At Prodigal Farm, School Is Cool for Kids (and Four-Footed Adults)

Kathryn Spann and Dave Krabbe are the owners of 97-acre Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) Prodigal farm in Rougemont, North Carolina, where they raise goats for meat and cheese. Like Dan and Susan Gibson of Grazin’ Diner and Grazin’ Angus Acres (profiled on page 5), Kathryn and Dave traded fast-track lives centered around New York City for life and labor on the farm. Dave, a carpenter, worked as a high-end residential general contractor in great demand by wealthy clients. Kathryn spent a decade and a half as a lawyer, working 80-hour weeks for federal judges, law firms, and the New York Attorney General's Office.

In 2007, they called it quits on the city. According to Kathryn, “Dave and I made the decision that we were going to hit the eject button. At that point the only thing that we knew is that we were going to buy some farmland back down here.”

It’s a long way (literally and figuratively) from New York City to rural Rougemont, but for Kathryn, the move was a homecoming. She grew up in Durham, only a few miles south of the farm, and stayed in her hometown to attend Duke before heading off to Vanderbilt Law and then on to New York. In fact, her Tobacco Road roots go deep. Prodigal Farm is in the same county where her mother’s family farmed tobacco for generations—hence the farm’s name: “prodigal” as in prodigal child, but also, “prodigal” in the sense of “yielding abundantly.” Not, however, “prodigal” in the sense of wasteful. As stated on their website, “We believe that nothing should be wasted—not old buildings, not food trimmings, not manure. We are mildly obsessed with soil and the density of life within it. We select and develop technologies that respect natural systems and use energy efficiently.”

Kathryn and Dave raise their goats outdoors, on pasture, in accordance with AWA standards. They also rotationally graze them, a “pretty uncommon practice,” according to Kathryn, “because the goats have pretty high shelter requirements.” To do this, the couple needed a practical system not just to get the goats around, but to make shelter readily available for them, as well. They tried portable sheds, but these became too heavy as the herd expanded.

Then, one day, they were hit by a burst of inspiration when they noticed a school bus sitting idle in a field. Inspiration led to solution: school buses, absent the seats and filled with straw bedding, became sunny mobile shelters for the goats. As Kathryn explains, a school bus “has nice soft wheels, is not going to dig up your pastures, and can provide double-decker shelter” in the sense that the goats huddle inside the bus when they want to keep warm, but rest (or sleep) comfortably in the ample space under the bus when they want to keep cool. As Dave told a local television news reporter, “‘The goats love the bus. … It turned out to be a lifesaver for us.’”

“The school buses [now plural] are also helpful,” says Kathryn, “because—as opposed to having a social barn where the animals are always located on soil that can get parasites established in that soil—with the school buses it’s a metal floor. They are getting mucked out regularly [so] there is no place for the parasites to continue to live.”

The system is doubly good for parasite control because now, the goats can continuously forage grasses and browse the woodlands high off the ground as opposed to the goats cropping plants down to the soil in one patch of field, where they might be prone to ingest unwanted hitchhikers. Kathryn says the rotational grazing also helps the fields themselves by keeping pressure down on them, making for better soil and water conservation.

Such elements are important to the couple. “Our underlying farming philosophy is respect for our animals, respect for the environment, respect for the people who help us care for both the animals and the environment,” says Kathryn. “Our years of farming have taught us that if you take care and follow the nature of the animals and the nature of the land, then the land and the animals will take care of you.”

They are also conscious of the need to take care of customers: “Terms that are bandied around in marketing animal products these days—you hear natural, pastured, cage-free, or organic and I think there is a growing consumer skepticism… especially about organic.” says Kathryn. “You would think organic would be a gold standard and yet folks are starting to realize that buying organic does not necessarily ensure that people are in fact getting a product that came to them through practices that are what the consumer is seeking.”

Which is why Kathryn and Dave chose to have Prodigal Farm certified by AWA: “The AWA label more than any of the other humane certification labels has a really solid reputation for being exactly what it purports to be,” asserts Kathryn. She adds that AWA “has an educational component for us as producers and sort of an annual touchstone [through regular audits] for us to review our practice. It can help bring information to us but it helps us bring information to the world by providing a label that has a strong and progressively growing reputation. The label ensures the consumer can have integrity in the product that they are purchasing and the ethical decisions that they are really trying to make.” 

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