I’ve always been frustrated
by people in agriculture who have a complete lack respect for the
environment. For nearly twenty years, I worked on cattle ranches,
horse farms and lived in commercial orchards where there was always
a heap of old vehicles somewhere, ditches filled with trash and
heavy use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides,
antibiotics and hormones.
The only way I figured I was going to make a difference was to
buy my own farm. Living in southern California meant purchasing
property was not in the budget so I returned home to south central
I bought a twenty-acre Civil-War-era Pennsylvania farm using the
Internet, telephone and fax machine in California. And from the
realtor’s pictures, it was obvious there would be a significant
amount of garbage with which to contend. After all, I wanted a fixer-upper.
Call me crazy.
A close friend who lived in the area took the first look, praising
the layout of the farm—woods, pines, fields, a livable house
and a "cool old barn" in a nice neighborhood, but she
warned me that for a while I was going to be the ‘trashy neighbor’.
The best description came from my neat-freak, perfectionist brother,
Dave. “That place is awful,” he wailed over the phone
after visiting the farm. He made sure to communicate exactly what
was wrong with the property, in detail. Based upon his assessment,
I knew it was exactly what I wanted.
But it was the realtor who delivered the clincher. “You can
get up to six parcels out of that property,” she said, “The
house and barn are close together so you won’t have to split
them up. The place will pay for itself.”
Angered by years of witnessing fertile farmland turned into cookie-cutter
housing developments and big box shopping centers, saving this small
family farm became my mission. The farm would pay for itself, but
through the bounty of the land and not by the surveyor’s tape.
When I arrived in Newburg, Pennsylvania, the spring of 2000 with
my long-time companion, Ralph Jones, two dogs, a cat and my horse,
we were just happy to be done with our 3,000-mile journey. Papers
signed, we danced in the front yard toasting the farm and our impending
And then reality hit—we were going to be living in the middle
of a garbage dump. To make matters worse, our second week there
a thunderstorm blew several large sheets of corrugated tin off the
roof, nearly decapitating Ralph and the horse.
Just from looking at the pictures we figured the barn would be
torn down. However, upon closer inspection of the interior, the
barn was a solid structure of hand-hewn timbers—definitely
For the next six months, we worked endlessly on nothing but clean
up. Six 40-cubic-yard roll-off dumpsters were filled with trash
that could not be burned, buried or recycled. Two full truckloads
of unidentified containers of sludge, powder, paint and oils went
to the local hazardous waste clean up day.
By the end of our first summer, we had a clean palette from which
to begin building a farm. And that’s where I ran into my first
Learning from place
Our original plan for the farm was to plant several acres of organic
white peaches and raise organic meat rabbits. Unfortunately, in
2000 our township was under stone fruit quarantine due to the Plum
Pox virus. Long-time family friends who had grown fruit in Adams
County for over 50 years counseled against investing in a stone
fruit orchard after they had lost 600 three-year-old peach trees.
“You’re just getting started. It’s not worth
the risk.” I consider those words some of the best advice
I’ve ever received—and not just when it came to the
fruit tree decision. Before considering an investment in the farm,
I always examine the risk. “What do I stand to lose if this
fails?” and “What type of return will I get?”
Another hard lesson I learned was, "Something that is successful
in one part of the country may not work in another area." Meat
rabbits were my instructors for this lesson.
In California, Ralph and I had raised a small herd of meat rabbits
for several years. Sticking with the plan to start small, I purchased
a group of well-bred does and a buck from a breeder in Maryland.
They grew well, reproduced and then winter came. Without a heated
barn, year-round breeding was extremely difficult and replacing
our historic 140-year-old chestnut timber barn was not an option.
The bottom line was meat rabbits were not going to provide much
return, and they were phased out.
The third venture—black raspberries—also proved a disaster.
We were in a hurry to get a jump on growing a crop so I installed
a high-tensile trellis and planted canes the first year. Winter
proved to be even harder on the berries than it was on the rabbits.
I hadn't guessed our location on the top of a hill would mean harsh
winter winds and devastation for the canes. At least the rabbits
Going to goats
The choice to raise meat goats came to us in a round-about way.
I was working for a software company with several Muslims from Pakistan.
During casual conversation I began sharing my peach/rabbit/blackberry
challenges. My coworkers suggested meat goats. I had worked with
just about every breed of livestock except small ruminants so I
did some research. After seeing the numbers with my own eyes—over
450,000 meat goats imported in 2000—I knew what would eventually
grace my pastures.
“I’m not milking goats,” was Ralph’s response.
Not a problem. Meat goats aren't bred to be used as dairy animals—think
Black Angus versus Jersey cow. I started my herd with a small group
of crossbred does and a borrowed full blood Boer buck. Boers are
meat goats from South Africa bred to be thick, have a quick rate
of gain, produce multiple births and be hardy.
When I began goat shopping to increase my herd I was extremely
dismayed at the quality of animals people were offering as breeding
stock. With the rapid growth of the meat goat industry, it seemed
anyone with registered Boers considered all the animals they produced
to be of breeding quality just because they had papers. And I’ll
admit I made a few mistakes purchasing "papered" goats
of poor quality.
I also ran into a number of get-rich-quick pitches for top-dollar
purebred animals. However, commanding top dollar for these animals
entails constant campaigning through breed shows and extensive marketing—all
After experiencing a few breeding seasons, I realized that my cross-bred
does faired much better than their papered counterparts at being
nannies, raising multiple kids with ease, conceiving, and resisting
parasites and hoof problems. In the end, I decided to reach my herd
size goals by breeding instead of buying. By investing in high quality
sires, the crossbred does’ offspring were much better than
what I could have purchased elsewhere.
Getting the land ready
Before any agricultural product—vegetable, fruit or livestock
could be grown, there needed to be serious work in the fields—fencing
and fertility. One takes money and the other takes time.
Fencing represents a significant investment when you're raising
livestock. In my previous ranching experience, building fences was
always on someone else’s dollar. Besides, a few strands of
electric or barbed wire sufficed for horses and cattle.
There’s an old adage that says, “If the fence won’t
hold water, it won’t hold goats.” Believing this to
be absolutely true (and wanting an attractive addition to the farm),
my first fencing project consisted of woven wire and wooden posts
driven into the ground. The first fencing project, a quarter acre
next to the barn, cost more than my truck. Estimating the cost to
enclose the remainder of my property in similar fencing, I realized
that it would come out to nearly half of what I had paid for the
entire farm! My mistake was choosing what was pretty instead of
what was practical.
The next pasture project grew off the failed berry fencerow using
the same posts, but with electrified six-strand high tensile. This
was cost-effective and kept the goats contained. Last year I found
that three-strand electric on T-posts also contains goats. Had I
settled for practical instead of pretty in the first place, my entire
property could have been fenced for half the cost of my first project.
You can have plenty of money, but building soil fertility and good
pastures takes time. And listening to the "experts" isn't
always what it's cracked up to be.
The local agricultural and County Extension cooperative offices
each visited my farm, took a single soil sample and told me to tear
out the overgrown pines, spray 2-4D or RoundUp® and chemical
fertilizers, and then plant pasture with grass hay. When I relayed
this to the older gentleman down the road who had a nice herd of
meat goats, he said, “ Why, that’s the dumbest thing
I ever heard. Why on earth do you want to kill all the weeds and
take out the pines? That’s what the goats eat. Broad leaf
plants and brambles are higher in protein than grass. Didn’t
you tell them you had goats?” He went on to point out that
the pines created a natural windbreak and shelter.
Additionally, some of the “locals” introduced me to
the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (www.pasafarming.org)
and the Fulton Center for Sustainable Living at Wison College (www.wilson.edu),
both of which have provided invaluable resources that have helped
make a success of the farm’s turn around. Talking to other
farmers successfully doing what I wanted to achieve proved the most
But I didn’t ignore the “experts” all together.
After years of intensive Christmas tree farming and neglect, the
pastures were woefully acidic and had few nutrients. For the past
four years, I have spread lime, manure, compost and trace minerals.
The soil is improving but has yet to reach “optimal”
Successful farms don’t happen overnight. I’m going
into my sixth year on the farm with a great appreciation for multi-generation
operations. Although many second- and third-generation farmers are
fortunate enough to inherit their farms, it is feasible to start
from scratch. Bear in mind that just as much off-farm work will
be required at first in addition to the farm work.
My primary goal with all livestock has always been to break even
the first year. For the goats, my first kid crop just covered their
upkeep because I was only selling the male offspring. For the poultry,
I included the initial stock’s cost and housing. The net profits
for the first year were low, but continue to get better as the years
We only complete projects that can be paid for in full to avoid
carrying consumer debt, which requires a lot of patience, and capital
expenditures for cleanup and renovation have been subsidized by
my non-farming work.
That being said, we are hardcore recyclers. Shameless when it comes
to dumpster diving for useful materials, we’ve salvaged thousands
of dollars of lumber, roofing materials and fencing. All of the
goat shelters have been built from completely recycled materials—garage
doors, pallets, metal roofing scraps, wooden shipping crates and
even silo chute covers. Actually, one of the unexpected benefits
of our fixer-up farm turned out to be part of the junk pile—a
1949 Ford 8N tractor. I had budgeted money to purchase a tractor
but Ralph was able to fix the old iron that had sat idle for many
Deep customer and farmer
The meat market has already netted a profit thanks to a waiting
list of customers acquired by word-of-mouth. An added bonus I didn’t
expect was the depth of gratitude from my customers. Many are immigrants
from the far reaches of the globe. With food as the backbone of
many cultural traditions, the availability of a quality meat goat,
instead of a dairy goat cull, has provided many families with a
taste of “home” for their holidays and special occasions.
At my customers’ requests, I also allow on-farm halal and
kosher slaughtering for a fee, further increasing my bottom line.
The goat herd is growing and, despite Ralph’s edict, I’ve
added a few milking goats and, most recently, a pair of heifers—a
Jersey and a Tibetan yak—with plans to start a micro-creamery
for making artisan cheese and butter.
I’ve gauged the profitability of my farm by how many mortgage
payments I am able to make from on-farm income. The trend has been
increasing by one each year, meaning that in 2005 the farm made
five mortgage payments. By adding value-added products such as cheese
and butter along with cost-reducing projects like transitioning
to renewable energy resources, I’m working toward increasing
income while decreasing expenditures to meet all of my living expenses
from on-farm income by the tenth year.
Being a good farmer means being flexible, having patience and learning
to weigh risks when making business decisions. With these traits
and the willingness to put your soul into the soil and your heart
into the farm regardless how frustrating and disappointing times
become, you can make old farms productive again—and successful.