Biodiversity and Animal Welfare are Paramount for These Second-Generation North Carolina Farmers
PTB Farm sells weekly at farmers’ markets in Greensboro and Winston Salem, to area chefs and butcher shops, and to members of its co-op, who buy farm credit early in the year and then spend it on whatever they want from the weekly market stands.
Managing Animals to Benefit the Soil
As predicted, the young hogs change their minds and come rustling through the woods toward Hillary and Worth to accept the cucumbers. Their reddish coats match the clay soil, and they sniff and snort as they devour the treats.
A mix of the Tamworth and Duroc breeds, with long heads and efficient snouts ideal for foraging acorns, hickory nuts, black walnuts, earthworms, grubs, and grass (supplemented by local, non-GMO grains), the pigs are integral players on the diversified farm. “The hogs’ [manure] is a real fertility input,” Worth says.
Because the farm grew tobacco and hay for much of the last century, the soil was worn out and eroded when Worth and Hillary took over. By carefully managing the pigs—as well as the sheep and cows—moving them between pasture and forest paddocks daily or more using portable electric fencing, the couple has slowly rebuilt the soil’s health.
Unlike unmanaged grazing systems, which give animals access to all the land all the time, management-intensive grazing more closely mimics natural systems in which cattle, for example, storm onto a piece of land, eat all the grass, and then move on, returning perhaps once more in the growing season, once the forage has regrown, Hillary says.
“There are massive benefits to multispecies grazing, for animal health and land productivity,” Worth says. “Cattle, sheep, and hogs graze different strata of the pasture,” eating different levels, amounts, and types of forage, and they each offer specific benefits. “A 1,200-pound cow hoof has a different impact on the pasture than a 60-pound lamb hoof,” Hillary explains, and their manure isn’t the same either. “It’s up to us to try to be quality managers and use their impact to a benefit,” Worth says.
While the animals serve the land and ecosystem, they spend their time engaging in natural behaviors—and they have favorite sleeping spots and daily routines.
Five years of rotating animals over a field that at first had thin, weak soil has transformed it, they say. The soil now holds moisture, and it has “some of the best grass on the farm, for sure,” says Worth.
A Minimalist Ethic
In all they do, Hillary and Worth try to avoid consuming more resources than they need. Right now, they’re standing in a field with the cow herd, the early evening sun casting a glow on the animals’ red and black coats. “One of my guiding philosophies is working with what you have,” Worth says. “Sometimes that’s fixing something out here on the farm with a piece of twine or a stick that I pull out of the woods rather than driving back to the top of the farm to get exactly the right thing.”
He and Hillary live in one of the original structures on the farm, a near-century-old log cabin built as a hunting lodge in the 1920s; all of the farm’s fenceposts come from black locusts, red cedars, and other trees that grew on the property; the pair stockpiles grass from their pastures rather than bringing in hay to supplement the cows’ diets; and rather than maintaining their fence lines with Roundup or some other synthetic herbicides, they spray them with vinegar and keep them mowed.
In the minimalist spirit, one of Worth’s first tasks when he took over the farm was build a low-input water system that’s both solar-powered and gravity-fed to distribute water from the well out into the fields for the animals—something he was able to do with the help of an $8,500 grant from the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).