When Stacy Hall talks to women who want to get into farming she tells them, “The key is to realize what you like to do, assess your resources and start!” It was with this same brave sentiment that she and her husband Bill Dix broke into the world of seasonal grass-based dairying.
For four years, the Ohio couple grew organic vegetables, tended a small beef herd and raised broiler chickens and a few hogs. Despite the diversity of their farm, the couple could not make a living. Something had to change, so when Stacy came across an article about the great potentials of grass-based dairying, they decided to give it a try.
In 1992, Stacy and Bill took the plunge: they sold their cow-calf herd to finance a small herd of Jersey heifers and a milking parlor. Grass-based dairies are less labor intensive and cost less because the animals live outside year round and eat grass during the growing season instead of purchased feed. (Stacy and Bill’s operation is seasonal, so the cows do not produce milk in the winter.)
By 1993, the cows were producing milk but the going was still tough. The cows were thin and the pastures needed improvement. Stacy still remembers the stress of this transition: “We didn’t know how to manage the grass. We were running on no sleep and had no support. We just didn’t know anyone else who was doing this; people said we were nuts and wouldn’t last six months.” What Stacy and Bill needed was a way to meet other grass-based dairy farmers and learn what made their operations successful.
Through the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks’ (ACEnet) Food Ventures Project, Stacy and Bill rent communal freezer space to store their dairy products. Having access to a local, certified freezer is a huge help to their business.
Through a few different informal connections with other farmers who knew other farmers, the couple began to meet farmers in other states who were also starting grass-fed dairies. They formed a business discussion group that held quarterly meetings to focus on improving business performance and production. Now when the group meets, the first day is dedicated to a tour of the host farm, and on the second day, the host farmer climbs onto the “hot seat” where he or she is challenged to justify their management decisions. Collectively, Stacy and the others have developed a very stimulating and productive exercise for all participants. Each farmer has developed much stronger management skills and all have been able to create successful businesses, which enrich both their families and their communities.
Consumer empowerment is a big factor in the decisions that Stacy and Bill make on the two farms they now own, Big Rumen Farm and The Brick. Currently, they are looking into setting up a local milk processing plant on their second farm. There is still a lot of research and planning to do, but Stacy is sure that consumers are hungry for fresh, healthy, local milk and dairy products. “Let’s be partners” is the message that Stacy wants to send to her community by creating a local source for food products that are increasingly hard to find locally. For Stacy Hall, success is not simply being able to support her family financially it also means being able to give something back to the land, her employees and her community.