On the (Grassfed) Farm
By Reba Mize
Lucy weighs in at around 700 pounds; Thelma, Red and Louise at around 450. This, however, is no tan episode of America’s Biggest Loser. While buying fresh eggs at the Farmers Market from our friends Jeremy and Nina Prater they invited us to come of for a visit and this is how we ended up meeting this porcine population – Lucy and the girls are sows.
Kindness, grace and fun are not feelings you may associate with modern farming. But when Jeremy and Nina invited me to visit Windset and Cedar Creek Farms and I met the rest of the Prater family, who have forged this place with wit, wisdom, hard work, intelligence and sometimes delusional confidence, those qualities are what impressed me.
Follow me on my journey into this little piece of heaven.
As we turned off the highway near Cedarville, Vernon and I exhaled the city. A blue bird greeted us on the road. “That’s a good sign,” Vernon said.
I could feel the temperature drop 10 degrees as we pulled up to the flower-covered Prater home. Jeremy Prater, the self-described cantankerous farmer, greets us with giant cup of coffee in hand, dressed to perfection in striped overalls, boots and a low and slow smile. He allowed us to tag along for a tour of the cattle, goats, hogs and chickens they raise and along the way, explained how the kind of sustainable farming he and his family are doing is a way they can earn a living and enjoy what they do.
Walk with the animals
Jeremy leads us under the grape arbor, past his Granny Janice’s Monet-quality garden filled with giant sunflowers and the healthiest vegetables I have ever seen. Jeremy’s dad Bill joins us as we meet the milk goats. Jeremy speaks to each of the goats as if they are old friends, and indeed they are.
“Grandad milks at 7 in the morning and 7 at night,” Jeremy said. Grandma Janice sells goat milk. It is so good and if Janice who seriously looks in her 60s is any indication, forget about botox – live the goat milk life instead!
Jeremy keeps two herds: milk goats and goats raised for meat.
Our Arkansas eatin’ has gone big city, big time. Every foodie is lovin’ the goat, which is the most widely-consumed meat in the world and finally taking hold in the U.S.
In the latest ‘Best of New York’ issue of the New Yorker Magazine, a restaurant on West 24th says “These are the salad days in the big city for goat. Thanks to the barnyard revolution this once lowly farm animal has found a place on fancy dinner menus all over town.”
When I mention this to Jeremy he says “I have a chief in Atlanta that will buy all the meat I can supply for his restaurant right now.”
It’s that trend to “slow food” and organic, cruelty-free farming that encouraged Jeremy to believe he and his wife Nina could be, as their banner at the Farmers Market says, “A Pasture to Plate Family Farm.”
“I worked for the National Parks Service as an EMT for many years first in Colorado and then in Alaska. That is where I met my wife. Nina and I began to think about my home place. I wanted to preserve this place and I wanted to learn from my father and my grandmother and grandfather. What better way to incorporate the old and the new,” he said. “It is really just what our forefathers were doing because they could not afford to buy expensive herbicides, insecticides, antibiotics and supplements.”
All the livestock are pastured on grass that is not treated with chemicals. They move the stock every two or three days using temporary electric fencing. The Hereford, Santa Gertrudis, Red Poled and Short Horn cattle are knee deep in tall, fresh grass.
The Praters take beef orders in quarters, halves and whole beefs. He markets his beef, poultry, pork and goat meat on a website called hobbtowngrassfed.com, the Farmers Market and will soon sell cuts of meat at the Squash Blossom natural foods store in Dora, Ark. Besides the health benefits and the ethical consideration, the taste of grass-fed meat is amazing.
The sisterhood of the travelin' trailer chickens
While he is explaining the pasture rotation system, we have reached one of the most hilariously purposeful and beautiful farm structures you will ever see – the “chicken trailer.” An aqua-green 1950s travel trailer, still on wheels, that Jeremy converted to a portable chicken coop.
The cattle are moved to new pasture every three or four days, leaving behind many cow patties. Right behind the cattle comes the chicken trailer. The gorgeous Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Welsummers, Americaunas, Aconas, Buff Orpingtons and Black Australorps jump out and do the chicken dance, scratching around in the patties. They eat and therefore eliminate dangerous fly larvae and weed seeds and at the same time spread the manure, which is absorbed as fertilizer by the pasture.
From their nesting boxes in the trailer, the Praters gather the freshest, best dang eggs to sell at the farmers market – almost too simple to be true.
Pigs and goats beat weedwhackers and poison
“I always try to incorporate the animals into solving issues on the farm,” Jeremy explains. To clear brush, he allows pigs and goats to team up and do what comes naturally – eat everything in sight.
“When the young goats and pigs are fenced in, the pigs will eat the bottom and the goats will eat anything, feeding themselves and creating new pasture land for us in the future,” he said. He moves them to fresh forage just as he does the cows and chickens.
It’s another sustainable win/win for the environment and the animals. Jeremy said the goats stand on each others’ backs to reach higher on scrubby, sapling trees and vines.
These animals are caught up in the joy and troubles of life. Living here is like Disney World for them. Crazy happy excited lives lived.
The tough question
I ask Jeremy the question: How? How can you raise these animals with such joy and dignity and then eat them? I do not ask this with disrespect but with a real desire to know the answer as it is an issue I struggle with.
“When I met Nina she was a vegetarian, so you can imagine the hours of conversation we had about my dream of starting a farm. I decided that I was going to employ low-stress, cruelty-free practices,” he said.
He referred me to the work of Temple Grandin, an advocate for animal welfare whose philosphy about animals has influenced even the fast food industry to change to humane methods of growing and slaughtering animals for food.
I spoke about the same thing with Nina, who is soon finish her Master’s degree at the University of Arkansas in crop soil and environmental sciences. Her thoughtful answer is the idea that all life requires death on some level.
As Jeremy explained, “Think about how many acres of ground were cleared to grow your salad, how much water is pumped in, was a stream damned? How much habitat was lost to create that factory farm? There is a trade-off and we try to understand and accept this idea that perhaps we can make a difference.”
At last, I get to hug a pig!
Meeting the gentle brood sows Lucy, Thelma, Louise and Red was the fulfillment of a dream. I spent many days of my youth sitting on a rail fence, calculating the time it would take to run across the hog pen, grab a fresh pink spring pig and climb back up the fence before the massive mama sow could get me. But these ladies like me!
I?laugh as 700-pound Lucy flexes her wet snout against my leg, no doubt to get my I.D.
“I chose the breeds of pigs we work with – Tamworth, Black, Red Wattle and Berkshire, for their gentle nature,” Jeremy said. “I factored in the cost of one trip to the hospital against the higher cost of this breed and considered this as insurance. I bring my daughter here with me. You just can’t do that with most breeds.”
Lucy’s doing her job – she is pregnant. Her piglets will be about the size of Coke cans and I’m invited back to see them.
Those, I can hug.
If you should meet Nina and Jeremy at the Farmers Market, tell them Reba says hi to Lucy who is “some pig.”