Nora’s plan was to work with horses off of the farm where she grew up (Part 1), but then she returned to Clark’s Elioak Farm, where she now farms (Part 2). Part 1 of her story discussed the size of the farm (540 acres), but what’s the lay of the land, exactly, of the farm? It took me a while to get a handle on it.
Nora lives in the house she grew up in. If you stand facing the house, to your left is where she keeps her pigs (with a constant soundtrack of “clank” as they go in and out of their feeder). Behind you are large open areas for goats.
Off to your right is a big barn that acts as a chicken brooder and animal infirmary for young animals, and behind the barn are Nora’s vegetable garden and high tunnel. Behind and to the left of that are open fields for chickens and rolling pastures of grazing land, dotted with beef cattle. The vegetable garden is where Nora spends most of her time, unless she’s working at the farm stand or helping at the petting farm. If you drive down a path behind her house, you’ll come to her mother’s house and hay fields. The path ultimately leads you to more planting area for flowers and tomatoes and the back of the farm stand, which faces Maryland Route 108. Down Route 108 is the petting farm. Nora zips around in her pickup from one side of the farm to the other.
The farm follows all the requirements of being organic but has chosen not to be certified because of the expense and paperwork of the certification process. Nora said that if she were to sell meat to a third party for distribution, she would become certified, but because she is selling directly to the consumer, she doesn’t see the need. She knows so many of her customers, and new customers are encouraged to build a relationship with the farm.
Nora takes soil samples a minimum of every three years from all over the farm, and more frequently in her garden, to ensure the soil has the nutrients it needs. She uses manure, compost, and an organic top dress that has many nutrients and minerals that help enrich and balance the nutrients in the soil. The manure from the farm animals is considered a resource to provide nutrients to the soil, and Nora uses it in her garden in compliance with nutrient management and food safety regulations.
In her vegetable garden, she strives to create an environment that encourages all types of bugs—good ones and bad ones. She’s found that nature has a way of keeping itself regulated. Here’s a great lesson about tomato hornworms and parasitic wasps that Nora passed on to illustrate that idea of natural balance.
I asked specifically about bugs. “I try to keep some areas near the garden where grasses and wild flowers can grow to encourage all types of bugs. Of course it doesn’t always work out. My garden is big, but not huge, and if I have a serious infestation of a certain bug I try to hand pick them to keep the population down. I have found that larger plants can take some pest damage and it won’t hurt then in the long run, but I have had times where I needed to knock or pick the pests off a certain type of plant while the plant was young until it could get strong enough to withstand some pest damage.”
Eggs and the birth of a chicken farmer
Growing up, Nora never cared for eggs. She watched her dad devour them every day in every which way, but she thought they were awful. About a year after college and into her tenure on the farm, one of her customers at the farm stand gifted her some pastured eggs, and she tried them (“well, they were free!”). She thought they tasted good, and she became an instant convert to eggs at breakfast. Then one day someone else dropped off five chickens at the petting farm, and Nora said, “Well, why not? I eat eggs now, I’ll take some chickens!”
Before long she had more eggs than she knew what to do with, and Nora was loving them. But then—ouch—a fox got her chickens. No more eggs.
She was faced with the daunting task of going to a store for her eggs. “And I stood in front of that wall of cage-free, free-range, organic, Omega3…and I’m overwhelmed. I don’t even know what I want. And so I bought the most expensive, the most cage-free, the most Omega3 enhanced, the best fanciest ones they had, thinking that would be closest to what I had. And I won’t say that they tasted bad, but after three days of eating them, the next day I didn’t want eggs for breakfast anymore. I just found I didn’t crave them like I had. I had eaten eggs for breakfast for two months before that, so I wondered why I was off eggs now. It was weird.”
It occurred to her that her sudden lack of interest in eating eggs had something to do with the eggs themselves, and not anything within herself. It wasn’t until she tried eggs fresh off a farm again that her loveliest with eggs reignited, and she began to crave them once more. She knew that she seriously needed to get some chickens and start selling eggs in order to show everybody else there was a huge difference between store-bought and farm fresh eggs. She started raising chickens seriously in 2011.
Her mobile chicken house sits within a few fenced acres, and the chickens have their own guard dog. The dog is so sweet and friendly, it’s hard to imagine him being a good watch dog, but Nora insists he is. The chickens (and their dog) get moved around the field and into different fields as needed. The chickens forage for their food and are also supplemented with a mixture of soy-free, non-GMO grains.
How does Nora label her eggs? She said it’s a difficult topic, because there are no labeling standards. She calls them “free range” on her website, but one farmer’s free range in an open pasture might be another farmer’s free range in a big building crammed with other chickens. Just another example of the benefit of knowing your farmer.
Eggs and ? for breakfast
So what goes great with all the eggs Nora has?
The Clark petting farm has always had pigs. They acquired them by borrowing piglets from other farmers, feeding them for about four to five months while they lived at the petting farm, and then giving them back to the original owners. “Why are we doing this and then I go buy meat at the store? Why don’t I buy the piglets myself and have them grow up and be fed by the petting farm, then I get them back and process them? So I did. And it was delicious!” And went so well with the eggs.
The pigs live in the wood by Nora’s house and get rotated through the woods throughout the year. She is working on a new setup on the other side of the farm where the pigs will have access to a barn in bad weather and access to pasture as well. She’ll give the woods by her house time to rest, and hen the pigs will start coming back over to the woods during the summer to forage while the pasture rests. Like the chickens, the pigs are supplemented with a free-choice non-GMO grain mixture.
The Clark family had for generations raised beef, and when Nora’s grandfather passed away, her mom, Martha, inherited his 30 head of cattle. It was Martha who first became intrigued by what she was learning about grass-fed beef and the health benefits to humans, cows, the land, and the environment. (This is a good resource to learn more about the benefits of grass fed.) The cattle that Martha inherited was essentially grass fed already, but to start selling 100% grass fed beef, the farm needed to actively expand the herd and rotationally graze the cattle over the fields to get the most out of the land and the cattle.
They sold their first grass-fed meat 2010. The cattle are treated humanely from birth to harvest; they are grass fed only, with the farm’s own hay used as supplement when fresh pasture isn’t available.
At the beginning of the grass-fed beef business, the farm processed one animal about every three weeks, but each month they were selling out, and Nora was sending customers away empty handed. “And that is not good business!” So she figured if she raised more pigs, she could have some pork in the freezer to sell in addition to the beef.
And it just grew from there. She processed six pigs her first year, 20 pigs her second, and more than 30 in her third year. In 2015 she processed 40. The pig operation has really taken off, and now she sells out of her pork as well.
I was curious about the business arrangement at the farm. She told me that ever since she was a girl working at the farm stand or the petting farm, Nora was an employee of the farm. But when she started to raise her own chickens and pigs, she established herself as an LLC, and as of 2012 was officially in business for herself.
“When I was growing up, both my parents at various times of their lives owned their own businesses, and I said I would never do that. You never turn off, you never stop, you’re always thinking about it. You are the last one to turn off the lights, to check on everything. I said, ‘I’ll never do that. That’s awful, you never turn off.’
“And now I’ve grown up and I love running my own business. I never turn off, I worry about things all the time, I’m the last one to do things—but it’s satisfying. If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. That’s a big responsibility, but it’s also a relief in a way. If I don’t pick tomatoes and then don’t sell them, then I don’t make any money. It’s my choice to go out there and pick tomatoes. My business is my life and that’s how I want it to be now. I get out what I put in and that’s gratifying.”
Coming up: Nora continues to expand her business model. Read about it here.