The grand aim of the local food movement is to change the quality of food people are eating, making it as fresh and wholesome as possible, and to ensure that animals raised for food are treated with consideration for their health, dignity and happiness. Crozet and Charlottesville have a large market of people who are ready to support the costs of growing food according to organic principles and Albemarle, with a long tradition of agriculture, has the advantages of its temperate, fertile Piedmont landscape. It has optimal conditions for the success of organic, community-driven farming. But somebody has to show how it can be done as business.
Timbercreek Organics on Garth Road in Ivy, just west of the Foxfield Race course, is now three years into its goal of achieving a scale of organic production that will make it a reliable meat supplier to area restaurants and retail customers. Timbercreek chicken, pork and beef are available in Crozet at Crozet Great Valu, at Stinson Vineyards in White Hall and on the menu at Fardowners on The Square. In Charlottesville, Timbercreek is supplying such restaurants as Brookville, Revolutionary Soup, Tavola, Citizen Burger, The Local, The Whiskey Jar, Commonwealth Restaurant, Maya and Michael’s Bistro. Soon it will supply a new organic grocery on West Main Street that will feature locally grown products.
Timbercreek is managed by Zach and Sarah Miller, young and energetic thirty-year-olds. Zach grew up on the farm, 200 acres belonging to his grandmother that once was devoted to raising horses for flat racing. Zach had a brief career as a steeplechase jockey until a knee injury got him out of it.
Adjoining acres under lease bring the operation’s total area to about 500 acres. They have two fulltime employees and according to seasonal needs will temporarily bring on two more.
“It’s a tough to fill positions, to find someone who understands what it takes to raise an animal,” Miller said.
To keep up with the steady expansion of their herd and flock sizes as they try meet demand within the limits of the farm, they’ve added three feed bins at the venerable 19th-century bank barn on the property, giving them about 3,000 bushels of storage capacity.
“We’re committed to buying organic local feeds and we need to buy by the truckload. This way we can support other farmers who share our values,” Zach said. The feed is a mix of whole corn, soybean, oats, some other grains, and a mineral supplement. The animals on Timbercreek are raised without being exposed to antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and hormones. The farm is now selling only wholesale. It closed the farm market to drop-in customers over the summer after an “incident” that Miller prefers to be mum about, and the front gate is being kept closed.
Near the bins is the farm’s open-air poultry-slaughtering operation, sheltered under a tent canopy, with hot water baths and work counters. Waste for the operation is collected and composted. About 300 meat chickens, a breed called the Cornish Rock Cross, are being slaughtered every week, then chilled and delivered to area restaurants and stores the next day, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The farm will process 8,000 meat birds this year, Miller said. Slaughtering will be suspended in winter, once conditions no longer support raising the birds on pasture in portable frames that are dragged into fresh locations every morning.
That technique was first demonstrated by Joel Salatin on his Polyface Farm in Augusta County. Salatin now has guru status in matters of organic farming, and to a considerable extent Timbercreek is an attempt to replicate Polyface Farm in Albemarle. That puts the farm in what’s called the permaculture farming movement, which emphasizes developing vigorous grasslands through rotational grazing systems, complementary interactions between animals, and the general goal of promoting plant diversity for what Salatin calls “salad bar” grazing.
Four year ago Timbercreek’s cattle pastures were bare and red where cedar trees were removed, Miller said. Now those areas, under a combination of chicken and cattle foraging, are developing lush turf. “It really encourages me that this works,” said Miller. “A polyculture looks a little wild at the edges. It means better health for the animals and the system.”
“The Cornish Rock Cross is a traditional meat bird that Tyson uses,” he explained. “It’s instantly recognizable to the public. We want to use what’s been learned in agriculture.”
The farm’s poultry raising starts with day-old chicks from a hatchery in Ohio that Miller has judged to be a reliable supplier, the same sort of supplier Timbercreek wants to be in the eyes of its customers.
“Restaurants are our primary customers and we have to offer them consistency. Plus, they want different weights of birds for different dishes.”
So far chicken and pork are the farm’s main products, but the beef operation is expanding as Miller builds his breeding herd carefully to ensure that they are docile, fertile and well suited to the farm’s conditions. He has slaughtered about 70 head this year though T&E Meats in Harrisonburg, a slaughterhouse that Salatin is an investor in.
Miller buys his piglets from trusted breeders nearby on Tilman Road and in Stuart’s Draft. Like the cattle and chickens, they are moved daily to fresh ground by shifting electric fences. The 80 Blue Butt hogs, a cross of Yorkshires and Hampshires, and their feed bin are being moved gradually through small parcels of the farm’s woodland. “The industry is moving to Berkskires because they appear to have superior marbling, which is getting popular when pigs are on pasture. It produces the most succulent meat.” He also raises Tamworths, slower growers that he said are known as the “bacon pig.”
Cattle are moved similarly through pastures and woodlands on the leased property. There are few permanent fences on the place because “you don’t want to be locked in to an infrastructure that limits your production options,” Miller explained.
Once the animals are trained to respect the electric fence as youngsters and because they expect to arrive on fresh ground every day, they do not challenge their enclosures. One of the reassuring things about watching Miller engaged with his livestock is seeing them approach him trustingly when he gets in their vicinity. They are contented and prospering, stress-free, and they come to him calmly.
The new laying hens being raised in a 120–foot, hoop-roofed brooder on the farm are some 900 Barred Rocks and Anconas, and in the front pasture, in the custom-built hen house wagon that’s on a mobile home frame, are a flock of 900 Red Stars, mature hens that are busy laying and foraging. “They are good cold weather producers and they’re a dual-purpose breed that can be sold as a stewing hen,” Miller said. His production target for each of them is to produce two-thirds of an egg per day on average. The wagon must be opened and closed every morning and evening to protect the hens from predators. (Miller starts his day at 5 a.m. and ends it at 5 p.m. by milking two dairy cows that the family keeps for its own needs.
“Our best customer for eggs are Albemarle Baking Company and Sweet House Bakery,” he said.
Getting to this stage, being able to assure customers of a steady supply, has come “though the hard knocks of the business,” said Miller, who earned a degree in environmental science at U.Va. “Every year I’m disillusioned by the facts of the business. There’s so much conflicting information that consumers are presented with. The range goes from the super conventional to the super organic. It seems you have to pick an ideology even though there is a middle ground. Salatin says now that he’s ‘beyond organic’ and that he doesn’t need government inspectors on his farm.”
“We’re at a tipping point,” Miller said. “We’re in our third year of full production. We’re at a workable size and the products make an impact in the marketplace. We have the burden of paying for the farm. The cost of inputs is high and the output is low. Timbercreek has to be a positive cash flow business. This is legitimate from the perspective of managing a large productive farm in Albemarle,” that unlike so-called estate farms is not supported by income from some other source. “We have the base production that makes us solvent and not dependent on the government. This is a stable place for us because of labor costs. Pork and beef are our growth areas. Our relationship with Citizen Burger has doubled our demand for ground beef.
“One of our advantages is proximity to town,” Miller said. “We have Charlottesville chefs who come out to see what we are doing. That’s made all the difference in getting them to embrace it and want to be a part of it. They feel personally invested.
“Consistency is what’s setting us apart. We show up every week. You just can’t disappoint people. What we sell is ourselves and our story. What we’re doing is very intensive and yet very diversified. We are trying to remove our dependence on off-farm inputs and benefit from coexistence. There’s a perfect design to the natural system that’s evolved for millions of years. Why do we think we can improve on it with synthetics? The natural system is beautiful and it works well. We are trying to observe it. Nature is cruel in that it doesn’t let things hang around that are inefficient. The takeaway is that everything you need to produce food is already on the farm. The task is to harness it. And our biggest thing is to communicate to the customer the underlying ideology of the farm. We suspect we are winning because industrial agriculture is now trying to co-opt our terms. People want to support a positive end. Where I see it is once we establish this model, we are unbounded in Albemarle.”