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Growing a small farm

Marion County family raises heritage beef, sheep and chicken and sticks close to a plan


High cholesterol led the Book family to beef.

Ethan and Rebecca Book, both 32, turned that health problem into a business that has caught the attention of a small farm specialist, not to mention 800 Facebook fans, what appears to be an appreciative following of the their blogs, and customers who have created a demand beyond what the Books can supply.

And that’s just all right, said Ethan Book.

“We don’t want to outpace our demand,” he said.

The Books live on a grassy hilltop in Marion County, on what is known as Crooked Gap Road, a gravel link between Melcher-Dallas and Knoxville. That place name has a nice ring to it, so they named their operation Crooked Gap Farm. There also is a crooked gap through the timber at the bottom of the hill; that’s where their heritage Hereford hogs forage through the spring and summer.

“Hogs are our sweet spot,” Book said. On a recent spring day, he wore a T-shirt that said, “Crooked Gap Farm, where a pig is a pig.”

But beef is where it all started.

Six years ago, at age 26, Ethan discovered during a physical for life insurance that he had high cholesterol. He researched the threat to heart and arteries and discovered that eating grass-fed beef could lower his cholesterol. Vegetables would help, too.

“But I’m not big on vegetables,” he said.

The family bought a cow and a calf and pastured on a small lot in Centerville, about 90 miles southeast.

“Then we decided we might as well go 8, why not 16,” Rebecca Book said. “We used seven years of savings and bought the property.”

The property is 23 acres of pasture, bordered by 17 acres of timber, not to mention the gravel road. At the time, they were living in Knoxville, where Ethan worked as a youth pastor, and for the most part they were just looking for a house in the country.

The property was just grass and timber. They built a pole barn-style house with a large south-facing porch, and they built a large shed. The home is heated with a wood-burning stove. If they decide to build a more conventional, frame house, they can convert their living quarters to a barn. That was an idea Ethan’s dad came up with.

The lawn and pasture blend together, separated by portable electric fencing where the Dexter cattle – a smallish heritage breed that was used for meat, milk and farm work in Ireland, and the Katahdin hair sheep, so named because it has hair rather than wool – will spend the summer and fall. It’s a nice arrangement. The sheep eat the grasses that cattle shun.

Crooked Gap Farm is about sharing. During the winter, the hogs and chickens, both layers and Naked Neck Poulet Rouge heritage meat chickens, share the same paddock. Cattle and sheep also share the same pasture when they are brought closer to the homestead for the winter.

Ethan Book handles the livestock chores. Rebecca takes care of much of the communications, although both are avid bloggers. He writes “The Beginning Farmer” and has written several blogs that have been featured on Epicurious, a food website. Rebecca writes “The Beginning Farmer’s Wife” and “CGF-The Recipe Box.”

Their son Caleb, 8, is helping by raising rabbits, after outgrowing a small business making pot holders. That job has been taken over by his sister, Hannah, 6. Brothers Isaac, 3, and Jonathan, 15 months, are sure to take on special roles on the farm when they are a little older.

Though Ethan works a full-time job in Knoxville, the Books are quick to point out that after four years on the farm, this is more than a hobby.

“It’s just what we do and who we are,” Ethan Book said.

And they are doing a good job of it, said Penny Brown Huber, who runs an annual workshop called Grow Your Small Market Farm, where she either encourages people who have decided to fill a growing demand for locally grown food, or attempts to talk them out of the idea. Her advice can go both ways.

The Books are “the kind of beginning farmers that we all want,” she said.

They play their strong hands, they have a plan and they don’t shift their focus, which is to have a sustainable operation that covers their costs, makes a profit and keeps them on the farm, Ethan Book said.

“If we weren’t making money here after three years, we wouldn’t still be here,” he said.

About 500 people have gone through Brown Huber’s program since she launched it in 2000 after determining that young farmers, whether they wanted to raise 10 acres of vegetables or feed 10,000 hogs, weren’t getting an education in the business of farming.

“They really weren’t looking at the farm as a business,” she said. “Even then, with the large producers, farmers would just say, ‘I live on a farm,’ as if somehow it wasn’t a business.”

Over the last 12 years, she has tutored people who became farmers just because they liked the idea of being a farmer, and she has helped guide people away from planting a vegetable farm on a steep hillside more suited for Christmas trees.

Her advice is the same. Have a plan. If you don’t have a plan, learn how to draft one. And when you have a plan, stick with it. If the budget doesn’t provide for buying a tractor this year, don’t buy the tractor.

The Books are sticking with their plan.

They raised six hogs their first year on the farm, 20 the second and 46 the third. This year, they will raise and sell at least 70 hogs and are adding the poultry and sheep to the mix.

The cattle remain problematic because it takes up to two years to fatten them for market when they are fed just grass.

Crooked Gap Farm will be at this year’s Downtown Farmers Market. The Books also are producers for the Iowa Food Cooperative, they make deliveries once a month to customers in Ankeny and they also supply sausage for the Coffee Connection in Knoxville, where they also do information sessions about their products.

The idea is to avoid wasting any part of their livestock. That means they tell customers how to render lard, for example.

And they share another dream: for more land.

“Land is the limiting factor right now,” Ethan Book said.

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