Our Heroes: Four Country Gals in Beryl, Utah

Shari Thomas of Four Country Girls

Over the winter, Ecocentric interviewed farmers across the country from our Eat Well Guide in an effort to highlight both the challenges and triumphs of sustainable farmers across the country. Join us as we delve in to discover what it means to be a farmer in the 21st century.

Shari Thomas of Four Country Gals in Beryl, Utah is a proponent of organic certification, and most enjoys when new life is brought onto the farm. She faces enormous challenges beyond farming, such as the 400 mile round-trip to the state inspected plant. Read on to learn more about the life of a farmer in Utah.

What do you grow/raise on your farm?

We raise Certified Organic Produce for the Cedar City Farmer's Markets. We're at the Downtown Cedar City Market on Wednesdays from late July into October. We are also a major sponsor of the year-round Farmers’ Market at our local IFA store. Additionally we raise beef, lambs, goats, chickens and rabbits. They are not organic, but are fed naturally as possible.

For the past 3 years, we've been designing, constructing, testing and operating an “aquaponics system” in our 12 x 20 double-layered hoop house. This is a closed loop system where the large tank holds fish in water (about 6 fish to 150 gallons of water). The water is constantly circulated, and then pumped to grow beds filled with gravel. That is where we plant our leafy greens. Once the plants have absorbed all the fish waste, and the gravel has filtered the water, it's returned to the fish to start the process over. The only thing we ever add is well water.

How many acres do you farm?

Our farm is actually 9.52 acres, but we are only using about 2.5 acres at this time. Our produce is raised on about 0.1 acre using hoop houses and intensive plantings.

What does your farm produce in a year?

This year, we should cross that $5,000 threshold for the Certified Organic requirement with our produce. We generally offer a dozen or so lambs for freezers (half or whole). We do have some goats available for spit roasting. The little weathers will be sold at about 45 days of age. We're keeping our does as next year, we'll be starting a micro-dairy/cheese operation.

Describe your local food community in four words.

Academic, curious, younger, easy-going.

What is your favorite aspect of farming?

This may surprise you, but the four of us absolutely love kidding, lambing, calving, and kindling time. More than one baby has found its way into our beds, the bathroom, dog crate by my bed, or even an empty aquarium. Our weather is always on the extreme side, either hot, or cold, and generally windy, so we do whatever it takes to help with survivability. Even though it's hard work and long hours (even spending the night in a goat or lamb shelter), the joy of new life makes up for the hard work.

How did you decide to get into growing food/raising animals? What did you do before you got into farming?

We all retired from other careers, and felt a change of scenery would be a great idea. Three of us are from Put-In-Bay, Ohio, and the other is from Forest Grove, Oregon. Once we had the change of scenery, we spent a year or so cleaning up the property while deciding what to do. A neighbor gave us three little bummers, so that's how we got started with lambs. Mom always wanted chickens, so we built her a chicken coop and got some birds. We do all the work, and she gets all the egg money. We bought a very pregnant range cow (Corriente/Long Horn/Jersey, and she gave us a 50/50 Hereford heifer). After a few years of breeding, we now have a good-looking heifer who will calve this summer. We started a garden and soon discovered the farmer's markets. Then, another neighbor traded us chores for Nubian goats. Same thing happened with the rabbits. They were gifts, too.

How did you get access to your land? Do you own or lease?

We bought the land virtually “sight unseen”. Our home sold and the new owner wanted to close very quickly. We had been looking in this area, and had seen this property on the Internet. We had a couple of cousins check it out. Their only comment was that if they were 30 years younger, we'd never have a chance at it.

The land is part of an old worn-out potato farm, which was flood irrigated. Over the years, because there was no cover crop, and no irrigation, it has become covered with invasive Russian Thistle, aka tumbleweed, and wild mustard.

Water is scarce, to the point that our entire valley is under a mandatory plan to reduce water usage by some 30,000 acre-feet over the next 60 years. We own 1 acre-foot and lease another from a neighbor who isn't ready to use his yet.

Are you USDA Certified Organic? If so, what motivated you to join the program? What is your philosophy of growing food/raising animals?

We are USDA Certified Organic. We had applied for an EQIP grant through the NRCS and one of the requirements was to become certified organic. We were already raising our produce using organic methods, so all we really had to do was write the Organic System Plan and pay our fee. We've been inspected for two years now. For folks who think it's a real pain in the butt to be certified, we say, you really don't know what you're missing. The fee's really weren't that high. We pay about $350 a year, total. Our animals are not part of the program, as there is no locally sourced certified organic feed and we have no pasture land yet. We truly believe that the more relaxed our animals are, the better they will taste for dinner.

What are some of the ongoing challenges you face as a farmer?

The first challenge for us is our age. We range from 59 to 83 and we're not getting any younger. We are continually looking for ways to employ systems, from placing hay within easy steps to feeders, to automating the livestock water, and irrigation in our hoop houses. Fuel costs and feed costs are always a challenge. We are a 95 mile round-trip from Cedar City, and a 130 mile round-trip from St. George. Our nearest town grocery/hardware/feed/fuel/post office/bank etc.) is 34 miles round-trip. We purchase our alfalfa locally, and maintain a loyal relationship with our supplier. He takes good care of us, ensuring we get high quality hay, and guaranteeing it to be mold-free. Generally we get about 7 or 8 blocks a year (80 three-string bales per block).

"Our weather is always on the extreme side, either hot, or cold, and generally windy, so we do whatever it takes to help with survivability. Even though it's hard work and long hours (even spending the night in a goat or lamb shelter), the joy of new life makes up for the hard work."

What institutional support would be helpful? (For example: Infrastructure for small-scale processing? Tech tools to help with communication with CSA members and/or the public, crop record-keeping, farm finances?)

Here in Utah, it's impossible to have meat processed under USDA inspection. We are able to market our lamb, beef, and if we have it, pork, using a State Inspected plant. Unfortunately, that plant is a 200 mile round trip. That means actually 400 miles as we have to return a week or two later to pick up the processed meat. If we had a plant in Southern Utah, that would lower costs to all of us. Another issue for all of us in our valley, where there are more sheep and cows than people, is a local large animal vet. The big boys can afford them, and some of the vets will come to their farms, but for us small producers, the vet costs are prohibitive - more than $150 just for the farm call.

Most people in the US have little connection to their food, let alone who’s growing it. What do you think people need to know about the realities of farming?

I don't think many people stop to think about what it takes to raise food for them to eat. For example, to have lambs for market this year, we had to breed the ewes last fall. No matter the weather this spring, we will be out in the weather with each and every one of our ewes as they give birth to ensure the lambs have a great start in life. We'll then feed and water the little ones for another 8 months, every day...no days off before they are ready for the dinner table.

In our gardens, the year begins just after harvest as we turn under the crop residue. We put away the irrigation system, and cover the garden with compost and chopped straw. By January, it's time to order seeds (that involves a lot of planning). With the hoop houses, we begin planting as soon as the nights stay in the 20's (hopefully April). Every day we water, check plant health, transplant, look for pests, etc.

For us, because we love it, farming is like a perpetual vacation - up when the sun comes up and to bed when the sun goes down. Without looking at a calendar, we can't tell you what day it is, and we like that!

Do you plan to grow your business? What do your plans entail?

We do plan to add a cheese operation in 2014. We'll focus on goat cheese first, making mostly goat mozzarella. It's also possible we'll make cajeta (caramel sauce made from goat milk). Once the aquaponics is fully operational, we dream of raising strawberries for the local market. For this year, we're adding a cargo trailer for our farmers’ market needs. That will allow us to have the entire market display available at all times, without having to load and unload the truck each week. We're also installing a small refrigerator in the trailer so we can keep our eggs at the proper temperature.