There is nothing cuter than looking at a baby pig or – wait a minute, maybe a baby cow. Well we got to see them all this past Monday as we went on a local farm tour.

As we look to expand our locally sourced food for Cantina we teamed up with Lee Petitgout, Agriculture Teacher and FFA Advisor at Nation Ford High School. One of Lee’s missions is to connect the community with locally produced food. She has been doing this with her students but also with her adult programs, including Tastefully Local, which offers free monthly lectures to the community about local food sources, and a special Farm to Fork event each year. Lee and Mike Ramsey, our Warden of Woodsmoke, have been working together for many years, so Lee was the perfect friend to be our tour guide to expand our knowledge of local farms.

First thing about a farm tour is it starts early—just like the work on a farm. I had my coffee in hand, Mike, Eli, Drew, Chad and I went at 7:00 am to meet up with Lee. We headed to McConnells, in western York County.

Our first stop was the Nance Farm Creamery where we met William and Caci Nance. We learned they have 100 cows that are milked twice a day and there are NO days off. Literally twice a day, EVERY day. Listening to Caci was exciting because all the nuance and excitement they had about their product was the same that we have about our food and brewing beer. This was hard work for sure, but this was something that they loved and it wasn’t just a job. We talked about how to make butter and cheese from their cream. We talked about milk from a cow versus milk from the grocery store. Let’s just say I will never look at milk the same.

Next up we went over to Cotton Hills Farm and meet the Wilson Family, who have been expanding their family farm for years and have retail markets. They grow cotton, sweet potatoes, strawberries, melons, squash, and tomatoes. There is no down time even in the Winter. They were expanding buildings, making peach baskets, and tenting winter crops. I was surprised to see the strawberry plants out in the fields. It was explained that they are planted and stay fairly small until the early spring when they go crazy. As we discussed the timing of when produce would be ready Eli and Drew were thinking of dishes, and I was thinking of beer.

Still early in the morning, (and cold) we went over to meet Matt and Kelly with Watson Farms. They have pasture raised beef, pork and chickens. These are Non-GMO and ethically raised animals which is better for the animals, environment, and you. Their farm is very welcoming and full of life. They have decided to concentrate on selling their beef directly to consumers. This looks like a really good idea, as they told us they were selling all the cows they could raise.

If you are grass feeding a cow, you cannot just throw more cows in the paddock and let them go. You have to have at least one acre per cow, and those acres need to be rotated around. You have to move the herd from time to time to allow the grass to grow back. Once you move the cows, the chickens then come in and eat the insects and add their own manure to the soil. The manure and movement of the animals enrich and contour the soil, so grass will grow back vigorously.

Next we stopped by Kip Beam’s place. Kip, like Lee, is an Agricultural Educator at Blythewood High School and is the upstate’s guru on local seeds and heirloom agriculture. I could go on and on about all the different things he has going on at this place, but my favorite was the tasting of different varieties of kale. You know you are hooked when you go back to pick more kale to eat right then and there!

We have talked about cows and pigs but what about fish – well don’t worry we saw them as well. They are helping grow all the wonderful greens for our salads over at Growing Joy Farms. They are farming using aquaponics. Basically, fish eat food and excrete ammonia, a good source of nitrogen. That nitrogen then goes through a certain bacteria which converts it to the form used by plants. The plants are floating on rafts, with their roots in the nutrient rich water. This causes the plant to grow exceedingly fast (about 6-8 weeks from seed to table). The water, now cleaned on the nitrogen compounds, goes back as clean water for the fish. Very little water is lost, and very little energy is required. It is a really good system.

Over to Puddle Moon Farm where we met Jeff and DeAnn Harris. Their farm is less than ten years old, but they are committed to natural farming methods. They have beautiful rolling pastures for their animals. It was so peaceful. They also have the BIGGEST pig I have ever seen who just wanted to come up and get some love. Mike enjoyed playing with the smaller pigs. As Jeff showed us around and discussed all the different projects (including his bees), I was once again struck with how this was a LOT of work, but it brought happiness to be connected to the land, to the animals, and to the community.

Another confession is that Chad and I did not eat much for breakfast and it was going on 3 pm and we were getting hangry. We had to peel off and send Eli, Drew and Mike off to the last farm without us. They went to Rich Hill Farms and Mike texted me that they planted 5,400 tomato plants. So, I’m planning on going back on the farm tour and see all the ones I missed and back to many of our favorites.

– Cassie