“Hey pigs, we brought you some cucumbers!” yells Hillary Kimmel from the driver’s seat of an off-roading golf cart. The 21 young hogs who had been lazily rooting around the hardwood forest floor flee as the vehicle approaches, rustling leaves and branches as they scoot further into the trees.
“They’ll be back—it’s their routine to run away and slowly return,” says her husband Worth Kimmel. “They’re both skittish and curious,” adds Hillary.
Since 2014, Worth and Hillary have run Pine Trough Branch Farm (PTB) in rural Rockingham County, North Carolina on 118 acres of pasture and forest land that Worth’s family has owned since the 1950s. The farm draws its name from Pine Trough Branch Creek, which runs along the property and flows into the headwaters of the nearby Haw River. In addition to hogs, they raise sheep and cows, as well as vegetables, shiitake mushrooms, and a variety of flowers—with a focus on building healthy soil and raising animals by the highest standards of animal welfare.
“Diversity is important on our farm,” says Hillary, wearing a denim button-up shirt and her hair in two long braids. In addition to enabling them to offer customers a variety of plant and animal products, she says, “we want to mimic the natural systems, and in natural systems, there’s biodiversity.”
While they’re not certified organic, the Kimmels describe their approach as “beyond organic.” They use ecologically centered practices—including composting, cover cropping, and natural mulching—which require minimal external inputs, including no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides, even those permissible in certified organic production. “We’re all about working with the resources we have here on the farm,” says Worth, his voice quiet and steady. “We have grass and shade and water—and all the things our animals need. We’re just trying to manage those things in a sensible and productive way.”
The hogs and sheep at PTB Farm are Certified Animal Welfare Approved by the nonprofit A Greener World (AGW), and audited annually. (Their production system for cattle would also meet the criteria, Worth says, but because they purchase weaned calves from a nearby farmer who is not AWA certified, the cows do not hold certification.)
Emily Moose, director of communications and outreach for AGW, has been following PTB for years and admires the farm’s approach. “As second-generation farmers, [the Kimmels] have a very holistic perspective of how farming impacts communities and is impacted by communities,” Moose says.
As someone who happens to live downstream from them in a town that draws its water from the Haw River, Moose appreciates their stewardship on a personal level, too. “They’re farming in ways that consider the water, land, people, animals, and overall environment for future generations,” she says.
Two Paths Converge
Both Hillary and Worth, who are now 35 and 32, respectively, were raised on working farms and felt drawn back to the land after they graduated from college.
Worth’s grandfather, Owen Lindley, purchased the PTB property in the early 1950s, and Worth and his two sisters grew up on the land after their mother took over the operation in the 1970s. For three decades, they leased some of the land to a neighboring farmer who grew hay.
“My dad grew most of our vegetables, and my mom canned tomatoes,” Worth says. Between chain-sawing trees into firewood, operating the tractor, and other farm tasks, he says, “I got a basic skillset from as far back as I can remember.”
Meanwhile, the daughter of 1970s back-to-the-landers, Hillary grew up on a farm in the North Carolina mountains, where her mother taught school and her father raised salad greens for restaurants.
Both studied at Warren Wilson College, and graduated two years apart—Hillary in 2007 and Worth in 2009. By the time they met at a winter solstice bonfire party in 2011, Worth had moved back to his family’s land and was raising animals and doing carpentry work on the side, and Hillary had moved back to her family’s land and was growing vegetables and waiting tables on the side.
The two fell in love, and three years later, they joined forces on Worth’s family land, which they opted for because of its close proximity to several farmers’ markets and the surrounding community supportive of local food. While both make long-term decisions on the farm today, Worth oversees the animals and mushrooms and Hillary tends the vegetables and flowers.
PTB Farm sells weekly at farmers’ markets in Greensboro and Winston Salem, to area chefs and butcher shops, and to members of its co-op, who buy farm credit early in the year and then spend it on whatever they want from the weekly market stands.
Managing Animals to Benefit the Soil
As predicted, the young hogs change their minds and come rustling through the woods toward Hillary and Worth to accept the cucumbers. Their reddish coats match the clay soil, and they sniff and snort as they devour the treats.
A mix of the Tamworth and Duroc breeds, with long heads and efficient snouts ideal for foraging acorns, hickory nuts, black walnuts, earthworms, grubs, and grass (supplemented by local, non-GMO grains), the pigs are integral players on the diversified farm. “The hogs’ [manure] is a real fertility input,” Worth says.
Because the farm grew tobacco and hay for much of the last century, the soil was worn out and eroded when Worth and Hillary took over. By carefully managing the pigs—as well as the sheep and cows—moving them between pasture and forest paddocks daily or more using portable electric fencing, the couple has slowly rebuilt the soil’s health.
Unlike unmanaged grazing systems, which give animals access to all the land all the time, management-intensive grazing more closely mimics natural systems in which cattle, for example, storm onto a piece of land, eat all the grass, and then move on, returning perhaps once more in the growing season, once the forage has regrown, Hillary says.
“There are massive benefits to multispecies grazing, for animal health and land productivity,” Worth says. “Cattle, sheep, and hogs graze different strata of the pasture,” eating different levels, amounts, and types of forage, and they each offer specific benefits. “A 1,200-pound cow hoof has a different impact on the pasture than a 60-pound lamb hoof,” Hillary explains, and their manure isn’t the same either. “It’s up to us to try to be quality managers and use their impact to a benefit,” Worth says.
While the animals serve the land and ecosystem, they spend their time engaging in natural behaviors—and they have favorite sleeping spots and daily routines.
Five years of rotating animals over a field that at first had thin, weak soil has transformed it, they say. The soil now holds moisture, and it has “some of the best grass on the farm, for sure,” says Worth.
A Minimalist Ethic
In all they do, Hillary and Worth try to avoid consuming more resources than they need. Right now, they’re standing in a field with the cow herd, the early evening sun casting a glow on the animals’ red and black coats. “One of my guiding philosophies is working with what you have,” Worth says. “Sometimes that’s fixing something out here on the farm with a piece of twine or a stick that I pull out of the woods rather than driving back to the top of the farm to get exactly the right thing.”
He and Hillary live in one of the original structures on the farm, a near-century-old log cabin built as a hunting lodge in the 1920s; all of the farm’s fenceposts come from black locusts, red cedars, and other trees that grew on the property; the pair stockpiles grass from their pastures rather than bringing in hay to supplement the cows’ diets; and rather than maintaining their fence lines with Roundup or some other synthetic herbicides, they spray them with vinegar and keep them mowed.
In the minimalist spirit, one of Worth’s first tasks when he took over the farm was build a low-input water system that’s both solar-powered and gravity-fed to distribute water from the well out into the fields for the animals—something he was able to do with the help of an $8,500 grant from the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).
To create the system, which he designed himself, Worth elevated an empty 1,000-gallon stainless steel milk tank onto a pedestal inside the former corn crib on the highest point of the property. A solar-powered pump fills the tank from the nearby well, and from there, gravity carries it through about 4,000 feet of buried pipe to about 20 different distribution points out in the pastures.
“We’re trying to make use of as much solar energy as possible,” Worth said. “The pasture itself is solar powered; that’s where all the energy for the grass production comes from. We’re taking that one step further with the water system.”
AGW’s Emily Moose points to the low-input water system as a sign of Worth and Hillary’s innovation—and forward thinking. “They’re thinking about not just in how to get from this week to next, but how to make sure they’re setting up systems that are going to thrive in a world in which climate change is increasingly impacting agriculture,” she says. “They’re creating a resilient system.”
Sunrise to Sunset
Hillary and Worth work sunrise to sunset nearly every day except, checking on all the animals at least once, moving them between paddocks, feeding them supplemental grains or grasses, managing irrigation when it hasn’t rained, watering seedlings in the propagation house, harvesting vegetables from the gardens and tunnels houses and mushrooms from the logs down by the pond, and working the markets every Saturday. Aside from a part-time helper in the garden, the pair works the farm pretty much by themselves.
They acknowledge they’re in a privileged position in that they own the land they’re farming and have close access to a supportive community. But it sometimes feels exhausting. “It takes all of our time and then some,” Worth says. “There’s almost always something going undone, which can be a little bit mentally taxing when you’re trying to be finished a workday.”
Additionally, the couple live on below-poverty wages, do not have any long-term savings, and rely on the Affordable Care Act for healthcare—“basic things like that that weren’t as big of a deal when we were 25,” Hillary says. “There’s a financial sustainability element we haven’t exactly worked out.”
Nevertheless, they plan to keep going: “We can exist on very low wages,” she says. “We’re only exploiting ourselves.”
Another difficulty the pair faces is the processing part of raising animals. “We put so much care and effort into raising the animals really well, and the slaughterhouses do a really good job, but it’s out of our control for that short amount of time,” Hillary says. Occasionally, the facilities do not cut the meat exactly like she requests on behalf of certain customers, for example. “For me, it’s one of the most challenging parts of the business.”
Part of the Conversation
Kau, a restaurant, bar, and butcher shop stationed in a former mill in the nearby city of Greensboro, began sourcing meat from PTB after its butcher, Taylor Armstrong, met the Kimmels at the Farmers Market and later took them up on their offer of a farm tour.
He appreciates the thought Hillary and Worth put into the animals’ well-being. “I’ve been cutting meat for 16 years now, and it’s the best pork I’ve ever tasted,” he said. “Happy pigs are important to them, and it’s reflected in the quality.”
He also appreciates the nature of his relationship with Hillary and Worth. “I talk to them on the phone directly when I order, and Worth delivers everything himself,” he says. “It’s as personal as it gets.”
The pair enjoy being a meaningful part of their customers’ diets and spend a lot of time talking with customers about their practices, in addition to offering recipes. “We’re increasing consumer education and being a part of a nuanced conversation about ecological, sustainable, organic farming,” Hillary says.
Like Armstrong, Greensboro resident Christi Helms first encountered the Kimmels at the weekly market and soon began volunteering out at the farm. As a co-op member, Helms buys most of her meat and veggies through PTB—and gets especially excited when she sees shiitake mushrooms, padrone peppers, and their green salad mix on the table, as well as their pork sausage and ribeye steak.
A big fan of Joel Salatin, Helms says the Kimmels approach farming in a similar way, by creating a continuous cycle of reaping and restoration: “They’re farming basically like he does, rotating the animals on a daily basis and making sure the impact on the land is minimal and the animals are very, very happy,” she says. “They’re an excellent example of the way farming is meant to be.”
As the sun drops lower in the sky, a red steer tagged E1 approaches Hillary and Worth, likely hoping for a treat. “This is a beautiful bovine animal,” Worth observes of the steer, who truly is quite handsome. “He’s not bothered by flies or the temperature. And he’s got quite a sheen to him.”
With their chores complete, the pair jumps in the golf cart to return to the top of the farm, leaving E1 and his companions to continue munching the grass and enriching the soil. They’ll be back tomorrow, to lead them to fresh ground.
Except where noted, all photos © Christina Cooke