Minnesota couple builds duck egg and pastured pork operation on former dairy farm
On land that was farmed as a dairy for over 50 years, Tiffany Tripp and Andy Olson run Graise Farm, where they raise a few hundred ducks for eggs, chickens for eggs and farrow-to-finish pastured pork.
FARIBAULT, Minn. ― When Tiffany Tripp moved back to the farm she grew up at in 2011, she didn't realize just over a decade later she'd be running her own successful operation on it.
Tripp and her husband, Andy Olson, run Graise Farm in Faribault, Minnesota, where they raise a few hundred ducks for eggs, chickens for eggs and farrow-to-finish pastured pork. The couple started the farm in 2015.
After pursuing a college degree in agricultural economics and Spanish, Tripp traveled the world before she returned to her family's farmstead in 2011. From 1944 until 1998, the land where Graise Farm operates now was ran by Tripp's family as a dairy.
"My grandparents, and then my dad farmed here with my mom," said Tripp.
At the time she moved back, the farm was not being used for any operation, as her parents had retired from running the dairy in 1998.
"Besides a couple of years of renting it out, it had sat empty for 15 years," said Tripp.
Tripp and Olson, who didn't grow up on a farm but was always passionate about animals, started their own operation in 2015.
Tripp said they started farming initially to raise their own food.
"We started with chicken eggs, because that was a natural kind of food that we were consuming," she said. "We got our first laying hens actually at the end of 2014, right at the beginning of winter — and we started meeting with a fellow farmer to create our farm plan."
The following year, they started raising more laying hens, along with three feeder pigs, to raise and sell for meat as well as eat themselves.
In 2016, Tripp said they started to branch out more, and became curious about also raising ducks on the farm for eggs as a protein source, along with the chickens and pigs.
"We really knew very little — and it's been a really exciting adventure, I would say," said Tripp.
They started with 30 ducks the first year, and today they raised about 450 laying ducks. The couple sells the duck eggs to people directly from their farm, occasionally at farmers markets but primarily at food co-ops across the Midwest.
Ducks for eggs
The 400-something flock of ducks on Feb. 9 became a bit more animated as Tripp entered the barn which they had built over the pandemic.
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Graise Farm ducks are fed certified organic grains, and the farm's duck eggs are typically jumbo sized. The farm is exempt from licensing eggs under the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Eggs are collected daily, and then washed and inspected by the couple in a room inside of the barn which used to house a herd of dairy cows.
Compared to chickens, ducks tend to be a bit more of a hassle to raise, said Olson. But they also produce more.
"They're a lot messier," he said. "They consume way more feed, consume way more bedding."
But he said, ducks are considered to be "prolific layers" and lay more eggs than chickens do.
"They seem to have a longer season, and their lifespan for laying — and this is all just what we have witnessed— seems to be quite a bit longer than the chickens lifespan of laying an egg," said Olson. "There's some pluses and minuses, but it's all work in progress."
The ducks may be prolific layers, but not so much in the winter, said Tripp, when they "mostly stop laying eggs."
"Currently our ducks of about 400-plus are laying only three duck eggs a day," she said. "By April, that number will be closer to 400 eggs per day."
Tripp said that people look for duck eggs for all different types of reasons.
"There are people that look for duck eggs out of curiosity — some are curious cooks, and they're looking to make something different," said Tripp. "People that are looking for a high protein product will seek out duck eggs, because they're higher in protein."
She said that ducks eggs typically have about 30% more nutrients than chicken eggs do.
Tripp added that culturally, there are some areas in the world that eat more duck eggs. But a large number of their customers seek out duck eggs because it's the only kind of egg they can eat.
"Really the thing that we've learned the most in the last five or six years is people that are allergic to chicken eggs can sometimes eat duck eggs," said Tripp. "So a large number of our customers are people that are seeking out other egg options."
Pigs on pasture
Graise Farm raises pigs on the wooded pasture on their land, feeding them certified organic feed. The pigs currently being raised by the couple were born right before Christmas, so outdoor winter is the only life the herd knows, which Tripp said works well for them. Pigs can also take shelter in one of the insulated huts located on their paddocks.
As Tripp stepped over a single strand of electric polywire on the afternoon of Feb. 9, an easygoing sow exited one of the huts to greet her, lifting its nose for a pet. Graise Farm pigs are accustomed to the same kinds of daily affection as their beloved pets get — belly scratches, pats and head rubs.
Olson said that raising pastured pigs requires collusion between the farmer and animal. By giving pigs at Graise Farm space to roam, shelter and daily checks on water and food, the couple has confidence the animals won't breakout from the fenced pasture.
Even the highest capacity electric fence serves as no more than a psychological barrier for pigs, said Olson, it's all about giving them the right environment, so they don't want to leave.
The couple sells hogs directly to consumers by the half or whole, and the price is based on the hanging weight.
Olson said the land they are farming is coming back to life through the animals they raise on it, particularly the pastured pigs.
"We subscribe to the belief that with animals on the land, we can leave more biology behind, and actually maybe regenerate soil growth biology, instead of just take, take, take," he said. "That was life changing — we never experienced it, and were never on a farm that had it."
He said before they started farming the land, it wasn't being used to its potential.
"There were no cows eaten saplings, there was nobody cutting down trees and taking care of sumac," he said. "(The pigs) go in, and they get rid of the buckthorn, they get rid of the sumac, they take down down saplings that should be taken down."
Becoming more efficient
Tripp said business wise, since the beginning of their operation, they've experienced steady growth.
"Now we're looking at just probably leveling off, I would say, and really working on efficiency," she said. "Just trying to make the farm sustainable for us as humans, and make it easier to farm versus having us having do a lot of manual labor on a regular basis, because we're not young anymore."
Olson said that aspect is important because the land is still set up to be a dairy farm.
"We don't own a cow, so things are much more physically demanding than necessary," he said "And we feel we can alleviate that issue, and so that's what we would like to work towards, before any sustainable growth."
Tripp, who is also the founder of the Cannon Valley Farmers' Market, said the couple is happy to be part of such a vibrant agricultural region.
"It's a really lush area with a lot of really great products, said Tripp of the Cannon Valley region. "I always tell people if they are looking for a product that they can't find, give me a call, because we'll help you find somebody that's raising or growing it."