Audra Ellis is the co-owner of Ellis Farms in Lincolnton, North Carolina. Rick and Audra Ellis decided in 2012 to restart the old Ellis family farm that had shut down in the 1970s. They raise pastured pork and chicken, sorghum to make sorghum molasses which the Ellis’ have been making for over 75 years, and they have Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats. Ms. Ellis speaks about learning how to start a farm and farming techniques, as well as her experiences at the area’s farmers’ markets, its customers, and how they have responded to market demand.
|0:01:13||Ellis Farms and its products|
|0:01:36||The Ellis family sorghum molasses|
|0:04:15||How the Ellis’ entered into farming|
|0:07:21||Making changes according to market demand|
|0:08:51||Learning how to farm|
|0:14:09||The challenges of starting a farm|
|0:16:51||Relationship with the State Extension Office|
|0:21:29||A typical day on the farm|
|0:25:05||Interest among the Ellis children|
|0:26:24||Identifying and treating Bumblefoot and other ailments|
|0:30:16||More changes according to market demand|
|0:33:00||Observations about other farms|
|0:36:53||The public understanding of food|
|0:40:25||Entering the farmers’ market economy and customer response|
|0:42:21||Dealing with loss from the weather|
|0:44:24||Advertising and using social media|
|0:46:07||The impact of development on farming|
|0:47:53||The loss of dairy farms|
|0:50:11||Guernsey Girl Creamery and competing with box stores|
|0:54:18||Learning to deal with rejection|
|0:55:49||Membership in the American Dairy Goat Association|
|0:56:43||The local farming community|
|1:00:42||Receiving help and helping others|
|1:03:43||What people need to know about farmers and farming|
|1:07:55||The lack of interest among the younger generation|
|1:10:38||The future of Ellis Farms|
|1:12:51||Final thoughts: Supporting local businesses|
|1:16:23||End of Interview|
>> Tom Grover: My name is Tom Grover. This interview is part of the Queens Garden Oral Histories of the Piedmont Foodshed. An oral history project conducted by graduate students from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This project seeks to collect the stories of those who grow, cultivate, produce and distribute fresh food in the greater Charlotte region.
Today’s date is Wednesday, May the 8th, 2019. I am with Audra Ellis at Ellis Farms in Lincolnton, North Carolina. Audra would you please introduce yourself and tell us how long you’ve been farming.
>> Audra Ellis: Okay, sure. This is Audra Ellis. I am one-half of the ownership of the Ellis Farms.
Ellis Farms is owned by myself and my husband Rick Ellis and we started farming about 2012, I would say, is when we initially started everything out.
>> Tom Grover: Okay, so what is Ellis Farms and what do you produce on it?
>> Audra Ellis: Okay, we primarily raise pasture raised pork and chicken.
We also grow sorghum, which is used to make sorghum syrup or molasses, as some people call it. And my husband’s family has been making molasses for probably close to 80 years in this area.
>> Tom Grover: Did you start out with sorghum or-
>> Audra Ellis: We’ve always made sorghum, the family has always kept that up and even without the produce and the animals and those kinds of things, his family’s always grown sorghum and made molasses.
We are actually the last family in the county that still make molasses that in the old fashioned way. I think there’s a couple families in Cleveland County that still do it. And a couple families in Gaston County that still do it. But as far as I know, we’re the last family in this county that still makes sorghum syrup from molasses.
So we’ve, like I said, been doing that every season for the past umpteen generations [LAUGH].
>> Tom Grover: I grew up in New York State, upstate New York, and I knew a family that made syrup and is it similar process?
>> Audra Ellis: Well, if you buy molasses in the store, like what you see black strap molasses that molasses, comes as a byproduct from making sugar.
Like white sugar, so sorghum syrup is from the sorghum plant, so it looks like a sugar cane plant and it looks like cane, it’s a long. It looks like corn as it’s growing up, but then there’s not going to be any corn coming off the stalk. It’s just a straight stalk with leaves.
So when it’s time to harvest, we plant it in like, June, July, harvest in the fall September October-ish time when it starts to get cooler, so we strip the leaves off and then we squeeze the juice out of the stalk. And then to make the syrup you’re basically doing a reduction.
So you’re cooking that syrup over a fire, over an eight, ten hour period until it reduces down to a dark syrup. So it has a consistency of like maple syrup, maybe a little thicker than pancake syrup, but it’s a dark, brown color, almost like an amber color.
>> Tom Grover: Okay, I know they always burn off more sap than they actually get syrup in.
>> Audra Ellis: Hm-mm.
>> Tom Grover: Is it similar with sorghum?
>> Audra Ellis: Similar, cuz we may start out with 160 gallons of juice and end up with 25 gallons of syrup once it’s all cooked down.
>> Tom Grover: Okay.
>> Tom Grover: So what then influenced you to become a farmer?
>> Audra Ellis: It was really my fault probably, because I said that I wanted to get a few chickens and when I said few, I had in my mind, like six chickens.
Get a few eggs, and go with that. Once we started with the chickens, then I kept bringing chickens home and well this one’s cute, or this one’s, you know, I was looking at colors, and feather color, and whether they had feathered legs and bushy hair and all kinds of different, but I never knew how many breeds of chickens there were, til I started wanting to get chickens for eggs.
So we started out with six chickens and then that moved quickly to probably 20 at that point, and it was around that time that I have a couple friends who have goats. So we initially started out with two pygmy goats. But we quickly figured out, basically you’re just raising those for fun as a pet.
I had several friends who raised dairy goats. So we sold the pygmies and brought in a pregnant dairy goat and we got her and another goat as her companion, and that’s how we got into raising the Nigerian Dwarf breed of dairy goat which is as a miniature dairy goat.
So, once we got those, that gravitated into us getting registered with the American Dairy Goat Association and we started doing some breeding and things like that and around that time, my husband was like, I really want to revamp the family farm. And I was like what are you talking about.
And he was like, well, my papa used to raise vegetables and what they used to call truck farming and he would take his produce all over and sell to various businesses and things like that, and sell from the back of the truck. And he said, you know we’ve got all this land here.
Like I said in that pre-questionnaire, Ellis Farms is comprised of about, well the original home place was 100 acres. So everybody on the 100 acres is related, so I jokingly call it the compound because we’re all family here. So Ellis farms is comprised of about 30 acres outta the 100.
So that’s the portion where my home and my father-in-law’s home, who lives next door to us, our residences are on those 30 acres and then we farm, I would say probably 25 of that or so. So with that property being where we grew the sorghum and things like that, we decided to expand and we initially did produce.
We we got involved with the local farmer’s market. We set up as a vendor. We started selling produce and we were doing pretty well. But what we noticed was that there were other produce vendors. But there was no, there was one beef vendor. There was nobody there that so pork or chicken.
So we started trying to think, okay, we need a business plan here. Do we wanna be one of four people selling produce and all selling from the same thing? Or do we wanna go and start making money and providing a product that nobody else has here. So that’s how we got into the pasture pork and chicken and kind of moved away from the produce.
Now we still have garden, That we have, amongst ourselves and family. And if we have overages, we do sell those at the market. But that’s when we decided to fence off and start doing pasteurized pork and getting our meat handlers license so that we can process chicken on farm and sell that chicken publicly.
So that’s kinda how we gravitated, it was more of a business decision to go from just growing vegetables and selling eggs to, to really getting into it. And, getting our license and we have to be inspected by the state of course, since we sell meat publicly, so getting into that and learning the ins and outs and that.
It’s all been a learning process because neither of us have a back ground in agriculture other than just growing a garden and raising cats and dogs. I learned that we learned a lot on YouTube, and I bought books on raising goats and books on raising chickens. And learned how to give a chicken a shot and doctor an injured leg and all those kinda things that it comes with.
But the only formal education we did, which was the best money I ever spent was, I did a it’s called a summer short course at Western Piedmont Community College up in the mountains. It was four Saturdays over the summer. And one day was goat day, one was chicken day, one was, can’t remember what the third day was, and that was veterinary care day.
And I spent a 100 bucks to do that short course. I learned so much information and doing that and that kinda helped, just give us some more, you know, stuff in the toolbox
>> Tom Grover: Was it, was it put on by the school or?
>> Audra Ellis: It is.
>> Tom Grover: So do they have?
>> Audra Ellis: Western Piedmont has a pretty extensive agricultural program with classes and you can actually get like an associate‘s degree and some certifications through them. They actually have a farm, a campus farm, which is where we did a lot of the hands on classroom work with the goats. They actually have goats in a pasture and caretakers and students that are actually out there working with the goats and things like that.
That was pretty cool. They have a greenhouse and all sorts of stuff.
>> Tom Grover: That’s the first I’ve heard of that
>> Audra Ellis: Really?
>> Tom Grover: Yeah, Yeah I think it’s great but I was just wondering if, how did you learn about that?
>> Audra Ellis: I think somebody shared a link on Facebook.
And myself and a friend of mine who also raises goats she has pygmies, and she also has chickens. She was like I’m gonna take this course. Do you wanna take it with me? And to cuz neither one wanted to go by ourselves. So I looked into it. And we saw what they were doing.
And at that time we had chickens, we had goats. The veterinary care piece was good and I was like, yeah this sounds interesting. So we paid our $100 tuition and and went and did it. And it was very informative, very well put on and it’s, because it was in the summer, it was helpful.
And on a Saturday so we didn’t have to take time off work and things like that. So it’s very easily accessible for plain Jane people like me who work every day. But, so that we didn’t have to take time off work. And for 100 bucks for all that we got and that series was really good.
>> Tom Grover: Have they offered other programs like that too?
>> Audra Ellis: Yeah, they have a whole series of stuff. They have summer short courses. You can go on their website and see, they do like a business class for farmers and and marketing, and all sorts of things to help small farmers succeed, I guess is the best way.
>> Tom Grover: Based on your experience there, what did you notice with the class? Was it well attended?
>> Audra Ellis: There were probably 15 of us in the summer short course and they were from all over. There were from multiple counties in this region, the mountain western region. Probably because of where the college is situated because it was good hour drive for us to get there.
It was in Marion, I think, where Western Piedmont is? But it was the fact that they had hands on stuff, because they have an own campus farm, that was helpful versus just talking to me in the classroom. And being able to show me how to give injections. And talk to me about what certain diseases look like and show me what to watch for.
And point out different things on the body of the goat that I need to pay attention to. Teach me how to, trim hooves and that’s how I learned how to trim goat hooves myself, versus having to get a vet to come out and do it was taking that course, because I didn’t know what I was doing.
So learning in that class and I was able to come home and demonstrate and show my husband so he could help me do it. Cuz it takes two of us. One to hold, one to trim. So that was very helpful and I thought the price tag, it was 100 bucks was very affordable for what you get, in the class.
>> Tom Grover: When you were dealing with, getting the meat license, and just in general getting the farm up and running, did you find the experience difficult? Or was it just pretty much straight forward?
>> Audra Ellis: It’s sort of half and half. I would say, it would be difficult for someone who is not research savy, like if you didn’t know a general idea of where to look or what to search for to find what you need.
If you’re not savy in that regard, the information is difficult to find. But I’m college educated. So I kinda can navigate, and research, and find things. And I have a background in criminal justice. That’s what my full time employment is. So I investigate things by nature, by trade.
That’s what I do. So but if you have no background in that, it could be difficult to find, to find out okay, what are the requirements for a meat handler’s license? And how do you get tax exemption status, so you that you don’t have to pay sales tax for feed, or supplies, at a tractor supply.
Or cuz we had to file with that, to be tax exempt as a farm and there’s paperwork and tax paperwork that you know order to maintain that certification. There’s paperwork every year that you have to turn in to maintain your tax exempt status. And there’s paperwork you have to turn in for the county, so that your continue to pay farmer’s tax on property.
If you’re not savvy in navigating that research and that it could be difficult Difficult for a layperson if you don’t have a connection that you can call and say, where’d you find this, or how did you locate that? And for me, if I couldn’t find it, I have enough people in this community who also have existing farms, that I could call them and say, hey, I’m having difficulty finding this out.
Or have you ever dealt with this before? And people are open and helpful, and everybody kinda bands together and helps one another. But if you didn’t have that resource, if you didn’t have other farms that you’re connected to that have been through the process, or you weren’t research savvy, it could be difficult.
>> Tom Grover: Have you dealt with the extension?
>> Audra Ellis: Mm-hm, quite a bit, mm-hm. Our extension used to primarily deal with our farmers markets. But they stepped away from maintaining the farmers markets a couple years ago, and it switched over to the county parks and rec office. So previously, we dealt a lot with the extension because of our relationship with the farmers market.
But we do soil testing, and so we get our soil samples and turn it in with the extension. And if my husband has crop questions, fertilize questions, we have specific agents that specify with that, so he’ll call them and ask questions. So we deal with them some, too.
>> Tom Grover: Okay, and your relationship with them is good?
>> Audra Ellis: Mm-hm, mm-hm, yeah, actually, we’ve developed a good enough relationship with them that, last year, they did a local Lincoln County farm tour, and they asked us to be a part of that. So they did one end to Lincoln County to the other, from the eastern end to the western end.
I think they did four stops in a day, and we were one of the stops. So they had a big charter bus with people on it that brought them in. And we did a wagon tour around the farm, and sold some of our product, and talked about our stuff, and they got to see the animals, and things like that.
>> Tom Grover: When did you start opening the farm up to tours like that?
>> Audra Ellis: Let’s see, it was probably a good two or three years after we were established and up and running that we were involved with the Charlotte Area Farm Tour. We did that one year, and then, for whatever reason, I’m not sure why they stopped doing it.
But Rick and I, when we first started out, we went to Chapel Hill and did, I think it’s called the Triad Farm Tour, or something along those lines. But we spent the night in the Chapel Hill/Durham area, and it was a two-day thing that our ticket paid for.
And it was on a charter bus, and we spent the night in a motel. And one day, you go to this many farms, and another day, you go to this many farms. And I had a notebook, and I was taking pictures, because that was when we started out.
So that was the best way for us to get information from what other people have tried and failed at or tried and worked, and what worked for them might not work for us. Asking questions and things like that. But that was a really cool thing that we decided to do and spend the money on early on in our journey, I guess, was going to another area that offered farm tours.
Now, of course, these were bigger farms, or medium to large size farms. But we saw chickens, and produce, and lots of different types of production types of businesses. And I took notes, and we came home and put our heads together, and kind of formulated a plan of, okay, what’s gonna work for us, and how are we gonna do this?
Cuz the ultimate plan for us is, once we retire from our full-time jobs, our income will probably be from the farm. I can retire from the state in seven years. So my wish list is to have a farm store or a general store type setting. Cuz we’ve got this area of the property, where we can clear off this corner, and put up a little building with a small parking lot.
And I would love to be able to sell our pork and chicken, and bring in produce from other farmers. And bring in jams and jellies from other small local businesses, and sell it from from here. And that’s my retirement plan, I hope, [LAUGH] cuz seven years will pass before I’m ready.
>> Tom Grover: Seems like every day is getting faster and faster. So how would you describe a typical day on the farm?
>> Audra Ellis: Well, again, like I said, we work full time, and we have two kids. So Monday through Friday, Rick works for his cousin, driving a log truck. His family has a logging business, and has for many years.
And so he leaves at 1:30 in the morning, typically, anywhere from 1:30 to 4:30, depending on where the logs have to go. And so either way, I do all the morning feeding, so I set my alarm anywhere between 6:00 and 6:30.
>> Audra Ellis: I get up, I go feed the dog, cuz we have a livestock guardian dog that lives with the goats.
So he gets fed, the goats get fed and watered, the pigs get fed and watered. Anything else incidental that pops up from overnight, I have to deal with. So for instance, currently, it’s kidding season for the goats. So if a mama has gone into labor during the night, and we didn’t realize it or didn’t know, then I’ve got to assess any emergency that pops up, or deal with that.
Sometimes we have to get up in the middle of the night and address issues. We actually have a camera in the barn. When we had babies being born, we had one mama in one stall, and one mama in another stall. And I could pull it up on my phone and watch, and check on babies, and check and see if somebody had gone into labor.
So we use some technology around here, too [LAUGH]. We don’t do it completely old school. But that saves me from having to physically walk to the barn at 2 o’clock in the morning to check on somebody when I can pull it up on my phone. And not everybody does that, so we do [LAUGH].
So I get up and get everything fed, come back here and get the kids up and out the door to school. Then I’m up and out of the door to work, all in the span of an hour, once I get back in the house from feeding. Then in the evening, my husband does the evening feeding.
But if he’s coming home from work late, or if something’s broken down and he’s having to fix it, then there’s got to be somebody to pitch in and get the evening feeding done. Because everything’s fed twice a day. So yesterday he was working on something, and he said, I need you to feed for me.
So I come in from work, change clothes. And go do what we need to do. The kids are older. Drew is 17, and Addison is almost 11. So they’re both at the age where they’re very helpful. If I can’t get it, and Rick can’t get it, then Drew has to go feed.
Addi likes messing with the babies. So when the baby goats are being born she’s handing me towels to help clean off faces. And make sure the little ones are breathing and things like that, but it’s truly a family. We don’t have any employees. It’s just the four of us and my father-in-law who is 74.
And he and my husband do all the planting and the ploughing and all that kind of mechanical work, building this or that. It’s just us. We don’t-
>> Tom Grover: How much interest have the kids shown in farming?
>> Audra Ellis: Drew, none at all. Only because it’s a have to for him.
He’s involved in the marching band at school, that’s his track. He wants to major in music in college so that’s where his mindset is. But they both understand that this is what we do, and this is part of the responsibilities in this household is we have a farm.
If vegetables need to be picked or if we need help making molasses or if we need help feeding the animals. Or this Saturday, Drew was in the barn helping me trim hooves, cuz he was the holder. And I was the trimmer because my husband was doing something else on the farm.
So it’s a requirement versus a choice. Now the younger one has shown quite a bit of interest in veterinary type of stuff. She’s real hands on when I’m having the bumblefoot surgery on a chicken. She’s right there wanting to see what I’m doing. And helping with the baby goats when they’re being born and asking questions, and she’s showing some interest in that.
>> Tom Grover: Can you give just a brief description of what bumblefoot is?
>> Audra Ellis: Sure, bumblefoot is a staph infection basically. But on a chicken you first notice their issue because they’ll have a limp, and if you start noticing a limp you’re automatically checking to see. Okay, did something bite you, attack you, something, what’s wrong with your leg.
So normally when you flip them over and they’ve got their three claws or whatever. Typically what bumblefoot looks like is a boil or a cyst or a hard corn, almost. Like a person will get a corn on the bottom of their foot so it actually has a core but it’s cuz it’s staph.
It can be spread to humans. So I have to be really careful when I’m doing it because Clorox wipes and cover everything up and things. But you actually have to cut the core out with either a scalpel, you find scalpels at Tractor Supply, syringes, all that’s at Tractor Supply, to try and basically cut the core out.
And then Neosporin, bandage it up with that wrap and send them on their way. But then you just keep checking it and then eventually you can take off the wrap, and it’s healed up. But if you don’t take out that staph infectionm that bumblefoot area, it can eventually spread to them and cause lameness.
And cause some permanent damage to the feet and the legs of the chicken. So, our chickens are, we raise the meat chickens for production so those are short around here because those are processed at 12 weeks old. But we have egg chickens who could be here two, three, four years even.
So typically, but it’s those older egg birds that develop bumblefoot. Because they’re here longer and they’re out walking. The meat chicken, we don’t ever have to worry about that because they’re not here long enough. Because they’re processed so quickly, but it’s normally the egg birds that we have that issue with.
But it’s one of those things I learned in that class, was what bumblefoot was and how do you get rid of it. And there’s actually multiple videos on YouTube which is how I learned. I’ll never forget the first time I did the surgery. I had my tablet propped up with the chicken.
And I would start, stop, rewind, now what did she say, and back up. And trying to get it right. That’s how I learned to do it, because vets don’t deal with chickens. You won’t find an avian vet anywhere around here. So if you have a chicken issue, you gotta figure out how to deal with it yourself, because vets typically don’t mess with chickens.
So I learned from other people who have chickens, if you have a chicken with a respiratory issue, and they’re struggling to breathe. And they’ve got bubbles coming out of their nose and they sound like they have rocks in their chest. You know there’s a respiratory issue. So that’s how I learned what medication at Tractor Supply to go get, how to give them a shot in the breast and all those things.
I learned every bit of that from other people with chickens because vets won’t come out and see chickens. You can find a horse vet, a goat vet, a pig vet, a dog and a cat vet, but you won’t find one that will do chickens. So you gotta figure it out yourself in order to save money but keep the chicken alive.
There’s all sorts of things that you can do.
>> Tom Grover: So have you seen changes in how you’ve operated the farm? And if there were changes, what drove them?
>> Audra Ellis: Probably the biggest change that we made was when we switched from vegetable production to animal production.
>> Audra Ellis: A, out of necessity, because there were multiple vegetable producers at the farmer’s market.
And we didn’t want to have to compete with four or five other people when we could concentrate on one thing that we could be good at. So we did that change, but also along with that, we had to downsize. Because we were killing ourselves with the work, and it was hard to do, trying to maintain a huge garden or pasture of vegetables and work full time.
When you’re having to get up in the morning and pick before daylight, because you had stuff that needed to come out of the ground before it got too hot. Or by the afternoon it was too big or you had tomatoes splitting on the vine, because you weren’t getting them off fast enough.
And it was just a time management thing. We were picking in the morning, picking vegetables in the evening, plus taking care of animals. And we were running ourselves to death because we don’t have paid employees to do it for us. And so we were like, we gotta figure something out here, we’re killing ourselves.
So that switch kind of all happened at the same time. Where we moved away from the produce and downsized, tremendously downsized the produce. And concentrated more on the meat and the pork. Or the pork and the chicken. Just because we just couldn’t do it. Physically, we were exhausted.
And largely because we basically worked full-time. So maybe one day when one of us retires, we can move more towards that and add more to that and start that back again. But, not right now with both of us working full time, there’s just not an option. We wouldn’t mind having our little garden with my father in law.
And reap the benefits of that, but not for public sale. It’s just too hard.
>> Tom Grover: Any of the other farmers that you know, have you seen simillar changes with them as well? Are they scaling back?
>> Audra Ellis: Most of the farmers I know, I met several that do come like commercial farming, like Mitcham farms in the Western end of the county.
They have the contract with Dole and they raise the raspberries. But they concentrate on blackberries. And then the housers have chicken houses. And there is chicken houses, you’ve got the Tyson, andyou got the other competing, we have those commercial chicken houses. And a lot of those folks farmed other things.
But, big-box stores and things like that and they have to choose to concentrate on, do a contract with Tyson and raise chickens. Or do a contract with Dole and raise blackberries, because whatever else it was that they were doing at the time wasn’t profitable, because small farms are dying out.
And selling off, and farms are being sold to build neighborhoods. And you see that all over the place, and it’s happened here, where families go out of business because they’re not making any money. So I don’t foresee us ever going commercial big scale like that. I think my mentality is based on what I see, people, I feel like now care more about what they’re eating.
And they care more about what goes into their food. And you see more people asking questions at the farmer’s market about, how do you raise your pigs and what do they eat? And where do they live? And that’s why we don’t mind doing farm tours. I want you to come see where they sleep.
Cuz if you look at somebody who raises commercial pork like Smithfield or some of those other ones. And you do research and you look at the facilities and the conditions that those pigs live in versus at my house and how I know my pigs are treated and what they eat and that kind of thing.
I would much rather eat my pork than what I’ve seen in my research than eating that pork. Cuz you can ask me questions, but I can’t ask that farmer that wrote, I can’t ask them anything. Because I don’t know them and they’re not local, you know what I mean?
So I think that buying local and supporting small local farms, I think that mentality is positive in this area. So I see people going and seeking out farmers markets and trying to support the local folks here in Lincoln County. And are on the outskirts, cuz our products are in Lincoln, Cleveland, and county farm.
So I see people wanting to work together and come together and support local farms and sell their products and things like that. So I don’t see us going on the grand scale, huge like that. I like it to be small and manageable. Maybe one day we can hire some people when we retire, but I don’t see that happening, because we’re just not big enough to have staff, but I like it that way.
>> Tom Grover: Do you think there’s a disconnect between the public and their understanding of where the food comes from?
>> Audra Ellis: I think there used to be. I think it’s getting better, at least in my experience. Cuz I know when we first started out, selling at the Farmer’s Market, you would see people who would question, why’s this so expensive?
I can go to the grocery store and get pork chops for nine on a pound or whatever. But again, I go back to how was that pork raised? What did it live in? What did they eat? Depending on what breed of pork you raise, like we raise a heritage breed.
Berkshire, which if you do research, Berkshires are leaner meat pig. And it’s more, if you watch Gordon Ramsay on Food Network or any of those food shows, Gordon Ramsay raises Berkshires. Because that’s his choice of pork and he’s a world renowned chef. So you have to research the breed, you have to research the quality in the meat, the taste of the meat, and whether a more fatty breed or a more lean meat breed.
There’s always things that kinda go into it. But I think people are more accepting of it now. And mainly because with media sharing information about videos about under cover operations when they go into these facilities. And they see how they butcher animals and how the animals are kept in confinement and things like that.
I think that’s kind of opened people’s minds up about using chemicals and different things like that. I mean, we’re not certified organic, but we practice as organically as possible because the certification process is very expensive to be certified organic. We only use medications with our animals as a last resort.
If we can’t get them healthy any other way, then we will call the vet for consultation from them. What do we need to do to protect, to keep this animal alive? If we can’t fix it ourselves, then that’s the last resort.
>> Audra Ellis: But I think that people are more open to supporting local businesses, not just farmers, but just local businesses in general.
Because you’ve got so much competition with big-box stores. The Walmarts and the Targets and all those things that sell groceries, and we’re competing with them just like the next person. But I think people are more understanding about Wanting to help,
>> Audra Ellis: Local farmers and small business people in general.
More so now than it used to be when we first started out. I think people’s minds have opened up a little bit more.
>> Tom Grover: So how did you get started in with the farmer’s markets?
>> Audra Ellis: I mean I knew we had a farmer’s market because I would go and I was a purchaser for a long time, and my parents were and my aunt goes to the farmer’s market.
So when we started doing the farm, I immediately knew that was one way we had to utilize to market our product was to get out there and sell it. Not just try to sell it from the farm but actually bring it out to other people. I asked people, okay, if I wanna be a vendor at farmer;s market, who do I talk to, and went that way.
So we’ve expanded this year and we started selling also at the Denver farmer’s market to try to capture that end of the county. Which is more towards Lake Norman and that, which is a whole different demographic, really, from this end of the town. Again, because we work full time, we only do markets on Saturdays.
So we’re having to, several times in a month, we’re at the Lincolnton market. And then once a month we go to the Denver market, so that we can still hit that area. But it was just asking questions.
>> Tom Grover: What’s the response been for you with the customers?
>> Audra Ellis: Really good, a lot of people have told us they come to us for our sausage, our breakfast sausage, our Italian sausage, and our pork chops, which are primarily our biggest sellers, are those three things.
And then of course in the fall, we sell out of molasses every single time. And typically, like last year, because we had those monsoon rains and winds come right around the time it was time to process the sorghum, we lost a lot. We probably lost, gosh, a ton of cane just because the wind blew it down and we couldn’t save it.
And we had a wait list for molasses and we just had to prioritize. Whoever asked us for molasses first, they were at the top of the list and we literally had a list. And as we would make the molasses and jar it up, I would go down the list and mark off.
And there were people who didn’t get any, because we ran out. Because we couldn’t salvage what was blown over by the wind. But the fact that people want our product enough to have a waiting list, [LAUGH] that’s a lot to be said. And it only comes around once a year.
So normally when we plant the sorghum, I put on our Facebook page and everything, here’s the start of it. Make sure you watch and pay attention, and people will know, okay, when are you cooking? As soon as they know that it’s almost time to harvest the sorghum, then they’ll message me on Facebook, I need four quarts of molasses or I need this.
Cuz people will buy Christmas presents, buy a case at a time, and give it away, because you can’t find it around here. It’s one of those things that, again like I said, not a lot of people make it anymore. We’re the last one in this county that still does it.
So that, the fact that I can get somebody from Denver, and we don’t live there, never gone to school there, it’s 30, 45 minutes, the other side of the county. They’ll seek us out and say somebody told me about your pork chops, I want to get a pack of pork chops.
So word of mouth and advertising, we utilize social media whereas a lot of old time farmers, they don’t do that. But if you’re gonna reach out to the next generation and get word out about what you’re doing, you have to utilize social media because that’s how people communicate now.
So we have a website and we have a Facebook page, we have an Instagram. I’m an open book, and people can ask me questions about anything. If people say, can we come out and see the baby goats, sure, we work it around our schedule. But that’s the only way for me, I feel like, to get your name out there and get people to try your product, is because you have to be open to answering questions and talking to people.
That’s why Rick, he tells me I’m the marketing person, my husband. Because he’s the hands in the dirt, the mechanic, the get on the tractor. That’s his me time is when he’s on the tractor and he plugs his head up with his ear phones and listens to his music while he’s plowing.
Whereas I’m the people person, I’m the one that sells at the market, I’m the one who does the advertising on Facebook. But that’s just our personalities, I’m the talker, he’s not, he’ll talk to anybody but he’s just more down to earth about it than I am, so.
>> Tom Grover: So, earlier you mentioned a lot of the smaller farms going out of business and selling off for housing.
>> Audra Ellis: Yes, my husband calls them house farms.
>> Tom Grover: House farms? Okay, that is the first time I’ve heard that.
>> Audra Ellis: You sell farm property and all of a sudden there’s a neighborhood, they are growing houses out there. [LAUGH]
>> Tom Grover: How much has that impacted your operations?
>> Audra Ellis: Not any I don’t think, but that’s just because we’re small scale.
It doesn’t impact us at all.
>> Tom Grover: Are there any other farmers nearby that this has happened?
>> Audra Ellis: Not on this end, I mean there are some on the western end of the county. I mean, primarily what we’ve seen it with is family dairy farms. I have a friend, Janet Reeves-Morgan, her family had Reeves Brothers Dairy for many many, many, many years.
And then they had to close up shop. My family had a dairy farm, which was Water’s Dairy off of Star Town Road in the central area of the town. And my uncle, they had to close that dairy farm, so I’ve primarily seen it with dairy industry, more so than crop production or beef production kinda thing.
It’s more been the dairy industry, at least in this county, there’s a lot of dairy farms have closed down. There’s still one or two that I know of on the western end of the county, but I don’t of any other than them.
>> Tom Grover: What do you think is the reason behind the dairy farms being so susceptible to that?
>> Audra Ellis: I don’t know per se with each individual family what happened and why they had to shut down. But if I had to venture a guess, small time berries can’t compete with the big commercial operations. Excuse me, I saw an article. I wanna say it was within the last week or two that compared milk prices.
And it was showing the price for Great Value Walmart milk versus a different brand of milk that was from a local small town dairy, and the price difference between the two. And because Walmart can sell their milk for whatever it is, 2, 2.50 a jug? And versus the small dairy that’s organic or whatever different advertisement things on it.
But anyway, that jug of milk is 5 or $6. They can’t sustain themselves, unless you have somebody who’s specifically marketing and wants that certain type of milk versus the mass produced milk. Because they all come from farms, they all come from dairy cows. But there is a vast difference between the two types of farms that are producing milk and while one can be produced cheaper.
Now on the flip side of that, the farmers that are producing the Walmart milk, they are not getting the money that they should be getting. Because all the money gets filtered out on higher up the food chain. And why they are able to offer the milk at $2 a gallon, but that farmer that helped produce the milk, they’re not getting their fair share the cut either, I don’t think.
But I have a friend who owns a diary in Cleveland County, Guernsey Girl Creamery. And she’s a small diary I think she has less than 15 cows. And she sells milk from the farm. And she makes cheeses and she’s an award winning cheesemaker in North Carolina. But she’s talked about how people will come to the farm [COUGH] and want to buy her milk but question well, why is this 5 or $6 a jug versus I can go to Walmart and get it for 2?
So she’s had those same questions and had those same concerns and then things like that. And she has to explain herself why her milk is priced at what it is, because they work their butts off over there. And in order for them to make any money to make a living and they farm full time, they don’t have full time jobs.
This is their job. So they have to have the money to feed the cows and she sells her cheese to restaurants and sells it from the farm and she’s opened up a farm store recently. And so she has the community that comes to her for her product to get her butter and her cheeses and her milk.
But they work their tails off and that’s why it costs $6 to get her pimento cheese versus going to the store and getting pimento cheese for $2. There’s a reason behind it [LAUGH] but some people don’t get that, and they just see the price tag. Not what went into to the price tag.
So that’s that that’s still an ongoing struggle, not just with us. Even with, I’ve seen people come to the farmers market and they want fresh green beans, but they want to pay BiLo prices for it. They want to pay Walmart prices for it. They don’t want to pay what we are asking for it.
And they question, some people will question and they’ll turn around and get mad and leave. And we’ve all experienced that, but some of it’s just lack of education. Some of it is, they’re set in that commercial commodity price. To me, you get what you pay for. I would much rather pay $2 a pound for fresh green beans.
That I know the person who grew it, and I knew what they did to it, whether they sprayed it or didn’t spray it, and picked the bugs off of it. And I talk to them every day, I’d much rather pay $2 a pound for their fresh green beans than to go to BiLo and pay $0.99 a pound for what they say is fresh green beans.
I don’t when that was picked, cuz I guarantee you, the farmer’s market, they pick those green beans within the day or two before market. Or that morning sometimes, they’re out there picking tomatoes and whatever. You can’t beat, that’s fresh as fresh can be, straight off the vine. But if you get it in the grocery store, how long has it been in that package?
How long’s it been sitting there in the refrigerator at the grocery store? I’d much rather pay more just for the taste alone. But some people don’t get that. [LAUGH] They’ll argue with you about it. And some of them you can’t convince them. There’s some people they’re too set in their ways and you can’t convince them of why one is better than the other.
And at some point you just stop convincing them. I can’t make you buy my product. I just have to keep the people happy who want to buy the product.
>> Tom Grover: Was that a hard lesson to learn?
>> Audra Ellis: Mm-hm, and I originally it would be hard. You would have people walk away from your table mad because you’re asking to pay 7.99 a pound for a pork chops.
And they would say, well I can get that at this price at BiLo. And you try to rationalize with them about why your price is what it is. And then originally when that would happen and they would walk away from your table and not buy anything and they’d get mad and leave the whole market.
And you would feel bad and it will hurt your feelings, but eventually you just kinda have, you can’t please everybody. But I know that I have people who are upset when I sell out of pork chops and I don’t have any left, and that’s the people that I work for.
That’s the people that I wanna please and they’ll, and I know that they’ll keep coming back. But the person who gets mad about it, they don’t understand the concept of local farms and farmers markets anyway, if they get mad about the prices that any of us at the market has.
They don’t understand the concept of the farmer’s market or buying from micro farmers cuz they get mad about the prices that we offer. They’ve missed the whole point in my opinion.
>> Tom Grover: Do you belong to any kind of organizations or associations?
>> Audra Ellis: We are members of the American Dairy Gate Association.
That’s the only, I would think, paid membership thing that we do.
>> Audra Ellis: That, I give him a call, that’s only thing I can think of that we pay to be a part of. We like our home loan is through ag first or, which is a branch off a Carolina firm that so, we get, I guess, technically, we’re members of that, by virtue of that’s where our mortgages through, because we have a farm mortgage.
So we get, benefits from that, and then, access to resources that way.
>> Tom Grover: How would you describe the local farming community? Earlier, said it was, a lot of people that were very helpful.
>> Audra Ellis: My experience on the front end was very nervous, because I didn’t know how we would be received as as news farmers coming in.
If you have somebody who we’ve been doing this for years, and years, and I thought I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. I don’t want us to show up and plop our goods out on the table, and be competing for their money. And it was mixed, honestly, at the beginning.
There were farmers who embraced us, and we’re glad that we were there as a new vendor to bring fresh had people in, I think, there were other farmers at the market who looked to us as we’re taking money from them. We’re taking away their customers, because now, they’re gonna tell him what you have what I have kinda thing, and that, again, played into our decision to switch from produce to meat.
Because it was a competition, when you’ve got four different farmers who have the same type of tomato. You’re all competing for somebody to come and pick your tomato versus their tomato. So, [COUGH], we would see price competitions, and people getting angry, because they’re similar to my 50 cents to per pound line, and that’s why I was coming to their table, and people could get pretty nasty, pretty slippery, and on the outside looking in, because I was not one of these longtime farmers market people that have been coming for years, I was the new guy, but I watch people.
And I don’t like conflict, so I’m like, okay. How do we avoid getting into this tit-for-tat stuff that I was seeing’? And so, that played into our decision as a way out to switch, primarily, into the main. But this past year, or two years ago, there was another port vendor that started coming to the farmer’s market, and I made a point.
I remember how it was when we were doing produce. Some people were not happy that were new people there. Some people loved us and accepted us, but there were other people that were not happy that we were a new produce standard. So knowing how that fit, I made a point to introduce myself to that Newport vendor, and welcome them to the market.
And not make it about an us versus them kind of thing, cuz I don’t like conflict. And I feel like there’s a place for everybody.
>> Tom Grover: How did they take your welcome?
>> Audra Ellis: I felt like it was okay. I mean, I never had an issue with them, or any that was brought to my attention, I’ll say that.
But, I think, relationships are what you make of it. And I can say that 95% of the time, our relationships with other farmers have been 100% positive, because we can cut, we can call people and ask for help, or guidance, or have you ever seen this before, have you ever dealt with that before?
And people will help us that have been doing this a lot longer than we have in some regards and spaces, and now, because, we’ve been in it for a little while. New people that are coming in Mohandas are calling us. And saying, can you help me with this or that?
Or I’d like to raise a couple pigs for my family for me, not even really starting a farm. They just wanna raise some for personal use, but they’ll call us, and say, can you help me with? Have you ever dealt with that? That kind of thing. That makes me feel good that whatever it is that we’ve done, has let people know that we’re open to questions, and people can come to us for help.
We don’t mind help. We’ll help anybody. It’s just a community. On Facebook, this week, there was somebody local. I know their child goes to school with my child, and they’re in the process of moving, and they need hay for their horses for the trip to move, because they’re having to move, and we don’t even have horses, but they were like, I can’t find anybody that has small bales of hay, the square bales versus the big giant things.
And so, I was like, well, we’ve got plenty of hay, how much do you need? Five or six bales, how much do you want for it? Nothing, come get it. I mean, you need it, I don’t. I don’t need three bucks of hay, I mean, it’s okay. And so, it’s just, I feel like opening yourself up and offering yourself up to help others, you get your rewards at some point later on.
Because what if I need something sometime, and I need to reach out, and ask for something? So I feel like developing those relationships in the community are what’s important. If somebody says, hey, can you come help me trim mine? Go, go, whoops, sure. I’ll come help you. We barter here.
There’s a lady up the road, she has ducks out the ying yang, she is overrun with duck eggs. She’s like, can you use these duck eggs. Sure, I bowl, I’m in my aunt’s pot and the pigs eat them. I don’t like duck. I don’t like their texture, but people like.
So we barter. She’ll give me a dozen duck eggs, and I give her a couple of packs. Brought worse, or a couple packs of sausages, it all works on the wash, and everybody gets what they need out of the mix.
>> Tom Grover: It doesn’t, that’s all I’m [INAUDABLE].
>> Audra Ellis: It is.
>> Tom Grover: [LAUGH]
>> Audra Ellis: She has it in, and she calls me the other day, she was like, I know, I just brought you some, but we’re stocked up again, do you need these? Cuz she takes them to work, and things like that, [COUGH], but I blow them and give them to the pigs, cuz the pigs are like [SOUND].
[LAUGH] They love the [INAUDIBLE].
>> Tom Grover: Okay, is there an aspect about farming that, think, just people don’t quite understand, or I think they should know.
>> Audra Ellis: I think to some people.
>> Audra Ellis: People still think, on some levels that farmers are stupid. Uneducated.
>> Audra Ellis: Things along that line, like why would you choose to be a farmer?
Why didn’t you go to school to be a doctor? Or why would you wanna do that? There’s still some connotation, I think, that farming is not a reputable means of making a living or, and I’ve seen people, this is gonna put trouble or not. But I am seeing people talk to vendors at the farmers market like they’re stupid.
Just how people, like they’re less saying, I guess. Again, it may come back to when people are fussing about the price or something, fussing about something that the vendor is offering. And how they speak to them as if they’re less to them because they’re a farmer. That bothers me a lot.
Because when I go to the farmer’s market to sell my stuff, I look very similar to what I look like now. I have on a T-shirt and blue jeans, most of the time I’ll have on my T-shirt, I’ll have some pigs on it, I have some chickens on it, sometimes have a ball cap on.
A lot of people to look at me, wouldn’t know that I’m a Probation Officer or wouldn’t know that I have a Masters degree in Counselling because they assume something about me based on what they see at face value. And so that piece of it still bothers me, that there’s a misconception, and I tell people.
There’s a farmer on the West Union County who is as country as they come. And he has a high school education but has farmed all his life. He did work full time in another trade but he still farm in that time. And then when he retired from his work, then he started farming full time.
And he is smart as a whip. And my husband has called on him a couple different times to ask questions and things about stuff. But I’ve seen people talking to him horribly because they assume that he’s just a damn farmer. And that piece ticks me off, and I think there’s still some education to be had about farmers and you’ve got to be real smart and know how to fix a tractor.
Because I can tell you I can’t fix a tractor. I wouldn’t know where to begin if something broke down and it wouldn’t move me anymore. Same thing with a car, that’s just not my forté. But I mean, I’ve seen people put stuff together like MacGyver, tweak this, and pop that, put this here, and get it to work.
I wouldn’t have been able to think like that. But it takes smarts to do that. I mean, that takes something that a doctor might not can do, you know what I mean? [LAUGH] But that’s really the only thing I can think of in that regard. It’s just there’s still some misconception about farmers, and assumptions about the kind of people who farm.
>> Tom Grover: What are your thoughts on the younger generation in farming. Do you think there is a lack of interest?
>> Audra Ellis: Yep, in the grand scheme, yes. And I think that also plays into why family farms go out of business, is because the younger generation does not want to continue it or they have no interest in it.
And that’s not to say that that’s a bad thing. That’s essentially what happened, originally, to the original Ellis Farm. There where nine siblings and the reason they ceased doing vegetable production or [INAUDIBLE] farming, was several went off to the military. Several had no interest in farming, and they went off to do their own thing.
And only one or two stayed back to do the farm, and then it just became too much and they stopped and went on to something else. So that’s a generational thing that has always been a factor, I think. And that’s why when my husband came to me and said, I want to start back the family farm, I didn’t even know he had a family farm.
I had no clue that they used to farm this property. I just thought they just had a bunch of land. And I had no clue what went on at that time but I do think there is a lesser draw for family farms.
>> Audra Ellis: But obviously, there must still be something going on because North Carolina State still has a pretty huge agriculture degree program.
We used to have people that go to NC State to vet school or to get into the agriculture stuff, so there’s obviously still some draw. But I think, in the grand scheme of things, there’s a lot less of the younger generation that wants to continue this. I mean, it’s a lot of hard work and it’s not a way to get rich.
And I think, in todays times and the entitlement generation, that’s part of it. It’s not a glamorous job, your not gonna get famous over it. And I think it takes a special kind of kid to want to, yeah, I wanna take over my family farm. But those are few and far between.
>> Tom Grover: Where do you see this farm in the future?
>> Audra Ellis: Well, like I said, my long range plan, because I can retire from the state, which is who I’m employed by, in a very short amount of time. My goal is to open up like a farm stand, farm store type of setting on the property.
Because there is not one on this out of town and hopefully continue educating and drawing folks into local raised goods, and needs, and produce, and things like that. And work with other local farmers to stock the store and use their goods and bring it in, bring it in that way.
Not on a grand scale at first but start out small.
>> Audra Ellis: If I could have a wish list, I would have a full on general store type, taking all gas station and turn it into a general store kind of thing. But that’s way more, I can retire but who knows when my husband will be able to, or if he’d even want to, or even just I work part time with his cousin that still several years down the road but short term plan in the next 10 years we’ll have a farm so I’m here because I’ll be I’ll be retired and I want to do that more full time and still maybe have a little part time job somewhere else, because I’ll have another kid in college at that point.
[INAUDIBLE] But we’ll see where that goes. I fully see that we’ll still be doing some type of farming, whether it’s produce or whether we’re still doing pork, who knows? But I see it still occurring.
>> Tom Grover: So are there any questions that you feel I should ask or if there are any final thoughts that you may have in general about farming?
>> Audra Ellis: I just think it’s important for people to get out there to the local farmers’ markets. Get out there to the local produce stands [COUGH] and support local farms. Do some research, find out why a farm raised egg is more healthier for you than a commercial egg that you buy in a grocery store.
Why is it more healthy to eat from a free-range chicken, versus one that’s in a commercial setting? Just look at that kind of stuff. Get out and get to know the folks that are providing their tomatoes and their squash or whatever [COUGH] hardworking people. You should tell some good stories.
>> Audra Ellis: They’re just all around good folks that will give you the shirt off your back, but I think it’s important to keep money local to boost local economy and give back to local businesses versus spending money in these big box stores because you don’t see the benefit of it later on.
It’s true when you see them, there’s a Facebook post, I think it’s a sign that sits outside of a local restaurant. And it says when you buy goods from this local business partner, you’re paying for their kid to take dance lessons, or you’re paying for their kid to go to summer camp.
Or if you’re spending money at Walmart, you don’t know the end result of where your money’s being spent or what’s being done with your money. But if you spend it locally with local businesses, local farms, local craftsmen, because there’s other things at the farmers’ market besides farm goods, there’s people who make soaps and lotions and there’s people who do woodworking and crafts and pottery.
So, you’re supporting their families by coming and buying from them versus going to Walmart [INAUDIBLE] or wherever. You actually can see face to face, where your money goes. And I think that’s important just to support local farms and local craftspeople in general, versus if you have a mother’s day gift, go get some nice handmade lotion or soap from somebody at the farmer’s market.
Don’t go,you know go buy a hanging basket that a farmer grew. Both my hanging baskets came from the farmer’s market. My ferns came from the farmer’s market. I’d rather support those people than go in and get me some trinket that’s gonna sit in my mama’s drawer for however many years.
Yeah, I’d much rather go buy her a hanging basket that she can enjoy, things like that, so.
>> Tom Grover: Well, thank you very much for this interview, I appreciate it.
>> Audra Ellis: You’re welcome.
>> Tom Grover: Okay.
>> Audra Ellis: Glad you could come.