Fostering symbiotic relationships
STORY AND PHOTOS BY SHEILA MCGRORY-KLYZA
At the end of a dirt road in Huntington, surrounded by the Green Mountains, sits Stark Hollow Farm, a tenacious little farm with a big mission. Owner and farmer Vanessa Riva and her partner, Laura Smith, raise heritage breed animals and foster a symbiotic relationship among the plants and animals on the farm, themselves included. One hundred percent grass-fed sheep and game rabbits, pasture-raised pork and free-range laying hens all coexist at Stark Hollow Farm, “supporting each other,” as Vanessa describes it. “We have a holistic approach,” Laura adds, “promoting a synergy among the animals.” This is sustainable agriculture at its best.
The spring shearing of the sheep, for example, is used for insulation in the rabbits’ and chickens’ housing structures. And the chickens are regularly placed in the same pasture as the sheep to help keep down their level of internal parasites, a primary health concern for sheep. “The chickens sanitize the patch where the sheep are feeding by scratching and making it harder for the parasites’ eggs to hatch,” Vanessa explains. This method results in a balance and is much more effective than using toxic substances. “Some farmers try to eliminate the parasite with chemicals, but it doesn’t work. They always come back.”
On the day of my visit, the first creatures to greet me at the end of the driveway were a flock of hens and a ram with curly horns. The rest of the flock was up in the pasture behind the house, but this ram was having a “time out.” Vanessa describes how, when they moved here in 2009, the pastures hadn’t been farmed in 25 years: “They were very rough and brushy.” To solve the problem, she put the pigs out on the land to root, which aerated the soil. Over the years their composted manure has added nutrients. The grazing sheep have also helped to diversify the plants in the pastures by spreading seeds around through their waste. And the chickens speed up the composting of manure thanks to their scratching.
Four years later, the pastures are healthy and nourishing. Stark Hollow Farm’s rotational grazing methods have proven “good for the soil, good for the plants and good for the animals,” Vanessa says. An MIT-trained engineer, Vanessa designed the farm’s modular barns and is the main farmer, handling all of the work with the animals. She’s originally from Northern Italy, where she spent summers and weekends on her family’s farm, which is still in operation. Her uncle, with whom she occasionally consults for farming advice, grows Arborio rice and raises a variety of animals. With her musical accent and twinkle in her eye, her affable spirit is complemented by Laura’s more serious temperament. A full-time civil servant with the state, Laura grew up on a farm in Vermont and has a business background. In her free time, she manages the farm, oversees the fleece and is the resident gardener. The two relocated to Vermont in 2006 from Oakland, California, seeking “a better way of life and a closer connection to the earth.”
They’ve found that connection at Stark Hollow Farm. Not only are these women committed to a diversified farm, but also to raising heritage breeds, primitive breeds in particular. “Many breeds have been lost,” Vanessa says. “Everything is becoming more homogenous.” They like that they’re helping to preserve the animals’ genetics, which promotes biodiversity. “Heritage breeds are a lot more expensive for us,” Laura says, “but it’s worth it because we’re supporting the conservation of animals that would otherwise go extinct. The vast majority of pig breeds are already gone.”
They’ve chosen breeds that naturally fit into the Vermont environment: Icelandic sheep, Tamworth pigs and a variety of laying hens, such as Blue Andalusians and Silver Laced Wyandottes. Heritage breed game rabbits are more challenging to find, but Vanessa is in the process of searching. The Icelandic sheep are the farm’s main product—for the meat, the wool and the breed stock. Icelandics have the distinction of being one of the world’s oldest and purest breeds, and just recently were removed from the watch list maintained by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. They’re also a hardy breed that thrives in cold weather.
“I try to keep them as much in their natural environment as possible,” Vanessa says. “I leave their barns open even on really cold days. They love being outside. The land and the animals do better with each other this way.”
Stark Hollow Farm’s flock consists of two rams and 29 ewes, all of whom Vanessa thinks will bear young this spring, but she’s not aiming to increase the flock at this point. “They start becoming numbers instead of personal sheep,” Vanessa says. “They all have names and different personalities. I can recognize them all by the end of the summer. I can tell even by hearing their bleats who it is.”
During lambing season, Vanessa checks on the ewes every two hours. “If there’s a problem,” she says, “you have to act right away.” With no help other than from Laura, she admits that she’s “like a cadaver by the time they’re done.” It’s apparent, though, that she loves working with the animals: “The breeding cycles are tied to the season. I end up feeling and understanding on a deeper level the cycles of nature.” Sure, it’s hard work, but as she says, “I try to do as much as I can by hand; it’s better for the plants and animals, and for me too. It helps me feel closer to nature.”
Most of the lambs will be sold as meat in the fall—while supplies last, that is. Icelandic lamb is a highly sought after, premium lamb, prized for its delicate flavor. It’s exceptionally tender, while at the same time lean, increasing its appeal. Not surprisingly, it routinely sells out. Laura has shipped it as far away as Arizona and Nevada, with customers sometimes paying more for the shipping than for the lamb itself.
“The taste of the meat is better when animals are happy, not stressed. You can’t compare the flavor,” she says. “Our customer is someone who wants to know how our animals are raised.”
Also highly prized, Icelandic wool is renowned for its natural color variations and does not need to be dyed. Brown and black are its two base colors, but the sheep produce a great variety of shades, including white. Stark Hollow Farm sells the wool right off the sheep’s back and also after it’s been processed. Luxuriously soft lambskin pelts are especially popular.
Neither Vanessa nor Laura knits or weaves—where would they find the time? Vanessa has plans to make and sell shepherds’ crooks with the rams’ horns in the future, though, and also hopes to start making cheese, a pecorino like she grew up eating in Italy. “It will probably just be for our own consumption,” she says, but after a pause she smiles and adds that she already has a name for it in mind. If it’s anything like their exquisite Icelandic lamb, customers will be lining up for it at the end of their dirt road.
Stark Hollow Farm
Note: Stark Hollow Farm sells its lamb, wool and other products at the farm, at the Burlington Farmers Market and online through YourFarmstand.com and their own website at StarkHollowFarm.com.