Nearly three dozen North Carolinians involved in farming visited a local farm and a feed business Saturday as part of a tour of what was for them out-of-state agriculture.

The tour was coordinated by North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents and included Stonehaus Farms near Horsepasture and Performance Livestock and Feeds in Martinsville. The group of about 30 participants included beef, dairy and crop farmers, Extension Community Association (former Extenstion Homemakers) members, members of the Farm Bureau board of directors and about 10 4-H members.

The tour bus left Winston-Salem, N.C., on Thursday. Destinations included Rural Retreat, Wytheville, Blacksburg, Gretna, Troutville and Buchanan. The northernmost stops were first, and then the group worked its way back down south.

Bus driver Randy Pitts of Holiday Tours of Randleman, N.C., said he drove for the farm tour last year and was happy to get the assignment for this year’s tour as well.

“Oh, I love it,” he said. “Good country people, and we all like the same things.”

Their first local spot was Performance Livestock and Feed, which opened in spring 2017 at Redd Level Plant Road in Martinsville.

Touring Performance Feeds “was very neat,” said Carol Jarrell of Lexington, who said learning about “the formula they used to make the different feeds” was interesting.

Not just the ingredients but the method, added Nathan Gobble of Salisbury, N.C.: Performance Feeds uses a system of chutes to send the components of its feed from the individual ingredient bins into the mixture bin, and each chute is unique according to how gravity affects the ingredient it carries. He compared it to feed-mixing at Southern States, which he has seen as well.

Mixing feed “is like making a cake,” said Max Leonard of Lexington.

On the farm

Stonehaus Farms, just off A.L. Philpott Highway, is run by Elliott and Connie Stone, who offer tours and classes on various aspects of sustainable living.

4-H member Nate Bowman, 11 of King, N.C., said of the tour in general, “I liked going to all the different farms and seeing different kinds of animals.”

He said he was surprised by a few he saw at Stonehaus Farms: “I wasn’t expecting to see emus or llamas,” Nate said, “and I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Mediterranean Cross donkey.”

Emily Gobble, 12, of Salisbury, N.C., has two horses and 10 chickens at home, so she really liked seeing the horses and chickens at farms on the tour. As with her family, the Stones don’t kill the chickens after they drop in egg-laying productivity, and she liked that, she said.

Several of the tourists said that normally they notice a stench at farms, but there was no such unpleasantry at Stonehaus.

With 150 animals, the stench would be overpowering if they weren’t on the ball with cleaning, Elliott Stone said, adding that keeping the farm tidy is a big deal to them, so much so that the Virginia Department of Farms had called Stonehaus “one of the cleanest farms in the region.”

“One of the things I thoroughly enjoy is how well the animals are taken care of,” said Lynn Meeks of Lexington, N.C., who added that she has been to Stonehaus Farms five times.

While chatting over lunch, dairy farmer Max Leonard of Lexington said he grows a garden big enough for himself and his three sisters, and they can about 800 to 1,000 jars of food each year. “We don’t go to the grocery store much,” he said with a chuckle.

He gestured to a stone deck big enough for a few tables and said, “People could take the size of that platform there and feed 20 people easily” from a properly tended garden there. However, “a lot of people overplant and can’t take care of it and get disgusted with it.”

Said Elliott Stone: “People say, ‘What does it take to be a farmer?’ – A positive attitude and … to be able to think on your feet. It helps to have good knees.”

“A certain time of the year you have to know how to bleed a turnip for your supply,” added a woman from the next table.

Food for thought

As the group was touring, Connie Stone had been putting the final touches on a buffet-style meal she had prepared.

The meal was served as finger food, with offerings such as deviled eggs. There were fruit kabobs and several mini-entrees of foods speared on toothpicks; Caesar salad bites, with cheese, lettuce, chicken and a crouton on each pick; little cheeseburgers with toppings; and Caprese salad on toothpicks, with tiny rounds of mozzarella cheese in between tiny tomato halves with basil, drizzled in basalmic vinaigrette.

While the group ate, she demonstrated how to make mozzarella cheese. The cheese was finished by the end of their meal, and most tried samples.

She has made 60 to 70 kinds of cheese, she said, saying patience is the key: “Cheese likes everything slow and easy” in preparation.

Of curds and whey

The soft cheeses are the fastest to make; hard cheeses “take days or months before they can be put for aging,” she said. “If you follow any recipe, you can make any cheese that’s out there,” she said.

It starts with the least-processed milk you can get, she said: “If you use ultra-pasteurized milk, it gets slimy.”

She uses whole milk from Homestead Creamery, a local company whose products are sold in Kroger.

It’s also important to use natural water. Municipal water with chlorine in it makes cheese curds too small, she said.

Many people don’t realize that no cheese is yellow naturally. That color comes from a food dye, she said.

She heated a gallon of milk with citric acid to between 88 and 90 degrees, which caused the curd (fat solids) to start separating from the whey (protein-rich liquid). After 5 minutes, she removed the pot from the heat and added rennet.

She then moved a long knife through the liquid, stirring, to break more curd pieces to allow more whey to escape.

It’s only the solid curd that makes the cheese, she said. The liquid whey is not used in cheese, but it can be used in many other applications.

“Whey makes the best protein bread,” she said, adding that it can be substituted for the water required in any bread recipe. Dogs and chickens like to drink it (“you have some of the best eggs, bar none”). Stirring whey to 185 degrees for about 20 minutes makes “some of the best ricotta you’ve had in your life,” she added.

She poured out some whey and reheated the curd to release and pour out more whey. As the whey was pouring out and the curd solidifying, she formed it into a ball and massaged it. As the curd changed into cheese, it became shiny, at which point she pulled and stretched it to activate enzymes. Then the cheese was formed back into a ball – ready to eat just about 20 minutes after the process began.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.

Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.