2016 26.3 Member Spotlight: Carey Hunter and Albert Roberts

Carey Hunter and Albert Roberts are founders and owners of Pine Stump Farms near Omak, Washington. They produce goat milk and cheese, chickens, rabbits, goat meat, beef, and hay on their farm, partnering with Slow Food Okanogan to operate a USDA-certified mobile poultry and rabbit processing unit. Tilth Producers Quarterly readers may know Albert and Carey through the columns “Stumped on the Farm” and “Ask Albert” which answered readers’ farm and machinery questions for the last four years.

Farm Programs Director Elizabeth Murphy caught up with Tilth members Carey and Albert by phone early one morning. Between baling hay and birthing goats, they spoke about Pine Stump Farms and their whole farm philosophy which has fueled their diversified operation in Okanogan County for the last 28 years. Carey served on the Tilth Producers board from 2006 to 2014, the last year as President.

Tilth Producers quarterly (Q): When and how did you start farming?
CAREY HUNTER: Well, Albert is a fourth generation farmer out of North Dakota. I wasn’t raised on a farm, but my grandparents had a farm in Illinois where I used to go back to visit summers. I’ve always liked animals and the outdoors. I’m an active person, and so farming fit really well. Albert was farming since when he was young. Then he did a swing through the Navy and went out west to school as a boiler mechanic before coming back to farming.

We started as a bootstrap operation on our own initiative. Albert is extremely knowledgeable. He wanted cattle, and I had horses and goats. We started small and added incrementally. I think that this kind of bit-by-bit growth is important.

Q: What appealed to you about farming when you came back to it as an adult?
ALBERT ROBERTS: I always liked farming. It’s more challenging and more gratifying than punching a time clock. And so we rented a place, and we did a trial run. I worked for a couple of other farmers around here.

Once we started here on 40 acres, then the opportunity came up for a hay field, and then another piece of equipment came along… and then more trees, and then logging equipment. Then more trees and more equipment. (Laughs). It was about seeing the opportunities and possibilities and going from there.

Q: Who have been your inspirations?
CAREY: We got involved with Tilth through Marilynn and Rick Lynn who are longtime Tilth members and have served on the board. Both Albert and I have also been influenced by our participation in the AgForestry program. I visited Joel Salatin’s place in Swoop, Virginia when I was in AgForestry. Salatin’s integrated systems and the enthusiasm with which he embraces his values and lifestyles were inspirational. He has also written some great books, as has Michael Pollen. Albert participates in holistic management and has been influenced by Alan Savory.

Temple Grandin is also exceptional for me, personally, because she represents a unique combination of a special person, which is part of my professional background in special education, and animals, which is another interest of mine.

Q: Farming can be a challenging profession. What has motivated you to continue farming?
CAREY: I find that it balances my life. I worked for several decades in an office job, and I think it is important for me to balance my life with nature and physical activity. Farming is as much a lifestyle choice as it is to make ends meet because there are a lot of quality of life aspects in farming. The bottom line is not just dollars and cents—there are qualitative life elements instead of just quantitative.

Q: What have been your greatest successes? How did you celebrate them?
CAREY: We’re still farming! That’s one of our greatest successes.
ALBERT: I don’t have a day job.
CAREY: You have a big day job—it’s farming. You were already out bailing and raking today.
ALBERT: Yeah, the only reason I’m here today on the phone is because I’m waiting on parts.

Q: You have a diverse, integrated farm operation. How do the various pieces of your operation connect and support one another and affect the overall success of the farm?
CAREY: With the cheese and the goats I’ve had to do a lot of education. My customers didn’t automatically get it, especially in conservative Okanogan County. It was interesting at farmers market when we started selling rabbits. People got that right away, so that is an interesting example of adaptive management—grasping what your customers want. For instance, I got a pasteurizer to bring more varieties of cheeses to market. And now we have the meat. Marketing was a weak link for me, and I had to learn it. It’s an interesting process in that what you start out doing might not be what you end up doing.

Q: How has holistic management affected your perspective on farming as quality-of-life endeavor?
Albert: Being involved in holistic management is being in an integrated system. We just had [Tilth board member] Maurice Robinnette out to assist us in doing an after-fire tour where we looked at fire as one of the things that happens in nature. How do you incorporate that and keep moving on? Obviously it does some damage, but amazingly enough, we have incredible regrowth after the fire.

So to get back to your questions, everything is interrelated. We are in a ponderosa pine forest so we have curated the forest to have an understory for managed grazing. That means when the grass is right, we can mob graze.

Q: What do you do to protect and promote forest health and how does this relate to your overall farm operation?
ALBERT: Forest health means to have the best trees that will grow and produce timber along with all the rest that the forest provides. It also means that we utilize the soil for understory forage for animal growth. This is related to income, but it is also important to not degrade what you work with. We’re always trying to improve so that everything works with each other where one part of your operation doesn’t degrade something else but supports everything else that you’re doing. That is part of holistic management. We look at all the variables, and then determine how that variable affects everything else. It doesn’t necessarily mean coming to a quick decision. You decide what you’re going to do when you consider all that at your working with.

Q: TPQ readers have enjoyed the ‘Ask Albert’ column for years. How has your knowledge of the workings of farm equipment and machinery helped you successfully manage your farm?
ALBERT: I think mainly it relates to cash flow. I can buy equipment that is old and doesn’t work well, or that people can’t get running but I can. I can manufacture a lot of the parts that aren’t available anymore. So I figure if I can fix it, that’s money I’m not having to spend. And when you’re out in the field and the baler stops tying knots, you have the ability to fix it right there instead of calling and waiting and being at the mercy of someone else.
CAREY: And you don’t lose time.
ALBERT: (laughs) Not as much anyway.

Q: How does your background as fourth generation farmer made your perspective unique?
ALBERT: Accumulated experience. Growing up on the farm, there were things that my grandfather learned that my father didn’t have to learn and that I didn’t have to learn on my own. Being in that environment means knowing the subtleties of farming, and the physical part of it is intuitive: How plants grow; how animals grow; and things like that. Policy and the other aspects of farming you also just pick up as you grow. If you are raised in an urban area and want to go farming you have to learn everything.

Q : What are the top things on your long-term “to-do” list (farming related or otherwise).
CAREY: We love to farm, but we also like to travel. We’d like to have a good ranch hand or get some partners to take over aspects of the farm so we can travel at times.

Q: What advice you would give to a beginning farmer?
CAREY: Well, as they say, don’t give up your day job. I’ve kept a part-time job off the farm, which eased that monetary demand. But at the same time, go ahead and farm because there’s a quality there that you can’t get any other way or any other place.
Albert: If that’s what you want to do, do whatever it takes to get there. Change your living standards and expectations. Farming is boring and repetitious, in a manner. For instance, I just fixed that fence last week and now it needs fixing again. But it’s still fun.
CAREY: It’s better than getting your exercise on those walking machines.
Albert: Yep, the scenery changes that way.

Q: What is your vision for agriculture 20 years from now?

CAREY: I personally think that agroecology is the key. I’m reading an interesting book called Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America. Miquel Altieri was in Montana in the 1980s talking about agroecology. He was at the Tilth conference four years ago. It was great. We were in Cuba a few years ago, and Altieri had been there and documented what he had done. His work in agroecology is the solution to dealing with monoculture and multinational corporations.

ALBERT: I’m not really sure in 20 to 40 years what agriculture will look like. We have no idea if the agricultural system will still be here or collapse. There’s farming and then there’s food production. And I guess the farming part of it will survive regardless of what happens because plants and animal and people exist together. But for food production, there’s too much of politics involved. It is becoming more rigid and narrow and prone to collapse. So if something happens, we will go back to everyone having to more or less grow their own food, and we’ll start over again.

Elizabeth Murphy is the new Tilth Farm Programs Director. She brings
a love of growing food and a passion for soil health to support farms and
farming communities. elizabethmurphy@seattletilth.org.

Tags: AgForestry, beginning farming, Pine Stump Farm