WEST BRATTLEBORO—Not all farms sell vegetables.
Rebop Farm is all about animals.
On a steep incline about 3 miles up Sunset Lake Road from Route 9, Ashlyn Bristle and Abraham McClurg raise Jersey/Guernsey dairy cows, Katahdin sheep, rabbits, heritage turkeys, ducks, chickens, and pigs on the new farm.
Bristle and McClurg bought the property last summer, but they farmed together for three years before that, most recently on rented land in Newfane.
Bristle has been a farmer for about seven years, and McClurg got involved in agriculture only when he began farming with her, though he did grow up on a farm.
The couple named the farm after the first calf they bought together.
“She was a milking cow until we just dried her off last week,” said Bristle. “Nobody else is named Rebop, so we can be remarkable in that way.”
“I was always interested in growing things,” said Bristle, who grew up in North Carolina. After earning a teaching degree, the economy turned in 2008.
Consequently, “North Carolina cut programs in education, and it became too competitive” to secure a good job as a new teacher, Bristle said.
“I had done some college farming,” she said, “and I found a job combining education and farming at Farm & Wilderness (farmandwilderness.org),” the group of Quaker-based summer camps headquartered in Plymouth.
“I fell in love with Vermont and I’ve been farming here since then,” she said.
Diversifying the business
Most of Bristle’s Vermont farming experience has been with dairy, “but dairy is part of the system — not the only thing you’re doing, especially on smaller farms. The dairy animals are integrated into the entire farm. [With dairy-only,] the yield per acre is really low,” she said.
So, how does Rebop Farm make it work?
One way, Bristle said, is by participating in the Vermont Farm & Forest Viability Program.
Part of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the program, according to its website, “offers one-on-one, in-depth business planning, technical assistance and management coaching to Vermont farm, food and forestry enterprises in order to improve the economic viability of Vermont’s working landscape.”
Other strategies Rebop employs are working “proactively to make sure our business is tight,” and being “as diverse as possible in case something doesn’t work,” said Bristle.
Right now, Rebop has two main business branches: the milk and the meat.
In keeping within state laws, Rebop sells raw milk only to individuals, directly from the farm. Most people participate in a weekly milk subscription program, but some buy the milk “a la carte.”
Having this direct access to consumers is a plus, said Bristle. If the milk goes through a distributor or a store, that cuts off the farm’s interaction with the people who eat or drink their wares.
With raw milk, it’s especially important to have that one-on-one access.
“We understand the risks of raw milk,” said Bristle, and she and McClurg make sure to educate their customers.
Keeping the milk raw and selling it directly also makes financial sense. “We make at least 10 times the commodity bulk price other farmers make per gallon,” Bristle said.
A variety of meat
Rebop also sells meat by the whole or half animal, or in parts. While sales — retail from the farm and wholesale to restaurants — represent a small part of their business, most of the meat the farm sells is direct to consumer through its meat CSA (community-supported agriculture), in the form of a six-month subscription program.
Although Rebop isn’t certified organic, the farm uses organic practices and intensive, rotational grazing for all of the animals on 16 acres. Bristle and McClurg also graze some of their animals on their neighbors’ property.
“We rotate the grazing very frequently,” said Bristle, adding that it’s “important for pasture management to not be a schlump.”
Rebop has four milk cows, all Jersey or Jersey-cross. Two calves arrived this summer. One will increase the herd in about two years. The other will become rose veal, which means the calf is not confined.
“It’s raised with the sheep, it runs around the pasture, and we feed it a bottle of milk every day,” said Bristle.
There are 12 pigs this year, which are on pasture and are fed extra milk from the early autumn until their slaughter.
“They’re eating a lot right now,” said Bristle.
The pigs are big farm helpers, she said. On their grazing rotation, they are very productive in tilling the fields, which allows clover to come in and grow so the cows and sheep can graze.
“I’m very pleased with what they did,” she said.
About 30 sheep live on the farm, but “that number changes throughout the year,” said Bristle.
The lambs are three weeks from slaughter. Some will become part of the CSA, and others will go to local restaurants. Rebop also has two meat goats, “for people who are excited about meat goats,” said Bristle.
For the Thanksgiving-minded, Rebop has 40 turkeys, including the heritage Narragansett and Chocolate breeds, and the standard Broad Breasted Bronze breed.
“The heritage breeds take twice the time to get up to size” as a standard-breed turkey, said Bristle, “but the flavor is special.”
It’s both rabbit season and duck season on Rebop Farm.
“The numbers vary tremendously because they’re rabbits,” said Bristle, “but we have 16 breeder moms, and our goal is 150 rabbits this year. The kits graze around in a tractor cage that we move around the field.” The farm has 200 ducks, mostly heritage breeds.
“I love the ducks,” said Bristle. “They are so funny and cute.”
One duck-related challenge is finding a nearby USDA-certified processor. The closest one, Bristle said, is in Milford, N.H. If processing — which involves the tough job of removing the feathers — were easier, “duck could be huge here,” she said.
“We also have a beautiful, sweet farm dog that sleeps under our bed all day, instead of working,” said Bristle.
Because some participants in the meat CSA aren’t used to handling whole, grass-fed animals — which means different cooking methods and sometimes unfamiliar cuts — Rebop Farm offers all subscribers a cooking class and a cookbook, Good Meat, by Putney author Deborah Krasner, at no extra charge.
‘A primary interest’
It helps that McClurg has a culinary background. Before farming, he spent six years in food and food production.
“Feeding people is a primary interest of mine,” he said.
McClurg’s curriculum vitae is an exercise in variety. He earned an art degree and “was involved in art making, production, and non-profits.”
He was also a parking valet, a real estate broker, a private pilot, and he built a fiber-optic system at the University of Illinois.
“Then I landed here, and with Ashlyn I’m doing farming,” he said. “And it’s the best.”
Bristle said having McClurg’s business experience and multi-purpose knowledge helps balance the partnership.
“I didn’t travel in my 20s” like others, she said. “I did farming. So, it’s good to have Abraham, who has traveled, and is good with the books, and with customer service,” Bristle said, high-fiving McClurg.
“I like addressing underserved needs,” said McClurg. “Some people don’t eat meat because they don’t like the factory system,” and buying local or humanely-raised meat from stores “can be too expensive,” he said. “Here, we can grow good food for people and make it affordable.”
The cost of Rebop’s meat CSA comes to $5 per pound for a whole share or $5.50 per pound for the half share. Whole and half animals, a la carte, cost between $5 and $11 per pound depending on the animal.
McClurg pointed out the “variety of discounts” CSA participants can receive, such as those for signing up early, referring a friend, or doing a work-trade. He also noted the farm’s milk is sold on a sliding-scale rate.
“We can earn a living and make [our food] accessible,” said Bristle.
Another way the farm keeps costs down is through an old-fashioned practice: mutual aid.
Bristle said she is looking into cooperatively buying farm equipment with her neighbors.
Also, instead of paying farmhands, “we have great neighbors and a community that comes here for work parties when we put out the call,” she said.
“We trade off weeding with our neighbors,” said McClurg, who explained the group moves from farm to farm, helping one another with such farm tasks.
“You end up working the same amount” than if everyone worked alone on their disparate farms, “but you have more fun,” he said.
“We’re pretty amazed at the people who say, ‘Oh, you have a boring, repetitive thing to do? I’ll be right over!’” said Bristle.