“You can do it! Just close your eyes and go for it!”
I hold my breath and turn my head away as I reach into the nesting box and gingerly nudge the resident hen aside. After a few seconds of timidly rummaging around in the hay I withdraw my hand and exhale. Three eggs!
“Score!” Daniel Dover, of Darby Farms, is kind not to laugh at my fear of a little hen. It is a beautiful April day and we have just filled a five-gallon bucket to the rim with eggs from his laying flock. In a few more weeks, Daniel says, the girls will provide twice that many.
Darby Farms, located just 30 minutes from Grayson outside of Monroe, is 60 acres of pasture, mixed hardwood and pine trees. On it, Daniel raises laying hens, meat chickens, ducks, turkeys, sheep, pigs, and cattle. The key to nurturing all those animals? “The health of the soil. That’s really what makes everything work.”
Rehabilitating the soil on his farm, which was damaged from previous overuse, seems to consume Daniel’s thoughts as much as taking care of the animals. Every species on the farm is rotated according to a precise schedule in order to maximize the soil’s fertility. First, the cows or the sheep go in to graze and drop their patties. Next come the birds, who scratch and churn the manure into the soil to fertilize and aerate. Daniel points out a section of pasture the hens occupied one day ago and another they occupied four days ago. The difference was incredible. “Here you can see where a patty was. They scratch through it and break it apart and pull all the endemic species of microbes and bugs down into the ground.”
Daniel also shows me the importance of the pigs rooting through the soil around trees in the health of the forest. Picture your idea of a flourishing forest. Lots of green near the ground, right? Wrong.
“People assume green is good, but in a forest that’s not necessarily true. You can see that this area where the pigs were last year is open and the ground is churned, which means the resources have been made available to the trees by the pigs releasing the vitamins and minerals that have been accumulating over time and have become stagnant. What creates a healthy forest is not stagnation, but constant movement of the soil around the roots of the trees.”
As we continue our meandering walk around the farm, it becomes obvious how proud Daniel is of his animals. He is quick to point out who is a good mother, who has the prettiest coat. He has me press my nose into one of the pig’s backs to learn how good they actually smell (earthy, sweet, and overall pleasant). He introduces me to the newest member of the family: a lamb born just that morning. We are able to walk right up to him as he lays in the grass by his mother. “The lambs born four days ago are already too fast for me to catch. But when they’re new they still let you touch them.”
Unfortunately, farm life is not always this warm and fuzzy. The same morning our lamb friend was born was the last for a calf born 8 days prior. Daniel thinks it may have accidentally gotten kicked in the head by its older brother. “It’s the first calf we’ve had die. I’m taking it really hard.” He’s also had trouble with his meat chickens, who are dying en masse due to a bad batch of feed. “The ones still alive and running around look healthy enough, but they’re about half the size they should be.” A few days after my visit, Daniel received a shipment of 550 chicks, all dead due to improper handling by the post office. “It’s really difficult, but you have to realize that no matter what you do, you can’t keep everything alive.”
Apart from difficulties keeping everyone healthy and well-fed, small farmers like Daniel struggle to remain financially viable in a market dominated by huge, industrial farms. Regulations on small farms, often successfully lobbied by Big Agriculture, are prohibitive. Consumer awareness is also an issue. For example, there are those who refuse to pay four or five dollars for a dozen pasture-raised eggs when they can buy “regular” eggs for less than half that amount at the grocery store. After a visit to Darby, it is clear that factory-farmed animals cannot provide comparable nutrition to the meat and eggs Daniel is growing.
“It’s all about what you’re putting into your body. These animals live symbiotically with the earth and are not pumped full of hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified feed.”
In other words, you can pay the farmer now, or you can pay the doctor later.
“I don’t hear anyone complaining that loudly about their iPhone bill,” he adds. “The reality is, before 1940 Americans spent thirty percent of their income on food. Today they spend only ten.”’
Luckily for Daniel, small farmers have devised a clever way to get their products to local consumers. With a CSA (short for Community Supported Agriculture. Yes, the grammar is wonky, just go with it), consumers can purchase a share of a farm’s bounty for the season by paying up-front. This ensures the farmer has the capital for feed, coops, seeds, fencing, etc.–all that is needed to successfully raise that year’s crop. Participants then receive their portion of the harvest. In this way, the community also shares in the farmer’s risk should bad feed, a drought, or some other problem arise (on a farm, there is no shortage of risk). Daniel offers several options to participate in Darby’s CSA.
In addition to CSA boxes, you can find Darby’s meat and eggs on the menus of a pretty impressive list of Georgia restaurants: In Atlanta, Kimball House, Farm Burger, Wrecking Bar, and Empire State South. In Athens, The National, 5&10, Big City Bread, and Heirloom Cafe. And, here in Grayson, Graft Restaurant.
While he is passionate about sharing his nutrient-dense food with the community, Daniel got in to this business for personal reasons: a serious encounter depression. “I had unclear thoughts, was constantly fatigued, and thought about suicide. It was tough. Everything just seemed so much worse than it really was.” When he sought help, he was unhappy with the advice he was given.
“I went the conventional route of seeing medical doctors, and they wanted me to just get on Zoloft, or go to counseling where they said, ‘Just calm down, it’s not that bad.’ They were right in some respects, but they didn’t talk about nutrition.”
So Daniel took matters into his own hands: he started growing vegetables, then established a small flock of laying hens, and it all spiraled from there.
“The only thing that turned my health around–got my liver functioning correctly and cleared up my depression–was to start growing my own food and start sourcing from other people healthy foods that I couldn’t grow on my own.”
Now Daniel dedicates his life to sharing healthy, wholesome food with the people around him. In addition to the endless work that goes into farm life, he offers tours to the public and teaches classes to aspiring small farmers. For Darby Farms,
“It’s all about transparency. We are returning agriculture to our communities by pulling away the veil of secrecy so prevalent in today’s corporate mega-farms. With direct farm contact, our patrons can see, feel, and smell where their food comes from and learn how it is raised. This enables us all to make an educated decision about our food and lifestyle choices and see how those choices affect the health of our body, mind, and our environment.”