Free Union Grass Farm
Free Union Grass Farm is located near the Free Union community in Albemarle County. Using rotational grazing practices, the farm produces pastured chicken and duck, free-range eggs, 100% grass-fed beef, and forest-fed pork. The farm was started in 2010 by Joel Slezak and Erica Hellen on 13 acres of family land and has since expanded production to over 250 acres on several estates in Albemarle county. The farm is a true testament to sustainable, regenerative agriculture. Its description as a “grass farm” speaks to its commitment to soil fertility, humanely treated animals, and the healthiest protein possible.
Here is how they describe their practices: “In every facet of our production, we focus on keeping our footprint small. We gradually orchestrate animals, on foot, over our pastures and through our woods. This provides them with the lowest-cost local feed available, while stimulating growth of native species and building healthy soils. We fence livestock out of waterways to protect aquarian ecosystems and we purchase anti-biotic and hormone-free, non-GMO feed from a family-owned mill in the Shenandoah Valley, which sources all Virginia grains. We limit our sales to customers within the central Virginia region and do not ship anything anywhere, instead encouraging interested folks from afar to support the local farmers in their regions.”
Erica Hellen and Joel Slezak from Free Union Grass Farm
Erica and Joel are two young farms who represent very well the future of local sustainable farming. Joel grew up homesteading on the land they currently farm, raising chickens and a small herd of dairy cows. He took an early interest in agriculture and began farming with a friend before starting Free Union Grass Farm. Erica did not grow up on a farm, but studied sustainable agriculture and environmental studies at Warren Wilson College, where she also worked on the school's garden crew. A variety of internships, including one at Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in 2009, provided her with the training and confidence to start Free Union Grass Farm.
Over the years the two have been featured in Edible Blue Ridge, Flavor Magazine, the Daily Progress, the Crozet Gazette, Our Local Commons, and Cville Weekly, where they were listed as one of Cville's "15 under 40" in their Power Issue. They have spoken at conferences, taught at workshops, and garnered a considerable following on social media with nearly 50,000 followers on Instagram. Over the years, they’ve hosted hundreds of diners and several James Beard-nominated chefs on the farm through the wildly popular traveling dinner company, “Outstanding in the Field,” and they'll return again in 2019.
The 0% SOIL Loan Free Union Grass Farm received from Slow Money Virginia in February 2019 was used to purchase a variety of equipment to improve the efficiency of their operation and set the table for long term growth and sustainability as a business. These improvements included:
Roll-out nest boxes for laying hens. Chicken eggs are a highly demanded by the farm’s customers but they are labor intensive to produce. Roll-out nest boxes cut down significantly on labor. The farm staff spends 12-15 hours every week dealing with eggs - changing nest box bedding to keep eggs clean, gathering eggs into baskets, then sorting them, washing dirty ones, waiting for them to dry, then boxing them into cartons or flats. The eggs are moved multiple times, and the more they are handled, the more eggs break. Dirty eggs create a significant time suck on the farm and more opportunities for loss. Roll-out nest boxes eliminate virtually all of these steps and allow eggs to be gathered right into cartons.
Pasture fencing supplies including solar chargers which will keep fences hotter and animals safer, while helping reduce the carbon footprint of powering fences.
A cattle head gate, which keeps an animal’s head still for various treatments, reducing stress on the animal and minimizing labor.
Below are some photos and videos of the roll out nest boxes being installed on the farm in March 2019: