Growing Local: Red Clay Farms – Plenty Of Fiber

Thursday, May 16, 2013 - by Jen Jeffrey

Ron and Cynthia Shaffer left the city life in Florida and moved to the Chattanooga area when their son Seth was only three. They resided in Collegedale until they acquired their 24-acre farm in Cleveland about seven years ago.

Initially, Cynthia wanted horses on the farm and together the family built a barn. “We then decided to acquire some sheep because we wanted some fiber animals, so we got some llamas to be their guard. There was a debate whether to get donkeys, but we decided to stay with fiber animals,” she says.

“The llamas then led us into the alpacas. We worked with the alpaca and llama rescue agency – they are all from the rescue.  From there we got angora goats and then wanted to do more than just gardening for ourselves and felt we should delve into agriculture,” Cynthia says.

Selling raw fiber, roving and yarn from the fiber animals, the Shaffers also raise heritage breed chickens: Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, Australops, Partridge Rocks, Arauconas, Buff Orpingtons and the more common White Leg Horns and Cornish Rocks for farm-fresh, cage-free and free-roaming eggs.

Rotating crops of strawberries, arugula, mixed salad greens, corn, potatoes, green beans and more, the produce is all grown without GMO seeds or pesticides.

Cynthia explains, “The Jacob sheep is a primitive breed and that’s where you get your usual wool for sweaters. The angora goats are where we get our mohair.  The llamas and alpacas are hypoallergenic, so people allergic to wool can wear llama sweaters or alpaca sweaters.”

Using their animal manure as fertilizer, Cynthia says that the whole cycle happens on the farm.

“Every animal has a role to play. From our chicken manure to the llama beans,” Cynthia laughs, “the animals get fed and their by-products are used for the garden.”

The pastures hold 16 llama and alpaca, 11 Jacob sheep, six Angora goats, a few horses and about 50 chickens. The Production Reds are rescue chickens that were once used in battery houses for egg production.

“They were confined in a barn and had lived in tight quarters. Then they would be sent for meat and disposed of. Once their eggs reach a certain size, they aren’t good for commercial eggs anymore, so they are sent off to the  meat factory when they are less than a year old. So we rescued them. We got eight of those hens about a year ago,” Cynthia says.

“They had never touched grass before, and it was strange to see them learn to put their legs in the grass. They have really been a joy. Most of them came with hardly any feathers and had been de-beaked, looking rather pitiful. But after a few months, they are happy and healthy and now roam the farm,” Cynthia says.

Living sustainably and practicing organic methods is important to Cynthia and her family. They have been working to become a certified organic farm, which should go through in a few years.

“Eggs that come from a farm that have free-range chickens have more Omega-3 and lower cholesterol. For our crop, we started using only heirloom and organic seeds and we use sustainable methods for our production of the garden,” Cynthia says.

The family is working with the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), which the USDA helps fund high tunnels and greenhouses to promote local food and help farmers.

“The NRCS will actually help you in your goal to get organic-certified. I found them very supportive,” Cynthia says.

According to a spokesperson at NRCS, in the Southeast region of Tennessee, only two farms have made requests for organic farming. There is funding available, but it doesn’t always get used.

Cynthia says, “People may not be aware – I wasn’t aware until he told me. We have contacted a person that is going to draw up our plan to be certified within the next three years, and they will do a cost share to help with the planning.”

Husband Ron was from Kansas City and had a desire for his family to live more sustainable.

“We lived in a condo in Florida and that is no way to raise a child. There is so much in the city – we always strived for a better life,” Cynthia admits. “To see the situation in society, we wanted a better life for our son. Seth’s love for animals and nature drew us out here.”

The three of them work the farm equally, from seeding and harvesting to animal healthcare.

“We do our own de-worming every three months. I have a medical background as a nurse practitioner and I feel comfortable with caring for them. Ron is more savvy with the books, but we all learn from each other’s experiences and knowledge,” Cynthia says.

Seth recently graduated with a BA in history and a minor in global policy and is now obtaining his master's degree. His goal is to continue working on the farm.

Seth is the official photographer for SAFF (Southeast Animal Fiber Festival) and SEYC (Southeast Youth Conference). He enjoys being around the animals catching them for de-worming and sheering.

“Working with animals is a constant stream of humor. We gather the eggs every day and the chickens don’t always lay them in the nest boxes, so we don’t always find all the eggs in the chicken coops,” Seth says.

“I came out to feed Victoria (Great Pyrenees) and went over to her feed bowl. She dropped an egg out of her mouth at my feet – it wasn’t cracked, she was helping me,” Seth laughs.

Though Cynthia grew up a city girl, she is happy to be living on the farm. “It is a childhood dream of playing with animals and horses. Thankfully, God was able to grant us that dream to be able to live here on a farm,” she says.

Ron also works the two beehives on the farm, but has had up to 10. “Ever since we have been out here, we have had a problem keeping the bees alive,” Cynthia says. “It may be the spraying methods on some of the farms nearby – we never had this problem in Collegedale.”

When Cynthia is aware of an issue, she will write to local representatives and she encourages others to do the same. “When American Land Trust, did something recently with the ‘No Farms – No Food’, we posted that on our Facebook web page so that people would write them,” she says. 

Any farmer will tell you that each day is a learning experience with plenty of hits and misses. Cynthia has learned to listen to her instincts on such matters.

“Just listening to your inner spirit talk to you is the main thing that teaches you what to do. When I am tired, but I know that I should go out there and do something before bad weather comes or something like that… if I don’t do it, then the next day, what I feared would happen - it happened,” she chuckles.

“Even when you are just so tired, you really have to put everything else first. Your animals' healthcare, their safety, the protection of each other - we have learned when a second person should be there. I have friends that say they would love to live on a farm, but it is a sacrifice. If you want a vacation you have to have someone you can trust to help,” Cynthia notes.

“It is a life of sacrifice, but at the same time, it has become so rewarding,” she says. “I don’t think any of us would trade it to go back in the city.”

Click here to see Cynthia and Seth demonstrate the loofa.

Click here for the farm's website.

jen@jenjeffrey.com




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