In our travels to meet farmers over the past few years there has definitely been a trend in the type of new farmer we meet. Many have had prior professional careers and are retired. Others are still in the prime of their earning years and walk away from their office or other professional jobs to create a different kind of life for themselves and their family.
Then, there is the accidental farmer. Allison and Michael Bryant of Four Mile Farm in Ball Ground, Georgia, are still in the midst of their careers. Working in the telecom industry and living in Atlanta after graduating with degrees from Georgia Tech and Georgia State, this couple had a major life change after purchasing an Australian Shepherd.
Soon after adopting the dog, Michael became interested in developing their Australian Shepherd’s instinctive herding skills. For awhile, herding lessons once a month was fine, but one day, Michael realized if they were going to fully develop the dog’s herding potential, they would need more rigorous training. He suggested that they buy some land and purchase some animals. For Allison, who grew up in Massachusetts and owned and loved horses, that was all she needed to hear. They were soon looking for property in North Georgia.
That was 1996. Today, the Bryants have 60 acres of land complete with ducks, a flock of sheep, 10 cows and nine dogs. They train their Australian Shepherds to herd in all three competitive categories in order to participate in trials and championships.
The Bryants, who love great food and cooking, decided they would also raise the animals for food in addition to having them on the farm to help train the dogs. Michael and Allison want to know exactly where their food comes and how the animals have been raised. Their sheep and cattle roam freely on approximately 20 acres of pastures that are rotated for optimal grazing. They currently buy local pork from their butcher, but are looking at raising their own pigs.
Since it is springtime, we were interested in speaking with Allison about their sheep, the lambing season and to see their dog in action herding the animals. So, we traveled to Ball Ground, Georgia to Four Mile Farm. Ball Ground is a small rural community approximately one hour north of Atlanta.
When we arrived on the farm we were greeted by a few of their barking dogs, who raced out to see what we were up to. Australian Shepherds are also excellent guard dogs. It was a bright, windy day with the grass a brilliant green, fed by the spring rains. The sheep were content and happily grazing in the pasture. The flock stayed together initially with the mothers surrounding their newborn lambs.
When we entered the pasture with Allison and Chili (the herding dog), the sheep remained protective of their babies, but were very friendly. Some of the lambs were born just days before. It is not unusual for the sheep with newborns to not cooperate with the dog when it is trying to herd them. They stomp their feet and stand down. We did notice that Chili was gentle with the lambs and almost motherly.
Watching Chili herd the sheep at Allison’s direction was fascinating. Chili is clearly a working dog. Allison said that the work her dog can do would take four times as long without the dog and require a group of teenage boys and a 4 wheeler. Here is a short video on Four Mile Farm and Chili in action.
An interesting fact we learned about Australian Shepherds is that they will retire themselves between ten and twelve years of age. These dogs live to work and do it all their lives until one day they just quit. “They will be on their way to the field and then just stop and chase a butterfly and that’s it. They are done.”
When the lambs are first born their instinct is to follow the biggest thing they can find, which is usually their mother. This imprinting will also occur with baby chicks and ducks. There were a few minutes during our visit when one lamb thought I was its mother and I suddenly had a very close new friend following my every step. They are so precious to see and to hold at this age.
One of the newborns was rejected by its mother right after birth. The mother accepted the black one and rejected the white one and would head butt the white lamb when it tried to nurse. The white lamb found a way around this by sneaking in to nurse from behind while the black one was nursing up front. Once the lambs have been nursing and the milk gets into their systems, the baby will smell like the mother and they are no longer rejected.
The sheep raised at Four Mile Farm are Hair Sheep and have milder tasting meat than the Wool Sheep. There is less lanolin in the hair of the Hair Sheep (compared to the Wool Sheep) and lanolin is what tends to make the meat taste gamey and strong. The hair on the Hair Sheep will shed out and form cotton balls. You may notice this in some of the photographs.
The sheep were very gentle and Allison said while they are not intelligent animals, they are really kind. She told us that if you call out and pretend to be a baby lamb that is lost, the sheep will look to help and find the baby because they are such kindhearted animals.
It was difficult to look at these cute lambs and cross over to the discussion about raising them for food. Allison said, “No one is going to eat lamb after this. You are making Vegans all over the world!” However, what is most important to me is the life the animals have lived up until the day they are slaughtered. These sheep are raised organically on a family farm, are loved and have a wonderful life until there is one really bad day, and even that is managed with the utmost of care and humanity.
“After a year, you know them well and it is sad and you feel bad, but then you eat the meat and it’s really good.” The Bryant’s six year old daughter even names each new lamb, so there is definitely a personal connection with every animal.
The Bryant’s sheep are raised on the farm twelve to eighteen months. They will achieve a weight between 80 to 100 pounds. The older and larger the sheep, the stronger the meat will taste. As with cows, there is a big difference in the breed and age of the animal in relation to the taste of the meat. You can read this information on their website regarding that subject.
The hanging weight of a sheep at 100 pounds is about 65 pounds and once fully processed, it will only yield about 40 pounds of meat. Allison told us that she will walk out with just a small bag of meat from one animal. “It is not economical to raise sheep. We just break even.”
The Bryants also raise cows for grass fed beef. Allison buys breeds of cattle that are calmer like Hereford, Black Baldy, Limousin and most recently (since our visit), Belted Galloways. Once again, Chili demonstrated his herding ability with the cows.
“It takes years to train the dogs to herd and herding cattle is much more difficult (than herding sheep). You cannot make the dog do this as easily. While sheep might just knock you over during the process, a 700 or 800 pound cow could run you over and kill you or the dog.”
When I asked Allison if they ever missed city life, she told us that she and Michael had gone to Atlanta for a weekend not long ago. While they do much of their own cooking with food they raise, they still enjoy an occasional meal out. They went to one of their old spots for brunch and sat at a very packed bar to dine. People were elbowing her as she tried to cut her food. “Really? You people like this?” I have to agree that their peaceful lifestyle is very appealing.
So, how does a professional woman originally from Massachusetts with an undergraduate degree from Georgia Tech and a Master’s from Georgia State break into the ranks of the traditional Southern male farmer? Well, it took her awhile. “Everything I’ve learned, I have done it wrong three times before.”
“They (the men) told me I talked funny, even after living here for 23 years.” She knew the men were thinking “Lady, get a real job.” and once in awhile was asked “Do you need me to back your trailer in for you?” Now they all know Allison and her voice. She no longer hears, “When your husband gets home, call me,” because they know she is the farmer.
Thank you so much to Allison for taking the time to share a bit of your daily life at Four Mile Farm with us. It was a pleasure meeting you and seeing Chili in action. I will be writing another post on our visit to Four Mile Farm, so stay tuned.
If you live in the Atlanta or the North Georgia area, Allison sells her lamb and beef in Kennesaw at the Farmers’ Market Basket and at the Big Canoe Farmers’ Market.
I want to share a recipe for marinated lamb chops from the Bryants with you. This is the way they like to prepare their lamb chops. We did bring home two loin lamb chops from the farm and as promised, the meat was extremely mild and very tender. This marinade is perfect with the subtle flavors of the lamb. We grilled the chops outdoors and they were delightful served with some of spring’s fresh asparagus.
Grilled Loin Lamb Chops with Red Wine, Garlic, Rosemary and Mint
Yield: Marinade for 2 loin lamb chops
Prep Time: 1 hour
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Allison Bryant, of Four Mile Farm in Ball Ground, GA, said they like to marinate their lamb chops in a mix of olive oil, Balsamic vinegar, garlic, rosemary and mint. I made a marinade with red wine vinegar in place of the Balsamic vinegar and added the garlic and the suggested herbs to taste. Feel free to add more or less of any of the ingredients to your personal preference.
2 loin lamb chops
1/2 cup Extra Virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons to 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, to taste
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Rosemary, or to taste
2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint, or to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Combine all ingredients for the marinade in a small bowl and whisk. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary. Place lamb chops in a shallow glass pan and drizzle marinade over the chops. Turn once to coat. Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least one hour, turning halfway through.
Prepare the grill. Meanwhile, take lamb chops out of the refrigerator and allow them to come to room temperature. Once the grill is hot, grill the chops about 3 to 5 minutes on one side and then turn to cook on the other side another 3 to 5 minutes, or until desired doneness. * The proper amount of time to cook will depend on the thickness of your lamb chop.