Au Contraire

by Patrick Flanagan

Bayou Farm‘s husbandry sounds intuitive, but owners Sarah Bailly and Donald Keller are actually exceptions to the rule.


Photos by Tyler F. Thigpen

The Deep South is a tough place to be a farmer, and it‘s an even harder place to be a sustainable, pesticide- and hormone-free farmer. The southeastern heat and humidity play host to parasites, weeds, disease and other pests, while extended growing seasons mean more time for microbes, insects and unwanted flora to proliferate. Because of the many challenges in South Louisiana farming, some Acadiana farms, such as Bayou Farm in Ville Platte, have learned to work with nature to produce their bounty. As intuitive as it may seem, it turns out that these few farms‘ conservation-minded practices are somewhat of an anomaly in the food production world.

"We practice management intensive grazing - MIG," says Sarah Bailly, co-owner and operator of Bayou Farm. "There aren‘t a whole lot of people in our area farming livestock the way we do, especially with sheep. We‘ve had to teach ourselves a good deal. With MIG, you try to optimize the performance of your livestock and pasture plants across your whole farm; you want to utilize the land in a way that allows you to hold the maximum number of animals without causing environmental degradation. MIG helps prevent soil run-off, and there are currently studies showing that MIG can improve soil carbon sequestration. I guess, really, we are essentially conservationists."

Donald Keller and Sarah Bailly

Like many first generation farmers these days, Bailly and her husband and Bayou Farm co-owner/operator, Donald Keller, started as urban farmers. In August 2011, they planted their first garden and began raising their first barnyard fauna - six chickens - in a small backyard in New Orleans. After realizing their interest in and passion for farming, the couple moved to a bigger chunk of land in New Iberia where they acquired their first sheep and began their career raising ruminants. While in Iberia Parish, Donald and Sarah continued to quickly grow their company.

"We, several hundred chickens, and 20ish sheep moved to our current 36-acre farm in Ville Platte in August 2012," says Bailly, an expectant mother with a master‘s of arts from the University of New Orleans. "We continued to produce pastured poultry and eggs for another six months and have slowly switched over to a more grazing-centered operation. We are currently building our sheep flock - our primary enterprise - and have added cattle and hogs. We produce 100 percent grass-fed lamb, 100 percent grass-fed beef and pastured pork. We have some birds running around and occasionally sell eggs and holiday turkeys. We do not use antibiotics or hormones."

Along with an intensive management that includes rotational grazing on carefully planned forage, Bayou Farm maintains healthy, hormone- and antibiotic-free livestock by paying close attention to the genetics of the breeds that they raise. The only hooved herbivores found at Bayou Farm are heritage cattle, pig and sheep with lineages that go back to the 1500s when Spaniards brought livestock to North America. These breeds Bayou Farm has chosen have lived along the Gulf Coast for hundreds of years, allowing the animals‘ immune systems to adapt to and evolve with pests found throughout the region. "Through natural selection [the livestock] adapted to what is really a harsh environment for cattle and, especially, sheep," says Bailly.

"Pineywoods cattle and Gulf Coast native sheep have natural immunities to many [Gulf Coastal region] parasites and diseases, making them very important genetic resources. They also adapted to thrive on marginal forage; the cattle, in particular, consume brush and weeds that most improved‘ breeds avoid. Parasites can be very devastating for sheep, and the natives have developed a natural immune response to battle parasite infection. All of this means that we do not need to rely on a lot of chemicals and vaccines to treat our animals. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.‘"

While Bailly and Keller prefer the heritage breeds for their naturalized immune responses and forage preference, health is another important reason for raising grass-fed livestock without hormones and antibiotics. Hormone- and antibiotic-free meat has been shown to have significant health benefits in comparison to its modified counterpart. Extensive studies on bioaccumulation of meat additives in humans indicate that meat with additives may play a role in increased carcinogenic effects in humans. Other Acadiana farms, including Brookshire Farms in Abbeville, Gonsoulin Land and Cattle in New Iberia, Gotreaux Family Farms in Scott and Market Basket of Youngsville, also boast antibiotic- and hormone-free and grass-fed meats for these reasons.
Taste is also a primary reason these handful of farms raise animals with strict ethical and moral standards.

"The meat tastes better," says Lucius Fontenot, past Acadiana Food Circle co-director and son of the folks who own Arcadius Acres. "I‘ve been raised on organic foods my whole life, but I eat the modified stuff when that‘s what is served or all that‘s available. There is a big difference in the taste of vegetables and meat that is grown without short-cuts. Sarah and Donald live near my parents‘ farm, so I‘ve been buying their products, visiting Bayou Farm since they moved to Ville Platte. Seeing the amount of time and energy those two put into their products is inspiring."
Village Café Chef Jeremy Conner and chefs at Cleaver and Co. of New Orleans seem to agree.

Bayou Farm meats are a constant on both establishments‘ menus. Conner serves up Bayou Farm lamb as a ragout served over sweet potatoes and eggplant and topped with microgreens and a smoked chili pepper vinaigrette. Consumers currently purchase Bayou Farm products directly from Bailly and Keller, but some seasons the couple can be found vending at Lafayette Farmers and Artisans Market at the Horse Farm. They also provide foods for special events; their lamb will be featured at the sold-out Nov. 23 Pig & Plough Suppers 2nd Annual Bayou Teche Brewing Roast in Arnaudville that benefits St. Joseph Diner.

The couples‘ land is currently host to maximum livestock occupancy, an issue farmers who pay close attention to carrying capacity and sustainable farming practices often face. Sarah and Donald hope to lease or purchase adjacent acreage as their operation grows. This will mean a greater presence at area farmers‘ markets and more of their products in grocery stores and restaurants.

"Many different scenarios run through my head in terms of what we could do with more land and cattle," says Bailly. "My dream is to purchase or lease timberland a little north of us and run a herd of Pineywoods cattle up there in a silvo-pasture‘ system. Pineywoods are actually very effective at clearing out the underbrush that can cause devastating forest fires, and they open up the forest, which helps the trees be more productive. The momma cows and bulls would live in the woods, and we would take the calves to improved pastures to finish them for beef."