The Sonne family raises AWA pigs, laying hens, and laying ducks in the mountains of Virginia. With the help of John Sonne’s parents, Chris and Priscilla, he and his wife, Jade, manage an integrated, multi-species operation that utilizes sustainable techniques with an eye toward continually improving the farm for future generations.
John and Jade both have personal history in agriculture. Jade grew up on small farm in Georgia, participating in both 4-H and FFA programs as a youth. John comes from a long line of dairy farmers, and his grandfather had a large organic garden in the 1990s. When John was in college his parents started raising chickens in Virginia. “Every time I came home they were raising something else,” he says. The couple met in Asheville, North Carolina, and moved to John’s parents’ Virginia property in 2013. Their land is comprised of just over 10 hilly acres—John says, “It’s either uphill or downhill, but we use it to our advantage”—with a spring and two small creeks. John and Jade eventually want to integrate water power into the farm.
The Sonnes raise a variety of pig breeds, including Berkshire/Duroc crosses, Mulefoot/Berkshire crosses, and their chosen breeding stock of Berkshire/Yorkshire cross. Sows farrow in the spring and fall, in two batches each year. A flock of 50 laying hens includes a “barnyard mix” of Australorps, Rhode Island Reds, Americaunas, and Buff Orpingtons, producing tasty and nutritious multi-colored eggs. These breeds are all chosen for their ability to thrive in pasture-based systems. John explains, “The ducks were an impulse buy from the feed and seed. We bought five last spring and our customers love their eggs.” Currently they raise Pekin ducks, but plan to incorporate Khaki Campbells and Cayugas—an American dual-purpose breed selected for high quality meat and multicolored eggs.
“The most important thing is getting the animals to try to eat and live in a natural fashion,” John says. “We also try to give them plenty of forages and a diverse diet.” Jade says another secret to their hog production is regular belly rubs: “I want to know the animals I eat. Our customers appreciate that we try to stay connected to the animal.”
As new farmers, John and Jade felt that pasture-based techniques made sense—not just environmentally, but in the sense that they are achievable with low-cost infrastructure. “We have been to a few larger scale agricultural shows and were shocked at how expensive the infrastructure is,” says Jade. “With a system like ours, you can be in business with a few hundred dollars, versus hundreds of thousands for an indoor confinement system.”
The Sonnes also see the benefits for the animals, as well as the farm itself. “You put a pig in fresh grass and you can see them light up,” says John. “Pigs are an underutilized tool. They build the soil and improve the fertility.” John notes that it can be challenging to keep pigs from being overly destructive while still getting the fertility benefits, and he and Jade are constantly striving to find that balance.
At a recent conference hosted by the Virginia Association for Biological Farming, John and Jade found out about Animal Welfare Approved and became interested in certification. Jade explains, “As a new farm, we were looking at our certification options. Reading more about what AWA stands for, we felt this was the label that we wanted.” The Sonnes also appreciate the technical and marketing support AWA offers farmers in the program.
The couple also values AWA as a badge of transparency. “We see a lot of farms where there are nice pretty pictures of animals on pasture, but on the farm, it is a different story. This seems unfair to the consumer and the animals,” John explains. “We wanted to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and to keep our ideals in check with what is actually happening on the farm. When we looked at AWA, most of the processes were in line with what we were already doing.” Jade adds, “We also feel that it gives our customers a level of quality assurance if they can’t make it out to the farm. They can look AWA up online, and they can see that we’re doing what we say we’re doing.”
John and Jade count themselves lucky to have the support of John’s parents, Chris and Priscilla, who also grow produce for local farmers’ markets in addition to Chris’s work as an engineer. Long-term goals for the Sonne family include having a sustainable business to leave for the next generation. Jade says, “I want my great-great grandchildren to be able to farm this land.” John explains why sustainable farming is such an important component of that goal: “We have heard many stories of people who inherited farms only to realize that the last 60 years of agricultural practices have left the land barren, to the point where they’re almost starting from scratch. We want to farm so that we are leaving our children with the infrastructure and fertility to be productive—either for themselves or small-scale commercially.”
AWA eggs from Spruce Creek Farm are available at area farmers’ markets and retailers, while AWA pork and eggs are available directly from the farm—call (434) 277-5264 to make an appointment. For more information about the Sonne Family and Spruce Creek Farm visit http://www.sprucecreekfarms.com/.