When life gives you rocky soil, make compost.
While the 50-acre family farm near Woodsboro isn’t perfect yet, Rachel Armistead and Luke Flessner have big plans to regenerate topsoil and retain water in a way that is sustainable and economical for their business. The married pair operate The Sweet Farm, a sauerkraut, pork sausage and pickle food truck and brand, which has its sights set on expanding and growing in years to come.
“We try to do things as sustainably as possible, and that makes sense for us [morally] and economically. We have very little topsoil on this property and we have to preserve it,” said Flessner, whose grandparents were the prior owners of the land.
While gardens and orchards have always had a place on the property, in the later years of his grandparents’ lives the fields were mismanaged by the person hired to mow the hay. That person did not amend the soil, reseed the pasture or add lime, which degraded the health of the soil and washed away almost all the topsoil.
It became clear early on the land was not well-suited to grow vegetables, Armistead said, but at the heart of any sauerkraut and pickle business are cabbage and cucumbers.
Flessner began to amend the soil with compost and fertilizer, and together they paused to reconsider what the purpose of the farm was. Then, The Sweet Farm was invited to attend a food event and serve their sauerkraut with another farm’s sausages. From there it was obvious that the farm should raise hogs.
“Pork and sauerkraut is a perfect fit,” Armistead said.
Currently there are 14 hogs on a rotational grazing schedule on the farm. Young chestnut trees line the rectangle pastures, which will eventually shade the fields and drop nuts for the hogs to feast on. Though they’ve never tried it, Armistead and Flessner have read chestnut and acorn finished pork are flavorful and in demand.
The farm is also now in talks with the local Natural Resources Conservation Service to establish a “silvo” pasture, which mixes grasses, pasture plants and trees where the hogs can graze and help restore the soil.
“With all those roots in the ground, we can do better with keeping more water on the farm,” Flessner said.
While the trees mature, however, the farm has found other sustainable ways to feed the pigs. At the Common Market, where their sauerkraut is sold, they pick up bags of produce that would otherwise be used as compost.
Their sons, Max, 4, and Miles, 21 months, helped toss duckpin-bowling ball-sized watermelons, small apples and cabbages into the pen, which caused a feeding frenzy among the hogs at no cost to the farm.
They supplement the hog’s grass with some purchased grain, but even then Frederick County breweries and distilleries are always looking for farms to send their spent grains to rather than a landfill, Armistead said. As the county looks for ways to reduce the food waste, there is a natural role for hog farms to play.
While scrap food is in large supply, pickling cucumbers are not.
The growing season for cucumbers in Maryland is short and few farms grow pickling cucumbers, Armistead said. To extend the season, the farm worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to install a high tunnel.
Young cucumbers and daikon radishes lined the inside of the tunnel in trenches filled with compost. The cucumbers would hopefully give the farm a second crop this year, and the radishes would help break up the deep compacted soil and improve the productivity of the high tunnel over time.
Ramping up production is key, because the farm generally sells out of pickles by late winter or early spring. With their new growing capacity, they hope to have pickles on the shelves year-round.
The key to the business’s success is its commitment to value-added products. Whether it’s their sauerkraut, sausage or pickles, the purchase becomes part of a story and meal that can then be shared with friends, Armistead said.
The food is also accessible, both in price and concept.
“We want to be people’s gateway to local food,” Flessner said.
You can find The Sweet Farm at the Key City Food and Farm Market in downtown Frederick on Fridays and Field Fresh Farmers Market at the fairgrounds on Saturdays. It will also be the official sauerkraut provider at Frederick’s Oktoberfest on Sept. 28.