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Meeting the Challenges of Management-Intensive Grazing and Direct-Marketing Meat, Part 1

daniel-portrait

Daniel O'Malley stands by the stream that runs through his Sweet Home Meats operation near Sweet Home, Oregon.

When I sent an email to Sweet Home Farms owners Mike Polen and Carla Green, I was anticipating talking with a couple of sixty- and fifty-something, doctoral-level healthcare researchers who made a stunning career shift about seven years ago when they left Kaiser Permanente in Portland to buy a ranch near Sweet Home and begin a sustainable livestock operation. Instead, I heard from Mike’s son, Daniel O’Malley, who in 2013 took over Mike and Carla’s meat production business and was anxious to promote it.

Mike and Carla still run Sweet Home Farms, but they concentrate on breeding and raising Belted galloway cattle and katahdin sheep, as well as Great Pyrenees and English shepherd dogs. The labor-intensive direct-to-consumer meat production business — Sweet Home Farms Meats, LLC — moved over to Daniel. And Daniel clearly loves it.

To say Daniel has come to farming via a different route than his dad would be too much of an understatement. In fact, the route is about as far from Mike and Carla’s journey as one could get. Rather than thoroughly researching farming and ranching as an alternative career, Daniel simply needed a job. He was completing an undergraduate degree in political science at the University of Oregon and wasn’t sure what to do next. He wasn’t worried about it or anything like that… he’s pretty much a free spirited guy and doesn’t seem to be overly worried about anything really. Which I suppose can come in handy when you’re trying to get a farm started. So when he learned that Mike and Carla needed help, he saw it as an opportunity and jumped right in and spent his last summer before graduation learning to farm and ranch.

“My Dad and his wife, Carla, bought this farm in 2006,” Daniel explained. “As I was finishing school, I started coming up here and helping out, and I just really started to like it. So I finished my last term, and then we all talked about turning this into a real business. They had been doing it, but at a pretty low-volume level… it was still similar to a hobby. When I joined, we decided to really push this and went full steam ahead.”
Working on the farm was the first job Daniel had out of college, so from a professional standpoint, he’s never done anything else, which suits him fine.

Grass pastures at Sweet Home Meats

Daniel uses management intensive grazing strategies to manage his meat production operation. These pastures exemplify the high quality grass he's been able to establish.

“I never knew what I wanted to do growing up, but I knew what I didn’t want to do, and farming was not one of the things I didn’t want to do. But I definitely did know that I didn’t want to work inside five days a week. I just thought it would be numbing. So when this came along, I thought, wow… there’s something new everyday. It’s interesting. You have to problem solve. Sometimes it’s long term problem solving, but other times it’s like the cows get out, and if you leave what you’re doing right then, the pigs will get out, so what do you do? You’ve just got to make a decision and go with it, and that’s fun.”

Daniel is very surprised by how quickly he reached the point of owning his own farming business. When he began this undertaking, he told his partner, Bryn, who lives with him on the farm and works in Eugene, to give him five years and see what happens. Two years later, he had his own farm. Although he did comment that “it felt like five years, actually. I worked enough hours.” But the hours were worth it because he loved working with the animals and loved living on the farm.

Living the life of a farmer has brought other changes to Daniel and Bryn, as well. “We’re learning so much more about food. Our diet has changed a lot the past couple of years. Not because that was some kind of goal, but because of being out here, producing the meat, being around all of the other farmers at markets and seeing what they’re growing. As you get closer to the place where the food is being produced, you just start eating healthier.” But the biggest change for Daniel is simply being in charge of running a business.

The business, itself, is actually a livestock feeding and retail meat operation. He does no breeding. He purchases cattle, pigs, and chickens at a young age, then raises them until they’re ready for market and hauls them to Mohawk Valley Meats, a USDA facility located about thirty minutes away in Springfield, Oregon. The lamb he sells he purchases directly from Mike and Carla, and his goat meat is raised by another farmer located down the road a ways.

Berkshire pigs in straw

In addition to cattle, Daniel raises pastured chickens and Berkshire hogs.

He is proud of the fact that almost all of the meat he produces originates from within fifty miles of his farm. The one exception to date is that some of his cattle come from central Oregon a couple hundred miles away. He understands that he is somewhat at the mercy of the marketplace. The goal, however, is to keep everything as local as possible, and as his business grows, to partner with other farmers to create a cooperative approach that spreads both the risk and the opportunity throughout the local agricultural community.
These are lofty ambitions for someone who is just getting started, but Daniel believes his motivation, youth, and energy can carry him a long ways. On the other hand, he’s realistic about the challenges and risks, and knows everything could change very quickly.

“I lease this nineteen acres from my dad and Carla, so if anything happens to their farm, this place would be in jeopardy,” Daniel said. “Also, having access to equipment like my dad’s truck and trailer is critical. If I had to buy my own truck and trailer, it would put me out of business. And at this point in my business, if something happened to the animals… if they got sick and I lost them, that would be devastating. But I don’t see that being a whole lot different from starting any kind of business. A lot of things can make it not work, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try.”

The isolation of being so far out into the country also has required both Daniel and Bryn to make a major adjustment.

“I grew up in Portland, and Bryn grew up in Seattle,” explained Daniel. “And as the months go by, we’re realizing more and more that there really just aren’t many people out here, and that’s kind of hard to deal with sometimes. We occasionally talk about it, but we always end up asking ourselves where else are we going to go that we like better. We do like this place. We love coming down here by the creek. It’s beautiful. So as long as we can keep things going, and ultimately growing, we see ourselves being here.”

Read Part 2 of the Sweet Home Meats Story.

This profile was excerpted from Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.

All photos by Lisa D. Holmes. Used with permission.

John Clark Vincent is a writer and author who lives in Portland, Ore. His most recent book, Planting a Future, presents a view of what’s happening within Oregon’s rapidly growing movement toward sustainable farming practices. In an effort to provide a glimpse into the many different aspects of such a surging movement, he uses profiles of 18 different farmers and farm supporters to represent the different elements of Oregon’s farm community. Find John online on his website, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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