By Angela Madaras | Photos by Fresh Coast Photography
This past summer I was privileged to visit Old Pine Farm in bucolic Manchester, Michigan, where a variety of breeds are raised to produce high quality beef, pork, chicken, and lamb. I found my host, farmer Kris Hanna, wrenching a piece of equipment when I pulled into the driveway by her charming yet modest farmhouse. I noticed she had little by way of “garden or landscaping,” which she later explained is not her area of expertise. Her son did a fine job of perennial plantings in the area surrounding her homes’ entrance as a Mother’s Day gift. The iconic Midwest red barn with silo stands proud among several smaller barns and paddocks, dappled by a background of rolling green fields. These fields lead way into wooded trails where lazy cows spend sunny days in the shade. As we meandered down a hill that snakes between the smaller structures and a chicken grazing yard I could see free-range hogs mudding themselves. Hanna pointed out a patch of kale, radish, and other verdant delectables she lovingly planted for the fowl. I was struck by a calming sense of place from a gentler time of years gone by. There were no cars on the secluded dirt road, and all I could hear was the wind in the trees, the muted sounds of the animals, and soft music echoing from a barn.
I came to her farm for an interview because I wanted to know firsthand her philosophies in raising grass-fed animals for meat and what life is really like for a small scale sustainable livestock farmer. I wondered if she spent winters hibernating, reading livestock catalogs, recuperating from fall’s harvest, and planning for the year ahead. I was also curious if she had help or collaboration in managing the rigors of farm life. I soon realized just how busy she is on a daily basis all seasons long. Just in the one day I visited in August, Hanna witnessed a calf being born before she engaged in the morning chores, moved animals around pastures, checked the fences, engaged in office work, errands, and picked up vegetable scraps from Hand Sown Farm near Manchester. Here in the late afternoon we talked as we fed the organic vegetable “scraps” out of eight large plastic bins to exceptionally healthy-calm hogs; a “swine salad bar” of sorts. This is one of many ways in which she collaborates with other neighbors and farmers like Hand Sown Farm, and The Gardner Farm where she pastures some of her cows.
The extra effort that goes into community collaboration is quite time consuming. I could see that it is a true passion for her, well worth it in the long run. Not only do the animals benefit, the entire community reaps rewards in the end. In this way, one landowner can lease acres to grow hay or pasture cows, while yet another vegetable farmer reduces the amount of compostable matter on their scrap pile in order to feed her happy hogs. It is also about building sustainable relationships and healthy farming practices that benefit future generations. I, for one, because I have grandchildren who will inherit the earth, appreciate the added value and positives this endeavor produces.
Hanna clarified that her philosophy ensures that all the animals she cares for are free-range, pastured, never subjected to a feed lot or fed corn, are GMO-free, with no growth hormones or animal by-products. They also do not use steroids or feed antibiotics. Old Pine sells their meat frozen, on their website exclusively; pork by the half and whole, beef by the eighth, quarter, half and whole, chicken only in variety packs with beef and pork, and lamb by the half and whole when available. Her products sell pretty fast because of happy regular customers who pre-order in advance of processing to ensure all meat harvested is sold. Because of this conservation-minded and compassionate approach there is no waste or glut. This seems a much more responsible and respectful way to engage in farming practices. In addition, the livestock are humanely treated throughout the animal’s life. I witnessed her benevolent behavior with my own eyes and through her eloquent words:
Everyone’s definition of “humane” is a bit different. In my case, I believe animals should be on pasture and in open space whenever possible. I’ve also learned over the years that working around the animals in an even-tempered manner is really helpful. I think it makes for a better, calmer life for them and a better product for us. I’ve seen pigs rotated on pastures that roll over for a belly scratch. I “talk” to my cows and sometimes scratch their backs! When I’m working in the barn I play music. It makes the animals much easier to work with. Stress hormones and meat are not a good combination.
Stress on every level is not good for the animals nor the flavor, consistency, and color of meat as noted here by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: “The energy required for muscle activity in the live animal is obtained from sugars (glycogen) in the muscle. In the healthy and well-rested animal, the glycogen content of the muscle is high. After the animal has been slaughtered, the glycogen in the muscle is converted into lactic acid, and the muscle and carcass becomes firm (rigor mortis). This lactic acid is necessary to produce meat, which is tasteful and tender, of good keeping quality and good color. If the animal is stressed before and during slaughter, the glycogen is used up, and the lactic acid level that develops in the meat after slaughter is reduced. This will have serious adverse effects on meat quality.”
The end result of her efforts, respect for the animals, stewardship of the land, and endless labor is that customers enjoy very tasty-healthy fare! And there is little to no “down time” for a nonstop livestock farmer as Kris Hanna explains in the following interview, for which I am very grateful.
So Kris, do you spend time studying or researching farming and related fields? In other words, how much time do you allocate to education, new research, and agriculture news as part of your “farm work”?
I do spend time studying. The timing varies. I participate in MSU grass-fed beef programs and pasture walks around the state whenever they are available and the timing works (maybe four or five a year). I’m a member of the Mid Michigan Cattle Association and another Grazing Group. I also subscribe to a magazine called Graze. Through MSU extension, I receive information via email regularly and a daily email Ag News Report. I was also lucky enough to attend a national grazing conference last fall put on by the Grass-fed Exchange.
How much time do you spend on marketing, promotion, sales, emails, office, and so on?
One to two hours a day on average. I can work in this area as much as four to five hours in a day. It is a big part of my job.
A few years ago I remember you and one of your sons attending, as local delegates, Slow Food International Terra Madre bi-annual event in Turin, Italy.
[To give a bit of background, this event assembles thousands of “slow food” producers who observe fair and sustainable food practices from around the world. Together, farmers, fishermen, chefs, educators, millers, beekeepers, vintners, bread bakers, and cheese purveyors are selected to participate based on their commitment and practice of upholding Slow Food principles in creating a “good, clean and fair” food system.
In 2010, Kris and her son, Casey Hirth, were joined by Brandon Johns of Grange Kitchen and Bar, John Savanna of Mill Pond Bread, and Deirdra Stockmann, and Kim Bayer, both leaders of Slow Food Huron Valley, to represent the Ann Arbor area. Slow Food Huron Valley is a nonprofit that works to strengthen our region’s food system, build community food security, and preserve our culinary heritage. They aim to inspire a transformation in food policy, production practices and market forces so that they ensure equity, sustainability and pleasure in the food we eat.]
Were your sons’ active in farming and food as youth?
Both sons were involved in 4-H and showed steers, hogs, dairy cows, goats, and chickens. The last time they showed was around 2009. Casey (Hirth) was sent to Turin as a young farmer delegate by Slow Food Huron Valley. I was also one of the farmer delegates from our area who attended. Josh (Hirth) cuts and transports the hay from our field in Saline, where my parents have owned acres of land on which they grow hay. They both appreciate quality food and one of them works in the cooking industry.
Do you see the value in youth participating in organizations such as 4-H, and how did that shape your children? Were your parents active in this way? Do you have any words of wisdom to share in a world where kids may not have a sense of responsibility or understand hard work ethics?
4-H helped develop an immeasurable sense of responsibility and work ethic in both kids. That work ethic is still evident today in both of them. The first year they showed animals in the club I had friends and family commenting on the change in them. My dad loved farming and I believe there is a “genetic” love of farming that was passed on to me that can’t be denied! Neither parent was involved in 4-H as a child but my parents helped my kids with their 4-H projects and provided the barn and property for them to be raised.
Is farming a way of life for you or a passion?
It’s both. It has to be. It is not a great way to make a living as expenses meet income. I’m doing what I love and I am very grateful to be able to do it. It takes a lot of determination to keep going (hours are long, work is sometimes tough) and that’s because I have a deep passion for the animals I raise and take care of.
You mentioned that you are not a gardener. Many people make assumptions that every farmer can grow crops, tend gardens, and care for animals. What are your favorite and least favorite tasks?
I could possibly divide most farmers I meet into three groups. Like other professions there are “areas of expertise”: vegetable farmers, crop farmers, or livestock farmers. One of my favorite things to do is work with the cattle. I love to “call” and move them. When they are done eating a section of grass and need to go to a new area I call them. Heads pick up, moo’s start, and here they come — headed to the new grass I’m standing in and calling them towards! My least favorite task is anything when it’s 90 degrees or above or below zero! I work out in the weather every day. One task might be running and draining hoses when it’s below zero because a hydrant has frozen.
Can you offer more insight into your relationship with other area farmers? For example, the day I visited your farm you and I fed your pigs with vegetable scraps that were given to you by a local vegetable farm. Can you provide more on this subject? How important are relationships and community to you and your business?
I may not be in business without the farmers I network with. Hand Sown Farm and I have a great working relationship. We’ve shared farm workers, composted manure, and vegetable scraps! I’ve rented pasture from several other farmers and couldn’t have grass-fed without it. One of them has 30 legume-rich paddocks/pastures and, in my opinion, is essential to producing a good grass-fed beef product. I also purchase hay from another farmer to supplement what we produce.
How does being a full-time “Four Season Farmer” affect your social life, vacations, down-time, and other activities outside of the farm?
I’m fortunate enough to have a farm helper this year that is very reliable and helpful. Thanks to Richard R. From Manchester for helping me on the farm and allowing me much needed time away. I could not do it without his help. I also appreciate my sister, Kendra McClure, for helping in the busy seasons. There are times of the year that I absolutely can’t leave, like in the spring when baby calves and lambs are being born, (and fall when it is harvest time). I do work seven days a week, but with some planning I can take some time off.
I know from personal experience a farmer must also know construction, welding, mechanics, and a plethora of other skills. What skills have owning your own farm taught you that seem unrelated to farm chores?
I’ve definitely developed skills in all of those areas (maybe not so much welding). I also have learned to operate equipment, such as a skid steer, and different types of hay making equipment. Last year I bought a “sawzall” to cut some metal bars off a hay feeder! I don’t know if this is a “skill,” but one of the biggest things farming has taught me is confidence.
Who is your favorite writer of farm related subjects?
Probably Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, Northern Virginia. I also really appreciate the unpublished work of Gabe Brown in the area of polycultures. He is out of the Dakotas.
Who and what inspired you to start your own farm?
My dad, who passed away last year, inspired the farmer in me. Farming was his passion. That being said, my mom has always been passionate about healthy food. Between the two of them, and my love for animals, I believe becoming a grass-based farmer was a natural choice!
I grew up in Ann Arbor and attended Ann Arbor Public Schools, but my family/grandparents owned a farm in northwest Ohio (where I was born and then moved to Ann Arbor at about the age of four). We went there regularly while I was growing up; my dad loved the field/crop work and being outdoors working on the tractor. Visiting the farm was by far the most memorable and favorite part of my childhood. Eventually, my grandparents passed away, and the farm was visited much less often. It was sold in the late 90’s and my parents purchased about fifty acres near Saline. A place we’ve raised both livestock and hay. When in high school I considered becoming both a livestock veterinarian as well as going into agriculture. I was discouraged from going into agriculture for “financial” reasons. I went to Eastern Michigan University and received a B.S. and University of Detroit where I received a M.S. (Neither degree is in Agriculture). I worked full-time in an unrelated field for about nineteen years. When I was nineteen I moved out of Ann Arbor into the country and knew I would never live in the city again.
Do your customers notice a difference in your meat products compared to store bought and to other local farms? Is your meat better for humans than CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations) grown livestock? Why do you feel yours is better?
Absolutely...I hear that often! There is no comparison to grocery store meat — it’s not raised the same or processed the same. It’s really a totally different product. Ground beef in this country comes from multiple cows and multiple countries, combined into one package. Our meat comes from one cow only, processed one animal at a time. Our beef is 100 percent grass-fed and raised. There are so many definitions of “grass-fed.” Many give grain at some point in the cow’s life. Some grass-fed markets are now raising cows in feedlots on all hay as well. True grass-fed beef is high in omegas. You won’t find any beef higher in omegas than ours as all we’re feeding is rich grass and great legumes!
What breeds do you prefer to rear? I know you have some recognized by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy, as part of an effort to reintroduce endangered breeds into the marketplace and protect the genetic diversity of these animals.
We value genetic diversity and raise a variety of animal breeds recognized by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy and the Slow Food Ark of Taste that are adapted to our region. Some these include the Highlander Cattle, Berkshire and China-Poland Hogs, and Ketahdin Sheep.
Explain what and how you feed your livestock in basic, simple terms anyone can understand.
Beef: All grass and hay. Pork: Outside and fed a combination of G.M.O.-free grain. They were just turned into a turnip patch to eat and root. Chickens: Raised outside, free range, fed G.M.O.-free grain, grass, and scrap veggies. Lambs: Grass/hay only.
Do you work solely on the farm or do you depend on work outside of the farm to earn a living?
I have been farming at Old Pine for ten years while working part-time at a family engineering firm doing custodial work to help bring in extra income. I am 58 and hope to continue farming for as long as I am physically able and income meets expenses! This is a common challenge small organic farms face. I would like to share the Salon essay “What nobody told me about small farming: I can’t make a living” by Jaclyn Moyer, which I think is the best I have ever read on trying to earn a living off a self-started farm.
Can you share details of a typical “Day in your life as a farmer”?
Kris’s journal entry June 17, 2016
8:00–9:30 a.m. I’m at our “partner farm” in Northern Michigan. I traveled three hours yesterday pulling a livestock trailer containing two cows. (Weight on the combined cows about 2,700 lbs. — you know when you are pulling that kind of weight). They were brought up for the summer to enjoy some richer pastures!
This morning we were off to check and see how the cows are doing, their pasture grass height (all of them in this group equaled about 20 now) and to check the water tanks to make sure they were working o.k.
9:30–11:00 Packed and loaded to go home.
11:00–2:30 Headed home.
2:30–3:00 Had some lunch!
3:00 Fed a very pregnant cow a bale of hay and gave water. She’s up in the barnyard so I can keep an eye on her and make sure everything goes o.k. Also fed the 100 chickens we’re raising for meat!
3:45 Packed supplies, including a tarp, ropes, and straw to head to Saline where the sheep and hayfield are.
4:00 Left to go to Saline to string up a tarp (and lay down some straw), which will hopefully provide some shade as they are in full sun. Walked out in our hay field and checked on the newly mowed hay (my son just finished). It looks great!
5:30–6:30 Went to pick up diesel fuel for the tractor so my son could finish mowing hayfield.
7:00–7:30 Needed to go to the hardware for some fencing supplies, so did that on the way back from Saline.
7:30–8:30 Returned home to finish the rest of barn chores.
Whew! Another long day!
To learn more about Old Pine Farm, visit oldpinefarm.com. All their cuts come individually wrapped and frozen and are available on their website.