Wes Hunter–Providence Farm, Part One

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Editor’s Note: We were on an extended holiday trip visiting family and friends and we found ourselves at the Farmers’ Market of the Ozarks, in Springfield, Missouri.

This is an unbelievably well done market. Seemingly, every vendor’s stall was more amazing than the last and as we were in town for awhile, we were in a buying mood.

And that’s when we happened upon the Providence Farm stall and farmer, Wes Hunter.

We had a great conversation with him as we purchased one of his heritage breed chickens.

The next day found us at Ame and Wes Hunter’s farm, near Seymour, Missouri to continue our conversation.

It was clear then and there that Wes was an articulate and astute farmer.

We wanted to hear more and (thought HandPicked Nation would enjoy knowing more) about Wes and his farm.

This is Part One of a two-part series.

HandPicked Nation: Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us today. 

Wes Hunter: Thank you, and it’s my pleasure.

HPN: It seems most farmers we’ve talked to have traveled circuitous routes to finally wind up farming. Tell us a little about your journey.

WH: We are certainly no exception.

Like many young families, when our first child was born we began giving considerably more thought to the provenance of the food we ate.

We started moving further and further away from processed foods, utilizing the “shop the perimeter” rule at the supermarket, and then began educating ourselves on organic and sustainable farming practices.

Over time we developed a notion that someday we would retire to a smallholding in the country and grow a garden, tend an orchard, keep a small chicken flock, and raise a few hogs for pork, both for the enjoyment of the lifestyle itself and for greater control over our food.

Then in 2009 we both read The Contrary Farmer by Gene Logsdon and decided that that was what we wanted to do, and now.

We had joined a veggie CSA and become friends with the farmer and his family, and one evening over dinner he mentioned that they were looking for a family to join in the work on their farm. The following spring I quit my job and started farming.

In 2009 we both read The Contrary Farmer by Gene Logsdon and decided that that was what we wanted to do.

Following the growing season I went to work on another farm, and eventually we were able to find a small place of our own. After a sort of false start in 2012, we finally got things moving in 2013 and transitioned to full-time farming at the beginning of 2014.

HPN: Can you talk about how you educated yourselves about good farming practices? Who were your influences when you deciding what kind of farmers you wanted to be?

WH: The bulk of our farming practices education has come from reading. We are both big readers, so our farm education was both useful and entertaining.

There are loads of good books available on any given agricultural subject, from growing grain crops to raising chickens to starting a market garden to soil health, and in the beginning we read a little bit of everything.

Partly this was of necessity; like many folks growing up away from farms and farming, I didn’t know, for example, the difference between a bale of hay and a bale of straw, so there was a lot of basic information we just had to acquaint ourselves with, if for no other reason to avoid looking like idiots down at the feed store.

As to specific influences, I’ll mention three writers.

Gene Logsdon’s approach to farming was and is one of enjoyment, of farming either not for a living, or of farming for a living secondary to enjoyment.

As our starting point was to grow good food for ourselves and to enjoy a life on the land, and to find a way to make a living from the land once that was established, Logsdon was a big influence.

If nothing else, reading his books has helped us justify not doing what everyone else does. He has a certain devil-may-care attitude that turns out to be incredibly refreshing.

On the practical side, Joel Salatin’s books have been particularly helpful. He writes as an evangelist, and his book You Can Farm was essential to convincing us that we could, indeed, make a living from a small farm, as well as simply putting a lot of farming into layman’s terms.

In all of my agricultural reading, Wendell Berry’s name kept popping up.

At the outset I was ultimately concerned with the nuts and bolts of farming, and wasn’t yet ready to think about higher farming ideas and ideals, and really I questioned what value there could be in the works of a man who writes fiction and poetry.

How wrong I was.

When I started reading Berry, it was like a light bulb had gone off and suddenly everything was clear. Now that I have the knowledge and experience to physically farm, I feel like I’m finally free to learn, from people like Wendell Berry, how to really farm.

Rare is the passage in any of Berry’s books that doesn’t lend a good starting point for a conversation between my wife and I.

HPN: Your website’s URL is “the intentional farmers”. Tell us about being an intentional farmer.

WH: We chose that moniker for a couple of reasons.

First, we are intentional farmers in that neither of us grew up on a farm.

While we are, like many, only a generation or two removed from the farm, farming was not something that we fell into, not a family business that we eventually took over. It was, in short, not an accident of biology.

We had to make the conscious, intentional choice that farming was what we wanted to do, and take conscious, intentional steps in that direction.

Second, we are intentional farmers in that the ways that we carry out our farming are things we consider intently.

This is, in large part, because we have no agricultural background. Because we have no preconceived notion of how things should be done, we are free to question suggestions that things should be done a certain way.

We are starting with a blank slate. While I don’t know that we always succeed, we want all of our farming choices to be things that we do for specific, well-thought-out reasons.

In short, we aim for all our farming choices to be intentional rather than automatic, and for that to ultimately manifest itself in the food we produce.

HPN: I read your farm’s statement on localharvest.org about what you call the “fine art of farming”. Explain what you mean by that phrase.

WH: I don’t know that we necessarily mean anything in particular; more that we want to evoke certain mental images of our farming, and those images will of course vary from person to person.

While I think the general attitude is changing, for many the idea of farming is drudgery, is often thought of something uncivilized that happens out of sight of “culture.”

But art, and fine art in particular, is something that is seen as happening in the midst of “culture,” indeed being a major component of it. One might say that farming is often seen as the antithesis to art, and we wanted to sort of join the two concepts together, to suggest an alternative to a long-held cultural view.

In short, the phrase “the fine art of farming” is intended as a way to get people looking at farming and agriculture in a different light.

Secondly, art is beautiful, and we intend for our farm production to be beautiful as well: beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and crops, food that is beautiful to look at, and food that is, one might say, beautiful to taste.

While we recognize that food is necessarily utilitarian, we want our food to go beyond being merely utilitarian. We aim for it to be something that is beautiful in its own right, not only because it happens to fill bellies.

One way we do this is through the specific methods we use in raising our livestock, as well as the specific livestock breeds we raise.

HPN: From where did the idea of raising only heritage breeds come? Can you take us through the types of animals you raise and how they are raised?

WH: I’ve always loved animals, and when I started farming I naturally gravitated toward animal agriculture.

I’m really not sure where my penchant for heritage breeds came from; I don’t recall a time when I first became aware of the idea of heritage breeds, but I know that they’ve held my attention since.

From this side of it, I can say that raising heritage breeds accomplishes a few things for us. One, it allows us a marketing advantage, as we can market the specific breeds we raise with the idea that they’re different than other breeds.

Because of the subjective nature of taste I won’t say that they’re necessarily better—though I’ll make an exception for our chickens, at least—but they are clearly different.

With that we can sell a story. We can, for instance, sell the unique history of the Mulefoot hog along with our pork, rather than selling pork alone.

Two, with our heritage chickens in particular we are able to produce a significantly better product than what else is available locally. While nearly everyone else raises the fast-growing hybrids because they make more economic sense, we raise the slow-growing heritage birds because they just plain taste better.

Being able to confidently market our chickens as better than anyone else’s locally is a big plus.

Three, we believe firmly in the importance of genetic preservation, and we see raising and selling heritage breeds as our role in doing that.

Four, it’s just fun. In a world of Angus beef and Berkshire pork and industrial chickens, it’s fun to be producing something different.

We started our farm with a small herd of Irish Dexter cattle, which we rotate daily through our pastures.The Dexters are naturally miniature cattle (rather than having been bred down from larger animals), and are great for small farms.

When we started our herd we intended to sell grass-fed beef, but quickly realized we didn’t have enough land to make that a reasonable enterprise, so we decided to test the market for pasture-raised rose veal and were pleasantly surprised.

Our bull calves are raised alongside their mamas, allowed to nurse and graze freely, and are processed at 6 to 9 months of age as rose veal. This allows us an end product that is significantly different than beef, but that is free from the ethical concerns of crate-raised veal.

In the summer of 2014 we added four Jersey heifers to our herd, initially with the intention of selling raw milk, but seeing the increasing demand for our veal we have decided to expand that enterprise rather than pursuing the milk market.

Since the Jerseys, as bona fide dairy cows, produce more milk than is needed by one calf, we are purchasing additional calves as needed to graft onto the Jersey mamas, allowing us to significantly expand our veal production.

We still milk a Jersey and a couple of Dexters for home use.

Our Mulefoot hogs are an enterprise that we’re not entirely decided on yet.

We enjoy raising them, but the marketing is difficult. Currently we rotate them through the woods, a couple of small pastures, and then put them into the ¾-acre garden spot for the winter.

They are slow-growing, taking a little over a year to reach butcher weight. (We encourage this slow growth by deliberately feeding a low protein ration.)

The result is pork that, in our opinion, is absolutely delicious, but because of the extra-long grow out period and ceiling to what we can reasonably charge they’re not very profitable.

Still, we like the usefulness we can put the hogs to (such as tilling the garden in the fall) and the diversity they provide, so we’ll always have room for a couple hogs at least, if only for our own freezer.

We also raise a variety of heritage meat chickens on pasture.

We would like to eventually settle on perhaps two or three breeds, but to date we have raised Plymouth Rocks, Wyandottes, New Hampshire Reds, Naked Necks, Delawares, Sussex, Dominiques, Jersey Giants, Buckeyes, Faverolles, and others.

We use portable shelters that we rotate across the pasture, letting the chickens roam freely during the day and shutting them up safely at night. Our birds have ready access to the pastures and woods, and roam far and wide in search of worms, bugs, seeds, clovers, and grasses, resulting in meat with a firmer texture and much better flavor than the fast-growing industrial breed chickens, even those raised on pasture.

Some of these chickens are processed young as poussin or “spring chicken” (similar to Cornish Hens), while most are raised to 16 to 18 weeks as 3-lb “fryers.”

We are experimenting with a variety of other poultry as well.

In 2014 we raised a small batch of Muscovy ducks in the pasture and on the pond, and they were quite popular at the farmers market.

For 2015 we are planning on raising additional ducks, guinea fowl over the summer, heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving, and geese for the Christmas market.

HPN: We’ve heard many stories of farmers or would-be farmers lamenting the difficulty in acquiring land. You have a nice piece of land in southwest Missouri. Tell us your story of how you obtained your farm.

WH: When we first started looking for a farm we quickly became disillusioned with what was available.

We knew we wanted at least 20 acres, but most everything, even small acreages, was out of our price range, and the few places that were in our price range were either too far away from our intended market to be reasonable, or came with a house and buildings in too rough shape.

Then checking the local auction listings in the newspaper, we saw a place coming up for absolute auction that was a reasonable distance from our market and that had previously been for sale for a low enough figure that we thought it might likely sell at auction for a price we could afford.

We were out of town at a farm conference during that weekend, and my mom was watching our daughter. We didn’t think it was worth leaving the conference on the off chance that we would have the winning bid, so my mom and our daughter went to the auction in our stead.

Apparently there was fairly little interest, even at the low price it went for, because the bidding only lasted a couple of minutes before the “Sold!” cry was announced.

It has required quite a lot of work to get up and running, and we’ve still got our work cut out for us in bringing up the fertility and overall health of a neglected farm, and with little money but plenty of energy we’ve become experts on thriftiness and on good old-fashioned Ozarks ingenuity.

~ END OF PART ONE ~

Have you every thought about being a full-time farmer? Tell us your story.

Photo credit: Craig McCord