Let me start by saying that I could not have chosen a more passionate, insightful, caring, and inspiring farmer to interview. Tara Holcomb, owner of Willow City Farm in Springfield, is amazing. When I arrived at the smaller of her two farms, I was greeted by two of her six children, adorable 5 and 3-year old boys. I brought my 8 and 2-year old with to the farm and the kids had a blast together (although Tara and I toured the farm alone due to free roaming Alpaca, and rambunctious 5-month-old Great Pyrenees puppies). Tara welcomed us into her home, from which she sells her beef, pork, lamb, goat, poultry, eggs, and Alpaca fiber, yarn, and beans. In her foyer is an attractive display of her Alpaca products (excluding the beans!), price lists, homemade soaps, etc.
I thanked her for taking time out of her busy schedule to meet with me, and told her about our course and my recent reentry into vegetarianism. In my week 10 blog I state that I wanted to not only gain insight into her perspective of organic labeling but also hoped to challenge my own beliefs regarding the sustainability and humanity of meat. I was shocked to learn that although she raises her livestock for meat (aside from the horses, Alpaca, and egg laying chickens of course) and personally processes her own chickens (a process akin to that at Polyface Farms), she herself remains a vegetarian.
Tara knows that her animals live a happy life, and are killed in a humane manner, as she states, “our animals have a really great life and one bad day.” I liked that, a lot. “We know they are going to be slaughtered…people are going to eat meat, I can’t stop that. But what I can do is make sure that the cows that they do eat are taken care of before they go.” Can I just say again how grateful I am to have interviewed her!
Tara started with chickens and Alpaca because she could find a way for them to “somewhat sustain themselves, financially” as they “didn’t want this to be a burden on their family” She laughs “too bad, it was…” “With the chickens I could sell the eggs and with the Alpaca, the roving, and not have to kill the animal in order to make money from them.” “We learned the first night the chickens were going to be eaten” and so she adopted a Great
Pyrenees which evolved into breeding, raising, and training “Livestock Guardian Dogs” (http://www.willowcityfarm.com/lgds-1). Although the program is not profitable per say, the dogs “pay for themselves.” Thanks to her Livestock Guardians, her animals are “100% free range,” there is no “closing of a coup.” Eventually Tara’s husband implored her to get some animals they could eat (sounds like something my husband would ask!) and so she expanded her flock (ha ha) to include meat birds.
After talking for only a few minutes about her experiences, I immediately begin to appreciate the shared knowledge and comradery of the community of local farmers, a community until now I had little knowledge. “I’ll tell you the best thing about farming is the people, I have learned so much from so many different people.” She explains how she learned to kill and process her own “meat birds.” “This is one person, out of 4,000, that has taught me something.” The only thing she cannot bring herself to do is prick their necks. Her account of her first experience butchering her meat birds can be found here (http://www.willowcityfarm.com/single-post/2015/07/06/The-meat-experiment-Chicken) along with a side by side comparison of her chicken compared to that of Aldi. “We do it as humane as possible, I’m not a proponent, it’s horrible…you’re still killing an animal. We do it as respectfully as possible.”
I ask “Would you consider yourself, your farm, to be sustainable?” Her response, “Oh yeah, at this point 100%...we’re agriculturally, economically, and physically…sustainable now…and what we don’t have we trade with someone else.” She explains that they use no chemical fertilizers, only Alpaca beans (poop) for fertilizer. They compost everything, with the chickens acting as cleaning agents. “It’s its own little ecosystem,” she explains, “We do a lot of things most differently than most…”
I then ask if the farm is certified organic. “No, nope, and we have no desire to be…the money to do it, you have to be so many feet away from other, and we, no. And what I have learned, doing enough research of my own, we, ya know, a lot of farmers now call it beyond organic.”
Of course, I then ask if she considers her farm to be beyond organic? “Yeah, like for instance, every single thing that is made in this kitchen, that I grew in my garden, goes out to the animals, they eat it. They get 100% of the Cheerios…Well, if we didn’t buy organic Cheerios…However, we are also not just pumping them full of bad stuff, we’re giving them everything, nothing goes to the garbage. They get 100% of every scrape, the chickens, the goats, to us that’s so much more important to not shove it down the drain, to not use water to put it down the disposal.”
She then explains the deep litter method they use in the winter (again akin to that at Polyface farms) to heat the chicken coups and references “big organic.” “I think for a large factory farm, for something like Dole, if I’m going to go buy my stuff in the grocery store, I think that’s a wonderful thing. We tell people you’re welcome to come and see how we raise the animals. The whole reason I started this to begin with…it was one of those, okay, fine, if my family’s going to eat this, I want to know where it’s coming from. Even if you go buy it from another farm, from the store, from wherever and they say it’s “Amish,” it’s like okay, well what does that really mean? So in my opinion, the only way to do it right is it do it yourself and that’s kind of what we did and we started just farming for our family and then opportunities presented themselves to kind of expand. And nowadays there’s a lot of farmers who are trying to market and I’m a marketing person who is trying to farm. So for me, the marketing part of it was very easy…. It was very easy for me to do that portion of it.” As for the farming portion, “It was a massive immersion and it still is, everyday, I mean I have failed at a lot of things. I’ve had livestock as deadstock, it’s horrible, I’ve lost cows, it’s hard, but you learn each and every time.
Tara is not only business oriented, but also hands on, “100%, and besides that, my daughter Chloe can do 100% of everything I can, she’s AMAZING, she’s out there feeding everybody right now.”
I asked if she has had to hire help. “I would love to, but I can’t…and you know really, we just don’t need to…in order to keep our costs down and affordable.” Later in our conversation she states, “Our ground beef, I don’t charge very much for ground beef at all. My thing is, everyone should have affordable ground beef. You may not need a filet mignon, but our ground beef is a lot cheaper than other peoples and then what I could charge. But I would rather more people be able to afford it than make a huge profit off of it.”
We tour her gardens and farm. She grows all their own produce and cans; they also belong to a CSA. As she warns, all the animals are very affectionate (aside from the Alpaca, who are more like cats she says). I’m greeted by the Great Pyrenees and her German Shepherd, her daughter’s horse, a pony, a goat, and two cows (one was brought from their larger far to help the bottle-fed cow learn he’s a cow and not a Great Pyrenees puppy, as they were born on the same day). Aside from the poultry, each animal has a name (derived from a city within the species country of origin…how cool is that!) and it is clear they each have their own personality and temperament, of which Tara and her daughter respect. Yet, Tara acknowledges most of these animals will go to slaughter. I can affirm that they most certainly live a good life. Compared to a short-lived existence on a factory farm, these guys have the life!
I ask if she considers herself to be part of the sustainable movement. “100%, you don’t need a factory to do it, you can do it on a small piece of land, I don’t have a massive chicken coup where it’s harming the environment and everything else. It doesn’t have to be that way. I can feed a lot of people a lot of meat and a lot of chicken in a small area in an environmentally friendly way and a humane way.”
We move onto to the berry patch, where she explains the goats come in after season and clear the patch, taking out any weeds and cleaning for the next season. “It’s a lot about being self-sustainable and then when I realized if I can sell some of these berries, I can buy more chickens and help people get better, healthier eggs. It’s very expensive you know, to do it properly it’s very hard, it’s not cheap, it’s difficult, it’s a lot of work. You don’t take your time into consideration for your profit or your expenses, ever. And I’m in a lucky spot where I can do that. We find other ways. So much of what I want to do, what I like to do is education just as much as marketing or trying to sell anything or make a profit. It’s certainly, it’s not profitable, but we pay for all of our own food so to me that’s my measure. As long as it’s not coming out of our family budget and I am not covering a lot of my own expenses, to me that’s considered successful.”
I ask if she thinks her farm is a better model, and should be the cornerstone of the sustainable food movement and not a certification label? “Gosh, I mean, I don’t know, it’s hard. I mean, without doing it in bulk it would be hard for it to be, for it to sustain itself financially. It’s just hard, you get to a place where the more you have, the more land you’re needing, I don’t want to become the factory…But in order to grow at a rate that you can feed enough people and be Dole or be Tyson or be one of those things it’s not feasible to do it the way we’re doing. To allow everybody to free range like we do is wonderful and it’s so healthy for you but I don’t know that that’s 100% feasible for everyone to do that…I would love it to be the cornerstone that would be great. There’s not enough people, it’s so much work it is beyond, and we have a totally different set up. Some people will do just chickens, just birds, just turkey, just hog, just whatever. Where we are kind of doing it for ourselves and for others and so we enjoy having a variety and being able to do that. And we do it very small, we only have goat meat every once in awhile and as you can see our goats are pretty happy. I would love for everyone to be able to do that, I don’t know that there’s enough me and my daughter around willing to learn. So the people who grew up in this, who grew up in a farm, not much is changing for them, they’re not saying okay my grandpa, my dad had this farm but I’m going to stop spraying my corn. If you can get 60 bushels by spraying and 40 if you don’t, then it’s really hard, where do you draw the line? So, I don’t know there’s enough people starting fresh that would stay in it. I don’t know, it’s hard.”
Tara sells direct to consumers, and realized she “needs to have cuts available not just twice a year.” She “enjoys getting to know her customers” and knows “what health issues my customers are having and cuts meat specifically to their needs. Like duck eggs…higher in alkaline… it’s hard for cancer to survive in an alkaline environment. If the consumer asks me for something, I’ll do it…We have a lot of Muslim customers…we sell beef bacon” (at a customer’s request). “Goat meat, when there’s different Muslim ceremonies, we arrange our breeding and slaughter so it coordinates with those days so we can serve our customers. And I’ve got no problem doing that, if someone asks me, will you, can you? We have and we will. We rescue a lot of animals, we’ve trained and placed them places, sent them to other farms.” “… I’m not a farmer stuck in the middle of nowhere, I’m at the schools, I’m doing a lot with Illinois Stewardship Alliance.” Tara says she “had no idea the market we would have, we sell to restaurants…you get to know your customers really well and what their customers want.”
The scope of programs at Willow City Farm is truly impressive, and Tara’s passion and dedication are evident. There is no doubt the family has the greater good, and certainly our community, in mind. Everything from offering classes and field trips, to donating fertilized eggs to Bradley University for stem cell research and leftover animal products (heart, liver, etc. vacuum sealed, USDA inspected) to the Henson Robinson Zoo. This farm is totally full circle. “We make sure everything is used.”
I leave inspired, and with two pounds of ground beef and an Alpaca fur dryer ball (that works amazingly well, as promised). She welcomed me to tour the big farm, admitting “it’s a different world.” I’m taking her up on that offer!
- Marissa Joyce is a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Springfield. She contacted us in hopes of interviewing a sustainable farmer for a serious of blog posts she was doing for her masters. She visited Willow City Farm in November of 2017.