CREATING HARMONY ON ROSE HAVEN FARM
by Debbie Wechsler
When Donna Lisenby came to work on Rose Haven Farm in 1987, it was a
conventional hog farm, losing $60,000 a year. Now, Rose Haven Farm is a
diversified organic farm, with a 30-cow beef operation, a large market
garden, a bed-and-breakfast featuring the farm's 200-year-old log house,
and a far rosier future.
Donna was fresh out of Clemson University with a degree in animal
science when owners Stan and Sharon Rose hired her to help Sharon run the
hog farm. Two years later, the Roses decided to close down the hog
operation and turned the farm over to Donna to manage. Just make it break
even, they told her.
After the hogs were sold, Donna found herself alone with her thoughts
(and 12 cows) on the 250-acre farm. Though she'd been trained strictly in
conventional agriculture at Clemson, she began to read a lot of books about
land stewardship and organic gardening, and to develop some ideas about
sustainable farming. "I had a hard time with some of my cattle buddies I'd
gone to school with," says Donna. "They thought I'd gone off the deep
As she explored a more sustainable philosophy of farming, her mind
stretched back to her childhood in rural Marlboro County, South Carolina,
where her parents owned 25 acres, most of which they rented out to area
farmers. "When I was a little girl," recalls Donna, "and the farmer would
come to plow out the stubble, I used to lie down on the soil and make earth
angels. We never had any snow, so I couldn't make snow angels. I've never
forgotten lying down in the soil and smelling it. I felt at home, rocked in
the cradle of the earth."
Donna began to develop her vision of Rose Haven as a sustainable farm
in harmony with nature. She worked hard knocking the farm back into shape.
She rebuilt derelict fences, hauled away truckload after truckload of trash
and junk left by previous tenants, and began to tame the overgrown
pastures. "The pastures were so high," she says, "that I had to mow a path
into them for the pick-up truck. Then I had to stand on the roof of the
truck just to find the cows." The pastures were relatively new,
bulldozer-cleared from forest only twelve years earlier and planted in
fescue and ladino clover. They were growing up in young trees, trying to
return to woodland. Donna tried no-till drilling with clovers and vetch
with little success; mostly she just kept them mowed, tried to encourage a
good grass cover, and avoided using chemical fertilizers and herbicides.
"By letting them 'go natural' we're getting a variety of native grasses
that tend to be more drought resistant," she observes. She built an
additional pond so the pastures could be crossfenced for rotational
grazing-and also to increase the diversity of ecosystems on the farm.
In her exploration of organic gardening, she did an experiment for
herself, raising two beds of broccoli, one conventionally, and one
organically. "In the organic one, I could see that the soil was more alive,
and the broccoli was better. I just had to figure out how to do it on a
larger scale." She decided to knock out some of the walls of the old hog
finishing house and feed the cows there to concentrate the manure. The farm
had a box scraper she could use to push the manure into a pile. She still
had to shovel it into and out of a wagon by hand, but now she had enough
manure for a good size garden. She also began harvesting fall leaves from
the farmhouse's stately oaks for compost, using a bagger mower.
Using a model gleaned from her reading, Donna made seven 4-foot by
20-foot permaculture garden beds. She framed up the beds with oak boards
cut from the farm, and piled them with two inches of manure, two inches of
cardboard, old clothes, and old paper, two inches more of manure, and then
eight inches of hay or leaves. After a year, she had rich, dark beds in
striking contrast to the heavy red clay they stood on.
As she improved the 80 acres of pasture, she increased the cattle
herd. At one time it was up to 60 head, but she's now cut back to 30 cows.
The cows are Simmental-Angus crosses and all her market steers are
certified Angus. Donna's breeding program emphasizes developing a uniform
herd of cows that have good mothering ability and calves that develop well
in a pasture-fed regime. Other than some supplemental feed at weaning, the
cattle are raised entirely on pasture. She does buy some large round bales
of hay for the winter--the fields are just too rough and uneven to cut for
hay--but she gets her hay from a source where she knows fertilizers and
pesticides have not been used.
She controls flies with diatomaceous earth, and has used it as a feed
supplement to control internal parasites, but since fecal tests done each
year on her cows have indicated that she doesn't have a worm problem, she's
discontinued the practice unless a problem develops. Antibiotics are used
only when there's a specific need.
Donna is focusing her beef operation on selling freezer beef direct to
consumers. "I figured there must be a market for hormone- and
antibiotic-free forage-finished beef, she says. "It's been shown to be up
to 30% lower in both cholesterol and fat." She prepared a brochure
outlining the health, economic, and environmental reasons for buying
hormone- and antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef direct from the farmer and
explaining Rose Haven's ordering and delivery procedures and began offering
her steers for sale.
She takes orders, with a deposit, in April, so she knows how many
steers to hold back and finish. In early summer, usually June, the steers
are brought to a packer in nearby Lancaster, SC, and weighed. She then
calls the customer and notifies them of the weight of their animal (or
portion). The price, based on the live weight, is $1.30/lb for a quarter,
$1.20 for a half, and $1.10/lb for a whole beef. The customer calls the
packer with cutting and packaging instructions, pays the packer directly
for processing, and either picks up the beef or has it shipped to them. To
keep in contact with previous and potential customers, Donna sends an
occasional newsletter to her list of customers during the year.
While cattle sold at auction bring $650-675 each, those sold direct to
consumers by this system bring $1,000-1,100 apiece, a significant
difference. Donna is still taking the majority of her steers to the auction
sales, but the proportion direct-marketed should continue to grow. She is
planning to split her brood herd into two groups bred at two different
times so she can offer steers ready for processing twice a year, not just
In 1994, she added chickens to her farm mix after hearing Joel Salatin
talk at a conference about his chicken operation on his Polyface Farm in
Virginia. She built her own version of his rolling chicken house and moves
it around in the pasture, where the chickens take on the job of breaking up
and scattering the cow patties. She sells the eggs for $2.50/dozen at the
farmers' markets where she takes her produce.
After several years learning how to garden organically, she also began
growing for market. The garden got a big boost in February of 1995, when
Nita O'Brien came to live on the farm, bringing new energy and her five
years of experience helping develop and market an South Carolina herb farm.
The gift of a small greenhouse in the winter of 1995 and the purchase of a
transplanter have also added to their ability to grow and set out market
quantities of seedlings. In 1995, Rose Haven marketed $2,500 of spring and
early summer crops. The fall crops have been plagued by deer and an
invasion of fall armyworms that has devoured all their young cole crops,
despite repeated sprayings of Bt.
Their market garden uses the permaculture beds as well as more than an
acre of tractor-dug wide beds, tilled with a tractor-mounted rotovator,
then bedded it up with a combined chisel-plow/bedder Donna constructed
herself. They alternate beds of crops and cover crops, then rotate.
Donna finds most customers at the nearby farmers' market in Rock Hill
to be price-conscious shoppers unresponsive to organic produce and
generally unwilling to pay premium prices. However she has found customers
at a market in Matthews, east of Charlotte, to be enthusiastic about buying
organic produce. They also sell at natural foods stores in the Charlotte
area, but they are really just beginning to develop their markets.
As she worked on knocking the farm back into shape and getting the
different components functioning properly--the pastures, the gardens, and
the chickens--Donna turned her eye on the "Country House," Rose Haven's
large, uninhabited, 200-year-old log farmhouse, and decided it needed to
pay its way. Without drastic remodeling, the house was fixed up for
visitors, keeping an appealing, rustic, informal funkinesss. In early 1994,
she began renting it out for farm vacations, family reunions, weddings, and
other similar events, charging by the hour, day, or week.
The Country House has proven to be an integral part of the farm mix.
The income from the house supports the time and money spent on mowing and
general upkeep of the farm--keeping it attractive and "farm-like" for
visitors also makes it easier and more pleasant to work and live there.
Visitors to the Country House--a mix of people from many different places
and walks of life--provide customers and word-of-mouth promotion for all
Rose Haven's farm products. And all of the farm's other features, from
the garden to the cattle, to the non-productive horses and geese, to the
ponds and woodlands, are features that attract and entertain Country House
When Nita came, she helped turn the Country House from an occasion
rental into a bed-and-breakfast as well, taking on the cooking and the
additional customer relations. She also plans to develop a business of her
own, providing extended childcare for parents leaving town. In this, the
farm would play a part, since she can offer these parents a farm vacation
or day at the farm as part of the care package.
Donna is becoming more and more interested in using her farm for
education, not just food production. She is currently seeking funding to
develop a self-guided tour of the farm oriented towards extension agents
and other agricultural professionals. She is also considering offering
short-term apprenticeships in organic gardening and sustainable agriculture
in combination week-long with Country House residency.
Although Donna has made a remarkable turnaround in the finances of
Rose Haven, it is still not breaking even. As a beginning farmer, she has
been fortunate to have an existing, well-equipped farm to work with, a
salary, and strong financial and personal support from the owners. But she
is still a hired manager, subject to the owners' own needs. At one point,
facing financial stress in his own business, Stan Rose proposed selling the
cow herd, and Donna realized how precarious her plans actually were. She
now has to decide whether to seek some kind of arrangement that would
provide more security to herself and her efforts.
Donna has a vision for Rose Haven and an almost boundless energy and
inventiveness to apply to it. "I'm just beginning to pull all the part
together into a holistic farm," says Donna. Given a few more years that
holistic vision can become a seamless reality, producing good food
sustainably in harmony with nature, and sharing its philosophy, its
products, and its experience with its visitors.
Sent: November 17, 1995 7:46 pm PST Item: R00HIFp