by Courtney Llewellyn
LOUISA, VA – A long commute to work is not a foreign concept for many people today, as a lengthy car ride might be worth it for the right reason. Needing to do it as a farmer is a little tougher, as one can’t be as close to the living things they have to care for. Bruce Johnson, of Dragonfly Farms, was unfortunately all too familiar with that issue until fairly recently.
“A friend of mine called it ‘highway farming,’” Johnson said. In those days, Johnson was managing cattle in three different counties. That changed when he purchased Dragonfly Farms in Louisa, VA, in the autumn of 2017. He has about 300 acres at this one farm and currently has between 180 and 200 head of beef cattle.
Johnson grew up inside Richmond city limits and was originally interested in landscaping as a career, saying he thought he’d get into tree nursery work. That changed when he met his wife, Katherine, a veterinarian, who got him interested in large animals. He has now been farming for 11 years.
When asked why he went the route he did with his cattle, Johnson replied, “I think beef is more approachable than dairy. I didn’t have the set up for a lot of infrastructure when I started.”
With pastures in Louisa and Hanover counties, Johnson chose cattle that were adapted and selected to graze on the grasses in that region. “My cows have always been grass-fed,” he said. Dragonfly Farms produces 100 percent grass-fed and finished beef. “That was always on my radar, even before I got into farming.”
His farm had been used for cattle in the past, but when he bought it it was being used to grow corn and soybeans. Johnson focused on transitioning much of it back to grass immediately, which helped with erosion issues that had begun to take place. He said the grasses at the farm, which is about an hour north of Richmond, can be good perennials, but he’s also growing annuals like sorghum for finishing.
On the first farm he and his wife worked, they had Belted Galloways, adding in a red Angus bull. Today, he has more black Angus. “There is a lot of variation in each breed, so I just want the best cattle that will finish well on grass,” Johnson explained.
In addition to ensuring all his cattle all only grass-fed, Johnson keeps an eye on their overall nutrition by using rotational grazing. “That style of grazing makes more sense,” he said. “I can get more grass from the farm with rotational grazing than I would from just using one pasture. It keeps the land more vigorous.”
Johnson employs direct sales when it comes to his beef, up until recently selling mostly at the Ashland Farmers Market. Making sales there for the past 10 years, he said it is a food-focused, producer-only market where people come to shop. He sells a lot of quarters and halves – about 50 to 60 percent of his sales are in his “bulk orders.” He also does some wholesaling to local grocery stores, but working with restaurants hasn’t really panned out simply because of changing demands.
The direct sales have expanded recently, however, with the opening of the Ashland Meat Company. Johnson is a part owner of the business, which is situated in the renovated Cross Brothers grocery store in Ashland. All he has to do is bring primals in to the store, where a butcher makes his cuts.
“It’s great, because that means I’m now able to sell fresh beef for the first time,” Johnson said. Before the opening of the meat company, his beef was sold packaged and frozen.
As his market expands, so do Johnson’s ambitions. He has more than 2,500 fans on the farm’s Facebook page, and his goal is to keep growing that number as well as his herd numbers. In addition to his cows, he also raises lambs, chickens and recently started four beehives.
“I’m having fun rebuilding this farm, and I can definitely see myself continuing to do this,” he said. “I have years’ worth of projects I’m ready to work on.”
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