Farm Freedom Series: Georgiatown Farm Strives for Sustainability

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[Editor’s note: This is the Virginia Free Citizen’s first installment of our Farm Freedom series, and the life on Virginia’s small farms.  We are visiting multiple small farms during the month of April. We will be continuing the series with visits to organic vegetable farms and an oyster farm. Receive updates, sign up here]

Karen Doyle Georgiatown Farm

Karen Doyle and Clun Forest Lamb: Photo Credit: Stephen Roberts

By Shelby Mertens and Kate Miller

Karen Doyle worked in the food business for 35 years, starting off in fine dining restaurants until she became a cheese buyer for an upscale grocery store. During her time in the food business, she said she found the quality of food appalling, which inspired her to start her own small livestock farm in late 2009.

“I’ve been an entrepreneur most my life,” Doyle said. “If I like something, I make it into a business, and here I am.”

Georgiatown Farm and Sign

Photo Credit: Stephen Roberts

Doyle’s Georgiatown Farm, located in White Stone, Va., is named after her daughter, whom she adopted from Romania. She raises chickens, turkeys, pigs and sheep for high-quality poultry, pork and lamb products, as well as chicken and turkey eggs. Doyle is currently raising nine pigs, 16 sheep, 40 laying hens, four roosters, 10 turkeys and 99 red broiler chickens. She runs her 10-acre farm by herself.

“I am a one-woman show,” she said.

Providing High-Quality Products

During her first year in business, Doyle sold about 450 chickens. She started off by simply researching to find the best tasting breeds.

“I went to my local farmers market and I set up a booth and said I’m going to have chickens in two months and the next thing I had sold 450 chickens … then I decided to get some pigs and try that,” she said. “It was a lot of trial and error to get where I am now … (I tried) experimenting with different breeds (to see) what tastes the best.”

Doyle said pork and eggs are the most popular among her products. She was surprised that chickens haven’t been as popular, as she said she only sold 1,100 to 1,200 chickens last year.

Doyle prides herself on being completely GMO and antibiotic free, as she hopes to improve the quality of meats in the market. She sells her meats and eggs to individuals who visit her farm, local restaurants and farmers markets such as the one in Williamsburg, which has been a success for Doyle because of the growing movement against the use of GMOs.

French Influence on her Chickens

Her chickens are raised free range in a pine forest, a farming practice developed in the southwestern part of France in the 1960s, called Label Rouge. The farms have small, portable poultry houses called Marensines.

The Marensine houses can be made of wood or metal and they are floorless with litter spread throughout. The chickens are then free to roam the pine forest. The houses are constructed so they can be rotated on a yearly basis.

My houses are Marensines, they are to the French standard,” she said. “My houses move after the chicken comes out, after it’s empty, and I put it on PVC pipes and it rolls … by the end of May I will have to move that house … for the most part I’ve only had to do it once a season.

Doyle first heard about pine forest raised poultry production from reading about it online. She then went to France in 2011 for almost two weeks to study Label Rouge farms. The French farms also are all GMO-free and antibiotic-free.

“The Europeans have a high standard for their food production and that’s what I wanted to learn,” she said. “I wanted to see free-range, (as) they don’t raise animals like we do in factories, nobody does, that I was aware of.”

Doyle said during her trip, she visited French farms that raise only a few thousand birds to farms that raise 50,000 birds, all outside.

They (Europeans) have very high standards for taste, they have high standards for the environmental impact, for the feed of the animal, for the life of the animal,” Doyle said. “They would not stand for (factory farming).

Heritage Livestock Breeds

Red Wattle Hog Heritage Breed

Red Wattle Hog Heritage Breed: Photo Credit: Stephen Roberts

Unlike most farms in Virginia, Doyle raises rare heritage livestock breeds, which she said have a richer taste. Some of her heritage breeds include the Clun Forest Lamb, Red Bourbon Turkey and Red Wattle Hogs.

Doyle said she learned about heritage breeds through the Livestock Conservancy, which she has been a member of for about three years. Doyle is also a member of the North American Clun Forest Association.

Doyle hopes to conserve endangered livestock breeds and help diversify the food market.

Red Bourbon Turkey

Red Bourbon Turkey: Photo Credit: Stephen Roberts

We need diversity in the United States,” she said. “Factory farming has destroyed the diversity of animals. They have genetically engineered the animals to grow bigger, longer and faster.

Americans are not doing enough to conserve endangered livestock breeds, Doyle said.

“We’re interested in saving pandas and white tigers and all kinds of exotic creatures,” Doyle said. “But so much of our American livestock has become extinct because of factory farming.”

The Importance of the Consumer

In order to put an end to factory farming, Doyle said consumers must demand higher-quality foods.

“The consumer can make a difference and they’re the only ones who can make a difference,” she said.

When eating out, Doyle advises those who are concerned to ask restaurant owners if they source any local farm-raised foods.

“Let them know that you’re disappointed that they don’t,” she said. “To make it happen, you have to ask for it.”

Doyle said she eats her own farm products, tries to buy as much food as she can from farmers and rarely goes to the grocery store or restaurants that do not sell farm-raised foods.

Doyle’s customers are mainly interested in animal welfare, including raising non-medicated, non-GMO animals, she said.

“Some of them just want to buy something from a farm,” she said. “They taste the difference.”

Consumers go through a “transition period” to start incorporating farm-raised foods into their diets, Doyle said.

“It’s hard to just say, ‘okay, I’m just going to buy all farm-raised food at the farmer’s market’ because it is very expensive,” she said.

Doyle tells customers who struggle to afford farm-raised foods to just buy one thing at a time, such as eggs.

“Ultimately, you will gradually get out of packaged food in your house,” she said.

More Life on the Farm content is on the way. Stay tuned for additional articles from our Georgiatown Farm visit, including follow-up pieces on GMOs and antibiotics, Karen Doyle’s challenges with where she can sell her products and a more in-depth look into Doyle’s heritage livestock breeds. Please sign up for the VFC newsletter to stay up to date with the progression of this series.

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