Farm: Bluebird Farm
Operators: William Lyons and Marie Williams
Production: Livestock, Vegetables
Location: Morganton, Burke, NC
Marie Williamson and William Lyons operate Bluebird Farm in the foothills of North Carolina in the community of Morganton. They have been successfully farming using a diversified, naturally grown vegetable and livestock system. Although young by farming standards, the two are not new to farming. Since he turned 16, William has spent his summers working on organic farms, and Marie has extensive training with livestock, having worked on a grass-fed cattle ranch and various diversified farms in Colorado. William and Marie attended college together at Warren Wilson College in western North Carolina, a unique school where students learn the fundamentals of sustainable agriculture, ecology, and conservation alongside a traditional course of academic study. The couple traveled and worked on several farms after graduating college, apprenticing with several small-scale, sustainable farmers.
After a few growing seasons abroad, the couple decided to move back to western North Carolina in 2009 and start their own farm. They’ve been successfully farming for 5 years now at Bluebird Farm, operating a CSA and selling at local farmers’ markets. William and Marie also sell their meats to restaurants in downtown Morganton, including Wisteria, a farm-to-table establishment, and The Grind Cafe, a local coffee shop that buys their sausage and eggs for their omelettes and breakfast burritos.
Marie and William take an agro-ecological approach to farming. Utilizing intensive grazing management techniques, such as multi-species pasture rotation, they use their understanding of ecology and symbiotic relationships to maintain adequate, healthy forage and to reduce the prevalence of pests and incidence of disease in their animals.
“Rotational, multi-species grazing allows us to improve our land and raise healthier animals while preventing surface run-off that degrades stream quality. Our animals do not require any de-wormers or antibiotics because they don’t stay in the same area long enough to build parasite loads,” William says.
The pair manages to have such a successful operation because their model benefits from diversity; they have many different types of produce and meats that they can rely on when other products are unsuccessful or less productive during different times of the year. Diversity also increases the health of the soil by cultivating a balanced variety of plants and animals on the land. Taking this ecosystems approach to crop and livestock management creates a farming environment where nutrients are maintained at sustainable levels and pests are kept in check.
Bluebird Farm sells high-quality vegetables and meats that are highly sought after in their region. During their first few years of production, they could not meet the demand for their products, particularly for their meats. They were having difficulty expanding their capacity for raising livestock. The two major limiting factors for expansion were access to adequate water supplies and storage space for processed meat. William and Marie were achieving the most production they could in their first few years of running the farm, but it was time to invest in the infrastructure to increase their capacity.
After conducting research, William and Marie devised a plan for creating a sustainable water system for their farm. They came across a study done by Clemson University on a water pump, called a ram pump, that uses gravity and the physics of water to power itself. It is an ingenious technology that requires no electricity and relies only on a water source and a slope. The ram pump is a passive system that uses falling water to create pressure that delivers potable water through pipes across the farm. It provides a sufficient water supply on the property without using any electricity. The pump moves the water 100 feet uphill and ¼ mile across the property where it fills a cistern; the water is then gravity fed to the paddocks where the animals are grazing.
Bluebird Farm received a grant in 2011 to install a passive, gravity-fed water system and a walk-in freezer to overcome their limited infrastructure. “Before installing the gravity fed water system, we would have to carry buckets of water from the house across the farm to supply our animals with enough water. It was highly inefficient and took up hours of our time,” William says.
The ram pump and gravity-fed water system makes it possible to provide more animals with more water on the farm. William and Marie save a lot of time that they used to spend just transporting water on foot across the farm to the various paddocks. Now they can focus more time on caring for the animals, more closely managing their pasture rotations, and investing more energy into other areas of the farm like their vegetable garden.
Bluebird Farm installed a walk-in freezer in order to expand their meat operation. Without the expanded freezer space, William and Marie had to make frequent trips to the butcher to keep up with demand for their products. They could only get animals butchered that they would be able to fit in the freezer. They would never butcher more at once than they could sell in a week without the freezer. With a larger freezer, they make fewer trips to the butcher and process a larger amount at once. This has allowed them to save time and reduce their transportation costs.
“We would have had to drive 100 miles round trip every month or more. Now we make less trips with more meat each time. We are able to do 16 pigs at a time instead of one at a time. It is much more cost effective and it saves us a lot of time,” William says.
The improvements to storage infrastructure and their innovative watering system have allowed Bluebird Farm to scale up their livestock operation faster than many other beginning farms. Since 2011, after completing their grant-funded project, William and Marie have been able to triple their livestock production, They have been able to reach a scale that allows them to earn a strong income from their farm operation. Their vegetable garden has been growing to the point where it can provide the couple with another significant income stream.
For the past two years, William and Marie have not had to seek off-farm jobs during the winter and have been able to make enough income to survive on income solely from their farm. Most beginning farmers struggle for years to achieve a financial position that allows them to spend most of their time working on the farm. With limited time and resources, beginning farmers who rely on livestock production for a major source of income could benefit greatly from carefully planned infrastructure projects to reduce labor and transportation costs. At Bluebird Farm, installing a walk-in freezer and a sustainable water delivery system on the property resolved two major logjams in their pastured meat operation, allowing them to make their farm far more economically sustainable within just a few years.
Visit Bluebird Farm’s website to check out their blog and to find more information about their farm.