Takeaway: Braeburn Farms may not have diversity visible to the untrained eye, but they are committed to increasing the soil and plant diversity on their cattle farm in southeastern Alamance County.
Reading time: 3 min 9 sec
“Diversity is the name of the game” – Nick Harper, Farm Operations Manager, Braeburn Farm
Volunteering at Braeburn Farm during the 2018 Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Piedmont Farm Tour, I heard a diverse vocabulary of words not often used on a Saturday afternoon: hyphae, hartig net, nematodes, and more. But Nick wasn’t referring to diverse vocabulary, he was referencing the myriad of shapes and lifeforms we were identifying in a compost sample slide under the microscope. And he was also referring to the operating philosophy of this 530-acre farm in Snow Camp.
A bit about the farm
Braeburn Farm lies in the southeastern corner of Alamance County, in the – believe or not – Cane Creek Mountains. In fact, they’ve recently situated a handcrafted wind turbine at the top of one of the hills on the farm, the second highest hill in Alamance County. From the site, you can take in the sweep of the valley, the Red Devon cattle dotting the green pastures, and the cow barn with its solar panels. Not too far away is Ms. Sydnor’s dressage horses, their arena and barn. Her husband, “Doc” Sydnor, began acquiring this land in 1975 and has been adding to it these years.
When Doc first started raising cattle, he favored what’s probably the most common breed for grass-fed operations, Black Angus. In 2002, he started to breed his cows to produce Red Devons, first with artificial insemination (AI) and then with embryo transplants. Devons have more docility and process grass efficiently – they’re a good “grass machine” – requiring no grain supplementation. The description on the farm website is worth featuring here: “They are hardy, thrifty cattle that do well on grass…Our cattle are raised in Alamance County without any hormones or antibiotics, resulting in unsurpassed taste and tenderness.”
Why diversity matters
On a farm that focuses on one breed of one type of farm animal, why does diversity matter and how is it attained? As Doc said, “We manage for what we want to grow, not what we don’t.” What you want to grow on a grass-fed beef farm is grass — lots and lots of grass and a wide variety thereof. Soil science has evolved in even the past decade; scientists better appreciate how a complex soil ecosystem, one composed of not just a friable, loamy substrate with the proper amount of minerals added, but one chock full of organic matter, good fungus, bacteria and bugs, affects the health of the crop.
Nick, the farm manager, definitely appreciates the diversity. Watching him look through the microscope at a compost sample was akin to watching a kid with a favorite toy. He enthusiastically pointed out bacteria, bugs (arthropods and nematodes), and fungal pieces (spores, hyphae and septae). He calls these the “fertilizer bag openers” because of their role in making soil nutrients, like nitrogen, available to plants.
One way they promote soil diversity is through field application of compost made onsite using the Johnson-Su method. By applying this compost, rich with biologically active fungi and microscopic insects, they are creating the right environment for stress-resistant plants thus enabling the preferred grasses and legumes to thrive. More and better forage ultimately means more and better beef.
Braeburn Farm Model
On the day I was there, friends and family drifted in and out. Nick, his wife Katie, and their little girl live in a house adjacent to the barns. The nearest neighbors dropped in. I overheard one remark during the mid-afternoon, “I just love this. Being able to visit and catch-up with no agenda…it’s just great.” This kind of organic community building echoes what Nick and the Doc are practicing with the farm where they are creating the right conditions for what they want to grow: a thriving interdependent community for the soil and for people, too.
Where to find their beef:
1715 Saxapahaw Bethlehem CH Rd
Saxapahaw, North Carolina
Left Bank Butchery
1729 Saxapahaw Bethlehem Church Rd., Saxapahaw, NC 27340
Thursday & Friday: 11-7
Email the farm via their website