Brandi Graves and Robert Young are a vibrant Texan couple responsible for the biodynamic agriculture at High Hope Ranch in Glen Rose, Texas. I enjoyed following their path into farming, learning about biodynamic farming, and how starting farming during the pandemic influenced their perspective.
For Brandi, the farming adventure began in 2015 when she found Floret Flower Farm in Washington state. “I saw a picture of Erin Benzakein’s little white pickup truck with buckets of dahlias in the back and was like, ‘what’s that?!’ I’d never seen a flower farm before and got pretty obsessed. From there it was taking whatever jobs I could find working in nurseries and small gardens, I learned a lot that way. It kept snowballing and there would be times I would be like, let’s drive 2 hours after we’d worked all day to look for property or go to nurseries or visit a farm.”
When they met after college, Robert was working in the golf course industry helping architects around the US. With this project-based work, they were moving twice a year for seven years, “and my plant collection kept growing,” Brandi laughed. In between jobs, they often went to Central America to volunteer. They were influenced by the agricultural side of life during their travels and started dreaming about farming.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, they decided to visit a friend who was staying at High Hope Ranch. “We thought we would go up there, visit our friend for two weeks and then go back to regular life, and obviously that didn’t happen,” said Brandi. As they realized the pandemic was not going to pass any time soon, they decided to put down roots at High Hope Ranch and were hired on to help steward the land and manage the LLC.
The story of High Hope Ranch intersects with that of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, a non-profit safari park specializing in captive breeding programs for indigenous and exotic endangered and threatened species. These properties share two thirds of their fence line and were purchased at the same time by Krystyna Jurzykowski and Jim Jackson in the 1980’s.
In 2020, when Brandi and Robert landed at High Hope Ranch, Krystyna was working to get the ranch donation ready. Her aim was to donate the 900+ acres to Living Lands Trust to keep the land and buildings perpetually protected, ensure that regenerative land stewardship was practiced, and lease it to create land access for young farmers. With Brandi and Robert starting the biodynamic agricultural element, the property was able to be donated in 2022.
I asked them what biodynamic agriculture means, and Brandi described it as a philosophy of growing that involves working with more than just what you see. It includes working with the moon phases for planting times and specific ways to compost. The term was coined by philosopher and scientist Dr. Rudolf Steiner 100 years ago. “It is more energetic, giving your plants and animals a lot more credit than just treating them like a commodity,” she said. One of their goals is to gain Demeter Certification which requires over two years of documentation that everything has been done “by the book” including planting by the calendar, using the compost, and making the preparations laid out by Steiner.
The ranch hosts a variety of livestock, including Boer goats for meat, Nigerian Dwarf goats for milk, kunekune pigs for meat, and chickens for eggs and meat. One of the biodynamic principles they use with their animals is that they don’t castrate or disbud the goats and cows they are raising for meat. Steiner taught that the horns of animals are their antenna that help ground them to the earth and removing their horns causes them to be less ethereal. “When you think about the meat we eat these days, the animals are totally anxious, their cortisol levels are through the roof because they are stressed, so what can we do to reduce the stress on the animals? Just let them develop naturally, it doesn’t affect the flavor of the meat, it is so tender and so flavorful.” Brandi said.
The rainbow eggs produced at High Hope Farms are impressive to say the least. Their goal with the chickens is to have diverse genetics and grow heritage breeds.
“Because we came here during the pandemic, so much of what motivates us is to be prepared,” said Brandi. “I’ve never felt so crazy – we didn’t have food – that is the basis of life! It feels like we can keep doing this for reasons beyond just loving it, I want to be able to make sure that if anything happens everyone in this area and community is taken care of. Let’s be a resource for the community.” The Nigerian Dwarf goats were purchased during the baby formula shortage when people were desperate for milk substitutes.
Their kunekune pigs, a small breed indigenous to New Zealand, are herbivores and graze in the pasture alongside the goats. Their snouts are very short, so they don’t rut up the ground, and they have great personalities. Their meat is high in fat but with a clean rather than greasy feeling, making it excellent for prosciutto and other high-quality cuts of pork. The pigs are almost of age to breed, so we can look forward to some adorable piglet photos from High Hope Ranch soon!
They’ve been working on putting in more fencing to create multiple paddocks for cover crops and rotational grazing. The difficulty at High Hope is that the ranch is on pure limestone: great for preserving fossils but not so great for digging holes for fence posts! A bit easier to set up has been rotational grazing for the chickens, for which they have three different mobile chicken coops. They use electrical fencing which can be moved more easily and keeps the chickens in and the coyotes, kites, eagles, mountain lions, and bobcats out. They like to use techniques picked up from Joel Salatin and Justin Rhodes, but it still takes three or four hours for two people to move the chicken coops since it involves drilling five inch holes into that limestone. “Justin makes it look so easy,” laughed Robert, “Not out here, cowboy!”
When I asked about any systems they have developed to increase efficiency, Brandi explained that they had a lot of issues with Johnson grass and nutsedge, which were so invasive and aggressive that they were having trouble growing in some areas. “I used a method of Erin Benzakein’s, she takes landscape fabric and burns holes on the drip line, and that cut the maintenance way down. We had that going on top of the row and then in between the rows for the walkways instead of mowing we put rabbits in dog kennels that are the width of the aisle, and we just move them every day and they mow for us and they fertilize and they’re cute, that’s one of my favorite things,” smiled Brandi.
Living on a ranch where there are always animals and plants to tend (not to mention post holes to drill into limestone) can be stressful – it’s not like you can jump in your car and leave your work behind in the office. Brandi and Robert have leveraged teamwork to help manage the workload by taking turns with the morning and evening animal chores, each taking two days on and two days off, giving them each a chance to sleep in and have a break. They have also found people in town whom they trust to take care of things while they get away for a night or two to visit their families nearby.
High Hope Ranch offers an innovative Community Supporting Nature membership program that has been invaluable in connecting members closely with the land. For a small monthly fee, members get perks like free eggs and store discounts and come to the ranch seasonally to help maintain the trails, facilitate events, do art work, and build amazing campsites.
Just a few weeks ago, the construction of an on-site store was completed. Brandi uses the harvests to create kitchen and spa products, from jellies and pickles to scrubs and serums. Brandi said, “We have been able to get people more connected to food there. It serves as a conversation starter, all this stuff was grown here, I can tell you all about it. The pandemic was such an eye opener – nobody knows how to make their food, they don’t know where it is from. It’s right here now.” They also funnel food into the local community through partnerships with the bakery in town, two local co-ops, and taking surplus food to the food bank.
In addition to the agriculture, High Hope Ranch has four houses for Airbnb guests. I asked what the main attraction was for guests, and Robert said that “75% of them just want to get out of the city, show their kids some animals.” With Fossil Rim and Dinosaur Valley State Park next door, many of the visitors have kid’s who are “dinosaur age,” and there are also a large number of young professionals who visit with the aim of getting into nature and hiking. The ranch has a strong spiritual aspect to it which attracts folks facilitating yoga and meditation retreats.
One of the attractions of country life for me is the sense of community that seems to go along with a more rural lifestyle. In a seemingly absurd contradiction, the closer people live to one another, the less neighborly they often act. Brandi could relate, saying she grew up on the outskirts of Houston and is familiar with the alienation of suburban life. After meeting Robert, they moved around so much that they never had a chance to develop a community. “This is the first place I have experienced community before,” Brandi said. “I didn’t know how to do it, I didn’t know how to make friends or find people.” Their inroads into the community started with the farmer’s market in Glen Rose, where they met many of the people they now work with the most. Active, local groups on Facebook have also helped them meet others. “It’s so hard as an adult to make friends, let alone find people who get you and what you’re doing. We have a good core community group now and it’s really cool, I have never been a part of anything like that,” said Brandi. Robert added that it helps that the town is small with a population of just 2,500 people situated in the smallest county in Texas.
What is the best part of a day on the ranch? For Robert, it’s letting the goats out to go graze and forage, walking with them into the ravines, and seeing where they like to go. In the evenings there is an intensive management area down the hill where there are five different types of wolves and if the moon is just right they all howl and the sound echoes. “You always just have to stop and say this is good, I’m grateful for this.” For Brandi, it is a year-old goat named Penelope who was a bottle baby. “She is kind of Instagram famous,” laughed Brandi, “she is the light of my life. It’s nice to have a relationship with an animal that is intimate like that, I’m her mom, I bottle fed her for three months, that’s pretty cool.” Brandi also enjoys going out in the pasture and calling the pigs over to give them a scratch. “Those are the fun moments, the little pauses between all the chaos.”
With their energy, partnership, and passion for a holistic lifestyle, I suspect there will be many more fun moments full of community and life in the future for Brandi and Robert.