Today I wanted to debut a wonderful new series that has been a joy and labor of love (have you ever transcribed audio? Whew!) for me. I had this idea for doing interviews with local farmers in my community and when I shared the idea with my husband, he was on board, encouraging me all the way. Together we work on these interviews to share with you, my beautiful readers and our amazing community.
The inaugural interview was with Clyde and Sue Harkrader of Pink House Farm in Louisa, Virginia and they were a delight to speak with! They are a sweet, knowledgeable and wise couple. I could go on but I will let them speak for themselves!
For anyone who does not know, my name is Catherine and my husband is Brian. The interview includes both of us and the Harkrader’s.
Clyde and Sue Harkrader of Pink House Farm in Louisa, Virginia
Catherine: So, tell us a little about Pink House Farm!
Clyde: Well, this is my grandparents’ place, and we moved here when they died in the 90’s and we weren’t farming it really direct to consumer. I actually started doing barbecue for people, parties, things like that. Then I decided, hey, I’m doing enough of them, maybe I should start raising my own pigs. So we started with pigs and then we realized there was a market for the pigs and the pork as well. And this was about the time when farmers markets and direct sales had started to catch on so we got involved with that. We started with pigs and then included the chickens and just this past year we really started with vegetables and beef too. The beef cattle graze on the back acreage, we have a total of 450 acres. We’re producing for the farmers markets, we sell to a couple of restaurants and a grocery store and then we have people come here to the farm and buy from us. We have what we call our “Farm Share.” It’s sort of like a membership, you pay a fee and join and once you join, you can come every week and shop from what we have. There’s no maximum or minimum, it’s just like walking into a country grocery store. Everything we have is naturally, locally produced and fresh. Either we produce it or it’s from another small farmer. I work with other small farmers around if I know that they’re doing a really good job raising something then we’ll buy it and sell it for them.
Catherine: Oh wow, that’s a really good idea! Then you don’t have to grow all the varieties and every type of produce or meat.
Clyde: One thing I’ve realized is that you really can’t do everything. At least you can’t do everything well, every time. Sometimes your tomatoes aren’t going to do well, but someone else’s did. Your cucumbers maybe got bugs in them and someone else’s didn’t. As long as I know that they’re growing naturally, organically. And that helps them out too because some of them are really too small to do what we’re doing. We’re on a micro scale but some folks are not big enough to do that but they do a really good job growing a particular thing.
Catherine: I think that’s how things should be done these days. Move away from the grocery store. I mean really, to know who your farmer is and where your food came from and kind of eliminate the grocery store as the middle-man.
Clyde: The biggest difficulty is distribution it seems to me with the small farm. You drive all the way out here, and you get pork chops, then you drive 10 miles the other way and get beef, and somewhere else for vegetables. It’s hard to have time to do all that, even if you really want to. So what we’re trying to do is make it so that you can come here and really buy all your groceries, as long as you’re willing to eat local and seasonal. We don’t have lemons and olive oil and coffee but we do have fresh, local food including vegetables year round. That’s the advantage for our customers is that they can buy all their groceries if they want to.
Catherine: That’s great! How many farm share customers do you have right now?
Clyde: About 30.
Catherine: And you say you’re small scale! That sounds pretty big to me! That’s a lot of people every week and a lot of food.
Bernadette the bird dog, 11 years old and playful as a puppy! Every farm needs a farm dog!
Clyde: So our typical week we have beef, pork, chicken and 6 or 8 different kinds of vegetables and honey and we have herbs and teas from local folks too.
Brian: Is this what you guys are doing full time?
Clyde: Almost full time. I have one day at the office still. I’m a lawyer by training. I’ve been a lawyer for 30 years.
Catherine: That’s quite a transition from lawyer to farmer!
Clyde: I get really tired of the contentiousness of the practice of law, litigation, people fighting over stuff. More and more it just seems to me like there are a lot of sharp people involved in the law but so much of the time they’re just wasting their time. It began to feel like a real waste of my gifts and my time.
Brian: What was your main driving force for you leaving the law profession and getting into farming?
Clyde: The more we did of this, the more I loved it. The more I did of that [law], the more I didn’t. I had gradually become disenchanted with that and like I had said, I felt like it was a waste of gifts. I sort of imagined the epitaph on my tombstone saying, ‘He was a competent divorce lawyer.’ That didn’t seem like much of a life’s work. Again, I was seeing really brilliant people, some really sharp minds spending all of their time fighting with other people over stuff. ‘That chair is my chair, that chair is your chair.’ Is that going to be your life’s work? Even on a very high level and people are paying you good money to do it, it just feels like a waste. Your time, your gifts, your talents. I didn’t want to be doing it anymore. The more we did of this, the more I loved it. Working with the animals, I love being outside, I love growing plants. It wasn’t a difficult decision, the difficulty was finding a way to actually make a living doing it. That’s the real trick.
Catherine: If you love something and are good at it, you make it work. And clearly you guys are making it work very well!
Clyde Harkrader of Pink House Farm in Louisa, Virginia
Catherine: You did mention earlier that when you work with other farms, you like to make sure that they institute more natural and organic practices. So what are your thoughts on GMO’s and organic practices in general?
Clyde: Very opposed to GMO’s. First of all, I don’t see that they provide any advantages to farmers or consumers. If you’re eating it, why do you want to be eating a GMO? As far as the consumer is concerned, there’s no advantage. There may be risks, we really don’t know what these things do to you yet. We didn’t know what DDT did to you until after the fact too and a lot of other things the same way. There are organic pesticides that work, approved for organic use and now have been found to cause real problems and are off the list. But at one point they were ‘organic.’
I’m opposed to GMO but also just the organic label doesn’t do much for me and I don’t think it does much for the consumer either. There are a lot of pesticides that are approved for organic use that I wouldn’t want to eat. The thing that used to be touted was, ‘We need this to feed the world,’ but none of the GMO crops have really increased the yield in them. Really the only thing it allows you to do is to spray RoundUp on the crop. Initially the glyphosate (which is the active ingredient in RoundUp), was said to be inert but now they’re finding out lots of problems. It stays in the ground forever. And that’s the whole point of using GMO corn and soybean, which are the biggest ones, the real advantage is that you can spray herbicides that are now found to cause lots of problems. So for the consumer, there’s no advantage to them and probably a real danger.
For the farmer there’s less and less advantage. It used to be that it saved you from doing all the tillage, the cultivating. But now plants have developed resistance to glyphosate so now they’re doing seminars on how to mix these special cocktails of herbicides with glyphosate and 2-4d and other things you can put together and spray on your plants so they work more effectively. The whole point was to kill the weeds and now they’re not even doing that. So the solution is to keep spraying more and more chemicals! How about we just don’t have genetically modified food? That way we don’t have the danger to the consumers since they’re not providing any real advantages to the farmer either.
Catherine: I agree. But, but, I don’t want my apple to turn brown! I don’t care what it had to be done to it, just as long as it doesn’t turn brown! (Sarcasm!)
Catherine: So how do you manage pests and disease, since you don’t use chemicals?
Clyde: We try to do as much as we can through timing of planting. There are lots of different ways. For example, flea beetles that eat up eggplants are more active in May than they are later in June, so if you wait till later to put your eggplants in the ground, you’re going to have less damage from the flea beetles. They are certain varieties that are more disease-resistant as well so you look for those. They have lots of materials now like insect nesting and row covers that will help protect against frost but also keep bugs out. We’re moving to starting to grow a lot of things underneath row covers. They let in light and water but keep out the bugs. It’s a garden blanket.
Four Devon yearlings meandering through the pasture.
Catherine: How do you fertilize your crops?
Clyde: We use a lot of compost. Animal manures are the best natural fertilizers so we use a lot of that. Every time we harvest a crop, we incorporate more compost into the top 2” of soil and we’ll also add limestone.
Catherine: Are your livestock fully grass fed or do you supplement with grain?
Clyde: The beef cattle are entirely grass fed and then hay in the winter time which is just stored grass. Chickens and pigs are omnivores so they have to have something besides grass. They can’t process the cellulose in grasses the way cows can with their four stomachs. So we feed them a combination including non-GMO corn. We’ve gotten big enough at this point that we can go to a farmer and ask him to grow 30 acres of non-GMO corn and we’ll buy it from him. Corn prices are low enough so that farmers are looking for ways to make more money on their corn crop. Then we combine it with a protein like soybean but we have the same GMO issue there so we buy a soybean by-product called okara which is a by-product of making tofu. It’s from a local commune called Twin Oaks. One of their main products is organic tofu. They grind up the organic soybeans, add water and enzymes and then they take off sort of a milk that’s been congealed to make the tofu. What’s left behind is the more fibrous part of the bean which is very high protein and looks like mozzarella cheese. So we feed that to the pigs. And the pigs love it!
Tamworth hogs enjoying the sunshine.
Brian: What did you start with here on the farm?
Clyde: We started with the pigs.
Brian: What would you say to someone who wanted to get started in farming? Or maybe even specifically pigs?
Clyde: Pigs aren’t the easiest thing to start with. People tend to either really like pigs or not like them. They tend to be destructive, they don’t just graze across the ground. They root things up and tear things up. They’re big and strong. You think about little piglets but they can get up to 700-800lbs and they’re almost the size of a cow. It’s not the easiest animal, but I really like pigs. We do a lot of barbeque anyways so it was a natural fit. Chickens are probably a whole lot easier place to start. You’ve got a smaller animal, you can have meat, you can have eggs, you get manure. They’re producing manure if you want to get into vegetable gardening. So I’d say you’d probably want to start with chickens.
Catherine: It’s the gateway farm animal!
Clyde: If you’re starting with pigs, I’d start with raising some feeder pigs. Buy some and raise them up for slaughter rather than trying to start with a breeding pair. It’s like going from checkers to three-dimensional chess! Of course that’s what I recommend but it’s not what I did! I knew I wanted to breed and raise pigs so I jumped in and got a boar straight away. But it does increase the difficulty level. Because you have to keep him separate, feed him separate.
Catherine: And he probably doesn’t want to be separate!
Clyde: And he doesn’t want to be separate!
One of the Tamworth hogs that Pink House Farm raises for meat. They’ve got a great temperament and their meat is amazing!
Catherine: If you could go back and do it differently, is there anything you would have done differently?
Clyde: It worked for us. I was doing a lot of barbequing. I wanted pigs, I needed pigs, it worked for me. If I were just starting out with a blank slate I would recommend starting with something easier like chickens.
Sue: He was really fortunate too. He had a good working relationship with another pig farmer. She sold him a boar that turned out to be a wonderful board. At 800-900lbs, he would walk up to you and scratch his head on your leg and then roll over for a belly rub. He was the most gentle, easy going, wonderful animal. We were fortunate that she was good to us that way. So we started off on a good note.
Catherine: What breed of pigs do you have?
Clyde: We have Tamworth. They are great and really hardy. They’re supposed to be the closest domesticated pig to the wild boar. They’re not the easiest to keep because they’re quick, agile, curious and smart too. They do not like to be confined. They have really great meat, good for anything. It’s a very red meat. Pastured-raised Tamworth meat is red and looks more like a steak.
Brian: So you guys have a store here on your property?
Clyde: Our kitchen! Right now it’s our kitchen. The greenhouse we’re putting up is just down the road on the corner of Route 33 and Windy Knight Road.
Their brand new greenhouse off of Route 33 in Louisa
Catherine: Oh wow I didn’t realize that was yours! We passed it on the way and I commented to Brian about it!
Clyde: Hopefully within the next year there will also be a store building there with the greenhouse. We will also have some gardens there as well.
Catherine: That’s exciting! Do you own or lease that land?
Clyde: It belongs to a friend of ours. He and I work together on a lot of stuff.
Catherine: That’s another thing I love is when farmers are working together, bringing that sense of community back.
Clyde: It’s really one of the keys to succeed as a small farmer. We’re all so independent, we live in such an independent culture where everybody’s supposed to be a ‘rugged individual’ and go your own way. Especially for this micro, small business, it’s so hard to do it on your own. It seems like sometimes no one wants to cooperate. Just like we do it on a small scale here, we want to do the same thing at the store building. If I can support you and buy eggplants and strawberries from you, that’s going to benefit all of my customers, which benefits me, which is going to benefit you. I think that’s the way it needs to work. You can’t do it all yourself. Supporting and helping other people is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing! I think it oughta work that way.
Catherine: It’s not Food Lion vs Martin’s, it’s neighbors working together!
Clyde: Exactly. That’s what I tell people. It’s not me as a small farmer against you as a small farmer. It’s us against the big chain grocery stores, that’s our competition. Getting people to change the paradigm and buy food from their neighbor.
Sue: It’s like my favorite t-shirt that I’ve see. In big letters “WHO’S YOUR FARMER?” And it reminds you, know where your food comes from, know who is taking care of it and what his principles are and you’ll know what you’re eating and what you’re putting in your body. We just don’t even think about what we’re putting in there.
Catherine: Yeah, it’s just “food: grocery store.” That’s the train of thought.
Sue: It doesn’t really matter how that animal was treated or what it was treated with or what it ingested or what you’re ingesting! That’s what you’re taking in to your body! And people also just don’t realize that it tastes good! Not only is it better for you but it tastes good!
Catherine: It does! It’s not even a comparison! But then you get to the grocery store and see, “Oh well this one is only $3 a pound! And I don’t have but $25 today.” So it makes it hard sometimes but you just have to make that conscious choice and make it a part of your habit when you go to the store.
Sue: We have young families who do the farm share with us and they’re trying to feed their families on a budget, but they’re trying to feed them good food. So they budget what they’re getting and they don’t always eat meat with a meal or they eat smaller portions of meat to the vegetables.
Catherine: So people can buy your products from your house through the farm share, they can buy them on your website, are there any stores that people can go to for your products?
Clyde: If someone is interested in the farm share, they can come twice to shop around and check it out before committing to the membership. Anyone can come by to shop for the meats. Harvest Market in Spotsylvania Courthouse carries our pork and chicken. The Caboose Wine and Cheese restaurant in Ashland buys bacon and pork from us. We’re also at the Mineral Farmer’s Market on Saturdays.
Their first tractor, a 1959 Super A Farmall that has made their work much easier at Pink House Farm, although they still enjoy using good ol’ fashioned hand tools for much of their work.
Catherine: What is your favorite or most rewarding aspect of farming?
Sue: A simple favorite is walking out in the morning to let the chickens out and seeing the sunrise. I get to be close to nature, close to God and seeing the beauty of creation in this environment. To be such an intricate part of it and take care of it. I think that’s at the essence for me.
Clyde: We’re so close to creation. They say ‘There are no atheists in foxholes’ but I think it’s really hard to be an atheist farmer. Because you’re there all the time with amazing sights of creation. Whether it’s piglets being born or a seed sprouting. So many things that we deal with are miracles that we don’t understand and scientists don’t even fully understand and farmers work with just as a matter of course in trust because the sun always comes up and plants grow. You’re faced with that every day, every morning when you walk out to the chickens and see the sunrise. You’re living so close to creation that it’s hard to forget. So that is amazing.
Catherine: What would you say is your least favorite or most challenging aspect of farming?
Clyde: Beyond the obvious that the ground is infested with thorn and thistle and you earn your living by the sweat of your brow. So much of our food culture over the last 50 years or so has been going exactly the opposite direction [from what we do] so sometimes it’s not like trying to turn your car around but trying to stop a train. And you’re holding on for dear life. As relatively large as the local food movement has become compared to what it was 20 years ago, it’s still a very small fraction of what Americans are consuming. Once you understand how the system really works and what most people are actually eating, you just feel really bad for them. You want to educate them and provide a better quality food for them. It’s frustrating that you can’t. You’re always engaged in an apologetic for good food. That can get tiring. People get disconnected from the source of their food and they get disconnected from the source of everything, from the source of creation. If you don’t know where your food comes from then you don’t know who gave you food in the first place. So what we’re trying to do is reconnect people with that. That’s a huge challenge.
Sue: Educating people is challenging. People are becoming more educated and getting more outraged at the lines they’re being fed and the food they’re being fed and they’re saying ‘No’ to it. So you see more and more, across the generations too. They’re saying no to processed foods and grocery stores, they’re becoming educated.
Catherine: Although there is that movement towards healthy living, McDonald’s is still serving a billion burgers a day! A lot of people still stuck in that mindset of, ‘Well, I’ve only got $5, I have to go to McDonald’s or Burger King because that’s all I can afford right now.’ But they just don’t know any better yet.
Clyde: Think about how much nutrition is in a dozen eggs. We sell a dozen eggs for $4. Some think that’s expensive. But how much nutrition is in a dozen eggs? If you’ve got a dozen eggs and a pound of ground beef, which we sell for $6, you’ve spent $10 for 4 people to have all the protein they need. How much are you going to get at McDonald’s for $10? When you look at the nutritional value of what you’re getting, it only makes sense.
Sue: I saw a sign that was disturbing at a fast food restaurant that said “New, all natural hamburger.” And I thought, so this restaurant has been around for years, what were they serving BEFORE?
Clyde: The good thing is that they’re trying to imitate what we’re doing. I love the quote, “First they’ll ignore you, then they will mock you, then will attack you and then you will win.” So we’re somewhere in the middle of that process, between mocking and attacking.
Catherine: Absolutely! We’ll just keep pushing forward through it all!
Well, you’ve answered all of my questions! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us! We’ve had a great time talking with you and learning from you! You are both awesome!
Pink House Farm in beautiful, scenic Louisa, Virginia!
Clyde and Sue: You’re welcome! We’ve enjoyed it too! We’re Pink House Farm, where all our animals are
And for anyone who is wondering, it’s called Pink House Farm because when Clyde’s grandparents owned it, it was all pink. Growing up, he and his family would all call it the Pink House and it stuck, despite the paint color changing over time.
You can learn more about Pink House Farm from their website or their Facebook page! We had a great time with Clyde and Sue on a beautiful August afternoon, a rare day with low humidity here in Virginia. We talked, laughed, got to know each other and played with their farm dog Bernadette (pictured above). I highly recommend you check them out online and if you’re local, reach out to them and plan a farm visit! They have so many great products and you can rest assured knowing it was all grown, raised and harvested ethically and sustainably.
Stayed tuned for more local farmer interviews! This is already my favorite project yet!
Local Farmer Interviews
- Pink House Farm – Louisa, Virginia
- Dragonfly Farms – Beaverdam, Virginia
- delli Carpini Farm – Beaverdam, Virginia
- Phantom Hill Farm – Louisa, Virginia
Till next time,