For Jennie Kahly, becoming a farmer evolved out of her desire to eat authentically. “The more I learned about food and how to grow food and how to raise animals for food,” she says “it seemed like a natural step to become a farmer after that.” You can read more about her desire to eat and live authentically in Part 1.
Jennie and Brian moved to the farm he had purchased from his grandparents, in Terra Alta, West Virginia, as sleepy a rural town if there ever was one. I wondered what the move had felt like for Jennie, who relocated from the busy college town of State College, Pennsylvania. I’ll let Jennie explain it.
“When I first moved here in 2011 there was a great deal of relief. When you live in a city, it’s hard to even understand the impact that the cement has on your body. The square buildings—everything is so angular. When you come to the country and things are a natural shape, well, there’s a softness to the shapes. For me that was really healing for my soul.”
“Moving to a rural area meant that we had fewer food options—in the beginning at least. We moved from this amazing place in Pennsylvania, where we could get raw milk, veggies, fruits, meat, anything we wanted at the farmer’s market, and just take it home and cook with it—noodles even! Then we moved here and there was nothing. I almost burst into tears a couple of times at the grocery store. Like not being able to buy organic yogurt, or things I really felt were absolute staples in my diet.
“But now [five years later] we are at the point that almost everything we eat is produced locally. Probably more than 75%, and I take it for complete granted. I remember a time, back in State College, where we looked down at our dinner from our garden and went “Wow!! Everything on this place is local. Isn’t that something?” And now we don’t even think about it—it’s commonplace. And that was all part of the plan.”
A food preserver’s dream
Jennie’s has an impressively stocked cellar and pantry. She preserves whatever she can for a variety of reasons: “My goal in preserving food is to minimize packaging and landfill waste while maximizing nutrition, keeping costs low (we have run the numbers), food prep convenience, and having food through the winter. I make stock and I can dried beans throughout the year. When I make stock I generally can 14 quarts at a time. I pull the meat off the bones and freeze those in approximately one-pound bags. I can make a soup from scratch with this preparation in about 20 minutes. That’s convenience! Same with the beans. If I have beans I canned on hand I eliminate the hours it would require to cook them at the same time the only waste I make is a small canning jar lid.”
She also puts up tomatoes, peaches, jams, pickles, apple rings, beef and venison jerky, ketchup. And remember those 94 jars of applesauce we put up during our WWOOFing stay? Her root cellar, which was dug underneath the house and is damp and chill, is lined with rows and rows of jars. The freezer in the cellar is stocked with meat. The kitchen pantry is overflowing with stored flours and grains and dehydrated fruits.
She buys other things she needs at the farmers market, such as dairy and some magnificent local buckwheat; Jennie made us yeasted buckwheat pancakes one morning, topped with her canned peaches. Yum. She also mail orders or ventures into the grocery store for some family must-haves: tea, corn chips, tortillas, salt, and so on.
Last year as a special anniversary present to Brian, Jennie gathered and preserved copious amounts of blueberries, Brian’s favorite. Dehydrating blueberries is a time-consuming, multistep process that takes many days. Jennie said normally she wouldn’t go to all the trouble, but what a sweet gift that was to Brian so he can enjoy blueberries year-round with his morning oatmeal.
After the move: Now What?
What did Jennie and Brian want their 148-acre farm to look like? “I’ve never been a successful gardener, so it never occurred to me to be a vegetable farmer for a living,” Jennie says. “I mean, I had never had success with it! But I did have success with raising chickens, and it was a natural transition to go from having raised a backyard flock of laying chickens and some meat birds to raising a very small batch of meat birds our first year of being here. We went from 50 birds our first year here to 1,000 the next year. Because once you know how to raise one, you can raise more.”
They raised those 1,000 birds in ten batches of 100 birds, so the animals were well taken care of. The photo below may give the impression that the birds are crowded, but they are not. Those girls are in a large pasture and roam freely throughout the day. When I entered their space, they all came rushing up to greet me. There was about half a football field of fenced pasture behind these birds. As soon as they realized I wasn’t there to give them grain, they lost interest in me and ran away.
Jennie continues: “I’m a true believer in tailoring the kind of farming that you do to the land and facilities available to you. We happen to have land that has the potential to be really good pasture land. We don’t have wooded land. If it were wooded, we might choose to do different things, like raise woodland edibles and maybe some pork, things like that. But because we have pretty lush grassland, it makes sense for us to be raising grass-fed beef.”
They started their grass-fed beef operation with two steer, and now have anywhere from 28 to 37 a year. Their goal is to finish 50 animals a year. That number could be higher if they rented other pasture land, or fenced in more of their own. They transitioned the farm into Certified Naturally Grown status (a grassroots alternative to the National Organic Program) in 2012.
Jennie and Brian follow meticulous practices in how they raise their beef. During the growing season, cattle are given a new section of grass every day, and during the rest of the year they spend only three or four days in any given area. It is a labor-intense grazing practice, but the Kahlys have equal commitments to the care of the animals they raise, the quality of the beef they sell, and the health of their land. Moving the herd so often helps to improve pasture density and plant variety while preventing over-grazed and trampled land that can lead to soil loss and watershed pollution.
“At this point,” explains Jennie, “all the Certified Naturally Grown beef we are selling is born and raised on our farm. We also sell a few steers as grass-finished beef that we buy from a local farmer. I’m very attached to the conditions that the animal is raised in. Because it takes two years to take a steer to market—two years from birth to butchering—most farms either do a cow-calf operation (where they have brood cows and then they sell the calves at the end of the year and the brood cows have another set the next year) or they finish animals raised elsewhere. Folks who grass finish will buy cattle from those cow-calf operations and finish them on grass, or the cattle is sent to feedlots to finish on grain. On our farm, we are finishing them on grass with management intensive grazing. In addition, we keep statistics on our animals, which help us know specifically when they are ready to be harvested, so hopefully we are managing not to butcher animals until they are getting a decent amount of marbling on grass.”
I asked how much a steer should weigh before it is butchered, and how, exactly, do you weigh a steer? “We have a weighing program [yes, using a huge scale]. It’s not about reaching a certain end weight; it has much more to do with their growth pattern and the weights of their parents.” Butchering is done at a USDA facility that is thankfully only 20 minutes from the farm. They make every effort to minimize stress to their animals.
Jennie is the marketing division of the operation, and she sells directly from the farm and to restaurants in Morgantown. This past spring she began making quarterly deliveries to Pittsburgh and a few stops in the D.C. area. She’s recently started using the Barn2Door selling platform for ease of customer pre-purchasing, and it’s working well for her.
They also sell their eggs, chicken, stew hens, and turkey through the same channels. They do their own chicken processing on the farm, and their daughter helps bag and seal the birds.
So how does Jennie feel about their grand experiment now? Stay tuned for a surprising revelation.