What happens when you start with 100 acres of row-cropped, played-out, nutrient-stripped farmland and donâ€™t have a lot of money for projects and improvements? Well, for folks with a deep-rooted love of farming, a never-say-die determination and a mutual commitment to regenerative land practices such as rotational grazing, the answer could look a lot like Clint and Bobbi Jo Finney’s Spring Valley Stock Farms in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio.
Winter was almost over on the March day at Spring Valley when we visited, and it was unseasonably warm. We sat in the fitful March sunshine with Clint and Bobbi Jo and their two sonsâ€”7-year-old Ethan, and Levi, 15 monthsâ€”watching 30 Katahdin ewes nurse their lambs.Â
On the hill, a herd of beef cattle grazed stockpiled forageâ€”pasture saved for winter grazingâ€”and behind us in a large, airy barn, breeding sows relaxed in pens bedded deep with hay. Several dairy goats nibbled briars in the sheep pasture.
Misty, a Halflinger mare, poked her head out of the stable door.Â
Clint started raising hogs when he was 10 years old. â€śIâ€™ve always loved hogs,â€ť he said. He came by his love naturally, because his parents and grandparents also raised hogs in this area. But Clintâ€™s own first pig was a prize in an essay contest.
â€śThe Ohio Spot Breeders [Spotted Hog association] give away five gilts every year,â€ť Clint said. That year, his essay won. He raised that pig for 4-H and then began breeding Spotted Hogs. The first pig was the mother of many. Today, there are still sows on the Finney farm descended from Mama, the prize gilt.Â
Bobbi Jo, growing up on a farm outside nearby Cadiz, Ohio, was also an avid 4-H kid. â€śI raised dairy goats, dairy heifers and pigs,â€ť she said. When friends set her up on a blind date with Clint, he recognized Bobbi Jo as a girl he had first seen in the show ring. Two years later, the young people were married.
Farming had a lot to do with their compatibility. â€śI wanted to marry a man who worked like my dad,â€ť Bobbi Jo said.Â
Read more: Regenerative growing is farming for better soil.
Making a Go of It
Today, the Finney farm is exceptionally diverse and productive, and itâ€™s no wonder. They bring a lot of knowledge to their farming.Â
Clint has decades of experience raising hogs, cattle and sheep and is a soil conservation technician for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. As if that wasnâ€™t enough, he is also the county 4-H key leader for swine and, for the past 11 years, a founder and guiding light for the Eastern Ohio Grazing Council, an organization that has, over the past 11 years, assisted scores of local farmers in shifting to ecologically-sound, rotational-grazing practices.
Bobbi Jo, a licensed practical nurse, is still a farm girl. Misty and the dairy goats are her projects.Â
Itâ€™s a good thing Clint and Bobbi Jo started out with so much going for them, because Spring Valley wasnâ€™t always as blooming with health as it is today. Much of this land had been strip-mined. Some of it was played out with row cropping and poor soil conservation practices.Â
Pastures were over-your-head high in weeds and brambles. But where some folks would have reached for the easy fixâ€”herbicides, chemical fertilizers and tillageâ€”Clint and Bobbi Jo were already committed to using more natural methods to improve their soil and pasture.
They began a rotational grazing program for their growing herd of beef cows. At first, this just consisted of monthly moves between two pastures. But very soon, the two farmers started to see how these long rest periods allowed forages to recover between grazings. They wanted to see how far they could take this improvement.
So they divided the original pastures into smaller areas, then still smaller. Rests were longer, and forage growth really took off. The Finneys were sold on rotational grazing.
They continue to refine their grass management techniques. For instance, bale grazingâ€”feeding unrolled round bales directly on pastureâ€”has let them put cows on areas where there was too little forage for normal grazing. This adds organic matter (and any seeds that were in the hay) to areas that need it, giving a boost to future forage growth.Â
Today, they move their cows and sheep at least twice a day. This summer, Clint hopes to increase that number.
The Right Side of the Ledger
Like their commitment to ecologically-sound farming practices, the Finneys have always been determined to keep the farm on a sound financial footing. In fact, that determination was part of what pushed them toward rotational grazing.
â€śWhen I graduated from college, I wanted to start a commercial hog operation,â€ť Clint said. But when he ran the numbers, the project just didnâ€™t pencil out. Building and stocking such an enterprise could easily take half a million dollars, and he didnâ€™t think the return would justify the investment.
â€śIf Iâ€™d started that hog operation back in 2002, today Iâ€™d be on the street,â€ť he said.Â
Grass, however, they already had. And grass is free. So expanding their herd of breeding cows in a rotational grazing program was an obvious step.
The benefits of utilizing this free, captured solar energy were quickly apparent, and soon the couple added a small flock of sheep to their livestock. The two speciesâ€™ different grazing styles had positive effects on pasture productivity. And the Finneys saw this as a way to move forward with ever-increasing benefits to the farm.Â
Now, they market custom meatâ€”beef, pork and lambâ€”and seasonally raise pastured chickens. Their breeding sows produce about 400 piglets per year.
Some are sold to folks who want to raise their own pork. Others go to 4-H kids. Some are fattened here and butchered for retail sale.
Calves from the Finneysâ€™ 25 brood cows are raised out for beef. And Clint sells retail beef, pork and lamb at a local farmers market, using the weekly contacts to build a committed clientele. If it doesnâ€™t make financial sense, the Finneys arenâ€™t likely to do it.Â
Keeping the farm in the black is important partly because they hope someday to pass this farm on to their children. Ethan already considers himself a farmer, and for good reason.
Heâ€™s been doing chores with Clint since he was a toddler. He handles Misty, who towers over him, with calm confidence. If farming is something he wants to do when he grows up, Clint and Bobbi Jo want to help make that happen.Â
â€śFinneys settled here in Ohio some time in the late 1700s to early 1800s,â€ť Clint said. He wants that line to continue.
Read more: Easily manage livestock and land health with rotational grazing.
Even though Clint and Bobbi Jo have the advantage of having grown up as farm kids, they arenâ€™t immune to the thousands of accidents that make farming half delight, half nightmare. Telling those stories is one way they help less experienced farmers build confidence.
â€śIf it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone,â€ť is a sentiment that can keep the beginning farmer in the game.
Like the day, way back when Clint was 10 years old, when his dad took him to get that prize pig and the family got in an automobile accident on the way. â€śWe were lucky we could still get the tailgate down to load the pig,â€ť Clint said.
Or the time Clint brought home his bull from visiting a neighboring farm. â€śI was turning a corner, and I just happened to glance in the wing mirror,â€ť he saidâ€”just in time to see one of the bullâ€™s feet come through the floor of the trailer. â€śBy the time I got the truck stopped and ran around to see what had happened, he was standing with all four feet on the road.â€ťÂ
The wooden floor of the stock trailer had looked solid enough, but 2,000 pounds of Hereford bull proved too much for it. What looked like bad luck, though, could have been a lot worse: Just that morning, Clintâ€™s father had used the trailer to haul half-a-dozen cows more than 50 highway milesâ€”without any issues.Â
And then there was the rocky start Clint and Bobbi Jo had when they started the sheep flock. The pretty animals grazing next to us on this March day were pictures of health, but the enterprise didnâ€™t start out that way!Â
Of the original 10 ewes bought in 2010, three didnâ€™t make it through the first year. Lambs were orphaned, ewes failed to produce enough milk and there were so many bottle lambs the Finneys just got tired of them.
Undaunted, though, they continued to believe that raising sheep naturally, on grass, with rotational grazing and without medication and biocides, would work. And today, if you ask Clint how many sheep he has, heâ€™s likely to say, â€śI donâ€™t know. Every time I try to count them, I fall asleep!â€ťÂ
While Clint and Bobbi Jo are committed to improving their land with regenerative practices like rotational grazing, they arenâ€™t strictly speaking organic. Clint, as a soil conservation technician, visits farms of all kinds and sees many varieties of farming practice. He forms his own opinions about the best ways to farm.
Whatâ€™s fashionable is less exciting to him than what is best for the animals, the land and the family.Â
So while his sows live in a barn with deep organic bedding, they have their piglets in farrowing crates, pens designed to protect young piglets from being laid or stepped on. Some natural farmers don’t like this practice. For Clint, though, it seems that a short time in the farrowing crate is a reasonable price for keeping very young piglets from being overlaid or stepped on.Â
â€śAnd the sows must not mind it much,â€ť Clint said. â€śIf they get out of the barn and the door to the farrowing house is open, they come in the barn and fill up the crates!â€ťÂ
When it comes to toxic chemicals, though, the Finneys are firm. Keeping this farm biocide free isnâ€™t just for the benefit of the animals and plants. Clint and Bobby Jo are concerned that extensive and prolonged use of farm chemicals has contributed to ill health in the farm community as a whole.
They are happier knowing that Ethan and Levi wonâ€™t be accidentally exposed to harmful chemicals. And it is safer and more practical. With less heavy equipment and fewer toxins, their children can help with almost any part of the farm work.
The Farm of the Future
What are Clint and Bobby Joâ€™s plans for the future of Spring Valley? Even with all they have already accomplished, the couple still has plenty of dreams.Â
Grazing all his livestock straight through the winter sounds like a good project to Clint. Right now he finishes some animals on winter grass, but they still go through a lot of hay in the cold months. Keeping livestock numbers in balance with forage production is an eternal challenge, but itâ€™s just the sort of challenge that keeps farming and rotational grazing interesting.
And while Clint loves his NRCS job helping other farmers to develop good stewardship practices, one of his hopes is to improve the financial potential of Spring Valley so that either of his sons, if they so desire, could work the farm full time and make a living at it.
Heâ€™s sure the potential is there.
Bobby Joâ€™s plans include a bigger garden in 2022, and making creative use of the milk from her four dairy goats. Training Misty is on the list, tooâ€”maybe as a 4-H project for Ethan? Right now the livestock that keeps her busiest are the two boys. Like Clint, she gives them top priority.
When asked about her future plans, she paused to look around at all the life her family has in their keeping, and said, â€śI want to keep growing this place as a homestead.â€ťÂ
Clint and Bobbi Jo Finney believe they owe a lot of their success to the support of their community. Snd theyâ€™re not satisfied with just saying, â€śThank you!â€ť This family is always paying it forward.Â
Grateful for his own start raising spotted hogs, most years Clint is able to donate a gilt to the same essay contest that made him a pig breeder. He also provides mentorship and active assistance to new fledgling hog breeders.Â
As cofounder of the Eastern Ohio Grazing Council, Clint donates lots of time to sharing good farming methods with other farmers. And lately, Clint has also been making his grazing experience available to others via a series of really practical, informative YouTube videos.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue ofÂ Hobby Farms magazine.