A return to old ways of livestock farming in the River Valley
Chicken and hog farms are common in central Arkansas. But there’s something decidedly different about Bright Moon Ranch, a small, meat farm operated by Kendal Hern and Brittany Howell. A Tennessee native, Hern started Bright Moon Ranch a few years ago on land near Gum Log. “Me and a couple of friends bought some land out there,” Hern explains. “We wanted to live cheap and have a house out in the country.” A friend’s father suggested they needed a few goats and the next thing he knew, says Hern, “we had 30 to 40 goats.” “Kendal and I actually met because I bought a goat from him,” adds Howell, laughing.
It’s been years since that first meeting. These days Howell and Hern have a two-year-old daughter named Maple, and they’ve recently moved from the Gum Log farm to their current location on an 18 acre piece of leased land a few miles outside of London. With twelve acres of pasture and six acres of woods, the family is raising antibiotic free chickens, sheep and heritage hog breeds to sell to local markets. “We like to keep it as local as possible,” Hern says. Even though the markets are larger and the towns are well within driving distance, “we don’t have any desire to sell to Little Rock or Fort Smith,” explains Hern. “We are not trying to be huge.”
Like many small-scale growers, their farm is more about a passion than a paycheck. Hern maintains a daytime job, working as a craftsman woodworker, and utilizing tools from Howell’s parents former handcrafted church pew business. “We’re not doing it for the money,” Hern says as we survey the approximately 185 meat chickens plucking away at the grass. “We’ve gone to markets and people laugh at me,” Hern says. “Three dollars a pound for chicken?” the customers ask, taken aback. “But let’s break it down,” he says. “How much money are we spending on feed, on the processing? And that’s not even factoring in the labor.” “We have to charge a certain amount,” adds Howell. “A lot of people can’t pay that or don’t want to.” Despite the small size of their business or perhaps because of it, Bright Moon Ranch has never taken out an ad or engaged in any kind of marketing aside from word of mouth. “There’s a surprising amount of interest,” says Howell. “We have a steady amount of people who contact us.”
Hern, Howell and Maple walk us around the property to see the animals, and explain their farming practices, many of which would be familiar to the largely subsistence farmers who populated this region a hundred years ago. The animals live outside in temporary fencing and have shade for cover and room to roam. Their hooves and claws help aerate the soil, and the manure provides a natural fertilizer returning rich nutrients to the soil. In addition to the chickens, there are around eighteen sheep, more than twenty pigs and a recently born litter of herding dogs. The family makes their home just a few miles up the road from the farm. There’s no large equipment or chicken houses or even signage, but rather small clusters of calm animals grazing in the bright afternoon sun.
The birds live closest to the farm’s entrance, making their homes in covered portables cages, which are moved twice a day, allowing the fowl daily access to fresh air and fresh grass. A Cornish Cross variety, these are the same kinds of chickens raised in large chicken operations around the region. “You have to give them antibiotic in their feed everyday,” Howell says of the birds raised for mass production “Out here you don’t have to do that. They’re in a clean environment and they’re healthy.” “People don’t believe us,” she continued, “but we rarely lose any.”
Getting away from meat raised with antibiotics was one of the main reasons Howell was first drawn to this kind of small-scale farming. Her other concern was confinement raising, especially when it comes to pork. In confinement hog farming, Howell explains, the pigs on some farms are “kept in tiny stalls and they’re miserable and they’re stressed out. They cut their tails off so they can’t chew them off because they’re so stressed.” Likewise Hern was deeply concerned about the kind of food available in large scale grocery stores. “In learning about where our food is coming from, and learning about how everything is raised,” explains Hern, “the more I learn about it the less I want to go to the super market and buy anything on the shelves at all.” Throughout our conversation they both mention their conviction that animals need room to roam and to grow. In a myriad of ways they express a nuanced concern for both the animals and the quality of the meat we humans put into our bodies.
We walk out to the hog area and are met with a host of friendly, grunting sows and boars running from the adjacent woods to say hello. They spend their days roaming in an ever-rotating five-acre fenced-in pasture and wooded strip, giving them access to acorns, bugs, and a host of non GMO (genetically modified organisms) grains Howell and Hern seed on the area. Every week Howell and Hern move the pig’s fencing a little further down the strip, allowing the pigs access to a new area of pasture. “They turn the soil over which can be beneficial,” Howell explains. But the pigs have very hard hooves and if they aren’t moved on a regular basis they will compact the soil to point where things can’t grow. “But if you work with them,” Howell says, “they’ll till up that entire section.” After the pigs spend a week in each patch, Howell and Hern put seeds on it, let it rain on the soil, and grow out a new patch of cereal grains, repeating the process season after season.
The pigs are incredibly docile, allowing young Maple to walk amid them as they root around in the grass. “The way we raise them,” Howell explains, “we couldn’t have a lot of pigs out here that are skittish or wild. We don’t have handling facilities. When we load them on a trailer we just entice them,” she says. For this reason they choose particularly calm breeds like the Berkshires, Large Black and Red Waddles and breed for temperament as much as meat. “We’ve got several sows that are bred,” Hern explains. “About here in a week until December we’ll be having a bunch of piglets. We should do pretty good next year.”
Though Howell had been raising sheep since she was a teenager, operating a small-scale meat farm is still a somewhat new venture for the couple, and each season they add to their knowledge. They laugh about the year they decided to raise fifty turkeys and butcher them for Thanksgiving. “We had a 55 gallon drum over a camp fire in the yard. And you have to maintain the water at 160 degrees,” says Howell. And so we were out there in the middle of the night butchering turkeys, plucking them by hand,” they laugh as they describe how unprepared they were for the job. But these are the kinds of lessons that have help them envision and create the successful farm they have today. “It’s good to learn to do things by hand before you move on,” Howell adds.
After their recent move to this new property, for example, they decided to invest in new forms of temporary fencing, which cuts down on infrastructure costs and allows them to rotate the animals with greater ease. Their sheep herd numbers around 18 and even includes the offspring of one of the sheep Howell raised when she first began keeping sheep as a teenager. Most of the sheep are of the Katahdin variety, they explain, a hair sheep (as opposed to a wool sheep) known for their parasite tolerance and the mild taste of their meat. “They’re easy keepers,” Howell explains. “We do nothing except give them grass.” Unlike many other sheep varieties they seldom need to be wormed, a rarity among sheep breeds in the south, Howell notes. On occasion, they sell whole and half lambs as well as lamb chops to market. “But we don’t really have that many,” says Howell, “mostly because I love sheep.”
They hope increasing numbers of farmers will join them in these efforts to provide more humanely-raised, localized meat. “If there were more local farmers,” Hern explains, “it would make it more possible for people to do this.” Ultimately, explains Howell, the farm is about their care and concern for raising a more humane meat: “Mostly it’s for our own state of mind.” Their long-term goal includes moving away from market sales and creating a local meat CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), a system of farming where growers raise and sell shares of food to consumers who buy a membership or a subscription to the farm. “Ideally we would love to find twenty to thirty families and just work with them and just raise all their meat,” says Hern.