Canter Hill Farm: Starting a ‘Beyond Organic’ Farm from Scratch

heritage pork

Some farmers have farming in their blood.  Knowledge of agriculture and of the joys, hardships and value of farming have been passed down through generations, and the family tradition continues.  Increasingly, however, people who have not grown up on farms are learning to homestead, raise livestock and grow produce for their communities.  They want to know what the farmers on second, third and fourth generation farms know: How their food has been grown.  They want assurance that animals have been raised ethically.  So they plant fruit trees, grow grains and vegetables, raise livestock and collect eggs.

Wayne and Jeannette Grabe of Canter Hill Farm, which supplies Wolff’s Apple House with chicken and pork, are farmers of the second kind.  They started from scratch, taught themselves and learned from anyone who would teach them.

The seeds for the farm were planted several years ago when the Grabes started reading about the food system in the U.S.  They read “what everybody reads,” says Jeannette: The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan.  They also read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, which Jeannette does not recommend as a starting point since it’s pretty disturbing.  She says that as she read about the food system, she was “surprised by how much was allowed without being disclosed.”  There was little transparency between the industrial food system and the people who were eating the food.  Bothered by this, Wayne and Jeannette weighed the options.  They could lobby to change the system, and that would be good, but change could take decades.  In the meantime, they had four kids to feed and wanted to give them food they didn’t feel uncomfortable about feeding them.  So they decided that if they really wanted to know how the food was grown and raised, they would do it themselves.

They started Canter Hill Farm in 2008, moving from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania to a farm in Malvern.  For the first two years, they raised produce and animals just for themselves and a few friends.  As they established their farm, the Grabes strove to be “beyond organic.”  To them, that means that they are always looking for the natural way to farm.  In past centuries, farmers raised a mix of animals that benefited from each other, and these farmers did not use chemicals.  That is the way the Grabes seek to farm.  They also believe in selling to their community, so that whoever buys from them can easily come out and see the farm and learn about the way the animals are raised.

chickens-in-pens

As they thought about what was “natural,” they were motivated by a belief that “before chemicals, labs and factory farms got involved, God had created a perfect, workable system,” as they state on their web site.  Jeannette says believing God designed a good system encourages them to keep digging if there are problems, trusting that there is a solution.  It also lets them delight in the ways that animals have been created.  They ask themselves what animals enjoy doing, and challenge themselves with the questions: “Are we providing them a good life?  Are we giving them protection?”  When it came to raising pigs, Wayne and Jeannette knew that pigs absolutely love foraging, so they gave them a whole forest to root through! (They have “traversing rights” to the wooded 50 acres next to their property that is owned by the township, and these rights include allowing the pigs to forage there.)

Starting out and learning about this system, they had plenty of twists and turns.

First there was the “Mistake of the Midget Chickens,” as Jeannette has titled this chapter.  They purchased hens from a catalog, and the pictures looked promising.   But the chickens never grew.  At first, the Grabes thought they just weren’t feeding them enough, so they increased their feed.  Then a farmer stopped by and told them what they were raising were Bantam hens, which, it turned out, are tiny chickens that lay quarter-sized eggs!

Then there was the day they got a phone call asking if they’d lost a flock of sheep.  The flock had turned up on a neighbor’s property and Wayne and Jeannette had to go, like Little Bo Peep, and track down all the lost sheep.  Jeannette, who has kept her full-time job, called in to work: “I’ll be late this morning.  I have to find my sheep.”

Having learned from a few early mistakes, the Grabes now make sure they talk to someone else who has raised that particular animal or implemented a certain farming practice, and they also make sure that if they make any changes, they do so under observed conditions.  For instance, if they build a new type of shelter, Wayne, who has worked as a game ranger in South Africa and loves animals, will sleep outside until he is sure that the animals are used to the shelter.

Things are often changing at Canter Hill Farm because rather than starting out by raising a whole barnyard of different animals at once, they have added one new type of animal each year.  Believing that each animal complements the others, the Grabes cultivate diversity.  Their newest animal?  Ostriches!

Baby Ostriches

The Grabes purchased 17 ostriches in May.

Wayne and ostriches

This animal was brand new to the farm but not brand new to Wayne, who had learned how to care for them in South Africa.  They expect to be able to sell ostrich meat, which Jeannette says is even more tender than filet Mignon, by 2015 or 2016.

Petting baby ostriches

Just as they have decided to take it slow with adding new animals year by year, their farm business has expanded slowly.  It wasn’t until 2010 that they began to sell at farmers markets, and even then it was only one, and only eggs.  Jeannette took 25 dozen eggs to the Bryn Mawr Farmers Market, and when she’d sold them all, she came home.   In 2013, the Grabes started attending more farmers markets and now sell Canter Hill Farm products at six farmers markets (Media, Eagleview Town Center, Bryn Mawr, Chestnut Hill, Downingtown and Malvern).  Just this summer, they began selling chicken and pork to Wolff’s Apple House, and it was the first store they ever sold to.  Jeannette says it’s a good match: another family business, and one that understands small farmers and knows that since they are a small farm, they have a finite supply of meat.

Here at Wolff’s, we’re delighted to be working with Canter Hill Farm.  It has taken us a long time to begin selling meat because we wanted to be absolutely sure it came from farms that were committed to bringing you high-quality meat and raising animals ethically.  We are very glad to have found Canter Hill Farm!