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Beginnings: how we got off the ground

Updated: Nov 27, 2021

This blog will be very practice-oriented, maybe simply an example of how some newbies got into grazing. It will display our ideas and intentions and ultimately our successes, lucky strokes, and mistakes. Relatively little will be focused on the basics and theory of the why. Instead it will be a magnified display of the practical application. Keep in mind, too, that the blog is being written now, after we learned our lessons, so we may seem annoyingly hypocritical at times. If not a guide, maybe it will serve as an example of how we changed course in our lives to start a successful regenerative grazing operation.

To begin this blog we'd like to begin by talking about the beginning of Green Rock Farm. The Partnership of Green Rock farm includes Ryan O'Connor, Olivia Donachie, and the three Shabb Brothers Calvin, Duncan and Robert. We're all coming from extremely different backgrounds: Finance, Art, Sales, Medicine, Natural Resource Management. In a way we are disadvantaged without any background in conventional farming, but on the other hand fresh and unbiased. Robert got to know Ryan and Olivia through farming internships and started planning, then the rest of the brothers followed along.

In order from left to right Robert, Calvin, Duncan, Olivia and Ryan.

The brothers had a perfect place to start: the family farm. Before their parents bought it in the 80`s it had been a milk operation turned hay farm. The farm is truly beautiful: still in the Shenandoah Valley but perched on rolling Appalachian foothills, an old stone mill and its mill pond, an idyllic old stone church, foxes, deer and turkey. Since then, there have been few domesticated animals on the place. As they grew up on the farm they saw its potential. They had actually been helping their parents and working to try and improve the property in their little free time during schooling. A lot of bush hogging and bailing, selected clearing of brush (especially invasive species), focused basal bark spraying of unwanted/non-natives as well as planting native species. It just never felt like they could get ahead, though, and they were burning through a lot of pairs of gloves, herbicide and diesel. Despite the efforts on the farm, the quail had disappeared long ago and didn't come back, the Russian olives were encroaching on the fields, and no native warm seasons were growing. Already consuming anything they could find in magazines, on Youtube etc, they came across the ideas of holistic management, MIG, mob grazing, and regenerative agriculture in general, and no exaggeration it was a revelation.

Instead of re-explaining the theory behind regenerative agriculture it would be better to hear from the big voices themselves. Start with Allan Savory's TED talk and let google guide you along. Recently there have been some excellent documentaries on the subject if you want an overview (Kiss the Soil, Netflix). Otherwise just search for some names. Gabe Brown on no-till, cover crops and integrating grazing. Greg Judy on grass grazing and south poll cattle. Sepp Holzer on the European approach and water management. Long story short, we move our animals every day. We provide them paddocks that contain enough forage to graze for a day. Then, we rest those paddocks until the forage species within them “recover” (i.e. regrow) so that they can be grazed again without permanently damaging their root systems. Imagine a group of ruminant animals moving from cell to cell across the landscape, only in any given cell for a few days per year.

In a way we have an interesting case study of how a regeneratively focused livestock operation can improve grassland that had already been maintained to promote wildlife. We knew we would be stepping on feet with our newfangled ideas about cattle management, especially in rural Virginia, dominated by Angus stocker operations (don't need to elaborate on this point of tension after you've done some Youtube surfing). On the other end of the spectrum we'd be irritating those who believe in conventional conservationism (the just-leave-it-alone-and-it-will-thrive camp, the farming-is-destructive camp), which is also very embedded in the Shenandoah Valley. There's a lot of literature on this particular topic but Savory hits the big points in his TED talk.

So we had the “where” as well as a bit of general experience, tenacity, and innovativeness. We just needed the financial means. What jump started the whole thing was an opportunity. We take it for granted now but it really put us years ahead. This was a cost share grant program through the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). We set up a lease with the Landowners and they agreed to invest the relatively small percentage of total expenses towards the necessary infrastructure improvements of their land, knowing that the rest of the cost would be shared by CBF. In hindsight, wow do these installations make the daily moves of our animals easy. Furthermore, entering into the contract with CBF set up a deadline to purchase animals and start grazing. Without this grant we would have waited years to gather the cash for infrastructure and stock.

There are obviously stipulations to such an agreement. In essence the CBF has a strong interest in building soil instead of letting it wash into the bay. They have realised that rotational grazing vastly improves the quality of water runoff and therefore supports sustainable farming in the Chesapeake watershed. Here is a map of the infrastructure installments. Red is high tensile perimeter fence (4 strands, 2 hot), yellow is electrified trunk lines, and blue is buried water (mostly frost free). The infrastructure essentially allows easy access to electricity and water anywhere on the property while excluding the animals from riparian zones.

That period between acquiring stock and completion of the infrastructure was stressful and really showed us how hard this type of grazing can be without the right setup. But soon enough the contractors started showing up and the installation proved uncomplicated. The work involved in daily chores and rotating the animals became a fraction of what it was before. Can't say it enough, CBF jump started our business phenomenally while drastically reducing our day to day work. After all, this should be a holistic operation and what that means for us is that we maintain our jobs and income while growing this business on the side. All the components had aligned: startup expenses and major infrastructure, finding a location, and a bunch of willing ‘wannabe’ farmers coming together.

Thanks for reading our inaugural post and stay tuned for more nitty gritty, hiccups, and insight. Next we'll be talking more about the animals.

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