Brian Miller and Cindy Tanner acquired their farm in Philadelphia, TN in 1999. The couple lived in an old historic district in Knoxville; where they had restored an old Victorian house and had lived there for approximately ten years.
“We had always liked the idea of living in the old neighborhoods of the city where we could walk everywhere. I had a book store that I ran in downtown Knoxville but we decided it was time to make a change,” Brian says.
The couple had been there done that with living in the city. They had a great circle of friends and were involved in many cultural things they enjoyed, but they wanted a new challenge.
On 70 acres of farm land with about half of that being hardwoods, Brian and Cindy have learned to live a sustainable lifestyle; but it didn’t come without mishaps.
“I grew up in South Louisiana as a kid and I liked the idea of farming, but I didn’t grow-up on a farm. We were a sportsman family though; everybody duck hunted, fished, and we went out on the gulf and shrimped… so we produced a lot of our food even though we had a middle class background,” Brian admits.
Keeping an on-line Blog about the farm, Brian is a talented story teller as he writes about happenings on the farm that enlightens him or that he finds amusing.
“Most of the stories that happen to us are about us trying to learn,” he says.
Brian remembers coming home from work on a Friday afternoon, settling on the porch with a beer. It was on a Friday evening and he got a call from a neighbor who asked if he were ‘missing some cows’. Brian’s whole herd of Milking Devons, 18 mother cows, a bull and all the calves were down on the highway.
He had an overwhelming feeling of “now what!” Someone had cut the fence to go hunting and the cattle had gotten out wandering down the ridge and onto the highway.
It was getting darker and while not knowing quite what to do, Cindy then goes to get a bucket of grain that is sometimes used to get the cows attention. Brian went up a valley that went behind the house that would head back to the direction the cows needed to be.
He kept calling the cows and they followed. “They like to get out, but they also want to get back to what is familiar,” Brian acknowledges.
All of a sudden, the valley dropped into a creek next to a steep hill. Not knowing what else to do, Brian plunged to the creek and began climbing the slope and the cattle still followed.
“We walked all the way through the woods and I had cutting pliers with me. I had to cut the fence again, brought the cattle through, all the way down about a mile through the woods and put ‘em up. We learned to just laugh at catastrophes, but early on when cattle would get out or bulls threw gates around; you just have to learn to laugh at yourself constantly - because you do end up doing something stupid or make a mistake,” Brian laughs.
“We have both gotten good at dealing with crises. Now, when a neighbor calls us and says, ‘you’ve got some cattle out’ - it’s more like ‘okay we’ll head on down there…’ it’s remarkable how in these 14 years we’ve learned new life skills and learn how to deal with these things,” Brian maintains.
Though farming is a fulltime job in itself; the couple also works full time jobs away from the farm. Brian has worked with books his whole life from being a librarian to running his own bookstore. He now manages a small chain of stores called Book Warehouse and Cindy is a publication coordinator for Pellissippi Community College in the Knoxville area.
When the couple first decided to buy the farm, Cindy had bought a horse before they moved there. “We got permission from the owner of the property to put the horse out here but there wasn’t any fencing to put the horse in; so we had to come out and build our first corral,” Brian says.
“It was about 100 degrees! We didn’t know how to dig post holes and we thought, ‘What in the heck did we decide to do?’ We have made a colossal mistake!” Brian relays.
Winged Elm is a meat-farm, raising and marketing beef, chicken and pork.
“Our farm is a nice balance of what we raise to earn extra income along with self-sufficiency too. We raise beef steers, Angus, Charolaise and Herefords… but we steer clear of dairy,” Brian quips.
“The trend had been grain-fed cattle and to take them to market at about 14 months; we raise ours up to three years. When people got back into grass-feeding, they were marketing it as healthy, lean meat and the only way you can sell lean meat is to sell them very young at 14 months – same age as the grain-fed cattle. They were grain feeding them to get the marbling that you got by naturally raising them out to a much older age. What we found is that about three or four years of age, you get the natural marbling. Since this is a small farm we can do it,” Brian holds.
Having no more than 15 steer at any given time, Brian and Cindy does what their pastures can handle in any worse case scenario – such as drought.
Learning as they go, the couple now markets about five steer at a time and they market directly to customers.
“We have people who will sign up - not strictly a CSA, but a lot of people may lump us in the same category. Customers don’t buy in advance; we send out emails saying we are taking the steer to market and if they want to sign up for a side or quarter to let us know,” Brian says.
H & R Custom Slaughtering in Crossville TN is the main processor for their steer, but Brian says there are not very many small USDA processors anymore and they are hard to find.
The couple was going to raise sheep and had a large flock of Border Leicester but the encountered problems with area dogs killing them.
“We got away from that; we had a large herd of Milking Devon, an old heritage breed; we had one of the largest herds in the country - about 18 mother cows. That was just way too much. We liked supporting the old heritage breeds, same with our sheep and chickens and everything else we have done,” Brian says.
“It has been a revolution over the past 10 -12 years, it’s remarkable. Michael Pollan’s book, ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ really helped spur a lot of interests and we have seen that synergy in what we do out here for customers who are looking for locally sourced meats and vegetables,” Brian confirms.
“We are members of the ALBC (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy). We try to pick breeds that need some protection. Ironically, protecting livestock also means you have to make them viable to be eaten so it’s not like an endangered species of bird – it is an endangered species of livestock and the only way to preserve it is by making it useful,” Brian maintains.
The farm only had an old barn and a garage when the couple moved there 14 years ago.
“We have been spending time over the years building infrastructure. We market lambs each fall, we market pork several times a year and we have predator-proof infrastructure now; there are no problems with dogs getting the herds and we can keep a pretty close eye out,” Brian says.
“We are meeting this afternoon, trying to pull together a cooperative of farms in this region which is called, ‘South of the River’. We’d like to have someone represent us in the local farmers markets for produce; we will see how that works out. Most of us work full time and work our farms full time so to find the time to go to the farmer’s market is difficult,” Brian claims.
“Our gardens are harvested for our farm and the surplus goes to the pigs, so I don’t have to feel guilty about growing way too many turnips, I just pull them out and feed them to the pigs. We started doing homestead workshops and we will take our surplus chickens. For a fee of $25.00, they get their chicken, they kill their chicken; we walk them through how to process them, and they take home their chicken,” Brian says.
He contemplates the hardest part about farming being the physical work, but he insists that if you are willing to listen and don’t assume that you know the answers; you will learn as you go.
“You can read it in a book, but it doesn’t translate into experience until you have actually dug the post holes and put in those physical efforts,” he affirms.
As far as the hard work, Brian says that you either find satisfaction in it or you don’t.
“I like doing it. We have fun and I love to cook. Being a Louisiana native, I like food. I have a deer roast that I’m gonna grind it up with some fatback and I have sausage casing to make my own sausage – to me that is fun,” Brian says.
“We just added bees about three years ago and we are now starting to get honey that we may sell. We pay attention to our markets; we are constantly adjusting our scale for our business. Our latest crop of hogs is going to market in a couple of weeks and we still need to find a few customers,” Miller notes.
“There is nothing better than sitting down to a dinner where almost every ingredient on your plate came off of the farm. There’s no way to get around it - that is just as satisfying as it gets,” he says.
From Brian’s Farm Notes on his website, he writes:
“Midnight skies, a flock of wild turkeys heard but not seen on the opposing ridge, the uncontrollable spread of wild mint, the loveliness of peach trees in bloom, the muscle ache from setting 30 fence posts. The giddy delight in admiring our equipment shed, the morning sun throwing a splash of color through the Victorian stained glass window in the tack room. Collecting persimmons from a wild tree to make beer, not knowing or caring what it will taste like. Breathing in the smell of hay drying in the field, gentling a rooster before butchering, approaching cautiously as I move an irascible bull. Buzzards in a tree dreamed up by Tim Burton, staring at me sweating in the garden in eager expectation. The barn at three in the morning as Daisy calves…
…And people still ask us, why.”