Landscape transformation at Purple Mockingbird Farm
It’s one of those hot and muggy July days when I visit Purple Mockingbird Farm, a full thirty minutes off the blacktop and tucked in the rolling hills around Appomattox, VA. The sunshine is squintingly bright and the green slopes shimmer through the humidity as my car tires crunch against the gravel driveway.
Despite the heat, Purple Mockingbird’s welcome committee comes bounding towards me, loud and enthusiastic, as I park and climb out of the driver’s side door. Two Anatolian Shepherds - somehow looking both protective and friendly - bark out their greetings, notifying the humans nearby that there’s a visitor. Within moments, Byron Burns emerges from the house with a wide smile; the dogs stop barking, and the larger one pushes his big head into my hip, grinning up at me and leaving a wide trail of drool before trotting away to resume his post guarding the livestock.
Byron offers a human-style welcome (a handshake instead of the barking,) and we are soon joined by Dara, fresh from a shift at her off-farm job. The three of us set off to explore Purple Mockingbird, a young livestock operation striving to demonstrate that food can be produced locally, regeneratively, and humanely.
These 50+ acres are raw and wild, full of native vegetation that sometimes towers over us as we brush by. We walk along wide paths that Byron and Dara have mowed clear, and we soon round a slight hill to see a large paddock; the doe goats inside are munching away at the weeds and brambles, their small sharp hooves creating divots in the earth while their manure offers precious fertility.
“This land needs some time to develop into pasture,” Byron explains. “Goats are going to thrive on the current vegetation, and will help clear the land faster than cattle.”
“They’re New Zealand Kiko goats,” Dara continues. “They’re versatile, adaptable, and hearty, and they’re very efficient at brush clearing.” Looking at the athletic animals enjoying their live-in salad bar, I can’t help but admire how healthy they look.
Byron and Dara lead the way down a short holler to another pen, where there’s a group of young male goats. The boys are clearing brush in the same determined way the females were, albeit with more jumping and climbing. Byron climbs into the pen and expertly picks a tick from the back of a light brown buck with curling horns, describing this group as the start of Purple Mockingbird’s breeding program. Dara explains the research they’ve done into the demand for local goat meat; they are hopeful they’ll be able to sell both cuts and whole animals, as well as kids.
After a few minutes of observing the lively young bucks and talking details of goat husbandry, we turn back toward the house to go visit the cattle. As we get close we are joined by the dogs, who proudly escort us to the herd of a half dozen steers and heifers, grazing in the bright sunshine. Both Byron and Dara glance at the water trough as we pass, a habit so deeply ingrained in them as caretakers of livestock I doubt they’re even aware they’re doing so as they appraise the water levels. We spend a few moments talking beef before we leave the herd to their chewing and make our way back to the house. Byron and Dara discuss some of the improvements they’ve seen this season, including the acquisition of a tractor and bush hog, as well as a shed to store equipment.
I gulp down the ice water Dara offers me gratefully, well-aware of how sticky I am and happy to be in the shade as the three of us gaze out at Purple Mockingbird Farm. Looking across the wild green hills it’s clear that Bryon and Dara see nothing but potential, the chance to raise livestock humanely, benefit the land, and contribute something good to the local foodshed.