It’s easy to remain where you are when what you’re doing works. You’ve got a great operation, a good job, decent pay, the whole thing. But sometimes there’s something greater pulling at you. A spark of an idea that’s lending to something larger, more innovative, something that you just know deep down will affect more people. The leap of faith? Trying the new thing. Meet Courtney and Seth Umbarger of Laurel Springs Farm in Marion, Virginia. After years of a successful family farming business, these two dared to ask, what more can be done? How can we use what we have to expand the operation and work toward a stronger community and stronger future for our family? And they’re doing it. The Umbarger’s are an example of what can happen if you stick to your integrity, vision and hard work.
Living in the original farmhouse on these rolling hills of green and wooded area, Courtney and Seth are raising their beautiful family of five while changing the food game in Southwest Virginia, encouraging local businesses to buy and prepare local meats instead of outsourcing. There’s only one way to build Appalachia back up, and that’s from the inside out. It’s clear that the Umbarger’s are driven to leave a better world for their children than they found it. Offering farm tours for schools throughout the year, they offer hands-on education about where food comes from, and what goes into each individual bite of food that we take. It’s amazing what digging in the dirt can do for you, and they want to instill the beauty of growing and raising your own food at a young age.
With only one other dedicated family working for them, weekly markets take Courtney and the kids to the Marion Farmer’s Market, and Seth to the Abingdon Market, selling diverse products at each. Delectable food, kind folks…I mean, what more could you ask for? Get to know Courtney, Seth and the gang below as they showed me around the farm. Corbin, at only two years old, is a charming tour guide and a superb big brother. And check them out for any last minute holiday gifts at the market or at their farm store at 823 Umbarger Lane, Marion, VA. Happy Holidays, y’all!
Sarah: So, I heard that this had been the family farm. How long has it been in your family?
Courtney Umbarger: The boys and Addie will be the sixth generation. Seth’s the fifth generation on the farm. It was a dairy farm for about a hundred years. So, it was a bummer to make the decision to be the ones to go out in 2013, but it was time.
S: That’s incredible. I’ve seen the operation has become so big now, too. Like, now all our main places in Abingdon, White Birch and The Market. Our favorite places to go, all the burgers are your guys’ meat. It’s so exciting.
CU: Thank you. This building was built in the 50’s so they could bottle milk and make cheese. So, in 2015 I did a small business boot camp with the Smyth County Chamber of Commerce and we got enough money to do some little renovations down here just to set up a little storefront. The main part of this, to open this store, was to be able to have the beef here but everything that I have in this store is either local to the region or from where I’m from. I’m from Culpepper. The spices come from Tom’s Brook, which is up that way. Friend of mine that I played soccer with, her husband is the grower and his brother is the chef and they make these rubs and sell them at all these grocery stores. And the coffee comes from Sugar Grove, and the soap selections, they come from Cripple Creek. And then we raise our own eggs.
S: How did you two meet?
CU: Seth and I? I did an internship ten years ago when I was in the Ag-Tech program at Virginia Tech. And I came out and I did a silo density study and a mastitis study. It was when he was in the dairy industry and I was working with the Wythe County Extension Office. I covered the dairy aspect of that and the 4-H for Southwest, Virginia, so I had twelve counties. We went around and tested silage density and the nutrition, and we would put programs together to talk to different farmers as to which practices were best. So, I met Seth doing that here in 2007. That was just strictly business. A few years ago, I sent one of the agents that I worked with a message and I said, I would really love to move back to Southwest Virginia. I think that’s where my heart is. I really would like a job, and he said well I don’t have a job for you but I have a husband. I was like, yeah, right! I’m not coming down there to marry someone! And he said, well you know who he is, and I said, I don’t know anybody from there. And…Seth and I got together when his daughter, Addie, was five.
S: And you have two boys as well?
CU: Yeah. Corbin is one and Henry is two months old. Let’s head out around the farm.
Seth Umbarger: So, we were apparently the first to get a tractor around here, the first television in the house. My grandparents were very fortunate back then to be able to do that because they had several employees. Not just the farm, but the bottling and the delivery. So, it was pretty neat how they had that set-up like its own little town or community back in the day. This old building here was the grainery. Back in the day, when granddaddy had everything, they ground all the corn. They’d have it picked in the fields and put in there and it would run from the top of that to the mill down at the bottom and grind it. All the employees, they rationed out flour for everybody and stored it up there, so everybody had their flour. They would ration out food for everybody that worked here. A lot of little things and I’m glad Dad’s able to tell us some of that stuff. That’s where our garden is. We had a lot of help with Sprouting Hope to kind of get started and have an organic garden.
S: The meat operation has become so big now. Was there a year that it really took off or expanded?
SU: We’ve always had a beef herd on the side, even when we were in the dairy business. In 2007 I leased the neighbor’s farm, bought his cows myself. So, I kind of had my own farm on the side as a hobby. And then in 2013, Dad and I decided to go out of the dairy business, so I had a good number of cows on that farm and we decided just to expand and make this farm beef as well. I was always trying to get into these natural programs and things where there were premiums, where I could get just a little more money for them. They usually have a strict set of rules to follow, and I was good with that. So, I found a middle man for Whole Foods grocery stores, he kind of called us right when we went out of the dairy business and I was building a new barn, doing some different things and he helped me get it set-up to where they still stay out on pasture and things like that to go along with their program. I felt good about the program, liked where they were going, you know. Got lots of information back from them, so everybody started finding out that’s kind of what was happening and they said, well if you’ve got that quality meat and that much of it, why can’t we buy it around here? I didn’t have a good answer for that. I don’t know. Just people don’t do that around here. You know, there’s a handful of people that do but on any kind of large scale, there’s just not a lot of that that goes on. Then this building was sitting here empty, so Courtney was like, why don’t we try it?
CU: I was pretty gung-ho about, you know, being able to use what we had here. Our home farm is about three hundred and seventy-five acres, is that correct? And we farm about a thousand total. So, the rest of that we lease. So, you know, it felt like we could do so much here that we weren’t doing. And have the added value. And, I was pregnant with Corbin, we had just gotten married and I said, let’s give it a go. Let’s try to raise our kids here and do as much as we can here, for a little while anyways, and if it doesn’t work, then when they’re old enough to go to school, I’ll go back to work, you know. I work more now than I ever did in my nine to five. But it makes it super flexible and I’m able to give them the life that I wanted to be able to. There have been many days where Corbin has spent hours down in the garden with me, and now he’s getting to the age where he can go with Daddy on the farm and do a little bit on the tractor.
CU: Yeah, tractor!
S: How did you get in touch with local businesses?
CU: So, we were really surprised at what our first year did. We opened the farm store at the end of April, beginning of May 2016. This year is our first full year, January to December. From April to December we did our numbers and we thought that if we did ten to fifteen cows in our natural program through the retail business and selling to wholesale consumers, we would be doing something. Ten to fifteen animals, that’s a lot of beef. We did fifty-two head our first year. So, we were really excited about that. We just started reaching out to some of the restaurants that really supported the local movement. Corbin, you want to get out?
CU: You have to put your socks and shoes on though. Can you do that? I have one here.
SU: I’ve done several of the government projects where you fence off the stream and kind of clean everything up, keep the cattle out of the streams. It allows you to put wells in or pump water. These are places where we didn’t have water. This whole road dividing used to be one field. Now I’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six smaller fields. So, it allows me to do a lot more with it and have water in every boundary and areas where I can feed and still have the cattle on pasture. It’s helped out a lot, doing those projects. I can keep a lot more cattle than I ever could before. We’re just trying to find areas that are wasted space and add value to stuff.
CU: And you’ll see that so much of our farm is on the side of hills.
S: Truly the rolling hills. Corbin, you want to show me the bulls?
SU: That’s just a young bull. We’ve got the young bull and the old man together. The rest of them are out working right now.
S: Ha! Their day off.
S: So, Seth, you’ve lived here your entire life. Did you move away at any point?
SU: Just for college. I went to Appalachian State to start with in Boone, and then ended up transferring to Virginia Tech and got a Dairy Science degree there. I went to Wyoming for a summer and did kind of an internship out there, but other than that I’ve lived here.
S: Everybody I talk to says that no matter how many years you’ve been doing it, you’re just learning every year. Working with the land, there is no controlling it.
CU: Right? I learned that this year and I very much like to have things organized and planned. I used to not be able to understand how Seth was able to go day to day kind of by the seat of your pants. You plan as much as you can, but at the same time, the weather is your factor in what you’re going to do for the day. It can really change things.
SU: These girls over here are two.
CU: Through Whole Foods, we’re GAP Certified, which is the Global Animal Partnership. So, we have to castrate by a certain time and we don’t use any antibiotics and no added growth hormones. And if they do have to have antibiotics, we just pull them out of the program.
S: Are they all grass fed?
CU: We’re in a hybrid program. You’ll see there’s the feed pads up here. So, they get to have a feed ration. It’s a silage/alfalfa ration.
SU: It’s a mostly forage ration. It does have grain in it. They are considered grain finished, but it’s the best of both worlds. They’re on pasture, they’re natural, we have humane standards that we go by. We kind of got into raising what we like. We like the flavor of grain finished.
CU: It’s cool because they can come and go as they please.
S: They have so much space. If you ever need to breathe, you just come up here.
CU: I wanted to get married up here to see the farm, but we got married in our front yard because we didn’t know how we were gonna get everybody over here.
S: Just a bunch of cars stuck in the mud.
SU: So, this field is all heifers, which are the young females. And then the steers are all separated, and they’re across the road in another boundary all together. And they will probably all be sold early in the spring. We’re not able to process everything we have here yet. I just don’t have the land to feed it all and keep ‘em here. I can keep a lot here while they’re young, but as they get bigger they need more room. You end up, as they get heavier and bigger, with all the hillsides I have, you destroy the place.
S: Where do they end up going when they’re too big?
SU: Another person that’s in that same program (GAP) can buy ‘em and then they’ll still end up going to Whole Foods and staying in the GAP program. But you couldn’t go to the livestock market, buy a bunch of cattle, because that’s not source fair. You don’t know where they came from. So, everything is very strict in these programs, which is good. But it gives me several sources that are all premium sources to go to. And then, we just kind of pull out of the finished cattle as we need for the local program. It’s a good balance. It allows me to farm on a bigger scale and farm full time and do alright at it, but still have the animals here for local…and room to expand. We would love to sell everything we have through local, that’s what would be ideal. So, that’s kind of our goal.
S: How do you keep it all straight?
SU: Ha! I don’t know.
CU: I don’t know. Lists on lists on lists.
S: What’s your favorite part about all of it?
CU: The freedom of working for ourselves. And being able to be here and live this type of lifestyle where you know what you’re raising. That’s the most important part for me. Especially having children. Before, you don’t really think about it that much until you grow your family a little bit and you’re focused on what you’re putting in your kids’ bodies as well. And, the aspect that it’s so much work to grow your own garden and preserving your own foods, but it is so gratifying. Like when you open up that can that you processed from the summer.
S: I canned for the first time this summer. And it felt like it was pounds of tomatoes, and it’s not that much.
S: But it feels so good! And I’m going to cherish every bit of it.
CU: That’s what I started doing for Christmas gifts was making, like, pepper jelly and making little baskets, and salsa. This last year was a hard growing season for me. I was super pregnant with a toddler running around and pulling up everything once I was planting it! Plus, it got very warm early, so my cold season crops were a little sad. It was just a huge learning experience for me. I did a little bit of everything, so as a market grower I’m probably going to focus on, like, three or four crops and do an abundance of those next year. Kind of niche that, too. Beets are my favorite thing.
S: They’ve become mine! I did not eat beets before last summer. I started getting them at the market and now I eat them almost every single day.
CU: Roasted beets are delicious!
SU: What you described, just a minute ago, about being excited to open what you can. That’s the same way with these. So, when they’re processed and we see the first steak, that’s two years or a little longer that it takes to see that. Every little detail about how it’s marbled or the size of it or how tender it is goes back to what bulls are picked.
SU: The genetics in the bulls and the cows. Two years worth of stuff—what I decide to feed.
CU: What replacement heifers you keep for the future.
SU: Everyday decisions like that for two years. It’s very gratifying for people to fish, to eat the fish they caught. Even if they don’t like fishing, hunting then. It’s the same thing for this. Just a bigger scale.
CU: You just get so proud of the product you raise. You know what I mean? The cost of it seems to be high, but a lot of folks don’t realize that for two years you’re feeding and taking care of that animal day in and day out, and they’re not just turned out on grass. And they’re not just ignored or just a pasture animal. They are something that we tend to.
SU: And we could choose to give ‘em things to make them gain more efficiently and make more money and this and that, but it’s just not what we want to do. We also want to change the opinion of people who are pretty much “grass-fed is the way is has to be”.
CU: Not that we think that anybody’s opinion is wrong, but to expand the mindset that this is still so much so of the animal partnership, it’s so important to us. But we choose that high choice and prime marbling that comes from the grain finish.
S: And that there’s different ways to do it. A lot of different ways to honestly do it.
SU: That’s my point. It can be done the way we’re doing it…
CU: And not be a feed lot.
S: Yes. And the problem, in the research I’ve done, with a lot of mass farms is that they don’t pay attention and they feed them things like…chicken poop. Stuff that should not be in anybody’s body.
SU: And a lot of people seem to think it’s not sustainable to farm like that, but to me, sustainable means we both work on the farm and that’s it. We don’t have an outside job. We’ll have the ability to pass it on to children. If I didn’t make the most out of the land that I could, you know, if I was just strictly grass-fed and did it right, I wouldn’t be able to keep as many cattle. To me, that wouldn’t be sustainable for us because we would go out of business. So, it’s kind of a balance. Taking care of the land, animals and our family.
CU: And the community. It’s so much tied together. And like you were talking about, feeding animals things that they shouldn’t be eating. You’ll see those yellow tubs up there and those are mineral tubs that we give them. Part of the program that we’re implementing here is that we don’t feed them any animal byproduct. There’s none of that. Blood meal. None of that stuff.
SU: Those are stress tubs, and we give ‘em to them when we ween them because that’s a high stress time. So, it’s got vitamins and minerals and protein formulated to calm them down. A lot of protein supplements is where they put the blood meal and the feather meal and the stuff to add protein to it.
[Corbin sees something and begins reaching]
S: Uh-oh, there’s a Dum Dum (the lollipop!).
CU: Uh-oh, Daddy. It’s all over now.
SU: It’s all over now.
Corbin: Duh duh!
SU: You can kind of see the difference in the grasses. A strip of this, a strip of that. Ok, so back in the day, my granddad was big into conservation and there’s “Progressive Farmer”, which is a magazine that a lot of farmers get, and they were the farm family of the year for progressive farming.
CU: That was in the ‘50’s.
SU: It’s pretty neat. They took hillsides like this and they learned to strip farm ‘em for conservation. Instead of plowing this whole field and big rain come and washing everything to the bottom, he did it in strips. So, he had a strip of corn and a strip of alfalfa, then a strip of corn. So, you would just be plowing strips at a time so the whole field wouldn’t wash away and run in the creeks. That became a big deal back then. We’ve done it right up until 2013. But you can see the difference.
CU: Which is really neat. One of the pictures that was down on the wall, you can really tell the difference in the strips.
SU: And when you zoom in on us on google maps or something, you see the strips.
CU: And one of the coolest things about the conservation part of that, is that Seth sits on Evergreen Water and Soil Conservation District Board. He’s the chairman for that. And his grandfather was as well. So, it’s neat to have that, it kind of goes full circle.
S: Tradition of it.
CU: There’s one of our bulls, laying down on the job.
S: Is there something to you guys that’s the most important about keeping things local? Or keeping things in a community?
CU: Yeah. That gives Seth and I the capacity to both work here and to be able to work together and raise our children together here on the farm. We spend our money at local places because we believe in that. We believe in people that have enough nerve to go out on their own and start something and create something that…a venture that is very much so unique and something that you can’t get everywhere else, on every corner. We sell to the Martha Washington, we sell to White Birch, to Nathan at The Market and Southern Culture Cuisine. Wolf’s BBQ in town sometimes. This year was our second Marion farmer’s market table dinner and this year we did it on our own. And what we do is purchase everything we can from market vendors at Marion and if we can’t we go to Abingdon. And then we have restaurants in Marion prepare the meals and the sides. All of the proceeds go to the market in advertising, in bringing special events downtown, in bringing more traffic to the market. The money stays in our community and that’s super important. You pay your taxes here, you live here, you may as well spend here.
S: Exactly. And it creates more jobs here.
SU: So that’s what was kind of an eye opener to me, to see the dollar value of how much those fifty-two animals we sold locally, that’s a fair amount of money. And you think, my goodness, if we can get up to all of our animals, what a jolt that would put in the local community. But it’s just amazing if everybody would do that. There’s just a tremendous amount that’s grazed in the grass around here, and then it all leaves here! It’s shipped into the hospitals and the colleges and the schools from somewhere else. It would make so much sense if a lot more of that just stayed around instead of putting all the money into transportation and huge corporations.
CU: And another thing, too. What’s awesome about going to these markets is that when we go there we can accept the EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) for the SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Last year and part of this year, ASD (Appalachian Sustainable Development) did the grant where you could do the “double dollars”. So, a lot of people were able to get what they were turning in at the farmer’s market in fresh foods, which is amazing. We did the senior citizens coupons, so when I have produce they can come buy produce from me with a five dollar coupon and that’s assistance for them. There’s so many programs that help folks out that farmers can be part of as well.