Drew Slabaugh was working in a butcher shop in Philadelphia and his wife Brittany was about to start an accelerated nursing program at Drexel when they realized that neither of them was thrilled with what they were doing. They loved gardening and growing things, and when they talked to a friend who had interned on a farm in the Hudson Valley, they thought they might give something like that a try.
The couple googled ‘farm work’ and found a place in Bristol where they could intern for a year, even though Drew had never been to Vermont and Brittany had only driven through the state. After a year, the farm owner introduced them to David Beckwith, who had started Shakey Ground Farm in Charlotte in 2008 (named after his dog Shakespeare, not seismic activity) and in 2011, they became the farm’s managers.
“We were underqualified at the time,” Slabaugh said, “but here we are. We were unhappy with our day-to-day life and we stepped out on a limb to find something we would enjoy.”
Shakey Ground Farm started with livestock, but quickly spread to include vegetables. That portion of the farm improved greatly when Slabaugh added drainage to the heavy clay soil. After attending a workshop on winter gardening, he built a hoop house which was followed by a second and then a third structure.
“That’s the fulcrum of the garden,” he said. “We only have half an acre of vegetables but we’re getting more efficient and sales have grown exponentially. We’re being intentional about our planting. When we pull up the onions, the spinach goes in and when we pull up the garlic the lettuce goes in. Each year we tweak things and see what is productive and what isn’t.”
Shakey Ground Farm has two Belted Galloway cows, with one going to the butcher every year. They have 200 meat chickens, a few dozen laying chickens, and 14 ewes which produced 24 lambs this season. The sheep are protected by guard llamas.
“Sheep have no real defense mechanism,” Slabaugh said. “Their instinct is to run and ball up as a group. The llamas are much more alert and less likely to run away. We’ve heard from others that they have chased predators or even stomped them.” In addition to the llamas, the farm has a Maremma – an Italian guard dog – that lives with the sheep.
Slabaugh brings his goods to the farmers market, sells to a few restaurants, and offers the rest at his farm stand where locals can purchase a farm share which offers more flexibility than a typical CSA. He is constantly looking for ways to maximize the land he has.
“We’re always trying to find something that makes sense for our resources,” he said. “We could probably do more to make money but we care about the lifestyle and the meaningfulness of the work.”
“The farm for me is an entire unit,” said Slabaugh. “Everything functions together. It’s hard to separate work from lifestyle and that’s what makes it a unique job.” These days, the couple’s two sons – Arlo, who is almost three, and Juniper, who is nine months – follow their parents as they make their rounds. “We’re always conscious of the possibility of burnout,” Slabaugh said, “but for me it’s rewarding to see that I’m raising my kids like this.”