Many people had joined the potluck and tour through their connections with Chris and Emily. Some were not familiar with Bucks County Foodshed Alliance or the wonderful food map on our website. BCFA President Susan Pierson told the group about BCFA’s mission, programs and markets. At this point, another 10 or so people showed up for the tour and Susan turned the program over to the stars of the show, Chris and Emily.
Both of these extremely likable young people are first generation farmers who each harbored a dream of having their own farm one day. After a medical retirement from the Marine Corps, more education, and a short speaking career, Chris found the Organic Farming Certificate Program at Delaware Valley University. He found Emily there too! For those who may not know, DelVal is a Yellow Ribbon School and the Organic Farming Certificate Program is designed specifically for veterans. Fortunately, others have been allowed to enroll. Emily had found the program while researching horticulture therapy for her Masters program, and switched gears immediately. Lucky for all of First Fruits Farm’s friends, because the rest is their history together and the history of the farm.
Chris bought the 96 acre farm in 2020 after he and Emily had apprenticed on other farms. They married in 2021 in the beautiful red barn they rebuilt on the property. Though not certified organic, everything they grow (produce and flowers) and raise is done with organic methods. Their animals are rotationally grazed with sheep and chickens in pasture, ducks on grass, and pigs in the woods. They grow their own hay and started their orchard in 2022. Bees down by the small stream provide a little bit of raw honey each year. To quote them:
“We want to be as sustainable and self-sufficient as possible, eventually feeding the farm from the farm, and build toward regeneration (improving the quality of both food and soil). It takes time to get everything working together, but we believe the benefits to our health, the health of the community and environment is worth the investment! We’ve been blessed with this farm and are called to take care of the land, the animals and the environment.”
Our tour started as Chris led us to the meat chickens on pasture. These birds are in a movable fenced structure which is relocated once or twice per day depending on the age of the birds to give them new, fresh pasture to peck through. Chris’ sister Shannon demonstrated how with a little bit of leverage, she could easily move the very large wire structure. The surrounding electrified fencing, which Chris and Shannon move once a week or so, provides added security from potential predators. Because these meat chickens are fully pastured (with a measured amount of supplemental organic feed available to them should they choose), there is a very limited season for them. Fortunately, there are good freezers in the barn. First Fruits Farm uses a mobile processor to reduce the stress on the birds at the time of slaughter. Recently certified to sell parts, Chris and Emily have a variety of heritage breeds to get a wider assortment of breast and thigh sizes.
We then headed to the “garden” where we saw the rows of produce growing. The garden is a work in progress, with straw and wood chip covered paths and plastic row cover under the crops. The vegetables are primarily tended by Emily, who hand weeds the beds. The pumpkins are right on target for early October and look amazing. Tomatoes are turning color and bright yellow and green squashes poked out from under huge leaves. Drip irrigation waters the vegetables and excess water from storms is captured somewhat by wide rows of grass or cover crop left on the heavily sloped field. Just across the way are rows of magnificent flowers and a field of tall, tall grasses which hide the four turkeys (for their personal feasts) and the many ducks (for eggs) from aerial predators.
Next stop on the tour was to meet the beautiful Guardian Dog, Tess, who cared for the sheep and occasionally laying chickens. A Guardian Dog, we learned, protects from predators as opposed to being a herding animal. Apparently, Tess is quite good at her job, scaring away aerial predators like vultures and hawks, as well as foxes and coyotes. A quick shake of the alfalfa bucket brought the sheep and lambs running into the area next to the barn to see what was in the trough. Some of the lambs apparently enjoy jumping into it! The lower barn door is always open during the day for them to come in if they chose, which they rarely do. Katahdin hair sheep are a special breed that shed their coats, eliminating the need for sheering. Bits of wooly coat were scattered in the field and on the crossbars of the fence the sheep used as scratchers.
The gate is closed only during lambing season. We got a lesson on breeding as Chris told us about a chalk covered vest worn by the ram which marks the sheep, letting them know that the ram is doing his job. The males are castrated almost immediately, before their nerve endings in that region have fully formed, through a process called banding. Chris and Emily leave the lambs to nurse until the mom kicks them away. Easier on the lambs, the moms and the farmers!
It was hard to tear away from the absolutely adorable lambs and the many questions asked by guests, but we managed to turn our attention to the laying hens. Their beautiful new coop, built by Chris, Emily and friends with the help of a Small Farm Grant from BCFA, currently holds about 40 laying hens. Another 30 younger girls are over by the ducks and turkeys until they are ready to join the bigger hens. The mobile coop follows along the sheep in the pasture, pecking out insects and spreading the manure into the ground to keep the soil healthy. Their primarily pasture diet shows in the distinctly orange yolks of the eggs. When the girls stop producing regularly, they join the meat birds and are sold as stew hens, rich in vitamins and minerals for bone broth.
Next we headed into the forest where we saw where the pigs were normally kept for the six months they live with First Fruits Farm. Obtained at 6 weeks from a breeder whose practices are carefully considered, these pigs live in and eat mostly from the forest. They are rotated into different areas to manage the pressure on the forest floor as they graze on roots and nuts and leaves. We didn’t get to see any of the six pigs as they had been sent to the processing facility the previous week.
Finally, the sun had set as we wandered up to the fields where fireflies danced in the tall grasses to see the two rams who have a small field and shelter all to themselves. Soon they will be joined by the young male which Emily fed with a bottle as a new lamb. She named him, saving him from the fate of the other male lambs. When asked how she would prevent the same fate when her own child, safely inside Emily now, attached him/herself to a tiny lamb, Emily said she would make sure any bonds were made with a female lamb!
With darkness falling fast, the guests at this incredible farm tour at a beautiful farm hurried back to gather up chairs and dishes and purchase veggies, honey, eggs and meat. You can find First Fruits Farm at the Plumsteadville Grange Farm Market every Saturday from 9 a.m until 12:30 from June through October. Or you can message Emily through facebook https://www.facebook.com/firstfruitsfarmpa/ if you can’t get to the market or need something midweek.