Genell Pridgen

Snow Hill, N.C.

This month, Farm Aid talked to Genell Pridgen of Rainbow Meadow Farms in Snow Hill, North Carolina, who raises pasture based livestock and poultry. Genell works with Rural Advancement Foundation International, or RAFI, a North Carolina based organization that Farm Aid has funded for many years. RAFI is dedicated to community, equity and diversity in agriculture in the United States and abroad.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your farm.

A: Most of the land has been in our family since 1746. It was a land grant from the King of England. I am the seventh generation. We transitioned from a tobacco and row crop farm with contract broiler chickens to a pasture-based livestock farm, growing pastured broilers, free-range turkeys, layers, Berkshire hogs, Dorper lamb and Red Devon/Angus cattle. Our farm land encompasses about 300 acres. All our products are antibiotic/hormone free.

Q: How did you start farming?

A: I have always farmed. I grew up helping to collect eggs. My father let me help deliver pigs when I was 6 years old. I grew up showing steers and hogs in 4-H shows to pay for college and I spent my summers working in tobacco to pay for my first car and for college. My parents encouraged me to get a degree and get a nice job as it was too hard of a struggle to make it as a farmer. So, I got a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry while I was in college and upon getting my degree, I went to work at a medical institution doing research on whooping cough. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that I was not happy in a building all day. My heart was on the family farm. I spent my lunch hours at work dreaming of how I would help carry the family farm into the 21st century. So, I left the bio-medical research field and came back to the farm full-time, working alongside my father and mother to transition the farm from row crops, tobacco and growing broilers under contract to a pasture based livestock system with direct marketing of our meats under the "Rainbow Meadow Farms Pasture Pure Premium Meats" label.

Q: How has working with RAFI helped you and your farm?

A: RAFI gave us the opportunity to take what was a loss (chicken contract with a large integrator and loss of tobacco income) and use it as an opportunity to develop more sustainable farming practices like pastured poultry. They gave us money to increase the direct market for our pastured poultry and other meats, going from a small, niche market to servicing over 20 different markets. This increase in growth has all occurred within 1 ½ years. They believed in us when a bank wouldn't have taken on such a risky proposition.

Q: What is pastured poultry?

A: Pastured Poultry are birds that are raised in pasture once they have come out of the brooder. They are rotated through different pasture paddocks, which provide a daily diet of grass and bugs that is supplemented with grains. They are provided with shelter in these pasture paddocks.

Q: How is it different from the way most birds are raised?

A: Our birds are different from the legal standard for free-range birds in that ours are not in stationary housing; they are rotated through the pasture to ensure that they are outside daily in paddocks that are full of grass and not denuded to the dirt. The US standard for free-range poultry allows for stationary housing with a requirement of only "access" to the outside. In many cases this can mean 15,000-25,000 birds in a house with one or two doors open to the outside and in reality very few birds ever making it outside.

Q: Does your family help out on the farm?

A: The farm is run with family labor and only one hired employee. The family includes my father (64), my mother (63 and a retired schoolteacher), my husband (after he finishes his daytime job as a college instructor), my 10 year-old son, my 9 year old daughter, and myself.

Q: Are you selling any special products for the holiday season?

A: We have free-range whole turkeys (American Whites, Mammoth Bronze and the heritage breeds of Bourbon Red and Blue Slate) as well as turkey breasts.

Q: What is on your Thanksgiving menu?

A: Butternut Squash Soup topped with Rainbow Meadow Farms Nitrite- Free Applewood Smoked Bacon Bits
Rainbow Meadow Farms Bourbon Red Turkey, brined and roasted using Sara Foster's recipe from the November 2007 issue of Cottage Living for Spiced Roast Turkey
Wheat Berry and Wild Rice Salad (w/cranberries)
Organic, Locally Raised Kale, sautéed in Garlic and White Wine
Roasted Oysters
Dressing
Sweet Potato Pie (from Great Grandma Bessie's recipe) and Pecan Pie (using pecans from our farm)

Q: Do you have any tips for folks cooking a pastured turkey for the first time?

A: A pastured turkey, particularly a heritage turkey, will have less fat, so it could dry out easier. Brining will ensure this doesn't happen. Let the turkey come to room temperature for about 2 hours before roasting. Also, placing herbed butter between the skin and the breast meat allows the turkey to self baste. I would not place stuffing inside the heritage turkey as it will take long enough for the stuffing to cook inside the cavity of the turkey that the turkey itself may overcook and dry out. Pastured turkeys will have much more flavor. Heritage birds will have less breast meat and a more even distribution of white to dark meat versus a broad breasted breed.

Q: Do you butcher your own birds?

A: No, all of our birds are processed under USDA inspection.

Q: What does a farmer need to know that other people might not think of?

A: Most things are learned, honestly, through trial and error--through the school of hard knocks. At least for us. I have found that I am having to learn to be a jack of all trades. It is definitely not an eight-hour-a-day job. You are on call 24/7. You do what needs to be done to survive as a farm. I have to be a veterinarian at times, a mechanic, etc. But the biggest difference in what we do now with our direct marketing to restaurants and stores versus how we just used to take the products to the stockyard or market is that I now have to "know it all."

Q: Describe an average day on your farm.

A: Work begins sometime before daybreak, doing the chores, feeding animals, and moving them to new pastures. We split duties with my mom who is in charge of the accounting, ordering feed and taking the animals to be processed. My job is to coordinate supply and demand and deliveries to customers, marketing, and development of new product lines. My dad tends the animals and plants the pasture crops. We all come together, including my 11-year-old son and my husband when it comes time to load the animals for processing. My 9-year-old daughter helps with tending to the laying hens and also the baby lambs. She is also a big help in baby-sitting my 18-month-old son while we are loading chickens to be taken to the processor. Hopefully most of the labor has been finished by dark, with nights left to do a last check of all the animals to make sure that they are ok before bed time, answer e-mails from customers, catch up on office work, and plan for the upcoming week.

Q: Why do you think farmers are important?

A: They are the backbone of the country. Without them this country cannot survive. Can we depend on the US companies importing food to ensure our food supply is safe? I feel that we are all much safer when we encourage family farmers to grow food for local and regional consumption. We ensure the safety of our food when we have a personal relationship with our local farm families, coming to the farm, seeing what they do, encouraging and supporting them with our food dollars, eating locally and seasonally as much as possible. When we support local farmers we are supporting sustainable development so that family farms continue to exist as functioning family farms.

Q: What is the best thing about being a farmer?

A: The comments of appreciation we receive for the quality and healthiness of what we produce. These comments come from moms who are concerned about what their kids are eating. They don't want MSG in their sausage, or hormones or antibiotics in their meat.

Q: How can people buy food that you have raised?

A: They can order on-line or find a list of restaurants and stores that offer our products at www.rmfpasturepuremeats.com.

Date: 11/15/2007