As part of the weekly blog post series, Maryland FarmLINK will begin to feature an interview with a farmer or local food advocate occasionally.
Maryland FarmLINK: Will you tell us about yourself?
Susie: The farm has been in the family since 1800. I was born and raised here on the farm. I am the 8th generation and my son just had a little boy who is the 10th generation on this farm. We are vested in this land and want to make it as sustainable as possible so that it can support each generation with fulltime farmers. I always wanted to be outside and farm with my dad since being a young girl. When it was time for me to go to school I decided to go to University of Delaware and study agriculture. It was 1973, and I was the only girl in a lot of my classes. My advisor told me women could not be farmers and I had to pick a career that woman could do. So I started in agriculture journalism, which was very interesting, but I quickly realized that it was not for me. I switched over to focus on livestock management and agriculture education.
I came home to the farm in 1977. My dad was the Maryland secretary of agriculture at the time so he wasn’t always available to be on the farm and the farm manager here was leaving. My dad asked if I could stay through the summer to manage the farm until he could find somebody else. I said that was fine and turned down the job offers that I had. One month led to the next, I started getting my own cattle, my own tobacco crop. I started vesting myself into the farm and then I didn’t want to leave. It was not a conscious decision at that time that I was going to stay home and be a farmer. It just happened.
Maryland FarmLINK: Will you tell us about your new venture, Battle Creek Beef, and what you grow and produce on the farm?
Susie: We own 320 acres here and we lease another 400 acres. The farm has traditionally been a tobacco and livestock farm, but the main source of income was always tobacco. We transitioned from tobacco before the buyout, and came up with new ways to keep the farm sustained. I have done cattle, sheep, feeder hogs, all of which were sold to specialty markets or individual consumers. We have also boarded horses over the years, up to 35 at a time, and built an indoor arena. We boarded horses for 18 years, which gave us that cash flow to do some innovative things on the farm, like upgrade our equipment.
Recently, my son came home to farm and we made the decision to transition away from horses. We looked at a range of different options, but the one we were most set up for was cattle. We already had our fields fenced, automatic waters, feeders, the silo and our cattle barns were established. We decided that cattle seemed to have the least amount of investment to start the new enterprise, Battle Creek Beef. We sell beef by the cut now and at a farmers market. We sold our first cuts this past July. We also purchase from a farm we have a close relationship with in Southwest Virginia. He supplies what we cannot yet produce. We are up to 20 cows here on the farm and we hope to get up to about 35 cows. Anything over that we need, we plan to buy through our friend who will sell us his weened calves. We do this because it is important for us to have the same genetics, but we realize that it will take us anywhere from five to ten years to get to that scale on our own. Lastly, you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. Soy beans, wheat, hay and corn are currently raised here on the farm. We also breed Labrador retrievers.
Maryland FarmLINK: Do you have any tips or advice for new and beginning farmers?
I used to be a young and beginning farmer [laughs]. Dad and I farmed together for a while but then he stepped back. He was good about letting me try new things. When I came home, I thought I knew it all. I had been to school for 4 years, I was going to tell him how to farm! And I quickly realized that what was in the books has to be mixed with practical experience. I realized that by listening to the older farmers, and learning from their experiences, that is ultimately where you really gain as a farmer.
I think that would be the advice to new and beginning farmers. Do your research, but use the knowledge that the seasoned farmers have. Seek advice from them, it can save you a lot of heartache and money. The new ideas are great, and combined, the two can make a very progressive farm. I have made a lot of mistakes, and farmers can learn from those. They can also learn from the successes that I have made from making those mistakes. It is very important to be educated and keep up with the newest innovations, but then to also go and talk to people. If you are going into chickens, go talk to those chicken farmers and see what they have done. More than likely, if they are still in business, they are doing something right.
You also ask me about advice to young farmers. If you have an idea, do not give up! Anything is possible if you are willing to put the hard work in. A lot of times the older generation will say, and my father was no different, “that’ll never work” or “you don’t want to get into that”. If you really believe that it could work, and you can do a business plan and show that you can make this happen, you can make that dream come true.
This post is part of a two-part interview. Coming next week, Susie’s perspective on creating a better food system and the role of agriculture in local communities.