On June 3rd we received a hearty welcome from William Lyons and Marie Williams of Bluebird Farm for our third CRAFT tour of the season. The tour topic was Integrated Animal and Vegetable Production. William and Marie gave us a full tour and unique insight into their diversified farm operations sharing techniques for making your animals and vegetables work together. We are grateful for their time and generosity hosting us on their farm!
Bluebird farm is in its 5th season producing pastured-raised pork, chicken, lamb, eggs, and a variety of vegetables on 20 acres in Morganton. They sell their farm products through a 30-family CSA, and at farmers markets in Concord and Hickory.
The tour began at Silver Creek nursery property owned by family friends where William and Marie have expanded and are producing on 10 acres. Once managed for hemlocks and other evergreens the land has presented a new set of challenges. The soil is extremely sandy and deficient in necessary nutrients and minerals. To build organic matter they have introduced pigs, sheep, and chickens to the field rotations to build up soil quality for vegetable production. Their growing and grazing practices are highly influenced by Allan Savory’s Holistic Management techniques that call for a good amount of impact followed by a good amount of rest.
Our first stop was the pig paddock. They get 5-6 week-old piglets from Warren Wilson College or RS Central High School in Rutherfordton. By the time they are 6 months old the pigs have reached their finish weight and consumed 1,000 lbs of grain! Recently, they switched to all organic feed from Reedy Fork Farm. Although their pork prices increased they saw demand increase, too!
Marie explained that they introduce pigs to a new plot of land to get rid of the weeds, till up the ground, and bring in organic material. The night before they move the pigs to fresh ground, they will heavily seed the paddock with a cover crop like millet and cowpea. The pigs do the planting for you as they trample it in with their hooves, and root with their snouts.
For electric fencing they use t-posts strung at snout-level with 2-strands of polywire kept at a high voltage using a Parmak Solar Pak 6 charger to contain the pigs and keep predators out. To provide shade for the pigs they built 2 skid shelters that can be moved around the fields. They built the corral and loading shoot based on a design developed by Temple Grandin that calms the pigs making loading and sorting easier for their trip to May’s Meats Processing facility in Taylorsville.
Moving to the acre of vegetables, William explained how before planting they will run the pigs through one last time to turn over the cover crop, work in the remaining residues with a tiller, then use a bed maker implement to form the beds, and follow up with a light till several weeks later to get rid of newly sprouted weeds.
The 120 day animal manure restriction to time of harvest is followed. Because their soil is so sandy they primarily use transplants, and irrigate with drip tape.
Taking advantage of local fertilizer sources, they use Brown’s Fish Emulsion and compost from Earth Farms an industrial-scale composting facility in Gaston County.
William and Marie also explained how their cover crop system ended up being a viable indicator for the health of their new fields. Areas where the cover crop grew stunted showed where they need to continue to improve the soil before planting vegetables.
For their tomatoes William and Marie are using an innovative low cost Haygrove High Tunnel design developed at the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture. The structure is assembled with hoops held together by slide-able plastic sheeting and a series of ropes – no purlins needed! Inside the tomatoes are protected from soil-borne diseases and trellised with hogwire and t-posts. The tomatoes are fastened to the wire using a “Tapener” tool from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. In the fall, they may experiment with a second set of low hoops over the beds with row cover inside the High Tunnel for their greens.
Then we moved on to the pasture where they jointly range their sheep herd and laying chickens. With the help of the animals Marie and William explained that they are building organic matter and minerals in the soil, and will eventually be able to include vegetables in the rotation in the old hemlock field.
For the sheep and chicken fencing they invested in 3 lengths of Premier-1 Poultry netting with double spiked bottoms.
We also got a grand tour of what they lovingly call the “Chicken Palace” designed for ample space for the chickens to lay and roost, adjustable panels and vents for seasonal changes, to be easily moved, and to provide shade underneath for the sheep.
After that we caravanned to Marie’s family’s property where they grow on 4 acres. On this property, they grow vegetables that need more care and cultivate by hand with Italian hoes and digging forks.
Here they train the younger pigs for the electric fence, raise their meat chickens, and have multiple forest paddocks with permanent fence lines where they run the pigs once a year. Eventually, they will clear out these paddocks to open more pasture land.
In the winter they bring all the animals to this property and keep them on deep bedding. Since the opening of the Foothills Processing Facility in Marion they have been able to raise larger batches of chickens, saving time and resources.
To irrigate the vegetables they use misters and drip tape from DripWorks and Berry Hill. A highlight for many was seeing the Hydraulic Ram Pump they use to irrigate from the stream that uses the power of falling water to pump water back up hill. The H.R. Pump pumps 400-500 gallons a day into a 2000 gal resovoir. A deep well waters the ¼ acres of vegetables.
William and Marie explained that each year they are becoming more efficient with their time and resources and hope to expand to hire labor next season. We were all inspired by what these two young farmers have been able to accomplish in their first years farming and left full to the brim with useful information and delicious food after the potluck meal.
- CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers and their interns networking and learning opportunities. Membership is rolling, so join anytime!
- For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, OGS Farmer Programs Assistant at 828.338.9465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Watch for an update from another June CRAFT tour to Looking Glass Creamery and join us for the next CRAFT tour, on nursery propagation July 14th at Useful Plants Nursery
Meredith Leigh is a die-hard advocate for good food. As a farmer, founder of a butcher shop/restaurant, and writer, she has worked on many angles of real food for over a decade. She currently teaches farming and cooking classes, consults for food and agriculture non-profits, and is writing a book about meat. Meredith has been the Program Coordinator for the Organic Growers School (OGS) Spring Conference since 2006 and was the Director and then the Executive Director of OGS for 10 years.