Author: Susan Kerr, Washington State University, Klickitat County Extension Director

Publish Date: Fall 2009

For more than 15 years, the Conway family (mother Lorrie, father Shaun and daughters Ashley and Amber) has raised Nubian goats and Border Leicester sheep on their modest but immaculate five acres at the suburban-urban interface in Camas, Washington. The Conway Family Farm is a testament to profitability through diversification. Lorrie Conway says, “We are constantly moving toward a more completely integrated farming model in an effort to decrease costs and increase profits.”

Progressing from serious interest and success in 4-H livestock projects, the family has added various other enterprises over the years, including:

  • Direct marketed, USDA processed lamb
  • Direct marketed, USDA processed chevon
  • Licensed Grade A raw goat milk dairy (fluid milk, cheese, goat soaps, creams)
  • Honey and beeswax candles
  • Wool production with value-added yarn sales
  • Blueberry production with U-pick blueberries, jams and jellies
  • Lavender production with cultivar sales, bath and body products (lotions, perfume, soaps)
  • Raised-bed vegetable garden produce
  • Composted manure
  • Fresh cut flower arrangements
  • Eggs
  • Agritourism events
Due to her accounting and business management background, Lorrie is devoted to record keeping. A full business plan has been developed for the farm and this document is consulted and revised frequently. The Conways have added new enterprises after assessing their potential contribution to and impact on the overall farm plan. They cannot afford to view their farm with rose-colored economic glasses; they keep and evaluate records on each enterprise and discontinue unprofitable or unrewarding ventures. All components of their farm work together to support each other, such as using chips from the woodlot for mulch, composted manure to fertilize the blueberries and vegetables and multi-species grazing for weed control. They believe in “patient growth” and the concept of “small is beautiful.” They offer new items in small quantities initially to prevent too much capital being tied up in inventory.

With only five acres, the Conways must be very space conscious and use every inch of space available on their small acreage. They use compressed plantings and heavy mulching, practices that conserve water and help control weeds. Drip irrigation is used when needed to minimize water waste and maximize irrigation effectiveness. Soil moisture levels are monitored to promote accurate irrigation timing and amounts. The Conways are developing a water collection system that will be used for irrigation of berries and gardens during summer dry periods.

The Conways were one of the first applicants in Washington to license their goat dairy after a state legislative change to the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance made hand capping and hand bottling processes legal. By obtaining their Grade A raw milk license, the Conways have been able to sell goat milk from their farm at premium prices. The Grade A goat dairy consists of 12 milking Nubian does (25 breeding animals); does are bred to purebred Nubian bucks for replacement dairy does or to Boer bucks for meat goat kids. Scrupulous disease-control measures are taken, including annual testing for C.A.E., Brucellosis, Tuberculosis and Q-fever. Demand for fluid milk now exceeds production five-fold.

Through the Grade A raw milk licensing process, the Conways have developed a reputation as knowledgeable, reputable and helpful agricultural producers. They work with Washington State Department of Agriculture personnel to assist others in becoming licensed Grade A raw milk enterprises. Lorrie has given numerous interviews and written educational articles for goat producers about the process of becoming a licensed Grade A raw goat milk dairy. A domestic Heifer International program representative contacted Lorrie to learn more about the Grade A goat dairy and shared this information with her minority and immigrant agricultural producer clientele.

In addition to agricultural products, agritourism events such as farm tours, field trips and wedding venues were added in 2005 for additional revenue as well as public education and marketing tools. All such offerings are now fee-based to help re-coup labor costs related to these efforts. In 2009, the farm conducted 22 agritourism events. In keeping with the farm’s integrated approach to multiple enterprises, Lorrie modified the goat breeding program to better integrate the dairy, agritourism, chevon and live animal enterprises: the kidding season now lasts several months, resulting in more even and prolonged milk production for goat milk sales. In addition, kids born later in the spring are younger and more appealing baby animals for the public to see, feed and learn about during summer agrotourism events.

Agritourism events have been a successful marketing tool for the Conways; visitors become aware of the products available from the farm and very effective word-of-mouth publicity ensues. Other effective marketing tools for their products include their web site, farmerchef connections, participation in the Washington State Harvest Days celebration and other regional coordinated public education events.

The Conways use planned rotational multi-species grazing with their livestock. They do not rotate on a pre-determined schedule, but instead constantly monitor plant growth and recovery to determine optimum utilization of each paddock. Their rotational method builds soil fertility and organic matter as pastured animals deposit fertilizer during grazing; hoof action keeps the top soil layer receptive to precipitation. Multi-species grazing also maximizes the use of all vegetation on the property, helps control undesirable plant species and helps disrupt some parasite life cycles through non-chemical means.

Feeding programs are constantly under scrutiny to achieve desired production and health results while considering current feed prices. For example, grain has not been part of the farm’s sheep ration in the past, but was included as a more economical way to meet nutritional requirements for growing lambs when hay prices escalated.

The Conways do not use hormones, routine medications or feed additives for growth enhancement in their livestock. To control pests, they practice excellent sanitation and use natural options such as fly predators for fly control. They practice low-stress methods of animals handling and have predatorresistant fencing. Animal welfare and comfort are of utmost concern on this farm. Even the animals raised for meat have an idyllic life, the non-confined yet protected life that today’s concerned consumers demand and for which they are willing to pay more to support.

Although no livestock confinement methods are used, there is periodic manure accumulation in the animal shelter areas. This manure is composted and used for soil enhancement in the raised bed vegetable garden, blueberry fields and lavender garden; it is also sold and even gifted to neighbors to maintain positive relationships.

The Conways’ marketing approach is to direct market from the farm and offer an open-farm policy for customers, where picking up milk or purchasing yarn is also an opportunity to watch the sheep graze or pat a goat. They take the time to talk with customers and visitors and answer questions. They receive daily inquiries from the public about goat milk or farm information and about five calls a week from current or prospective small farmers seeking advice.

Lorrie Conway explains, “We hope that by sharing our farm with others, they will gain a sense of appreciation for agriculture. We believe that by getting the community involved with the source of their food/fiber purchases and helping them to have an understanding and appreciation for that source, we will build consumer awareness about the importance of responsible agriculture. Our annual farm tour has provided wonderful opportunities for media coverage focusing on sustainable agriculture. We have networked with regional newspapers and magazines to have feature articles done about the farm tour and the learning opportunities that it offers.” When educating others, they are willing to share their challenges as well as their successes.

A second-generation farmer, Lorrie Conway says “Certainly the quality of life our farm has provided for our family is irreplaceable. We have shared with our daughters a passion for preserving agriculture, a pride of heritage, a commitment to land stewardship, the importance of healthy food and the responsibility that we have to produce safe/healthy food and other agricultural products.”

As parents, Lorrie and Shaun must be doing something right. Their two daughters have been in the 4-H sheep and/or goat projects every year they were eligible and have achieved local, statewide, regional and even national success. One daughter is a Distinguished Regents Scholar in Washington State University’s pre-veterinary program; the other daughter recently graduated from WSU with an Animal Science degree, just won a prestigious statewide 4-H leadership award and is about to serve two years in the Peace Corps in Africa.

The family is involved in community volunteerism, too. Shaun serves on the Clark County Fair Board; Lorrie served on the county’s Agricultural Preservation Committee and state Legislative workgroup defining barriers to entry for small dairies. She gives presentations at numerous events during the year on business, marketing and farm management topics.

The Conways have donated hundreds of hours of their time to share their love of small scale, sustainable agriculture with the public. Whether it is through telephone calls, e-mail, drop-in visitors or community events, the entire Conway family makes the time to share what they love with others. For their efforts, the Conways received a Western regional SARE Patrick Madden Award for Sustainable Agriculture in 2006.

Contact info: Conway Family Farm
 
Lorrie and Shaun Conway
 
32116 NE Dial Rd., Camas, WA 98607
 
(360) 834-0315
 
www.conwayfamilyfarm.com
 
conwayclan@juno.com