Real Talk: Donna Kilpatrick Head Farmer At Heifer Ranch
Donna, you’re relatively new to running Heifer Ranch. What is it about the mission of the ranch that brought you to Arkansas to take on this project?
I’ve been working with Heifer for almost 12 years, but most of that time was spent in New England. In early 2018, I was offered the opportunity to move to Arkansas and took it so I could work more closely with small-scale, sustainable farmers and be at the helm as the Ranch scales up production across our various agricultural enterprises. A large portion of what we grow goes to Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative and New South Vegetable Cooperative, and we also serve thousands of visitors who come to the Ranch each year to learn about Heifer International’s work in the USA and throughout the world. I’m also responsible for our new Farmer Apprentice program which trains new farmers. At Heifer Ranch, we are growing farmers, food, and community.
How did you first become interested in pasture-based farming? What motivates you to stick with it, even on the hardest days?
I first became interested in pasture-based farming way back in my undergraduate years at Warren Wilson College. I fell head over heels in love with farming there, and to my professor’s chagrin, I often ditched the classroom for more time on a tractor or with the cattle. A few years later, I worked for about a year on a very large confinement dairy farm. There, I was responsible for herd health, crop production, and calculating mixed feed rations. The most important thing I learned in this position was that I didn’t want to spend my time herding cattle on concrete and feeding them corn and cottonseed. This experience reinforced my desire and commitment to provide livestock a life that allows the animal to be outside, in the sunshine, eating what ruminant animals are designed to eat – grass. What motivates me to stick with it on the hardest days? The transformation that happens when livestock are working in synthesis with nature. Ecosystems thrive. Animals are happy and healthy. Pastures become more diversified from the natural inputs of manure and animal impact that is closely managed.
Tell us about your meat-eating habits. How do you choose the meats you eat?
Over the last few years, I’ve experimented greatly with my diet and meat consumption. My main objective has been finding foods that combat inflammation. For the past three years I’ve eaten a predominantly paleo diet which was heavy in meat and veggies. Right now I’m eating meat about three times a week and always from animals fed and finished on grass. Although I’m eating less meat, the quality of meat that I’m consuming is very high and is from Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative or Heifer Ranch. I’m finding that I feel best when I eat lots of veggies, very little dairy, no refined sugar, and pasture-raised protein from a very trustworthy source. This diet is surprisingly affordable and allows me to support the type of farming that I believe is good for the animal, the land and for my health.
Which is your favorite Grass Roots products and what’s your favorite way to cook it?
I love Grass Roots steaks and the pork chops. I had a Grass Roots center cut pork chop when I first moved to Arkansas, and it was the best pork I’ve ever eaten. I followed my mom’s simple cooking instructions which consisted of cooking it in an iron skillet using a little ghee for seven minutes on each side. It was perfect!
Heifer Ranch recently started supplying lamb for Grass Roots. Tell us how you raise the lamb and what makes it different?
We raise about 100 lambs a year completely on grass. Thanks to warm Arkansas spring temperatures, the lambs are born out on pasture and spend their entire lives being rotationally grazed in synthesis with our cattle. We allow the lambs to wean naturally and we don’t dock their tails. Our sheep are guarded by our Great Pyrenees dog, Sherlock. I honestly think Heifer Ranch lamb is the most delicious lamb I’ve ever tasted—it’s always tender and never gamey.
What’s next for Heifer Ranch?
Wow. SO much. We invite everyone to come see for themselves. Outside of the agricultural enterprises, we have a variety of educational programming that includes various agricultural related classes and learning experiences. We also have special events including an upcoming 5K “Goat Trail Run” in conjunction with the Arkansas Goat Festival. We have lodges that can be rented by groups and families and you can stop by the Ranch for lunch in our dining hall where you can experience one of our homegrown meals.
In terms of the agricultural enterprises, we are scaling up production in our organic gardens as well as livestock production. We are also investing in infrastructure – high tunnels, portable pasture chicken housing and installing water lines to help with production efficiency. It is a very exciting time at Heifer Ranch as we increase production for the cooperatives, educate more guests, train farmers and use livestock to improve the soil and diversify grazing forage.
Everyone is welcome and there is always something exciting going on, for more details visit www.heifer.org/ranch or our Facebook page.