By Abby Motter, OCJ field reporter
In the eleventh chapter of Deuteronomy Moses wrote a phrase that is still being implemented on the land today by a family who holds those words in high esteem.
“So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today — to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul — then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.”
These verses serve as a cornerstone for the Dorrance family in Ross County on their Pastured Providence Farmstead. Paul Dorrance along with his wife Heather and three children are fairly new to agriculture, but through the intertwining of faith and desire to be good stewards of the land they are providing high quality products to Chillicothe and the surrounding community.
“You can raise great kids in the military or anywhere, but it’s a lot easier to raise great kids on the farm,” said Paul Dorrance over a dish of Heather’s homemade egg casserole on yet another blustery spring day in Ohio.
Until recently, Dorrance was an active duty Air Force officer and pilot from upstate New York, and Heather was a pediatric occupational therapist turned stay-at-home mom from Atlanta.
“We ate normal and didn’t consider food necessarily that important, but when we got pregnant with our first born, Caleb, who now is 8, all that changed,” Dorrance said. “Having children led us to ask the difficult questions about our food, explore different options and get all the information that we could. All of the sudden we were receiving tons of advice on all sorts of different things and began to question the food we ate. After a while it became obvious it was time to leave active duty Air Force and put our money where our mouth is, and raise food for others the way we wanted to eat ourselves.”
In August of 2013, Paul and Heather left their financially comfortable U.S. military life and began to work full time at starting a farm in southern Ohio. The biggest challenge in starting their operation was finding opportunities to self-educate in preparation for their huge lifestyle transition.
“When we made this decision, we had to plan before leaving active duty. We were saving and we were studying, Heather and I attended several seminars, including ones focused on rotational grazing, and attended a farm school,” Dorrance said. “We placed an emphasis for what we are trying to do now to see it in real life, and we had a lot of discussions with other like-minded folks. We also ignored every bit of good advice we have ever been given and jumped in with everything on our farmstead: grass fed beef, hogs, chickens, turkeys, and eventually sheep.”
The decision to pick Ross County, Ohio as their home was partly based on Paul’s siblings who now live in Ohio, but also with some Internet research.
“Ohio was a start because of family, but we chose what part of Ohio in a very unscientific way. Since I grew up in upstate New York, that’s what I view as physically beautiful. I wanted to be excited to go to work on my property every day and am not a flat land guy. So we looked at Google Maps and went to the satellite view,” Dorrance said. “Heather found our property on forsalebyowner.com, it was 111 acres titled ‘farm boy’s dream’ and we fell in love. The property includes woods, buildings, and conservation ground. We have about 75 acres cleared, and graze half of 111 acres with more coming available in the next few years. Chillicothe has been wonderful to us and here we are in our fifth year.”
The Dorrances focus mainly on niche markets with their grass-fed, non-GMO products.
“It started with farmers markets. We do a lot of direct sales, and retail, but everything we do is relational market. Through introducing ourselves to the community, meeting somebody at church and then being invited to the rotary club, and those kind of opportunities, we have been able to build a customer base,” Dorrance said. “Word of mouth is huge for us, we don’t do a lot of advertising besides what is free, such as social media.”
Their operational decisions come from a values-based perspective.
“Plenty of people are pursuing grass fed and non-GMO because of pure financial reasons, we aren’t one of them. We would raise our products this way even if it didn’t pay. For us, it was a consumer choice first. No doubt there’s a financial benefit. It just so happens our values are aligning with consumer demand, and it makes sense because that’s where it started for us too,” Dorrance said. “We are not certified organic. I view certified organic as an adequate substitute for knowing your farmer personally. We pursue relationships and transparency, farm tours, and sharing our story. We want you to come see what we do, come see our animals, watch how we rotate them on pasture, get your eyeballs on it, trust us. If they come and see and say not for me, great, truly, but now as we begin to expand towards metro markets an hour away, it’s possible a certified seal would be beneficial from a business perspective because we can’t have that conversation every day.”
At the heart of Pastured Providence Farmstead production is pasture ground.
“The only crop we raise is perennial pasture. Our beef and the lamb are 100% grass fed all the time. Animals that eat grain, such as our hogs, chickens, and turkeys, receive a non-GMO mix that is sourced from a farmer in Lancaster. Our pasture rotation includes beef and lamb, they are together 75% to 80% of the year in one big mix. We currently have 34 head of cattle, and 75 total head of sheep. We rotate them every day so they get a fresh pasture and leave all the stuff that comes out behind,” Dorrance said. “Three to five days later we follow up with the layer flock. They’ll clean up a lot of the grasses and clovers that were left behind, as well as clean up the manure. We also move the meat chickens daily. They have full access to grass every day. Although they are pastured poultry, we do also feed them grain.”
Each type of animal on the farm serves a purpose for the land and the consumer.
“Normal hog behavior is helping me clear ground. They have their own purpose in life, working for me to clear off a certain area, root and till a lot of that stuff up. The pig rotation is about monthly. I keep water in one spot and pie off of that usually about four sections or so and then back to where they started. Their damage takes a lot longer to recuperate than cows taking the top layer of grass off,” he said. “Meat chickens and turkeys are also on their own enterprise. Meat birds have high value manure and I basically target my worst area that needs a lot of nutrients and put the meat birds and turkeys there. I will have 10 turkeys or 20 to 25 chickens in an 8 by 10 footprint, moving every day. They are much more contained and the nutrients are deposited in a very specific and focused area. Pork, chicken and turkey are all supplemented with grain.”
Maintaining pasture is important for the operation to be sustainable.
“Currently I use a cool season perennial pasture mix, some planted straight to dirt, some overseeded on existing pasture. The mix includes a perennial rye, tall fescue, orchard grass, Kentucky bluegrass, and red and white clover. We are looking for diversity. Our pasture is a risk management tool and everything has a purpose, whether it is getting a quick start early in the spring or drought tolerance throughout the late summer,” Dorrance said. “A lot of what people call weeds I love because it all serves a purpose. The pasture ground really takes care of itself. The animals have a natural instinct to work around hemlock and Queen Anne’s Lace or thorny species. I do clip, or brush hog or hay at least everything once per year.”
The key to keeping the pasture ground healthy is rotation.
“There is a benefit of animals on pasture as long as it’s short term, not long and then the animals come back 30 to 40 days later,” he said. “We want them to be able to graze and leave a lot of residual, ideally four five or six inches tall to encourage regrowth, and forage production. We want it to grow as much as possible and leave a lot of leaves and organic matter on the ground.”
The time and spacing of their pasture rotation, like many things in agriculture, relies on the weather.
“In April, May, June, there is heavy grass growth and the herd may get a quarter-acre a day. The paddock begins to widen out as we get to the mid-summer slump. It is not a set area every single day, but instead very much variable based on conditions,” Dorrance said. “We set up our grazing space with long parallel high tensile fencing, determined by temporary step-in posts, and rolling out electrified twine. We have a back and front fence keeping them in, and each day will build the next day’s fence, move water and mineral over into new paddock, close it back off, and then the old fence will be taken down and added to the next side. It takes about 45 minutes daily for rotation, and everything I have is on skids or wheels of some sort. The actual moving animal part is the easiest.”
At Pastured Providence the Dorrance’s breed cattle using a bull around the first of July, calving is in April and May when the pasture is beginning to grow. With the sheep it is the same concept, putting the ram in with the girls around November. For both the cattle and sheep, breeding occurs once a year, as part of their pasture and finishing program. They strive to use April, May, and June as their finishing months, and by August and September have all of the new crop off of the farm.
“Our products are very well received. We concentrate on finishing well. If it’s been eating hay, and stockpiled forage, it’s not going to be palatable with the right amount of fat and muscle,” Dorrance said. “Corn fed is so tender because of the intermuscular marbling. To do it on grass makes it a seasonal product. We need to finish April, May, June, then they need to be butchered while they have that high fat content. We can’t finish an animal properly in the winter.”
Although birth to death on the farm is the goal, from a business management perspective this is not always possible.
“We are purchasing in feeder pigs for the first time this spring, it will help me project cost and income, allow me to integrate different breeds, gain hybrid vigor, some health benefits that I couldn’t do when farrowing by myself,” he said. “It was because of the variability in the sows, and the sow’s ability to give babies was just too much to handle from a business perspective.”
The future of the Pastured Providence Farmstead relies on innovation and giving back to the agricultural community.
“The future of the farm is grass fed beef and lamb, and pastured poultry, grass fed layers. I see that as increasing, depending on mechanization. Right now we hand wash every egg in the sink. If we expanded that operation it would require an egg washer and I have a grant request in hand. As far as new enterprises I have a lot of really great ideas, the biggest thing that is holding me up right now with the Ohio Department of Agriculture and to some extent the county health department,” Dorrance said. “I would love to do a pastured rabbit, I think it’s going to be the next big thing, but it would require an additional costly inspection, and processing is also an issue. From a consumer and food safety product, I process all chickens and turkeys here on the farm. If we could we would butcher everything on the farm. It’s really hard for me to drop something off I have spent 2.5 years raising and trust it to someone else. I’m interested in raising non-GMO fish combined with a live root vegetable of some sort in an aquaponic, hydroponic operation. And I really see potential in agritourism.”
It has been an incredible journey for the Dorrance family from the Air Force to farm fields and they want to share what they have learned through an annual Farm School event.
“The farm school we went to was absolutely critical to enabling us to really take that jump. Thinking about what we did, logically it was foolish, and poor decision making. My mother wouldn’t talk to me for weeks when I told her I was leaving the military to start farming for a living,” Dorrance said. “However, we were very comfortable with that decision because of what we saw and were able to do at the farm school. We want to give that to someone else, whether they are like us new and beginning farmers and ready to take the plunge, or a conventional farmer that wants to take on these methods of production for consumer growth.”
For the couple who spent their honeymoon on a sheep farm in New Zealand, they never expected to be dealing with the adventures of a farm on a daily basis. There was over a million-dollar difference in income for the Dorrances switching from their previous lifestyle to farming, but for them it is all worth it.
“Raising our kids here and investing in them, and giving them not just our values, but the values of growing up country with good people that is one of the top three reasons we made our choice to live here and live this way,” Dorrance said. “The other two are producing for others the way we want to eat and sharing our values for Ohio agriculture with anyone willing to listen.”