Kathy Zeman has been in agriculture “all my life. I grew up showing cows, feeding cows, feeding calves. I bought my first farm in 1998. This is my third farm. Every farm got just a little bigger. You have to work an off-farm job to get your 20 percent down.”
Her current farm, seven miles from Northfield, is classified “highly erodible.” Yet, Zeman said, previous owners had been farming row crops. “The rows went from the top to the bottom of hills. The tops of the hills had poor soil. We stopped that — it doesn’t work for this kind of land.” Zeman put the acreage into grass and legumes. “That pretty much means you’re going to grow livestock,” she said.
Zeman raises pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys, ducks and chickens. “Everything is on pasture,” she said. “We don’t use medication. We feed them a healthy diet to raise their immune system and then we rotate.
“We allow our animals to move, move, move. If an animal is always stuck in the same building, year after year, it’s going to be hard to get rid of the disease environment.
“We work with the seasons. In the fall we just come down to our breeding flocks and herds. All of our breeding stock have access to buildings. The sheep and cows really don’t care. The hens don’t want to go out in the snow.”
Zeman makes goat milk soap and spins wool from the sheep. She sells meat and eggs through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions. She also has a farm shop open on the second Saturday of every month where customers can buy directly from the farm.
Getting livestock classified organic is a much bigger challenge than for fruits and vegetables, Zeman said. “You can’t get it certified until it has gone 36 months without prohibited material.” That’s 36 months for the grazing land, then another 36 months for the animals that graze on it. “Resources are few and far between. I buy feed two hours away, even though there’s a feed elevator two miles away. That’s a wee bit of shipping.”
As of August 2015, Zeman said, “The entire farm is organic. It was more paperwork than I ever wanted to do.”
Zeman’s next project is an organic orchard. “I am 57. If when you retire you do what you love to do, I would say I’m retired even though I never worked so hard in my life.”
What’s the best part of the job?
I get to raise the healthiest food in the world for people who understand that there are things you need to do to eat healthy and keep the planet healthy. I will leave this planet in better shape than I found it.
What’s the biggest challenge?
The financial pressure. Land is expensive. Your start-up costs are tremendous. I need customers that understand when they buy eggs from us, they are buying the future of these 20 acres.
What does it take to be successful in organic farming?
This is one of the few jobs that you really need to be good at a lot of things. I’m getting better at plumbing. I don’t go near electricity. Plumbing, you can’t kill yourself. It’s pretty critical to be tech savvy. That machinery used to just have parts, now they have electronics. That makes it more awkward. You have to follow all the laws and regulations. You have to know how to market and keep in touch with customers. And then plant, harvest, seed. It’s this fascinating job — I am never bored. □