When Andrea Vangunst from Grassroots Farm and Dairy was a child, she was eager to help her father raise cattle near their home in Virginia.
“My dad also worked full time so his farming hours were the shoulder times of the day, but I definitely got to skip school to build fences and go to cattle sales with my dad. I remember those times really, really clearly,” she says. “I grew up riding horses and have always been out doing manual labor and really loving that kind of work. I went through graduate school and got into the nonprofit world and just really missed kind of being out there, being my own boss, working with my hands.”
She ended up in Asheville after hiking the Appalachian Trail and realized she didn’t want another desk job.
“So I just started interning on different farms here and really fell in love with the farming community. It’s such an amazing community that we have here; people who are super open to teaching and building really good friendships,” she says.
At first, vegetables were her calling, but she decided to look for a less labor-intensive way to farm when she became pregnant with her first son. Her husband, Tim, grew up in Spain and used to ride his bike by dairies on his way to school. Those memories prompted them to buy a flock of eight sheep from a dairy in Virginia, and in the coming years Grassroots Farm and Dairy was born.
“I don’t think it mattered to me as much whether I was growing broccoli or working with sheep, but I really loved working with animals. It’s a much more macro perspective of farming versus veggie farming where each crop has its particular pests and nutrition requirements. With sheep dairying or animal husbandry in general, it’s looking at the big picture and making decisions on that scale,” she says.
As a grass-based dairy, many of these decisions have to do with rotating the sheep through different pastures so that they can access fresh grass every day without overtaxing the land. Their farm in Marshall, North Carolina is ideal for raising dairy sheep, so they produce several seasonal dairy products including raw milk, yogurt, and cheese.
Most dairies stick to milk and cheese production, especially as they scale up, but Andrea and Tim are trying something different. They are returning to the tradition of sheep as a tri-purpose animal that can produce dairy, meat, and wool at the same farm. In addition to dairy, they also sell lamb meat in the fall, as well as sheepskin throws, wool comforters, and wool mattress toppers.
“We’re trying to use every and all parts of the sheep and be respectful of that quality of the sheep that’s pretty special to them.” she says.
Dairy is still their primary focus, and while they sell raw milk under the NC Herdshare law, they spent months preparing for a Grade A inspection so they could sell yogurt to restaurants and grocery stores. Although the dairy inspector wasn’t allowed to visit farms at the beginning of the pandemic, that restriction was lifted earlier this summer. They had their inspection in July and are now a Grade A dairy.
Andrea says a silver lining during the pandemic has been deeper connections with customers as more people come to the farm to pick up products. They have a “zero contact” system at the farm that’s felt safer and less stressful for some customers who say that getting out into the country is especially soothing in these times.
Even with extra visitors at the farm, Andrea and Tim look forward to seeing customers at farmers markets each week.
“Customers are a huge part of what keeps us and probably a lot of the farmers going. They want to come out to the farm. They want to see all parts of it,” she says. “When you’re having a bad day, they’ll commiserate with you. I don’t feel like you have to have this facade of everything is awesome all the time. We’ve definitely hit a lot of bumps in the road and a lot of those customers are people that you can have these really honest conversations with and it’s not going to affect your business. People know that how it works, and just their enthusiasm, their excitement for what we’re bringing to market, their excitement to be part of the farm, it’s a huge boost.”
Learn more about Grassroots Farm and Dairy and hundreds of other local farms in ASAP’s Local Food Guide www.appalachiangrown.org