Meredith and Bryan Aycock of Willow Hill Family Farm met in Wyoming, where they became interested in sustainable farming and started their family with the birth of Millie in December 2013.
When Meredith's parents offered use of their 100 acre property in Palmyra, Virginia, they jumped on it—packed their things and moved across the country. In the summer of 2015, they started small with pigs, a few laying hens, honey bees, and hops and continue to grow and diversify the farm.
They are now expecting their second child in September of this year.
I met Meredith serendipitously at a playdate for babies born in 2013 and was thrilled to find out we have so much in common. She graciously agreed to be my first interview for my “Homesteading with Kids” blogpost series.
Homesteading with Kids at Willow Hill Family Farm
Whitney: Tell us about who lives with you.
Meredith: It’s Bryan my husband, our two year old Millie, me, and soon-to-be baby (in September) and our two dogs and right on the property – we are in the guest house – are my parents which is awesome because they are built in babysitters and my mom doesn’t work so she basically works for us full-time for no pay.
Tell us the story about your homestead.
My parents lived there first and we were living in Wyoming and we were interested in farming and homesteading but we were living in a townhouse. So they lived here and Millie was born and they said, “you know you want to farm and we have this guest house and land and..." basically just bribed us to move here and come back. I wanted to be closer to family anyways because when you have a kid it’s nice. Millie loves having her grandparents around. Every morning she wants to go to their house.
Yeah I’m lobbying hard for my in-laws to move here for that reason. So why homesteading and why farming? Why were you and Bryan interested to begin with?
We got interested in it at first because of whole foods and healthy eating and then I did a workshare on a farm out in Idaho.
Did you study [farming]?
No, I actually studied accounting. So not at all but I’ve always been into being outside. I grew up with horses. And then I realized how much I love good food—so is Bryan—he’s really into cooking and food and then I did the workshare on the farm and the family there was so great. I just started reading about it. Have you read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle?
It’s good. It took a little while for me to get into it, but then I loved it. I read that and then…I think The Dirty Life [by Kristin Kimball].
I’ve read it a few times now.
I loved it but I have kind of a measured view of it because I think they are a little too hardcore. If I could afford a tractor, I’m going to buy a tractor or get a loan!
They are very hardcore. And yeah that’s what my husband says. “That’s so ridiculous – why are they using [draft] horses! They are just trying to make it hard.”
I really admire what they are doing though.
Me too. [The Dirty Life couple] actually have a few tractors now. They still use the horses for certain things but they are not a horse powered farm. So I don’t know, I just got interested in [farming] after that and I got my mom interested too. She started reading these books and now she’s into it, which is fun.
When you were growing up, did you keep a garden?
No we didn’t. [My mom] got into it a little when I was older. She started a garden, but I was totally not into it— the horses were my thing.
Did you have the horses on your property?
No, I grew up in the suburbs!
I grew up in the suburbs too. So it’s kind of strange looking at raising my own kids now. I have a Platonic ideal of what I want to do, but I don’t know what it looks like in practice!
I know, it’s so hard. Because yeah I grew up running around the neighborhood with the neighborhood kids and so did Bryan— this is a new thing for us.
I know you’ve told me that you come into town Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with Millie—that’s to run errands but also to give her some social interaction?
Can you run me through a typical day? I mean it seems like you have two different days: town days and farm days? Can you walk me through what each of those looks like?
So typically we come into town in the mornings Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I have her signed up for classes in the morning to get us out of the house. Then we will typically go to the grocery store or Tractor Supply—whatever errands we need to run. And then we also pick up food scraps [for our pigs] from Beer Run [on] Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And now Mondays and Fridays we are also picking up scraps from Firefly.
So you pick up the food scraps and head back around lunchtime?
Yes, around lunchtime. That’s when Millie starts to get grumpy and then she usually falls asleep in the car and by the time we get back its usually naptime. I mean, I try to get her to nap. Lately she’s been trying to drop the nap, which has been making it difficult. I’ll clean around the house or if Bryan needs help I’ll do that during naptime. I’ve been trying to establish more of a routine but it’s so hard in this beginning of the farm when [there are] so many things to do and it changes day to day.
We should talk about the scope of what you’re doing! So you started farming last year. How many different vegetables are you growing? How many sales outlets and CSA members?
Last year , we really just grew/did things for ourselves. We raised three pigs and had ten laying hens that were really my mother’s. And Bryan started the hops. He did all the trellising which was a huge project so we have I think 300 hop plants.
John started growing hops back in 2010 and then found out he was allergic to gluten.
He and my dad are really into the hops. But now that we are doing the vegetables, the hops are really taking a backburner.
Is hops something you can harvest the first year or does it take a few years to start?
They harvested it last year, but it wasn’t much. My dad actually started it the year before with 20 plants. We sold a little bit of it to some home brewers. The second year is supposed to be better, but our sheep got out and nibbled on them and killed a bunch.
You have sheep now?
We have sheep, yes. We don’t have goats, we have sheep for meat—lamb—which is interesting. We have some that were bottle-babies, but that’s off topic. My mom had this big garden last year and Bryan helped her with that.
So how did you scale up?
Bryan worked at Bellair Farm last year/summer—a full season—we used that to learn as much as possible. Then this year we plowed the lower fields—they had been farmed before many years ago. But the reason we were doing it down there is 1) the soil is really great by the river and 2) because the well we have is not powerful enough to irrigate that much without totally shutting down our house water. If we irrigate the hops and the strawberry patch from the well, then we can’t use water in our houses. We have the lower fields and the river and we have this thing called a trash pump and it does drip irrigation from the river.
We got really lucky because the property came with two tractors and implements and a bunch of stuff. And we borrowed some stuff from Bellair—they have been really nice about loaning us stuff—chicken processing stuff for instance. So that’s really how we were able to scale up.
We also got a loan. I’ve been amazed by what Bryan has done in a year with the vegetables. My mother also already had a small greenhouse that my dad had built her and—we need a much bigger greenhouse—but we use that and it’s just totally full of vegetable starts.
Then we got pigs. We did all electric fencing for the pigs.
So you just do the CSA and farmer’s markets right now or do you have relationships with any restaurants?
We don’t have any restaurant relationships right now. We have 8 CSA members and then we do the South of the James Market and we just started doing the Hopewell Market which is 30 minutes past Richmond and it’s Saturday afternoons so it just helps us get rid of the produce that we have so we don’t come home with a bunch of stuff and then the Fluvanna Market on Tuesdays. We would like to scale up our CSA a lot because then we would have the money at the beginning of the year to budget and then go to the markets.
Going back to what a typical day is like on your farm, when you’re just on the farm, what time do you get up, what time does Millie get up?
Millie has been sleeping in because she goes to bed so late lately, but we are typically up at like 7. So not super early but Bryan is not a morning person so he will work really late until its pitch black when he comes in.
So you don’t have any milking animals right now?
We actually have a dairy cow, but she’s mostly dried up now. She’s not pregnant— she’s with her baby—we’ve just let her go to the backburner for now. It was her first baby so she wasn’t producing much milk. Milking is such a waste of time. If we were getting a bunch of milk it would be one thing, it would be more worth it but we were getting maybe a quart so it wasn’t worth it.
So we get up, have breakfast, and then I try to do cleaning in the house. Then I’ll try to get Millie to go outside with me to pick strawberries so I can weed the strawberries. Because the garden that was my mom’s we turned into a strawberry patch and a bunch of herbs and that’s right by our house which is nice.
Then lunch and I try to get Millie to do nap or quiet time. And then as much as she can be outside I try to help Bryan, but usually that’s an hour of that and then she’s done.
I think that’s good for managing expectations. I thought I would be outside a lot more than I am, but the kids get so tired in the sun and also they wander and you can’t focus on one task. So you spend an hour outside, then you come in and you cook dinner. What time does Millie go to bed?
She’s been going to bed later but I try to get her down by 8 or 8:30 but she used to go down by 7:30 but that’s not happening anymore. And actually lately we have been so busy…
It’s hard when the sun is up for so long…
Yeah she’s like: ‘it’s not time for night night!’
It used to be when we only had Quincy, we would put him down for bed and we could go outside and work for an hour or two.
Yeah, I know that’s been really difficult. She’s been going down so late and having a hard time going down so now I can’t really get much done after she goes to bed which is driving me crazy, but actually lately we have been eating dinner a lot with my parents. Either she will make dinner or I’ll make dinner because we realized before we don’t have time to make two dinners! Before we would have dinner together once a week because they wanted to give us our space. But now our mom cooks for us a lot. It’s really awesome to have so much food from the farm. Oh my gosh, this is our chicken and dill and salad greens!
And then what time do you and Bryan usually go to bed?
Bryan works late and then we just crash. It’s usually not long after Millie goes down!
I related to that in Kristin Kimball’s book. You just crash so hard after working outside. Especially pregnant!
Yeah. I’ve been oh my gosh—so tired.
With the new baby coming and scaling up—I know you have your mom working for you—but do you have any plans to hire someone? Hopefully?
We’ve talked about that. We would definitely like to have some interns at least. We have had some people interested, but they needed housing and we didn’t have a place to put them up. Especially being so far out, unless you can find someone in Charlottesville that is willing to drive…the people who were interested actually found us on Instagram and one girl lived in Texas and the other was in New york or something and she was interested but needed housing and I was like “we have a guest room but it’s tiny…” Our house is small.
I’m having to do a major purge to make room for this baby, but we’re planning on building a garage with an apartment above it that we were going to put on airbnb but maybe we should reserve that for interns!
I think a lot of them are looking for that and then you pay them a really small stipend. You might be able to get someone to work for just room and board.
You’re only a couple of years into this, but do you have any lessons learned or things you would have done differently when starting out?
Well we really jumped into a lot of things at once. Although it’s a toss up, we are just learning so much and we kind of have to jump into it to figure it out but at the same time it’s overwhelming. Maybe we could have started smaller and done more internship kind of stuff but once you have a family like us you need income. We got lucky that Bryan had a paid internship at Bellair but most internships like that you don’t get paid very much.
Or you get paid in food. So one of my concerns is about waste. What we are planning is a 3 acre orchard with berries, herbs, and veggies mixed in and that will all start fruiting around the same time—in a few years—how do I make sure I have enough customers to consume all of this? Have you experienced much waste since you scaled up so quickly and how do you deal with the waste you do have?
We do end up with stuff at the end of market days. We often harvest too much. But the animals love the extra lettuce and vegetables—the cows, the pigs, and the chickens. And if not, then we compost if something just goes bad.
Thank you Meredith! Excited to share this journey with you!
All images care of Meredith Aycock and Willow Hill Family Farm.
Are you -- or someone you know -- farming or homesteading with kids? I'd love to interview you! Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org