Suzanne Nelson Karreman appeared on the cover of our November/December 2021 issue as part of The Female Farmer Project—a multiplatform documentary project that chronicles the rise of women working in agriculture around the world.
Nelson Karreman quit her job as a Capitol Hill journalist to start a farming career. Now, she runs Reverence Farms, a diversified, thriving polyculture in Graham, North Carolina, where animals are treated with reverence and grace, earthworms are cherished and all critters eat a species-appropriate diet.
What Livestock Do You Keep?
We have 40 Jersey cows, all their young stock—this year’s calves and last year’s calves that are still growing, including the bull calves—and about a dozen mature Jersey bulls. We also raise hair sheep, laying hens and Ossabaw Island hogs.
Read more: These small breeds fit great on hobby farms!
What Is Your Biggest Success?
Our biggest success is pioneering how to graze multiple species within a dairy context. We are also finding ways to not sell off the bulls and heifers into conventional streams with vastly differently approaches to animal welfare than we have.
Dairy is significantly more complex than beef because of the dramatically higher nutritional needs of dairy cows, plus the complexity of having mobile infrastructure when you also have to get the animals back to the barn every day.
We have bred an all A2A2 herd of Jerseys. They can milk on forage only, breed back, keep in good condition, share the milk with their calves and still give us milk for the tank. There is growing awareness among consumers of how dairy cows don’t get to be mamas, but making milk means making babies, so how are we as a culture going to reckon with that biological reality and moral choice?
We are answering those questions with deliberate breeding, soil and forage improvements, and systems and processes to make it all work together. Cows graze with their calves during the day and are separated after 4 to 6 weeks old at night. Then we milk the moms in the morning, and they return to their babes after that.
It means that our farm markets meat as well as milk, because dairy cows were originally also the family beef cow producers. There’s a lot of practical and ethical normalcy to that approach.
What Have Been the Biggest Challenges?
Our biggest challenge has been recovering what has been lost in two generations of industrial farming: the capital, land access, land degradation, lack of genetic diversity and, most importantly, the loss of generational knowledge when most farmers were eliminated and we all went to the grocery store. Rebuilding a food system from scratch is not for sissies.
Any Advice for New Farmers?
Get good at producing/marketing one thing before you get on another learning curve. Yes, all the things work better together. It’s why Grandma had a homestead and survived the Great Depression.
But you can’t learn all those things at once; you can’t rebuild all that infrastructure at one time.
Help a neighbor. Learn. Humble yourself to learn from people you don’t agree with. Make friends: You are going to need them! Trust me.
What’s Your Proudest Achievement?
What I’m most proud of is the Jersey cow genetics that we’re now able to share with others. These are functional cows that can do the work of a family dairy cow—producing high-fat, high-protein, high-cheese-components milk on a solar-based diet—and be healthy and in good condition, without needing so much grain to produce milk in excess of a family’s needs.
We are going back to the island cow that took the world by storm for good reason. These are amazing cows. We sell semen. I never thought I would do that, but I felt called to share what we painstakingly created with others.
Any Final Thoughts?
Farming as a woman is a lot easier than it used to be when I first started, when I was often the only one in a room. My advice to other female farmers is that you don’t have to give up your heart or nurturing instincts to farm. Be who you are. It makes you a better farmer. You don’t have to farm like a man to be a real farmer. Leave a path. — Suzanne Nelson Karreman
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.