SUGARBUSH - Life on the farm isn't easy, but the Burke family is making it work.
Sara and Dan Burke own Atlas Hoofed It Farm on state Route 3 in Sugarbush, past Vermontville on the way to Plattsburgh. The farm produces beef and pork as well as eggs from free-range, non-caged chickens. Its products can be found at local restaurants like The Farmhouse in Lake Placid and Eat 'n' Meet Grill and Larder in Saranac Lake.
Dan is originally from the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts; Sara is from the Finger Lakes region of New York. Neither of them grew up on a farm, although both had some ties to agriculture before they launched this one: Dan's father worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Massachusetts, and Sara used to lend a hand at her friends' farms.
Sara Burke checks in on two of her families four draft horses. The Burkes own Atlas Hoofed It Farm, located on a decommissioned missile silo in the town of Franklin.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
Dan and Sara met at Paul Smith's College in the late 1990s. They bought their first farm animals - a pair of draft horses - about 10 years ago and trained them for logging.
"We had like two, three logging jobs, and then the market was not great for horse logging after that," Sara said. "But that kind of got us started."
The Burkes first rented a farm on Goldsmith Road in the town of Franklin for their horses. They planned to buy the farm and purchase some more animals, but it didn't work out. Then, in October 2006, they bought the property in Sugarbush, and Atlas Hoofed It Farm was born.
The 84-acre property isn't your average farm. Home to one of the decommissioned Atlas Missile Silos built by the federal government in the 1960s, Atlas Hoofed It feels like something out of a fairy tale or a children's book. The pigsties have recycled tires for fencing and pickup track caps for shady areas to keep the swine cool. The highland cows roam around freely, and the Burke children - a son, 5, and a daughter, 3 - wander the property barefoot and give the animals creative names like Big Dan, a variation of Old Dan from the novel "Where the Red Fern Grows" by Wilson Rawls.
Selling meat and eggs to local families and restaurants wasn't the original plan, Sara said.
"It had no barn or anything," she said of the property, "but we were kind of in a hurry to buy, because I was pregnant with my son and we needed a place to live and we had the horses and everything. So we, quick, threw up a barn and bought this place. And we had all the land, and it didn't have any pastures. So we were starting to fence things in and make more pastures. And we were like, 'Well, maybe we'll get a couple cows and some chickens or whatever to raise for ourselves.'"
Sara said the family needed to clear some pastures on the land and researched using animals - chickens, pigs and cows - to help do that. That's where the highland cows came in: They're "browsers" as well as grazers, Sara explained, and they'll eat things that other cows won't.
That first summer on the farm, the Burkes had four draft horses, three highland cows, six pigs and a flock of chickens. Now the farm has 22 cows, four draft horses, 21 pigs and more than 45 chickens.
"We started actually with two pigs, and then a bunch of our friends were like, 'Wow, that's really awesome; maybe you'll raise one for us,'" Sara said. "So we thought, if there's actually a demand for this, and we're going to be feeding animals twice a day, every day anyway, maybe it would benefit us and a lot of people to have some local meat available. That's kind of how we got started."
The Burkes soon bought a herd of highland cows from Pat Clelland, who used to own a farm in the town of Duane.
"We were propelled into farming maybe a little bit faster than we would have," Sara said. "It was awesome, and also intimidating."
Farm life can be hectic, Sara said, especially since both she and her husband work elsewhere. Sara is a chemist for the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corporation, while Dan works as a carpenter.
Sara said the income from both jobs is necessary to support the family, but the goal is to one day live wholly off the farm.
"The goal is to get at least one of us here (full-time), and maybe down the road both of us would be awesome," she said. "We're slowly trying to work toward that goal."
With the local food movement gaining momentum every day, some people fantasize about quitting their jobs and taking up life on the farm. Sara has some advice for those folks.
"Don't quit your job!" she joked. "It's not something that's easy or pays off quickly. A highland cow is a slow-growing cow. We raise them for about three years until they're really butcherable for sale purposes. Three years is a long time to put money into something and not get any turnaround."
Holidays and vacations are anything but straightforward for the Burkes. This past Father's Day, while many families were barbecuing or spending time at the beach, the entire Burke family worked two 14-hour days installing fencing.
But the hard work was something they expected, and Sara said she wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's very rewarding," Sara said.