Michelle Asselin grew up on a dairy farm in Nebraska. Today, she raises cows, pigs and chickens at Harmony Hills Farmstead in northern New York.
As a child, Michelle helped with milking, feeding calves, cleaning bars and other farm chores. She has loved cows and wanted to raise them ever since she was little, though she knew it was hard work. "My dad had 150 Holsteins, and raised his own feed," she said. "He would be up before the cows, and they would be in bed before him. When he entered the dairy buyout program and had to take his cows to slaughter, he cried."
After high school, Michelle went to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to study animal science. While there, she worked in their ruminant nutrition department with cows, sheep and goats. However, she decided school wasn't for her, and got a job as an animal health specialist in the beef research unit in Meade, Neb.
Michelle Asselin and a piglet
(Photo — Yvona Fast)
Next, Michelle joined the U.S. Air Force, and served four years, stationed in Montana. While there, she connected with a lot of ranchers.
"They allowed me to go with them on the fall roundup," she said. "I was able to help with branding and eartagging the animals. There, there are no fence lines. Cattle are branded in springtime, graze in the mountains during the summer, then are sorted by brand in the fall."
Michelle met her husband, Todd, while in Montana.
"He was from Massachusetts," she said. "We were stationed at the same base, and had the same job title, although in different departments."
They were married in 1998 in Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness, one of the last wild places in the continental United States.
After four years in the military for Michelle (and eight for Todd), the couple moved to Grand Rapids, Mich. to attend college.
"We had to find a school that had programs we both wanted to study," she said. She got an Master of Business Administration with an emphasis in accounting. Todd received his Master of Social Work.
While studying in Michigan, they learned that Todd's grandfather was selling his place - 212 acres in northern New York.
"At the time, I worked as an auditor for the state of Michigan; Todd was working two jobs, and we were still full-time students," she said. "Todd asked his grandfather if he would think about the price he wanted before getting a realtor. We prayed about it, and came up with a price we could afford. When Todd talked to gramp a week later, his asking price was to the penny what we could afford. We sold some things and were able to come up with a down payment. So in the spring of 2004, we packed our belongings and moved to northern New York. We both found jobs within a short time. Grandma and gramp were still living here. It was a special time for me to get to know them, to learn Todd's stories of growing up. He spent many summers here as a boy.
"Our place is heavily forested. We started clearing brush by hand, turning it into pasture. It's a lot of hard manual labor. We decided there's got to be a better way. My background was conventional farming, where meat is injected with drugs, hormones, a lot of insecticides are used. I knew I didn't want that. I wanted to use sustainable, humane, natural, environmentally friendly methods: how nature intended for animals to live and be treated. I did a lot of reading and learning.
"We also firmly believe in farming as debt free as possible. We didn't want to have a debt load, as many farmers do, so we didn't take out bank loans. We wanted freedom to make decisions that we felt comfortable with, and didn't want Mr. Banker dictating what we could do.
"In 2006, we purchased our first farm animals: two cows. Since we had an empty barn, we also got five laying hens and a rooster. We were amazed at the flavor of the eggs. Todd wondered if home-raised pork would have the same difference in flavor, so we got our first two pigs for our own meat. They also shared the barn area. In fall, when we processed our own pigs, we were amazed at the flavor. This is how pork is supposed to taste. The following year, wondering if we would notice a similar taste benefit in chicken, we got 25 broilers. We began telling family members about our experience, and sharing the meat with them.
"We try to provide a natural environment, with minimal human intervention. We stuck to those basic principles. I'm very thankful for what God has entrusted for me to take care of - our animals, land, and home - and feel called to be good stewards of God's creation.
"We are a small farm. We want to maintain quality, and don't want to grow too fast. We don't have staff or interns: just the two of us. We're passionate about how our animals are cared for and raised, and haven't met too many people who have the same passion. When my pigs farrow, I want to go to sleep at night knowing that I have done everything I could to ensure the comfort of my mama pig.
"We try hard to educate our customers. Today people are so far removed from the land. Many don't understand that food doesn't come from the grocery store, but from animals, and that those animals have a life. They need to realize that connection, to understand where their product comes from and get to know the farmers who provide it. Then they will gain a respect for the animals' life, and will be able to appreciate the food that's served at a meal."
Michelle proudly displays photos of her pigs at the Saranac Lake Village Market, where she sells every Saturday. She also has many customers who buy meat directly from her home or through her website, www.harmonyhillsfarmstead.com. Several local stores and restaurants also feature Harmony Hills farm products.
"We focus on people who want a high-quality meat in smaller portions," she said. "We mainly sell pieces of meat, rather than whole or half animals. Many customers don't know what to do with a half a cow, and aren't interested in eating all the cuts of meat. Farming is very up and down - not consistent. We appreciate people who can understand that, and work with us."
Todd and Michelle both work full time. Michelle works in accounting, Todd works for Department of Veterans Affairs, with veterans returning home from wars, individuals, families, and groups. He travels a lot, covering four clinics in the North Country.
Michelle talks about the future: "My goal is to work full time on the farm, and dictate more of my schedule. I already do a lot of canning and freezing. Even with our busy schedules, we rarely eat out and eat most of our meals at home. It's hard to get the same quality food at a restaurant. Most of our meals are raised on the farm. The only things we buy at the store are dairy and paper products. Our grocery bill is smaller than average, but we make up for it in man hours: preparing, growing, harvesting doesn't come free, but it is well worth the effort.
"I believe caring for the animals and raising them in the best environment possible is our purpose, that we're destined to do what we're doing. I believe what goes around comes around," Michelle concludes.
In Psalm 65, David praises God for his care of the land:
"You care for the land and water it;
you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water
to provide the people with grain,
for so you have ordained it.
You drench its furrows and level its ridges;
you soften it with showers and bless its crops.
The grasslands of the wilderness overflow;
the hills are clothed with gladness.
The meadows are covered with flocks
and the valleys are mantled with grain;
they shout for joy and sing."
Based on an interview with Yvona Fast. Yvona Fast can be reached at