Up a broad “holler” in eastern Ohio, tucked into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, an old farm returns a life of active farming. Established perennial crops such as grapevines and fruit trees send up new growth.
Mangalitsa and Red Wattle/Hampshire-cross hogs root under oak and black walnut trees. Jersey and Kerry cows draw a pattern of grazed paddocks over long-neglected pastures. Katahdin sheep and Nubian goats browse invasive shrubs. Hens forage for insects and spread manure piles.
The Pié family Dave and Anna and their three small children— tend the animals and cultivate an orchard, vineyard and garden. They even school at home.
And they’ve been here less than two years.
How do two, young, successful, upwardly-mobile professionals with a house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a small-but-growing family suddenly find themselves on 73 acres in Appalachia with nine cows, about 15 pigs, a growing flock of sheep and goats, and goodness-knows-how-many chickens, ducks and turkeys?
A dream. Not a daydream, but a genuine, see-it-in-your-sleep dream.
“My father died in March of 2019,” Dave says. A dedicated work-before-play, savings-in-the-bank financial advisor from St. Clairesville, Ohio, Dave’s father seldom allowed himself time off, looking forward always to a comfortable retirement. Lung cancer got him first. At age 63, he was gone.
“I knew at his funeral that something needed to change,” Dave says. “I thought, ‘We’re out of here.’”
But back in Philadelphia, their successful careers kept them busy. Things went on much as usual. Until one night, there came the dream. In the midst of a deep sleep, Dave heard his father say to him, “Spend less time pushing the plow and more time blooming.” Build happiness into your daily life now, the dream seemed to be saying. Don’t put it off for a future that might never come.
The young family began making plans to return to Ohio.
As we sat together on the patio behind their century-old farmhouse, Dave and Anna’s three daughters—Gemma, 4; Loretta, 2; and Eva, not yet 1—play in the grass next to a paddock of pastured chickens.
Sheep and cows graze nearby. Loretta brings her father a small frog.
Dave’s career as head distiller for New Liberty Distillery in Pennsylvania might seem a long way from cows and chickens. But it was probably the gateway drug that began turning this biochemist into a farmer.
After all, making hooch is just a form of “agricultural processing,” Dave says. And his job of sourcing grains from local small farms put agriculture on his radar. He began to see the smaller, artisanal farms he worked with as a new way to relate to the natural world.
From Dream to Reality
Interest piqued, he started reading books and watching documentaries on food, farming life and farm legislation. Dave learned more about just what we eat, where it really comes from and who pays. He read Joel Salatin’s Everything I Want to Do is Illegal. He watched Food, Inc.
Hunting deer and butchering his own game when he was in high school had given him familiarity and comfort with the idea of natural food sources. Now his investigations made him wonder about the safety and security of his family’s commercial food diet. All of these experiences initiated a train of thought that came to fruition in that moment at his father’s wake when Dave realized: “We’re out of here.”
Anna was ready and willing. Unlike Dave, she had grown up in the country. “Not on a real farm,” she says, but a rural household with livestock—goats, chickens, horses. She loved the animals and her surroundings, but had a nagging sense even then that something was not right.
“It was a lot of work,” she says. Hauling hay and grain, cleaning stalls, moving animals: “It seemed inefficient.” But she thought of the setting with love and wanted her children to grow up surrounded with living things and the freedom to wander. Furthermore, she was growing bored with life in the city.
“Everything costs money,” she says, “concerts, games, plays.” Dave’s suggestion was music to her ears.
By November of the same year, they’d settled in Ohio, breaking ground for a different kind of farm.
Much reading and many documentaries had begun to form a new picture in their minds. Mixed farming (livestock and crops, especially perennial crops that lend themselves to fermentation, things such as apples and grapes) with animals and plants managed as an integrated whole, are a significant part of the Piés’ vision for their life. They plan to build a farm that fits into its surroundings. “We want to use what is here,” Dave says. “Good stewards don’t fight the land.”
Anna adds firmly: “There should be no waste.”
Her experiences as a child come to her assistance now. While she loved her outdoor childhood, she also remembered some things that seemed less than ideal.
“I remember that the chickens wasted a lot of feed,” she says. Limiting her own birds’ access to commercial feed—by keeping them on rotated paddocks and providing a limited daily feeding—has resulted in less waste and more efficient foraging. Large animals underwent a similar rethinking.
“My family used to spend a lot of time hauling hay,” she says. “It seemed like a lot of unnecessary work.” Now the Piés’ rotationally grazed animals spread their own manure, and waste hay and forage end up on the pasture, not in the barn.
The sense a farming life should not be drudgery stayed with her, too. Often when not working, she and Dave and the children wander the farm just enjoying their land. What do they find to do?
“We catch bugs, play in the creek, fish the pond (and) look at flowers. Last spring, we went to the back pasture and flew kites.” Not even the view goes to waste!
Farm Is Where the Home Is
The Piés spent the first winter prepping the land for expansion of the existing orchard and small vineyard. They did what the season allowed them to do. In March, the pandemic, and resulting shortages, encouraged them to bring the farm even further into focus. They began adding animals.
Mixed farming was always part of their life vision. Not just Anna’s love of livestock was in play here, but a conviction about natural forces. Ecosystems depend on their animal populations for many services such as:
- pruning forages
- transhumation (moving fertility from place to place)
- crushing tough plant fibers
- driving seeds into the earth
The Piés envisioned a farming philosophy where, by combining the advantages of perennial plants and foraging animals, life—all life: plant, animal and human—would thrive.
Learn from Failure
Not everything was a success! Every farm has its stories, some funny, some tragic. There was the lamb they succeeded in bonding to a reluctant mother, only to have it get trapped in a manger the next day. Before the Piés discovered the problem the tiny animal was dead.
“What made it worse was that we had seen it get into that spot once before.” Anna says. “That taught us an important lesson: What an animal will do once, it will do again. Don’t give it a second chance to get into the same trouble.”
The heritage Mangalitsa pigs were a good fit for the Piés’ silvopasture program and reproduced readily. Soon there were pigs to sell—until there weren’t.
“One day, just a week before the young pigs were going to ship, I went up the hill to move their fence, and they were gone,” Dave says. “Six half-grown Mangas—just like that.”
He had gotten out of the habit of making sure the single strand of polytwine that enclosed the pigs’ paddock was delivering the appropriate charge. Unnoticed, the ground wire came loose, and with the fence compromised, a single strand of white string was all that restrained the livestock. It wasn’t long before the pigs figured out the fence wasn’t hot and vamoosed.
The thought of the eight months of purchased feed the pigs represented, now unrecoverable, was more than discouraging. The family searched for hours, but the pigs had vanished. They gave up hope of seeing their livestock again, but, a week later, neighbors called with the news that the prodigal pigs were in their front yard.
The Pié family turned out en masse. Six hours spent convincing the pigs to load up in the trailer could not put a damper on Dave’s jubilation: “I learned how to load pigs,” he says.
The temporary loss of the Mangas drove home a significant principle both ecological and economic. Too great a dependence on purchased inputs compromises the viability of farming and, by extension, their hard-won life.
The Piés began fermenting their pigs’ food to increase nutrient availability and palatability and saw their feed consumption cut in half.
They sold more pigs, to bring the animals’ feed requirements in better balance with their value to the farm.
The principle can be extended. Knowing that the shortfall in most forages is in protein content, the Piés plan to use their dairy herd to produce farm-sourced protein for all their livestock.
Grass is free. Cows turn it into milk for nothing. And because milk is a favorite food for pigs, chickens, dogs and cats, feeding milk to the farm’s omnivores and carnivores leverages grass to feed everyone: free grass, free milk, free food.
Paying the Bills
The Piés may have moved quickly once the decision to relocate had been made, but they were well placed to make the shift. Not having any debt was their most significant advantage.
“We always scrimped to pay down any loans,” Anna says, and Dave agrees: “We live simply.” Buying a farmhouse much in need of remodeling was completely in character. Their pickup, more than 20 years old, would never win a beauty contest, but it runs reliably.
These people do not self-identify as their belongings.
Starting even before their marriage, they made smart investments, with an emphasis on rental properties. This and online consulting work meant that the couple could start their farming life with a modest but secure income. They wanted to build their farm the way nature would do it. Keeping their living expenses moderate and tying them to a stable off-farm income was key.
Life rule No. 1: Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to choose between sticking to good farming principles or paying the bills. When it’s a choice between economics and ecology, in the short run, economics wins every time.
It isn’t just food security that drives the Piés. Dave’s researches into federal farm policy aren’t forgotten. “Bucking the system” appeals to these independent thinkers. And knowing that their family eats the best food there is ranks only a little above the knowledge that because they raise their own food they have choices.
Those who feed themselves can, to at least an extent, call their own shots. In the wake of national shortages of all kinds, and with governmental mandates coming as thick as locusts in the seventeenth year, increasing the farm’s independence just makes sense.
Read more: Get to know the Mangalitsa pig breed!
Looking to the Future
Assisi Farms, as Dave and Anna have named their new home place (after a medieval Italian saint who honored animals as his brothers and sisters), is only beginning to express the Piés’ plans for it. Dave’s professional experience will be used to start an on-farm distillery.
They already grow fruit. Anyone can have alcoholic yeasts for free. They’re also beginning to make plans with friends who have expertise in large animal butchery and gourmet cooking: maybe a restaurant or an event venue.
Other facets of the farm, they hope, will also begin to generate a surplus, which can be turned into cash profit. But nothing will convince the Piés to compromise the farm’s ecological balance.
“We’re not in this to make a million,” Dave says firmly. Anna nods in agreement. They had money back in city. Today, they’re sure there’s more real wealth in good neighbors, a strong community and healthy soil. They haven’t forgotten Dave’s fathers’ words: “Spend less time pushing a plow and more time blooming.”
The Piés and their farming life are blooming.
Make It Count
It used to be common to see hogs raised as a side hustle to orchard or vineyard, and the Piés plan to resurrect this model. Operations such as vineyards, cideries and distilleries seasonally produce large amounts of fruit or grain wastes—pomace, mash or must.
Such “waste” resources are often just dumped or composted. By feeding these spare nutrients to pigs, farmers can secure a second harvest—pork—off a single resource.
On Dave and Anna Pié’s Assisi Farm in eastern Ohio, the favorite livestock is cattle. “I never thought I’d be raising cows,” Dave says, but the efficiency of these large herbivores won him over.
Cows combine a host of desirable traits: They eat what the farm wants to grow, while their grazing style is suited to reclaiming neglected pasture.
And then there’s the milk! The daily harvest of sweet, raw milk delights the family and supplements the diets of almost all the animals on the farm.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.