Asa and Aila Holley of Sisu Farms in Granby were named to the Top 20 Emerging Leaders in Food and Ag earlier this week.
This distinction marks their journey and passion for providing locally grown, quality foods.
“Food is how we nourish our bodies, and we should consider where that is coming from and how it is benefitting us personally, our environment and our economy,” says Aila of their philosophy.
She continues, “Over a period of five or six years, we had been realizing the importance of the quality of food you eat, where it comes from, and sourcing it more locally. It has become a passion of ours.”
Asa and Aila both grew up in Grand County, Granby and the Fraser Valley, respectively. Their families, the Holleys and Waldows have been active in the community for years and, fittingly, the couple met as youngsters in the 4-H program. Currently, Asa’s mom, Tina, owns the Fabric Nook in Granby, and Aila’s mom, Eileen, serves on the Fraser Town Board.
The couple pursued Asa’s dream of film-making and acting and moved to Los Angeles. In 2009, their first of four children was born. When their first-born developed eczema, they found it was from food allergies, which prompted them to begin exploring a whole food diet, including a focus on meat from healthy, naturally-raised animals.
During this time in Los Angeles, Asa also developed his 500-square-foot garden from dirt patches. In its prime, the garden produced 700 pounds of food, including 100 pounds of pumpkins. Noting his successful garden, Asa credits his focus on biodiversity – “The more biodiversity, as in more species and plants interacting together and layered, produces more.”
Asa explains that his 9-foot tomato plants were supported by trellis cucumbers and planted among marigolds, kale, beans and boysenberries. Garlic and onion were used as edging to prevent pests. He asserts, “Companion planting, plants that work well together planted in the proper proximity, makes more stuff in less area.”
In 2018, Asa’s father was ill, and the couple returned to their roots to take over the operation of the Holley’s land and a small herd of Scottish Highland cattle. With a nod to grit, determination and guts, the couple named the farm Sisu Farms. Aila explains “sisu” is a Finnish word and concept she grew up with that doesn’t have an English translation other than a determination, stubbornness and work ethic that will get you through just about anything.
Making the most of the family’s 150 acres, Asa recalled the lessons of biodiversity, and the couple began to implement best practices for regenerative farming, offering their neighbors and community high-quality proteins – namely eggs and meat.
Scottish Highland are well-suited to the higher elevation and colder climate. They are great mothers, sport a heavy coat and have a high rate of conversion – producing leaner cuts of beef.
Asa and Aila also added chickens and pigs to the family’s line-up of farm animals and products they could offer their local community.
“It is very rewarding to provide a local food source for the community,” notes Aila who uses farm lessons to teach her children.
Aila was homeschooled, and she and Asa have continued the tradition with their own kids, now ranging in age from 3-10.
During the COVID 19 stay-at-home orders, the Holleys’ family life was barely interrupted. With a full freezer and their kids already schooling at home, the Holleys found themselves in a position to further help their community.
The Holleys had already been a local source for eggs and meats, but as supplies to stores were interrupted, more and more of their neighbors and friends turned to the Holleys.
Fortuitously, the couple had purchased more pigs than normal earlier in the year and already had dates set for slaughter. Aila admits they ran out of bacon and chops earlier in the spring, but this gave her the opportunity to share lessons on other cuts of the pigs to cook and how to use the whole hog.
Using everything and reducing waste perfectly fits the practices of the Holleys. They work with the public schools during the year to pick up discarded kitchen scraps and with a local brewery to pick up their spent brewers grains to feed to their pigs and chickens.
The couple increased their meat chicken production this year to be able to offer customers fresh chicken into October and have expanded their flock of laying hens to 700, hoping to help meet the demands of the community. “When the stores were out of eggs, we had people lined up in the driveway waiting for eggs,” says Aila.
Even eggs that are broken are not wasted at Sisu Farms; they are fed to the pigs. “The pigs are omnivores and like the eggs,” says Asa.
As the Holleys determine best practices for the farm, they also consider what is in the best interest of the animal. “Does it allow the animal to be in its natural essence? Are the chickens able to peck and scratch? Are the pigs able to root and dig around? Are cows grazing?” Asa explains.
The couple also uses natural treatments for their animals whenever they can. For chicks, they feed unpasteurized milk at 7, 14 and 21 days to prevent coccidiosis, and use apple cider vinegar as a probiotic, and supplement them with liver for riboflavins and other nutrients.
They feed garlic to their pigs for preventive medicine. Garlic is known for its antifungal and antiparasitic properties.
Organic feeds are also used whenever possible. Revisiting the idea of best practices for their farm, Asa asks, “How does it impact the water, the soil and the environment? Is it financially sustainable?”
To ensure best practice for water and soil, the Holleys are adopting a system of rotational grazing to make sure the ground is always disturbed to stimulate growth. Asa explains of this system, “What happens above, happens below.”
The egg chickens travel the field in a camper turned “WinniEggo,” and the meat chickens are moved to fresh grass daily in pasture pens. Aila says, “We have started this summer to train the cattle to electric fence that can be easily moved to be able to rotate them through the fields next summer and beyond.” They are also adding shelters to allow for the pigs to be moved out to pasture all the time.
Farming sustainability is also important to the Holleys. Aila instructs, “Of every dollar spent
at the store, only $0.11 goes to the farmer, because of all the stuff in the middle. When someone buys direct from a farmer, more of their money goes into raising a quality product, and in turn, goes back into the local economy.”
The Holleys believe the pandemic could be causing a shift in production of our foods. Ultimately, they hope this will lead to greater sustainability of quality foods that are more cost effective.
“We are going to see changes,” Aila believes, “Smaller farmers and smaller processing plants who are in a position where they can pivot to things changing are going to benefit from this.
Some of these bigger places that are raising 10,000 hogs on one farm–their ability to shift what they are doing is a lot harder because they are so far into one thing. And mono farms that are only raising one crop are not able to adjust to shift into the markets.”
With all this in mind, the Holleys admit they are just beginning their adventure and will continue learning best practices to create healthy topsoil, animal management and more. Follow the Holleys’ farming adventures on Facebook. For more information or to shop for the best in locally-produced sustainable proteins, go to Sisu.farm.