I arrived at The Wild Way Farm on a rainy morning in June. I was greeted by the lovely Clara, a flock of ducks, and a large dog named Finn. We planned for a 10am tour and were happy when the rain stopped right on time. We began our tour as we typically do with introductions, land acknowledgment, agenda, and housekeeping items. Clara began with an introduction to her farming history and philosophy. We learned that Clara’s interest in farming began at 9 years old when she first started working with poultry. She started farming at 14 years old, went to college at Warren Wilson, and interned at Hickory Nut Gap. Her farming philosophy is aligned with mimicking nature and creating sustainability. Her goals include creating closed loops systems that allow her to reduce off-farm inputs and increase profits.
After Clara’s introduction, we made our way to the quail aviary. We were joined on our walk by another free-range livestock guardian named Esther. (Clara reminded us that the key to free-range poultry is free-range guardian dogs). The quail aviary was once a shady, ineffective greenhouse. The quail are not caged and have quite some space to move around. They live on compost bedding which is wet down. Quail are prey animals and very easily spooked, however, Clara has had quail go broody which shows that they feel comfortable and safe. Quail are very photosensitive and need at least 10-14 hours of sunlight. Quail can also take flight if given enough room, so it’s important that their structure is less than 6 feet tall. The quail lay about 1 egg per day or 5-7 eggs per week. Quail eggs are sold at markets, as well as to restaurants and caterers. Some of the eggs are saved for meat birds. They get a break when they molt in the Fall. Eggs laid from September to March are used for the nursery and to sell to hatcheries. A heat source is used in February and March for egg production.
Next door to the aviary is the nursery. All chickens, ducks, and quail are hatched on the farm. Males are harvested with the exception of a few kept for breeding. We were able to learn about her incubators and brooders. Many of us were smitten with the baby quail. Outside of the nursery, we learned about Clara’s commitment to hatching her own birds and using all of the bird parts. She raises tri-purpose chickens – meat, eggs, and feathers. She sells the pelts at market and sells feathers for fly fishing. She uses a buck knife and scissors to skin the pelts, they are stretched out on cardboard, and dehydrated. Most of her market customers buy the pelts for decoration.
From the nursery we walked over to Wild Way’s FDA-inspected mobile processing unit. We learned that the FDA regulates quail and rabbits. Clara harvests quail on the farm weekly. We also learned that chicken, duck, and turkey can be harvested on the farm without going to a slaughterhouse. The USDA regulates everything else. The unit itself cost about $8,000-$9,000 and Clara’s father helped to build it out. Currently, she is the only farmer and does all of the processing herself. She is open to help and welcomes folks to volunteer on harvest days. I really hope a few folks from the tour will take her up on the offer of volunteering in exchange for a great learning experience.
We continued the walking tour by making our way to the laying hens, where another guardian dog named Charlie is responsible for keeping the 100 hens safe. Clara expressed that she would like to be at 300 laying hens in the future. The hens are fed spent produce and grains, as well as bagels from Brueggers. Laying hens become stew hens in 3-5 years. All houses and animals on the farm are moveable. The chickens and pigs are moved every 2-4 days.
Next to the hens are the 3 breeding trio of Idaho pasture pigs. These are non-rooting pigs. They have an 8-12 month growth period and require less grain than commercial or heritage. The pigs are also fed spent brewers grains, produce, and bagels. Clara picks up a trailer full of food every week, including organic produce from Food Bounty and Soul. The pigs are on rotation from April/May until the first hard freeze. During the winter months, all pigs are on the Japanese knotweed. They trample it and don’t really eat it, but it has helped to stunt the growth of this very invasive weed. Clara likes to dump pig food near invasive weeds, so they can trample it prior to seeding grains and legumes. The only time the pigs leave the farm is when they go to the processor for harvest. Clara highly recommends scheduling processing dates when animals are born or weaned because of the delays at processing facilities. We also learned that the animals are never given antibiotics or worming unless it is necessary or they are sick.
We made our way from the pig pasture around the pond to the quail tractors, which are moved every 12-24 hours. Each tractor has feed, water, and boxes. She shared that her tractors are quite heavy and she would recommend making them lighter and keeping the hand grips closer together. Clara shared that they were experiencing a gap in production because a visitor accidentally locked Finn in the nursery and he killed 50 of the breeding flock of quail. For this reason, one of her tractors was empty. There are typically 100 quail per tractor. Quail are moved to the tractors at 3-4 weeks and harvested at 8-10 weeks old. Clara is currently harvesting 100 quail per week and usually sets 120-160 eggs. The quail are moved in a plastic dog/cat crate 25 at a time for process/harvest and have to be killed in the processing unit. The quail tractors are used for chicken breeding in the Fall/Winter.
After visiting the quail tractors we made our way to the chicken tractors that are used for Cockerels (roosters under 1 year old) until they are ready to be free-range. Clara’s father made the chicken tractors and has a warehouse of tractors for sale.
Our last stop on the tour was the rabbit hutches where we found one bunny had gotten out of the hutch. Making housing rabbit-proof has been challenging and bunnies do get out. Clara was able to catch the bunny quickly and expertly. She is experimenting with rabbits because they easily fit into her existing system. They can be harvested onsite and their manure is magic.
After the tour, we gathered around and shared a potluck meal. This is often a favorite part of the day for everyone. This is a great time for our farm host to relax and connect with everyone. We appreciate Clara for her generosity and willingness to share her farm with us. She is clearly passionate about farming and one of the most hardworking farmers I’ve ever met. You can meet Clara and purchase from the Wild Way Farm at West Asheville and North Asheville tailgate markets.
ARTICLE BY: Stephanie Vinat // PHOTOS BY: Casey Toth
Author: Julie Douglas
Julie is the Marketing & Communications Associate. She is the owner and Clinical herbalist at Wildkrafted Kitchen, a holistic healthcare company in Asheville, NC. Julie is a medicinal herb grower, ethical wildcrafter, educator, and formulator of internal and external medicines. After graduating with an AA focusing on Photography and Ceramic art, Julie went on to pursue their passion for sustainable small-scale agriculture in Washington state where she apprenticed on various organic farms. After discovering their affinity for medicinal herbs, they moved to Asheville to study Holistic Herbalism at the Blue Ridge School of Herbal Medicine. Julie’s main goals are to make alternative healthcare accessible to marginalized communities, decolonizing herbal medicine, and be part of mutual aid networks which strengthen and empower the community.