Learning from Our Mistakes: Beginning Farmers Tell All
By Fair Farms Now
Naturally Sunkissed Farm Finds their Groove through Trial and Error
School teachers by day and regenerative farmers by night, Brett and Megan Hines haven’t followed a linear path to establish Naturally Sunkissed Farm. The young couple currently boasts a productive vegetable farm on 1.5 acres that includes a perennial area with fruitful strawberries, hops, and asparagus; the beginnings of an orchard; and 5 acres of healthy pasture where Nigerian dwarf goats, North Country Cheviot sheep, and 40 laying hens happily graze.
“Every year we’ve changed our mind about what we want our farm to be,” Brett joked, while presenting on their experiences earlier this month at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore Small Farms Conference. While it took much trial and error, Brett and Megan have found their groove with a successful farming model that is compatible with their lifestyle.
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In 2014, Brett and Megan began farming on family land in Bishopville, Md., just south of the Delaware border, following a stint living in Colorado, where they studied land and resource management. After apprenticing and learning from farmers out west, the Hines were eager to build their own enterprise on the Eastern Shore. The first year on the farm, the couple focused their efforts on raising broiler chickens, excited to introduce pastured birds grown with the highest animal welfare standards to a part of the state better known for massive, industrialized poultry operations. Megan calls this foray into broiler production “our biggest mistake and biggest learning opportunity.” The Hines hit several hurdles. “We had just about every predator possible: Raccoons, skunks, foxes, hawks, eagles, possums.”
The broilers took a huge time commitment and when the couple calculated the cost of raising the birds, including providing themselves a living wage, the math just didn’t add up. Unfortunately, local consumers were accustomed to paying artificially low costs for chicken, prices that don’t take into consideration the many environmental and societal harms that these industrial farms can create. To make sustainable and small-scale farming work, “we need to educate consumers on what food actually costs,” Brett lamented.
At that point, the beginning farmers stopped selling poultry and shifted to a 23-family Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model where members pay a lump sum to receive a weekly farm share. In their third year, Megan and Brett began selling their fare at local farmers markets. During this time, they continued to focus on creating a diverse farm by growing a broad range of produce and raising several animal breeds. The Hines make rich compost, no longer till their land, rotate the fields where their livestock graze, and use wood chips to suppress weeds—all proven techniques to build fertile soil that fights climate change, reduces runoff, and supports nutrient-dense food.
Brett and Megan were immensely proud of all that they had built, by this point, but were having trouble juggling their day jobs with the demands of the farm, including the management of sales. They took a step back and asked themselves, “why are we doing this?” This self-reflection allowed them to shake off the expectations of what a farm “should” be, and instead focus on what would work best for their family.
Over the 2017 growing season, Brett and Megan scaled back their farming operation. Now, they use their farm to grow food for themselves and their neighbors and sell wholesale to the Eastern Shore Food Co-op. They have also diversified their income stream through agri-tourism such as the immensely popular goat yoga and food preservation classes. “We save on our grocery bill because we don’t have to go to the store,” Brett explained enthusiastically, proudly sharing a picture of their fully stocked pantry that gets them through the winter.
Excited for what the future holds, Brett and Megan are working with other small and sustainable farmers on the Lower Eastern Shore to build a diverse food system in the region.
They believe that more folks need to roll up their sleeves and grow their own food, not only to improve their health but also to get reconnected with nature and better understand all that goes into raising healthy and sustainable food.
Naturally Sunkissed Farm proves that there are many different models for agriculture in the region, and one doesn’t need to go big to be successful.