Farm better: Polk County sheep farm regenerates land

It’s Rafael Bravo’s favorite part of the day, when he moves his sheep to the fresh grass. The sheep know it’s coming. If they see Rafael or his wife Mary, all the mother ewes and young lambs start bleating. They want the grass party they can see right through a moving fence line. They live for the moment each afternoon when they move to a new paddock – a quarter acre of pasture where the grass grows tall and lush.

“If you are there when we feed them, you will see them all running around. They run like little kids – all 40,” says Rafael. “It’s amazing. I like it a lot.”

As soon as they move, the sheep start gorging on grass. As Rafael watches them, what he sees is that the earth is improving. Six years ago, the Bravos retreated to Polk County to start their farm, and even in that short time, Rafael can see the soil becoming more fertile. The grass becomes denser and more nourishing. Sheep give back to the grass, fertilizing it with their manure, and the grass supports strong, healthy sheep.

Rafael looks at this year’s lambs.

“Look at them,” he said. “They are bulky, square and beautiful animals.”

Everything comes back to the ground, he says.

“You see the grass as it is. It’s because of the sheep and the nutrition in the soil. Soil is the number one resource for us. Without good soil, there is nothing. Without weed, we can’t keep anyone.

Retiring to pursue your farming dream

“I always wanted to do this,” says Rafael. “It’s who I am.”

For generations, his family has farmed in Venezuela at the foot of the Andes. He cherishes his memories of working on a horse ranch and sleeping outside in a hammock.

Rafael and Mary met in England, where he went to study agricultural economics. She was from Ohio and was studying biology. After completing their studies abroad, the two courted across international borders for two years. When they decided to get married, Rafael moved to the United States and worked in the agricultural industry. For many years he sourced mushrooms for Campbell’s Soup. Mary earned her Ph.D. and became a neuroscientist and professor at Rutgers University. They raised two children.

But once their children grew up, Rafael felt the time was right to pursue his farming dream.

“Rafael dreamed of retiring on a farm,” says Mary, “and I was happy to make his dream come true.”

He retired from the younger side and Mary partially retired, continuing to teach online.

They found their land in Columbus, North Carolina in 2012, captivated by its rolling hills and sprawling oak trees. The farm is 18 acres, about half woods and half open land. They moved there in 2016 the same day the sheep arrived. Now they also have a cow, chickens, a large garden, beehives and mushroom trunks. They named it San Felipe Farm, a name inherited from a coffee plantation belonging to Rafael’s grandmother.

Chickens feeding at San Felipe Farm, a name inherited from a coffee plantation owned by Rafael Bravo's grandmother.

People told them not to farm in retirement, says Mary. They said it would be too much work. And that’s true. Some days it’s a lot of work.

Still, Rafael says, “People decide to retire in different ways, don’t they? Some people live in cruise ships. People play golf five days a week. We do neither. We love to travel but we only travel once every two years.

Plus, as retirees, they don’t face the same financial pressures they would have faced as young farmers. They had other careers while raising children and saving for retirement. This means they can now keep the business side of farming relatively simple and focus on the parts that bring them joy.

“I love the outdoors,” says Rafael. “You hear the birds. My days are outside and I enjoy it a lot. They start early and don’t finish until late in the evening. There’s a break in the middle and I’m taking a nap and looking forward to it too. I am grateful every day.

What is Regenerative Agriculture?

The Bravos do their best to farm sustainably, even regeneratively, bringing new life to the land. But there were a lot of things they didn’t know about farming, especially in this new place. So, they relied on advice from the Polk County office of the NC Agricultural Extension. For example, when they said they wanted to grow grapes without chemicals, the extension office pointed them to muscadines.

They were right, said Mary; muscadines are indestructible.

“We only grow what thrives,” she says.

After their cherries were decimated by beetles, instead of spraying to kill the pests, they replaced their cherry trees with peach trees.

Rafael explains that they chose sheep because they can be the best livestock for the land. They do not compact the soil like large animals. They also drop small pellets of manure everywhere, compared to large cow pies, so they spread fertilizer over more of the ground.

Meanwhile, their rotational grazing system – a new paddock every day for 25 days – keeps the land healthy. Grass is never overgrazed; the ground does not become bare; and each paddock can recover for nearly a month before the sheep come back.

They use minimal chemicals except for invasive species such as kudzu and hemlock woolly aphids. And they limit inorganic fertilizers to one treatment per year.

For Rafael, the increasingly dense and lush grass is a testament to the growing fertility of the soil. That means all farm animals benefit, he says, including wild animals such as deer, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, owls and all manner of birds and insects.

“There’s very little we’re doing against anybody,” he says, “so things are going to get better for all those plants and animals.

“Even those bugs that go on and off – what do you call them? – fireflies. There have been times when we don’t see them. This year, it almost looks like diamonds are flying. »

Eat an animal you know

The farm provides much of the Bravos’ food – tasty vegetables, fruits, eggs, milk and beef, as well as homemade cheese, butter, yogurt and ice cream.

Meanwhile, farm income comes mainly from sheep. They raise Katahdin sheep, a breed prized for their meat. As they raise increasingly high quality registered Katahdins, most of their female lambs and some of the males are sold for breeding, which the Bravos are happy to see. Yet, ultimately, sheep or their offspring become meat.

Rafael and Mary also eat the calves born to their cow, after the calves have spent around 18 months with their mother.

Many people ask them how they can raise animals for meat when they clearly cherish them. It’s a valid question, says Rafael. He remembers one training when someone asked the instructor, “How can you eat a chicken you know?” She asked in turn, “How can you eat a chicken you don’t know?”

“We know these animals are well cared for,” says Rafael. “We keep them in natural conditions as much as we can. They are with their mother until weaning. They graze, which they are supposed to. They’re in an open space, which is what they’re supposed to do. They are together. They are social.

Mary says, “They all have good days except the last day. I think if you eat meat – and it’s understandable that some people don’t – but if you do, that’s the easiest way to feel good about it.

Yet they eat less meat than before.

She says: “We appreciate it but it’s more something special, I think because we appreciate it more.”

Conserve the earth – every day

This year, the Bravos took their stewardship a step further and protected the farm with a conservation easement owned by Conserving Carolina. The easement guarantees that the land will never be developed; instead, it will be preserved for agriculture, scenic beauty, and wildlife habitat. Rafael also volunteers on the board of Conserving Carolina.

Rafael Bravo fulfilled his dream of retiring to start a farm in Polk County.  Here he tends to a bed of vegetables.

One of the reasons they chose to protect San Felipe Farm is because it means so much to their community.

Mary says, “It’s a very nice farm. I think the view from the road is special. We know a lot of people enjoy it because a lot of people stop here to watch the lambs, but also just to see what we’re up to. You know how they say, if you want to meet people, get a dog? If you want to know your neighbors, just have a few sheep. Everyone came to see us, to see what we were doing, to ask questions, to see if they could take pictures, paint or bring their children.

They welcome visitors and Rafael hopes that some of the young people will take an interest in farming.

“Hopefully we can put the little seed in someone’s head, like I was given,” he says.

The conservation easement guarantees that this land will be there for the next generation to use. And it will be good ground.

Rafael and Mary Bravo with their hives on their farm in Polk County.

“It’s not just the bondage,” says Rafael, “it’s what we do every day that makes the difference. If we keep it in better condition, if we help things to grow more easily, both plants and animals, we feel that we are contributing to the future. For us, it’s every day.

Rose Jenkins Lane is the Director of Communications for Conserving Carolina, a local land trust that protects, restores and inspires appreciation for the natural world. To learn more and become a member, visit