanted to offer that to my children.”
He ventured back to his childhood farm in Mount Joy, Pa, in 2004, where he started Breakaway Farms, a “beyond organic”, pastured, grass-fed livestock farm. “I came to my dad and said, ‘I want to raise some animals. There are some guys making a living at it.’ And, my dad said, ‘You are crazy. You have the American Dream.’”
But, his dad agreed to support Thomas’ dream and helped to run the farm when Thomas was still working his mechanical engineering job in Bethlehem. Halfway through the first year, his father, really enjoying working for on the farm asked his son to partner with him in the business, which Thomas says has increased by 400 percent every year since they started. Thomas officially left his 9-to-5 job in 2007 and hasn’t looked back.
Thomas and his farm team sell Breakaway Farms’ pasture-raised, grass-fed meat through a CSA, at the farm (which also has its own butcher shop), at farmers’ markets and to local restaurants, including Smoke, a trendy new BBQ eatery in Harrisburg.
How Nature Intended
With enthusiasm for sustainable, transparent agriculture, Thomas raises heritage animals in their natural habitats: free-range chickens scratch for their meals; cows, goats and sheep graze on lush green pasture; and larger-than-life pigs enjoy shade and mud baths tucked within wooded areas. “We put our animals in their intended environments. And, we are completely chemical-free,” he explains. “We treat the animals with respect, we treat the land with respect, we treat the farmer with respect and we treat our customers with respect. It is really a beautiful system when you work with nature.”
With sustainable farming styles similar to those of Joel Salatin, Thomas says the modern farming renegade has served as a good example for how he wants to farm. “Joel Salatin really is the voice for sustainable, ecological animal agriculture,” he says. “He basically put the dollars and cents to the actions of what we desire to do here. He showed us that we can make a living out of this. I can actually leave a lucrative job as an engineer, lead a different life and do so comfortably.”
Breakway Farms uses Salatin’s deep packing method, in which cows deposit waste on the floors of the barn that pigs later turn into compost by rooting in the beds for fermented corn. Thomas also uses rotational grazing management in which his farm team sets up temporary fenced-in areas where animals enjoy grassy meals in dining areas that are continuously moved around the farm. While the animals eat the farm enjoys a labor-free, natural lawn mowing system that helps eliminate troublesome weeds like poison ivy.
Labor of Love
While raising animals allows families to be self-sufficient and to make a living, Thomas says animal agriculture is not for those whose hearts are not in it. “In the summer, you can put in 80 to 100 hours per week. Animals don’t go on vacation; they have to eat. It’s an all-the-time operation,” he relays. “You are working with a heavy, bulky product. And it is expensive to raise animals.”
Another challenge that comes with running a successful farm is juggling the roles of farmer and manager. “As we get bigger and bigger, I realize that more of my job becomes managing people and less is managing a farm,” says Thomas, who echoes a sentiment of many farmers that finding strong, consistent labor can be tricky. Of course, managing a farm also involves “all of the yucky bookkeeping”, he quips.
Like many other farms, Mother Nature’s ever-changing conditions present constant challenges. “Anybody who puts their livelihood in the hands of whether or not the sun shines or the rain rains has to be a little crazy,” Thomas jokes. “You can’t just tell someone to go graze animals in a space, and do it by a textbook. You have to read the response of the farm, based on weather conditions.”
Following a Dream
Thomas encourages those interested in farming to carefully use their free time to start working toward their goals, by linking up with successful farmers and learning how to farm. “Volunteer your time [at a local farm], find a mentor and build your network,” he recommends. He also advises to drop expectations of making money within the first three or four years. “It took that long for us to get the word out until we really saw a response,” he says.
Once unsatisfied working a full-time office job, Thomas took a leap of faith to get back to the land and grow a sustainable farming business from the ground up. For those looking to make the same gutsy life change, Thomas says the dream can come to fruition if you are willing to think and act boldly. “If you are sitting in an office and are unhappy with it, my advice is to get enough gumption to get out of your seat and say, ‘I have had enough and I’m going change it.’” he says. “I have people coming out to the farm saying, ‘I’m jealous of you, because you are living your dream.’ And I say, ‘Well why aren’t you living yours?’ Then they give me all of these reasons: job security, health care, etc. I look them square in the eye and say, ‘The only difference between you and me is I followed my dream.’”