It’s a glorious spring morning at Dry Ridge Farm in Mars Hill, North Carolina. The hillsides are lush and green as farmers Graham and Wendy Brugh walk up the gravel path to their new barn. If you perk up your ears, you can hear chickens clucking in the distance. Graham leads the way to the new barn which is now home to 2,000 laying hens. They rush over the feeders, hungry for breakfast.
These birds are new residents at the farm, which produces beef, pork, and a lot more eggs now. For the past three years, Dry Ridge Farm has had a flock of 700 laying hens and sold about 250 dozen eggs weekly at area farmers markets. At the same time, they expanded their relationships with chefs who seek out pastured eggs and their golden yolks.
Dry Ridge hasn’t been able to keep up with demand for their eggs—until now. Graham says they decided to scale up with eggs because it’s their most profitable enterprise and the best return per acre. So earlier this spring, thanks to a grant through WNC Ag Options & the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission, they added 2,000 laying hens to the farm.
To understand the lives of these chickens, let’s do a quick egg-splainer. The chickens at Dry Ridge are pastured, meaning they spend most of the day outside with grass, bugs, seeds, and sunlight. That’s different from cage-free chickens that don’t have access to the outdoors, and free-range chickens that may not have access to grass.
“Our paradigm here is based on animals having access to the outside and being able to exhibit their natural behaviors,” Graham says.
Graham adds that expanding their egg production makes it financially feasible for Dry Ridge to fence in more of their property so the chickens can have additional outdoor space.
“So we’ve scaled up but I think we’ve actually improved the animal welfare,” he says.
The chickens at Dry Ridge spend most of the day outdoors on pasture, and also have a barn where they sleep, lay eggs, and eat. Their feed travels just two miles to get to the farm. It’s grown by Eddie Shelton who owns Silver Mill Feed and Supply. He started making feed for his own livestock in 1999 and Graham says buying feed from a trusted neighbor impacts the quality of the eggs.
“We use him for similar reasons that people buy food from us,” Graham explains. “It’s on a smaller scale so you get a higher quality and you get to talk to the boss when you buy it. We’ve never had a problem, but if we did, he’s a phone call away. We’ve tried a lot of other more commercial rations and we think that quality feed makes a big difference in the quality of the egg.”
The hens have had their breakfast, so it’s time for Wendy to open the barn door. Dozens of birds head for the wooded hillside, where they can scratch in the dirt and be protected from aerial predators like hawks.
Graham points out the five acres of pasture and woods where the chickens can roam. They will rotate the chickens through different areas of the farm to make sure they always have access to healthy grass.
In some ways, this is a story about resiliency in the food system. Local chefs asked Dry Ridge Farm if they could produce more eggs, prompting the farm to expand their business and utilize more of their farmland. When the farm needed more feed for the new chickens, they decided to keep money in the local economy by purchasing feed—their biggest expense—from a neighbor.
“Farmers buying from farmers cuts out a lot of the middle men,” Graham says. “If we bought feed from a bigger commercial operation, they’re taking a cut of it.”
Personal relationships between farmers have flourished as well, as Wendy and Graham are just two of the many farmers Eddie Shelton has helped over the years.
“Eddie is one of nicest guys you’ll ever meet and he’s who you call if you’re in Madison County and you don’t know what to do with any kind of problem. He usually will drop what he’s doing or tell you who to call,” Graham says.
These interactions strengthen the food system and allow farms to scale up while maintaining their agricultural values. Dry Ridge Farm’s eggs can be found at restaurants and farmers markets in the Asheville area.
Hear more stories about farmers working together to strengthen the food system in the Growing Local archive – www.asapconnections.org/broadcasts
Aired: May 6, 2019