Tom and Janice Henslee had been thinking about getting a farm for a while before they finally purchased and developed the 110-acre Back to Earth Farm near Asheboro, North Carolina in 2013. Tom had taken an Introduction to Holistic Management training in 2006 from HMI. “I thought I was going to be learning about how to start grazing, but we covered a lot more,” says Tom. “It was exactly where I was supposed to be.”
Tom continued with additional training because he knew he wanted a farm and to transition out of corporate law, but he stopped his training in 2010 as he hadn’t been able to find property that suited the various parameters they wanted in Texas where they lived. With his work as a corporate lawyer, Tom spent a lot of time in North Carolina and so they decided to look there.
“When I evaluated what I wanted when looking for the land we were thinking about, I knew I didn’t like the water laws in Texas,” says Tom. “In North Carolina we found our property with a river running through it, two water wells, a pond and 45 inches of rain a year. It had views, trees, pastures and water which was just what we were hoping to find.”
Another impetus for their journey was a 2004 cancer diagnosis for Janice. While Tom had always been interested in healthy food, Janice’s health journey ramped up their exploration and interest in producing healthy food. Tom saw a Weston A. Price chapter near them and got connected with it and learned about traditional diets. He also got involved in policy work around raw milk and helped Judith McGeary and the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), eventually becoming a board member. Those connections opened up other networks and contacts where he heard about HMI.
With a deep appreciation of all that farms and ranches provide for their rural communities as well as the food they raise for those in cities, Tom and Janice started Back to the Earth Farm in 2013 with a mission to create a place for experiencing nature, community, healing and celebrating in nature.
Building Back a Farm
Tom did not grow up on a farm but had lots of relatives who farmed. “I was certain I wanted a farm and animals,” says Tom. “I have a connection with the land, and I feel grounded when I’m out working on the land. The Holistic Management training really helped us focus on the whole which we had been looking at from the human health side. It became very clear that what we were learning all was really the same with the land, soil, animals, and human health. We wanted to work together with nature, find the root cause of the issues we were dealing with and work to address them.
“Over time we saw our work as the spiritual side of looking at what life is providing right now. We’ve learned not to fix things but embrace what is being provided to us.”
They moved from Dallas in 2013 when they purchased the 110-acre farm near Asheboro. The previous owner hadn’t actively farmed it and had even moved some of the farm into timber. There was a lot of rolling hills and heavy clay so it wasn’t good land for farming. Tom got some practice cows to start with and then six months later got a starter herd of Red Devons. He didn’t sell his first beef until 2016/17.
There are approximately 80 grazeable acres on the farm. When they first bought the place there was just one big paddock, so Tom used EQIP and other government programs to fence out the river and creek. The programs also paid for an additional water well, drinkers, and some cross fences. He now has eight permanent paddocks which he subdivides with polywire. Although his numbers fluctuate with sales, Tom runs approximately 45 SAU consisting of momma cows, finishing steers and heifers, and calves. He is able to harvest the offspring as two year-olds and holds back some replacement heifers. He has a leased farm where he holds a bull with a buddy or two.
Tom started moving away from the Red Devon genetics because they took 30 months to finish, although they had very good meat. He started crossing his cattle with South Poll genetics to create a South Poll/Red Devon/Angus genetics that also added heat tolerance for the hot North Carolina summers. As his grass got healthier and he improved his cattle management, the cattle got more adapted to the farm and he was able to bring the finish time down to 24 months.
Like many people in his area, Tom’s big forage problem is the predominance of fescue and the problem with fescue toxicity in the summer. Fescue is an advantage in the cooler parts of the year as it continues to produce new forage above 25 degrees (F). He’s found that you need to push the animals to graze fescue harder than other forages, or your management will end up favoring the fescue over more desirable options. Some of the take half leave half lessons do not apply with management of fescue pastures in a non-drought environment. Observation of the herd eating 95% of the clover and palatable grasses versus 5% of the fescue led to the realization that the herd moves had to occur after the fescue was also grazed down.
Tom stumbled onto an advantage that his farm provides over other farms in fescue country. In 2018 Hurricane Florence hit and sat over the farm. By the time it left, the farm had received 10-12 inches of rain and the lower pastures were under up to 15 feet of water for two days, which drowned the fescue. With a clean slate to plant new forages, Tom began planting annuals. Tom has developed his summer pasture using his bottomland and drills in cover crops that include sorghum-Sudan grass, sorghum, Sudan, millet, cowpeas, sunn hemp, grazing brassica, and sunflowers. For his winter cover crops he follows up with cereal rye, oats, winter peas, hairy vetch, clovers, brassica, and turnip. On the other side of the lower pasture Tom put in Big and Little Bluestem, Indian, and eastern Gama. “It’s taken five to six years to get a good stand of that going,” says Tom. “We’ve had four rounds of grazing this year in those bottom pastures. He gives the herd an acre/day, and depending upon the season moves them daily or even twice a day. He does provide free choice minerals and usually has free choice hay available in case they herd needs to balance anything they are being exposed to in the pasture.
“Everyone who is trying to raise grassfed beef in North Carolina is faced with forage slumps in January/February (cold, dormant forages) and again in July/August (fescue toxicity). We use the fescue as stockpile for the winter with a transition to winter annuals to get a head start on the growing season. Then the summer pastures more than cover us through the summer slump with 2-3 lbs/day gain.
“I’m doing more traditional farming, planting cover crops than I thought I would. I even drill summer annuals into the summer perennials to add to the summer forage. The winter annuals are all nitrogen tying plants and feed the microbes all winter while the summer annuals are nitrogen pigs so it works out. We get a good mix of forage in the fescue pastures as we do not want monocultures anywhere on the farm. We’re grazing the fescue and winter annual pastures at about 12 inches tall and our summer annuals at about 24 inches tall. Our summer recovery is 30 days depending upon the weather. By moving to the winter annuals in the spring, I let the fescue explode for two to three extra weeks in the spring which greatly helps the plants recover from the winter grazing before moving the herd back.”
As Tom has worked to get his grazing plan to maximize forage growth throughout the growing season, he has also worked to get his cattle genetics to a sweet spot. “Our finish weight is at 1,100 pounds,” says Tom. “As my frame size gets more consistent, we are finding a middle ground between size and finishing time. The South Poll bulls are 1,500-1,600 pounds and the beef quality has been great.”
Tom has another advantage of three excellent processing plants within a 1.25-hour drive, but in May 2020, even he had his challenges. “By May of 2020 all the processors were booked for the whole year,” says Tom. “Now I can make reservations six months in advance with some ability to modify those appointments two to three months in advance. We’re selling about 15 head/year. I usually sell two beeves by the package to folks who have been supporting the farm from the beginning, four or five go to our restaurant customers, and the rest are direct sales to individuals as halves/wholes. We get $5.50-6.00/ lb hanging weight, so we gross about $3,500 for an animal. Processing costs have continued to go up to the point we are paying on average over a $1/lb for processing. We sold out of our inventory in May 2020 when grocery stores started feeling the effects of the pandemic on the concentrated meat processing plants. We didn’t want to cut off our old customers and the restaurants, so we have been careful about taking on new customers.
“We have a great relationship with a local restaurant, The Table, and they buy a lot of ground beef because they serve burgers two nights a week which are very popular. That amount of sales work for us and is a sustainable relationship having recently had our 5th anniversary of selling to them.”
The other key enterprise on the farm is the cabin rental that Janice runs through Airbnb. “The cabin has been packed because of the pandemic year round,” says Tom. “Some of our Airbnb customers are very interested in what we are doing with the land. We are only 10 miles from Asheboro and 30 miles from Greensboro and 65 miles from Charlotte. We are in the center in the state and in a fairly rural county. We put the cabin on Airbnb in 2016 and it has done well. We could make a comfortable living with the AirBnb rental and our grassfed beef sales. People come from all over the state who are often visiting Asheboro’s main attraction, a gigantic zoo. “We’ve also done farm tours through Airbnb Experience or if people call us directly at the farm. I’ll spend one to four hours with them depending upon the tour they choose. We want them to know how good food is raised and lead them to know their farmer and buy directly from their farmers.”
Keeping Rural Communities Alive
While the Henslees are enjoying their experience on the farm, their future vision for the farm isn’t clear yet. “We’ve talked about the options,” says Tom. “On the one hand we could say, ‘It was a great experience, and we pass our operating farm along to whomever.’ On the other hand, we can use our business experience to grow our farm in a way that will create a space for more regenerative farms and farmers in the marketplace.
*From my perspective the U.S. ag policy from the ’70s on has been to kill rural America with its get big or get out policies. And, it has been very successful. We have fewer farmers and dead rural communities spread across the country. We need to realize that was intentionally done through governmental policy. If you value rural America, there are things that need to be done to make it feasible to make a living in rural America again.
“We have to solve the demand for convenience needs of our customers as well as develop the skills of the farmers. Can we connect the consumer and the farmer through aggregators, buy local initiatives, and other community-based solutions? The conventional agriculture model incentivizes farmers to play the corn and soybeans game which ensures the producer a government supported price. There is a disconnect as most of their production goes for purposes other than food for people. The environmental impact of conventional row crop plough and spray farming does not receive the consideration it should when considering the impact on the whole. However, it is a tough sell to convince our fellow farmers that producing real food in an environmentally friendly manner can be economically sustainable when the current business model says otherwise.
“Our farm is about quality of life for us, but we do a lot of outreach to connect the people back to the land through our sales and the tours where they can visit the animals and interact with them. That’s what our goals for the farm are.” The Henslees’ focus on good stewardship was recognized in 2017 when they received the Randolph County Conservation Farm Family Award from the Randolph Soil and Water Conservation District.
Whether creating healthy soil, healthy animals, or healthy food, the Henslees see Back to The Earth Farm as the perfect way for them to contribute to their rural community in the Piedmont area. As they open their farm to hundreds of visitors and provide meat to retail and wholesale customers, they are working to create the sustainable food system they believe is so important to this country. As they work to set an example of how to engage in this type of food system, they are fulfilling their mission of “reconnecting people with the earth and soul.”