"There’s no fluorescent lights out here!"
That’s the answer Andrew Fraley gives when you ask why he likes working on his parents’, Mike and Debra Carroll, Acres of Grace Natural Farm.
Andrew, 23, and his brother, Jonathan, 25, help out with "everything farm" from feeding the near 100 heirloom pigs to working on equipment like the fence’s solar panel or cleaning an old concrete mixer they are restoring.
Jonathan recently completed several years in the Navy, where he was stationed primarily in Japan.
While both young men aren’t certain what their future will hold, with the possibility of college in the forecast, each feels the foundation they’ve received on the farm will hold them in good stead whatever career path they choose, whether on the farm or not.
Mike, a Vietnam veteran, has worked 22 years with Birmingham Fire and Rescue, stationed now at Station 5 at the Birmingham Airport, his schedule allowing large blocks of time each week for farm work.
Debra, who is overcoming several health problems, works the farm full-time with the boys while also enjoying the creative outlet of painting slightly-abstract acrylic canvases, with a sunny studio overlooking the large wooden patio out back.
That deck may best explain the family’s love for their near 60 acres.
"They asked me last year whether I wanted a vacation or a new deck. I choose the deck," Debra explained.
"And we all spent our vacation building it," Jonathan laughed.
Mike bought the farm about 12 years ago; shortly before he and Debra, a Pine Mountain native, married. They joined "his kids, her kids and some adopted kids" to form an extended family focused on the land. Jonathan and Andrew are the two remaining at home.
The current primary project centers around the farm’s near 100 Duroc/Berkshire hogs.
They began raising hogs for an organic grower, but have decided now to market half and whole hogs directly to the public, with the buyer telling them what they want, and then picking up their finished cuts of meat at a USDA-inspected slaughter house in the area.
Mike explained he likes the older, heirloom pigs better, although they "grow out" slower.
"Commercial pigs don’t usually have the space to move around. These take longer to grow out, but the meat is exceptionally good. It’s the most flavorful meat you’ve ever tried."
"They’ve done taste tests and these heirloom hogs always win out," Mike added.
Homemade sausage will soon also be a treat.
And these hogs definitely seem to live up to Debra’s description of them as "happy pigs," as they sun in the mud, or run and play almost like young dogs.
Mike and the boys have built a special large area for the younger pigs, so they can eat unmolested by the older, bossier ones. A smaller size "pig portal" was built for them to come and go into the pasture at will.
The area is also used as a catch pen when animals are loaded, with one stall wall just the right height for a pick-up to back up to load the animals for transport.
As pigs crowded toward their fence to get their backs scratched, Mike laughed about learning about pigs at an early age, grabbing hold of a runaway pig on his late-father’s farm, and holding tight around that hog—and getting "burned from his throat and neck down" by the pig’s rough bristles as he hugged tight to the runaway.
Mike is also now exploring the possibility of beginning a crawfish farm, where he could grow sorghum to feed the pigs, then flood the area for the crawfish to live in the mud. There are a couple of spots on the farm particularly suited for that endeavor.
The family has raised organic chickens and marketed them directly to the consumer, but Debra explained it was "just too labor intensive."
Now there are just a few chickens residing in a chicken "tractor," but the Carroll’s hope to raise additional chickens as soon as they can be purchased from an Amish farmer.
Sheep were also raised for quite some time. After one ewe had a bad experience birthing triplets, Andrew raised the runt in the house, with the little "princess" sharing his Corn Pops and even sleeping on his bed!
A couple of years ago, the farm, inside Blount but near the Etowah County line, was even used for the outdoor scenes for a movie, "The Visitation," which won second place in that year’s Gatlinburg Film Festival. It was created by two youth ministers about a farmer whose wife had died and the many challenges he faced.
"We really enjoyed seeing our farm on the screen," Debra explained. "It really made us appreciate the beauty we enjoy every day."
A small pond was built directly behind the house this past year and a flock of Muscovy ducks have begun there, with Mike hoping to eventually sell duck eggs at least part of the year.
Currently Mr. Sirloin, a Hereford mix, grows patiently beside the 80-year-old barn, to be meat just for the family.
Nearby is a tumbler-style compost bin and the family garden plot. Like so many others, Debra laments last summer’s tomatoes and vegetable crop total was a disappointment between the drought and the heat.
But the potting room at the barn’s rear is another statement of Debra’s optimism.
As the family explores other options to provide natural food for their family, friends, neighbors and the public, they know they’ll face many obstacles and certainly won’t grow rich.
But sitting on the deck on a winter day in the late afternoon as the animals grunt, waddle, cluck and meander nearby as the sun reflects off the new pond, it’s easy to see the Carrolls are already "rich" beyond words.
To contact the Carroll’s at Acres of Grace Natural Farm, you may call (205) 589-4514.