Virginia graziers explore options in attempt to ‘kick the hay habit’

AFP Corresondent

BLAND, Va. (Oct. 21, 2014) — Matthew French and his young family raise livestock on a 250-acre farm that includes rolling green pastures and hayfields, hillside glades and dense woodlots.
With such a varied landscape, he has opted to pasture the animals as much as possible to best use the land.
“Our goal is to kick the hay habit,” French said. He hopes to be able to graze year-round sometime in the future. He expects the only exception to be when ice and snow are on the ground.
Matthew French returned to his family farm after attending Crown Bible College in Knoxville, Tenn. There he met a couple who were direct marketing what they grew and it appealed to him, he said.
“This sparked the idea to come back here to do this,” he concluded.
French raises sheep, hogs, chickens and turkeys, and his father Robert has a beef cattle herd on the farm.
While Robert, who’s made a career as a truck driver while keeping the farm going, sells his grass-fed calves as feeder cattle at the local livestock market. His son chose the retail route, selling meat off the farm and at six farmers’ markets.
The farm’s website also accommodates online ordering.
Matthew practices rotational grazing with all of his animals but different species have different ways of being contained within the pastures.
The sheep graze in paddocks surrounded by electric fence netting.
This keeps the sheep in and the predators, especially coyotes, out of the lot.
The paddocks are moved every few days, depending on the quality and quantity of grass and how long it takes for the animals to eat it.
The hogs are kept in a woodlot with two strands of electrified polywire strung fairly low.
They do double duty here, he said, growing to a marketable weight and clearing brush in the woodland.
The chickens and turkeys are kept in large pens that are bottomless so the birds are on the ground to graze.
The sides and top protect them from predators. French said he moves the pens usually twice a day to keep the birds foraging.
Both the pork and lamb grown on the farm are harvested and processed at a USDA facility.
The poultry is processed on the farm as allowed by law.
Matthew said he markets the meat as antibiotic-free and doesn’t feed the animals any added growth hormones.
“Our customers are very particular and we like it this way,” he said.
Matthew said he does not like the federal regulations for on-farm processing but realizes he has to work within the system.
He said it’s hard to understand why he can be seen safely process 1,000 chickens and his Thanksgiving turkeys on the farm but cannot do the same for lamb and pork.
He hopes to see things changing in Virginia.
He supports a bill to establish the Virginia Food Freedom Act, which would allow for sales of food processed on a farm labeled with the producer’s name, address, ingredients and a disclosure that it was processed without state inspection.
The bill has been introduced repeatedly but not passed.