Women in Food: Suzanne Nelson Moves from Journalist to Sustainable Livestock Farmer
October 2, 2014 | AJ Hughes
This piece is the part of a Seedstock series profiling women who are leading change in sustainable agriculture and local food. Read more profiles here.
Ten years ago, Suzanne Nelson was a journalist, working for Roll Call in Washington, D.C. In a self-described dream job, she wrote about money, politics, and separation of powers. But while on the career path toward becoming a reporter for a major daily newspaper, Nelson became disillusioned with the process of making news. As she pushed harder for the truth, the self-proclaimed city girl was led to become a farmer.
With a renewed interest in the relationship between health, medicine and food, Nelson began to ask larger questions. What is medicine? What is health? Her conclusion: “The first medicine is always food,” she says, stressing the importance of disease prevention. “Our food is supposed to be whole.”
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Nelson moved to New Orleans. Later, she settled on North Carolina as a place to live.
“I fell in love with a place called Saxapahaw (a small town near Burlington, North Carolina),” she says. Her farm, Cozi Farms calls Saxapahaw home.
Determined to produce food in what she felt was the right way, Nelson encountered an obstacle from the start—she had to make her own organic chicken feed. Fortunately, she met a neighbor who had a nearby feed mill. The two struck up a friendship, and soon found themselves mixing feed together in her driveway.
For Nelson, animal feed is essential—she does not feel humans should consume food that fed on substandard feed.
“Conventional animal feed is appalling,” she says. “It’s industrial waste. It’s not food just because animals perform well on it.”
Her feed is made from whole, roasted organic soybeans.
Nelson did not start Cozi Farms on purpose. She began raising a few chickens for herself.
“The business was an accident—people started to buy the eggs,” she says.
Later, she diversified. She fell in love with dairy cows, and obtained a few for her farm. Now, she has laying hens, meat chickens, about 20 female Jersey cows, 100 St. Croix meat sheep, turkeys and pigs. Hens follow cows and sheep on pasture, and contribute to the diversified polyculture that is Cozi Farms.
What started as a desire to increase wholeness in her life evolved into wanting to help create wholeness for others. “I can create something that is beautiful,” she says.
But Nelson’s transformation from journalist to farmer was not without its challenges. She took sustainable agriculture classes at a local community college, and in late 2007, obtained her first animals. By 2010, she acquired the use of more land. One of her biggest challenges was access to land—she needed 50 acres from the beginning.
Nelson lost the lease on land with infrastructure she had built up, and she says if it weren’t for her father being an “angel investor” in the farm, she would not still be farming today.
“Losing the lease was an enormous financial blow from which I have not recovered,” Nelson says. “I had invested a lot of money in the farm I lost.” But the customers keep coming; Cozi Farms sees lots of on-farm retail visitors, and she also sells wholesale to restaurants.
“A lot of people tried to talk me out of becoming a farmer,” says Nelson, who is glad she stuck with it. Two keys to success, she says, are discipline and efficiency, along with taking advantage of free food for animals, including bugs and grasses.
Another key to success, she says, is movement. “All animals move all the time—with that movement comes freshness and new things to eat.”
Among her greatest influences Nelson counts Joel Salatin, a Virginia farmer who manages his animals holistically; and Gerald Fry, who taught her how to select dairy cows for their efficiency on grass.
Nelson prides herself on “being on the edge of things,” and is happy to share that she introduced a weed species, Johnson grass, into her pastures. “It can ruin a hay crop, but I’m not making hay,” she says.
She has encountered subtle hostilities on occasion, but she is more concerned about her farm than the opinions of others.
“I don’t care what people think, I care what my animals think—this eliminates any need to engage in nonsense.”
When Nelson does end an animal’s life (she had to shoot pregnant sheep who were going to die anyway during last year’s extremely hard winter), she thanks each one for what it offers.
Nelson’s goal is to build a sustainable farm with a variety of animals, centered on grass-fed dairy as its centerpiece. But her ultimate goal is for sustainability to be the norm, not “on the edge.”
A quote on Cozi Farms’ web site, attributed to Nelson, says it all: “We heal the land and ourselves with a daily devotion to wholeness in all that we do.”