At Whippoorwill Farms in Ridgeland, every person and every animal – several thousand of them – works on the farm.
Farmer Marissa Paykos is turning her invasive plant-laden, neglected 40 acres into a regenerative farm, making it an ecologically balanced forest system that maintains itself and feeds its inhabitants without the use of tractors, fertilizers or pesticides.
“I wanted to raise animals regeneratively, and I wanted to regenerate a forest system,” Paykos said. “When we bought the property, it had been clear-cut 20 years ago, and then neglected. There were invasive trees, invasive plants, kudzu vines taking over. It was the perfect ecosystem to fix.”
Regenerative farming is based off the principles of healthy soil, water retention, carbon negativity and biodiversity.
“And it’s not just biodiversity of plants. It’s biodiversity of animals, and not just native animals, but domestic animals when you’re farming,” she said.
Once Paykos and her husband, James Young, cleared a section and set up their systems, they moved from their 2-acre farm 19 months ago. Since then, they have cycled their animals through one section at a time, gradually working their way deeper into the property as the animals do their jobs of naturally clearing it.
“We begin at 5:30 a.m., especially now that it’s our busy season,” said Paykos. “Everything we do is super laborious. We spend three hours a day in the garden, and when we’re pruning tomatoes, it’s another two hours.”
Paykos’ sister, Alicia Paykos Theurer, was proof that no vacation comes for free. The morning after she and her family arrived for a visit, Theurer was working in the garden.
“There is a team of volunteers and staff that take care of feeding the animals so I can focus on the big picture,” Paykos said. “I think it’s important that people know the way that we farm is very laborious. There is no easy way of working through the forest with the animals. And the cost is very high for us because what we are doing is very intensive on top of all the expenses that it takes to farm.”
Ambling up to Paykos was another staff member.
“That’s Johnny, our pig herder,” she said. “I couldn’t run the farm without him.” The German shepherd apparently has mad skills corralling pigs and spotting the occasional AWOL chicken that escapes from its fence. The farm is also home to bees, rabbits, ducks, goats, cows and guinea hens.
“The idea is that we might have 40 acres of property but at the same time we might use only 5 acres of that for the animals. We have thousands of animals. Right now we have 2,000 chickens, 150 pigs, a small herd of goats, cows, and so there’s a lot of animals, but they only use a small space at a time,” said Paykos.
No job is too big or too small that it can’t be done by one resident or another. The chickens and the ducks crush and eat the invasive weeds, such as sickle pods. The chickens also cluster under the weeds in the forested sections, sheltered from prying hawk eyes, and eat all the bugs and grubs. Then Paykos decides whether to move the fowls out and plant a cover crop such as cowpeas, sun hemp, clover or perennial grasses, or move the cows in and feed them hay. As the cows eat the hay, the seeds fall to the ground and soon begin to grow.
When Paykos moves the pigs, the first thing she has to do is turn off the electricity to the movable fence, roll the wires and move the stakes. After she finishes moving and reinstalling the fence, the pigs get to work on the 20 years’ worth of leaf litter covering the soil.
“The pigs come on, they clear, they expose the soil, they help to decompose the leaf litter, and then we cover crop. Cover cropping feeds the pigs, and prevents erosion,” she said. “Hurricane Matthew came through before we bought the place and a lot of the trees fell all in the same direction, so we let them stay and rot. They produce mushrooms, and who likes mushrooms? The pigs.”
All of the animals move on a weekly schedule. Usually.
“If the pigs don’t do enough damage to a section, if they’re being lazy and there’s still a lot of kudzu, we won’t move them. The pigs actually root the kudzu up and they eat the root balls. It’s super fibrous and they’ll eat that before they eat the spent grain we get from the distilleries,” said Paykos. “They sever all those vines which then die on the trees, and then the trees will start to grow strong again.”
The cows and goats also help in keeping down the weeds and spreading the grain from the hay, but the goats have an additional job. At least one rather spectacular goat does.
Hanging out with a number of large sows was a goat pretending to be one of the group.
“That goat is a pig. His name is Cowboy. He will mount you. His ladies don’t even want him in with them. He’s friendly, too. He’ll let you pet him, and then he’ll pee on you. He is so hardy, but he’s so pretty and he makes really pretty babies,” Paykos said. “Cowboy does a really important job. He eats all the foliage from his chest up, but the other thing that he does that’s really important is he comes in and he knocks those saplings, and breaks them in half. That helps open up our forest canopy.”
An invasive forest such as the one near Whippoorwill’s front gate is not a working ecosystem. With the trees growing so closely together, they can’t reach maturity to drop fruit, nuts, blossoms for pollinators. Paykos called it a toothpick syndrome.
“In the forest system, it’s a lot cooler. It’s not cooler because of the shade. It’s cooler because of transpiration cooling from our trees. So when we talk about climate change, and we talk about how hot it is or how the climate is changing, and it’s hotter in the summer times or we’re in the city or we’re in our developments and there’s no trees, and it’s all houses and our electricity bills are through the roof, it’s because there’s nothing letting vapor off into the air that actually cools the temperature,” she said. “So if I could take my 40 acres, and I could create a cooler climate in the summer then that, to me, is helping.”
To regenerate the forest system, once a year so far, an excavator comes through and pulls the invasive trees such as sweetgum and popcorn, stacking them in huge piles that Paykos and the staff will eventually burn and turn into biochar to put into the soil for its nutrients. Those saplings and larger trees that are native and worth keeping – such as oaks, pecans, pine trees and loblollies – will either be pulled and potted for a future replanting or marked and kept in place.
Paykos will eventually plant loquats, fig trees and a number of others that she is collecting, such as redbuds for the pollinators.
In the garden, she hopes to see an increase in the bumble bees, butterflies, and moths hovering over her plants. At any time, Paykos might have zucchini, lemon basil, parsley, greens, broccoli, spinach, lettuce, summer veggies, and sunflowers.
Proof that there is no free lunch on the farm, even the worms serve a dual purpose.
“We have a little worm farm where we harvest their worm castings – worm poop. We put them in bags to dry and then into the garden. Even the water that drains from watering the worms becomes a compost tea,” Paykos said. “Everything has a purpose and nothing is wasted.”
That includes produce and pig parts that don’t get to the farmers’ markets. Outside the front gate is a sheltered produce stand that is stocked a couple of times a week with whatever is ripe in the garden. It’s pay-as-you-can opportunity, keeping in mind those neighbors who might not be able to afford a lot of fresh goods.
“Every week we try to put 100 pounds of produce out on the stand. When we sell at market, we sell our tomatoes, for example, at $8 a pound. If we put 50 pounds on the stand, I’m donating $400 to the community each week,” Paykos said. The herbs gathered in the morning sit in jars near baskets of onions, cucumbers and tomatoes of all kinds. There’s also a freezer of meat products.
“I hope those in the community that can afford it might put a little more money in the box to help cover those who can’t,” she said. “I felt like the people that are in need are more open to stopping somewhere that nobody is judging. It’s a guilt-free zone.”
Whippoorwill Farms sells at four farmer’s markets, restaurants and the produce stand, but also promotes agrotourism.
“It is a huge part of what we do,” Paykos said. “We like to bring people here so they can understand what regenerative farming looks like, why keeping your forest ecosystem intact is important, and what that looks like for the future.”
Guests can stay a couple of nights, tour the farm, and/or take a class. She gives a farm tour every night around the property. Some nights she will have 15 to 20 groups of people staying in the tent sites, RV sites, or the farm’s tiny house AirBnB.
“The end goal for me is to get people interested in what we are doing here, so that they want to come shop. They see the value in how hard we work, they want to support us by shopping with us because it’s so important that people see this is the future of farming,” said Paykos. “Factory farms, yes, they feed a lot of people, but if we all just made small adjustments, we could really make a difference environmentally.”
Whippoorwill offers classes in organic gardening once a month, beekeeping, mushroom foraging (Paykos is a licensed forager), how to butcher a chicken (they process chickens four times a week), or pig butchering in January and February.
There is also a local healer who will come to the farm and do sound healing, reiki or meditation.
“We do garden meditations for free. We’ve done a sunrise meditation, a sunset drum circle, so just all kinds of ways to get the community involved,” said Paykos. “This is wellness over all, that’s the idea here. What we put in our bodies, how we treat our environment, how we treat our communities, with the pay-what-you-can produce stand. It’s all about wellness as a whole.”
Paykos takes her produce and meats to farmers markets at Hilton Head Coastal Discovery Museum on Tuesdays, Edisto Island on Wednesday, Savannah on Saturday, and the new Root and Bloom Sundays at Oyster Factory Park.
For more information, visit camponthefarm.com, learnonthefarm.com, and healonthefarm.com.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.