Harvest time looks different on every farm. One rural Woodstock extended family is employing farming techniques to feed their family with an eye on how to feed the world.
On a journey in search of healthy, sustainable living, the Kelleys and Bivers have established Terra Vitae Farms with farming practices that go beyond organic, focusing on biodiversity, sustainability and ecology.
The farm, which encompasses about 12 acres total on Greenwood Road, produces farm-raised meats including lamb, goat, pork, duck and chicken.
“We are looking to produce the tastiest and healthiest meat products we can,” said one of the farm’s owners, Mike Biver.
The farmers at Terra Vitae are achieving this goal by raising their animals in the best ecosystem they can provide, fed on the most well-rounded diet they can offer.
The farm is a cooperative effort between two Woodstock families, Kevin and Katie Kelley and their daughter Colleen and son-in-law Mike Biver. Both families live within a mile of each other on Greenwood Road, and their combined properties make up Terra Vitae Farms.
The idea of using their land to produce healthy food was a natural progression for the family. Katie Kelley has always been a proponent of healthy eating and holistic practices, but the research and impetus to get the ball rolling came from Biver.
“[For me,] this has been a journey 10 years in the making,” he said.
It started out when his mom had a health crisis. A rapid decline in weight and general health totally stumped her health care providers. Finally, in a desperate effort, she made a dramatic change in her diet, removing many conventional foods, and she said her health made a 180-degree turn in three months.
“For me, it was huge … the impetus for me to begin my food journey,” said Biver.
Seeking to find out why the diet change made a difference, he did some research and came to the conclusion the way foods are produced in the mainstream food system was often the root of the problem.
Biver, who grew up on a farm himself, also noted some of the processes were damaging the environment, and so he began to research alternative agricultural approaches.
But at the time he was doing his research, he lived in St. Paul, Minn., not a farm.
“I had nowhere to go with this information until I [moved] and got property here,” he said.
The Bivers moved to Woodstock in the summer of 2016, buying property near the Kelleys. The two families came up with a plan. By the fall, they already had a cow and calf for their own milk, chickens for eggs and meat, and a start on breeding stock for sheep and pigs.
Moving ahead slowly and experimenting, learning by trial and error, the first year they raised enough food to feed themselves, but now they produce enough to sell to others. Finding the best practices and learning what the land they farm will sustain, they plan to grow the farm further, with a goal of moving from a hobby farm to a full-time business.
Biver describes what they do as eco-mimicry, striving to create the best ecosystem that most closely mimics what Mother Nature originally intended for a particular animal. This, in turn, will produce the best food, he said.
For example, he explained that you don’t find piles of cereal grains like wheat, barley, oats and corn just laying around in nature. Grain is present, but it is limited and seasonal and only one part of the nutritional profile of the food consumed by an animal grazing on a pasture. Although years of farming practices have proven that animals can survive on strictly cereal grains – especially with the aid of antibiotics, etc. – they don’t necessarily thrive the way Biver would like to see.
The focus at Terra Vitae is to find the balance of fuel that the animals have been built to utilize and then provide them with that fuel, using minimal human intervention.
Growing up on a small family farm focused on conventionally grown grain and traditional beef cattle husbandry, Biver said he has been able to see firsthand the amazing progress modern farmers have made in the last 50 years toward efficiency and cost-savings. However, due in part to his personal health experiences and the current trends in the health of the larger population, he thinks those efficiencies may have come at the expense of challenges to human health and the health of the environment.
“I commend the last generation of farmers for their ability to produce immense quantities of food at some of the lowest prices the world has ever seen, but the farming journey is not over,” Biver said. “A new farming challenge is knocking at the door – a challenge to produce food in a way that creates a positive trend in the health of humanity and the environment.”
The practice they have adapted is high intensive rotational grazing, in which they rotate the animals around the property through small paddocks. In this attempt to mimic a natural ecosystem, several complimentary species of animals are introduced to a paddock where they can mix and mingle together, including grazers like sheep and goats, foragers like ducks and chickens, and omnivores like pigs.
They all eat something different, and the pigs – the final animals to rotate through the paddock – will rut up the pastures, leaving bare spots. Once they move on to a new paddock, Biver will seed with anything from grasses to root plants to sunflowers in preparation for the next rotation in about 60 to 80 days.
“It’s a new step for me not to control everything, but instead, learn from nature itself,” said Katie Kelley, another farm owner.
The farmers admit sometimes it is hard not to come in and eradicate the plants that might be considered weeds, or to try to control the interaction between the species, but they are learning that the diversity of plants and the intermingling of the species work together in a sustainable ecosystem.
The types of meat animals raised at Terre Vitae Farms are primarily heritage breeds that thrive on low human intervention and a diverse pasture ecosystem, including Polypay/Texel sheep, Myotonic goats, Tamworth hogs, Gloucester Old Spot hogs, Muscovy ducks and Bielefelder chickens.
To address the concern of predators, the animals on each farm are guarded by large white Maremma Sheepdogs, Italian-bred livestock guardian dogs.
This year, the Kelleys and Bivers plan to have 16 pigs ready to send to market. Through word of mouth, they have begun to build a customer base, selling half hogs equaling about 60 to 70 pounds of pork. Chicken, lamb and goat also are among their home-raised meat products.
“We want a direct relationship with those who buy our meat,” said Biver, who strives for transparency with consumers to achieve products he calls “you-certified.”
For information on the farm and their meat products, find them on Facebook at Terra Vitae Farms or email firstname.lastname@example.org.