Our lives are filled with moments that help shape who we are, and who we want to become. Sometimes, all it takes is a flash in time, one moment, to completely alter the course of our lives.
Daniel and Hannah Neeleman experienced such an instance while living in Brazil. One day, the couple visited a cattle ranch and witnessed a scene that would change everything — hogs free ranging. Daniel couldn’t stop watching the pigs as they roamed through open pasture, munching on grass side by side with the cattle. They weren’t in pens or locked up in stalls. Instead, they were meandering about enjoying the offerings dropped from mango, guava, star fruit, and cashew trees scattered about the farm. And that’s all it took — that single moment — and the idea for Ballerina Farm was born.
“We have neglected the truth that a good farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, a kind of artist.”
– Wendell Berry
Craftsmanship and artistry run deep in the genetic makeup of both Daniel and Hannah. However, as the poet, writer, and farmer, Wendell Berry, states, neither of those talents is generally associated with farmers. As a former Miss New York City, and graduate of the prestigious Julliard School in dance — performing pirouettes and executing grand jetes, while running a farm, was probably not at the forefront of Hannah’s life plans. And, although Daniel has always had an interest in livestock, I think it’s safe to say that adding a PhD in farming to his BA in history and master’s in business was not on Daniel’s to-do list.
Hannah laughs as she explains, “Daniel and I got married my senior year at Julliard. We were living in New York City — he was working, I was dancing — and after we had our first baby, Daniel told me, ‘You know, I don’t envision our family being raised in New York City.’ So, I knew we wouldn’t end up in the city, but I also didn’t think we’d end up on a farm.”
When Daniel’s work with a start-up Tech company took their family to Brazil for four years, the couple found themselves drawn to the more rural areas of the country. Hannah shares, “[…] on the weekends, whenever we had time, we’d drive through these little farms, and we’d stay on these farms. We would see the farmers milking cows that were out on pasture and raising pasture pork; they had a really beautiful agriculture there, and that is where we fell in love with it. We knew that when we came back to the States we wanted to start our own farm raising pigs and cattle on pasture.”
Upon their return, the Neeleman family landed in the small rural town of Birds Eye, Utah. Where, instead of purchasing a home, they rented a basement apartment and bought one-hundred acres of land. Daniel describes the experience, “We bought our first farm, and it was kind of out in the boonies. There was zero infrastructure; even the fences were falling apart. I still had my day job and Hannah was teaching dance at Utah Valley University, and taking care of our four kids.” The couple lived about 20 minutes away from the farm and would spend their evenings and weekends feeding animals, irrigating, and taking care of everything.
Hannah and Daniel anticipated that they’d be living this ‘double-work’ lifestyle for a while. Daniel figured it might take five or ten years to get the farm up and going; however, the couple was surprised at how quickly they were able to jump into full-time farming. With their combined efforts, hard work, entrepreneurial spirit, craftsmanship, and artistry, it took only two years for Ballerina Farm to see success. The Neeleman’s dream that began in Brazil was finally becoming a reality in Utah — things were looking great — until another spark in time gave them a nudge they were not expecting.
“Our farm in Birds Eye got hit with a wildfire and the whole farm burned down. We felt like there had been a lot of roadblocks to getting infrastructure on the property, building a house, and putting up barns. It was just a lot more than we had anticipated and we thought maybe this [the fire] was a sign from God that we should build elsewhere. And that’s when we saw the Kamas ranch on the market.”
“Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful and most noble employment of man.”
– George Washington
The farmer who owned the ranch was picky — he wasn’t going to sell to just anyone. It was important to him that a farming family purchase the property. “They saw us and they were like, ‘We think that you guys are the next owners of the farm,’” Hannah says. The ranch had a home, a barn, a workshop, and other infrastructure already on it, which allowed Daniel and Hannah to put their boots on and hit the ground running.
The couple moved their animals up to Kamas, started renovating the picturesque white farmhouse, and transformed the workshop into their shipping shop — complete with freezers — they were ready to go. It was 2019 right before all the craziness of Covid hit. Hannah shares, “We felt that we were so fortunate to have all our ducks in a row to be able to support our customers during the pandemic, and ship meat right to their door when there was such a short supply of meat elsewhere.” Both of them expressed immense gratitude for their social media followers as well. Daniel says, “We started our social media page, Ballerina Farm, when we bought the hundred acres and we had our friends and family following. We had like 250 followers, but by the time we sold that farm to come to Kamas, we had about 14,000 followers on Instagram, which seemed like a lot to us. When we put our first batch of animals up for sell, those that had been following the whole story wanted to support us. So, we sold our meat very quickly.”
The Neelemans aren’t shy about the fact that they knew nothing about farming before starting their adventure. Daniel says, “We just jumped in not knowing, but I think that is the best way to do it sometimes. Luckily, there were a lot of good people who wanted to see us succeed, and that definitely helped.” Hannah adds, “Before we had the animals, we had this idea of raising pigs, and raising our kids on a farm. It was all just this happy farm life that we created in our mind, but the reality is that that is not how it works.” On the surface, the past four years of Ballerina Farm’s success may seem, to some, as an idyllic ‘Instagram-picture-perfect-life.’ However, they’d be wrong. Hannah explains, “There’s a lot of sacrifices. There are emotional sacrifices, there are physical sacrifices, and I think that that goes for anyone who is going from a life they are familiar with, to a completely unfamiliar one. I grew up in a city, indoors. I danced all day long in studios. I didn’t know what it meant to be a farmer or raise animals.” Initially, everything took them twice as long and Hannah and Daniel say they made four times the amount of mistakes as other farmers might make. Farming is hard — stewardship over animals can be as gut-wrenching as it is rewarding. Life on a farm means you have the privilege of witnessing breathtaking moments from the miracle of birth to the devastation of death. Farming is a 24/7 365 days a year job — there is no such thing as a day off or a weekend away. Hannah explains, “If a mama pig goes into labor at 2:00 a.m. in the dead of winter we have to be there to assist. These animals and this land are the livelihoods that we need to take care of.”
Daniel and Hannah understand that to make dreams come true you have to be willing to put in the hard work, commitment, and sacrifice. They attribute their positive work and life ethics to their parents. Daniel shares, “Both of our parents are business owners. I grew up thinking that you went to school, and that was part of the learning process, but once you were ready it was time to start your own business — that’s just what you did. Hannah’s family is kind of the same way. Most of my siblings have their own businesses, and all of Hannah’s siblings have their own businesses.” So, it makes perfect sense that falling in love with farming would eventually lead Daniel and Hannah to create a unique niche in the business of farming. Daniel continues, “Hannah’s only request was that when we started our business, we work together — and that’s worked out well for us.”
“Hannah and I always knew that with a small farm, we’d have to do things a little more unconventionally than the bigger farms because we don’t have a lot of ground, and we don’t have a lot of animals, and a big part of that for us has always been telling our story.”
“Agriculture is our wisest pursuit because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.”
– Thomas Jefferson
With today’s modern technology, and the use of social media, the Neelemans have been able to share their story with the world. As of this writing, Ballerina Farm’s Instagram has 5.9 million followers! Aside from the gorgeous photos and videos, I believe part of the appeal is that, in a way, a lot of us crave a more simplistic lifestyle, the ability to spend time with family, to enjoy open and honest dialogue around the table with a home-cooked meal and those we cherish most. It is a privilege that many either don’t have the means or the family to experience — this is not lost on Hannah or Daniel — they are quite aware of their unique position. Hannah beautifully expresses, “I am with my family every day, we work together, we learn together, we struggle together, we share countless, priceless moments that very few people in this world get to have, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
The desire to tell their story does not come from a place of boasting — it comes from a genuine love of others and a desire for them to know the joy they have felt. And, to encourage those who want to carve out their own small business or family farm. To help the small ‘farmer’ succeed and avoid some of the mistakes they may have made — and frankly, Hannah and Daniel legitimately just enjoy bringing others along with them on their journey. Daniel says it well, “We wanted to create a space for people here that is different than what everyone else is giving them. Let’s just try to show them what farming is about. I want to bring small farms back. I’m tired of seeing the dairy farmer that only has 40 or 80 cows shut down his operation because he can’t make a living — he should be able to market his product to the consumer, and be able to sell that product at a good price, and support a family on it.”
Hannah creates her videos with the hope that those who want to do what she is doing, know it’s attainable. “I think there is so much you can do on a small scale to support your family. Get some chickens, have a little garden, get a sourdough starter and make your own bread. If you have the property, save up a bit to get a couple of sheep or a milk cow for fresh milk; these are all things that you can do on an acre or less and you’ll feel so much more self-reliant, and it will be really satisfying.” She credits her parents for instilling in her the desire to ‘homestead.’ Although there were times when they struggled, and had to get creative, her parents always found a way to have a garden and purchase a cow from their neighbor’s ranch to put in the freezer. It was always important to them to know where their food came from. “It brings me so much joy to know that I made the sourdough, and the animals come from our farm, and the milk is fresh and raw, and it’s from our cow. It’s a different level of gratitude and appreciation and less waste. It brings a different spirit into your home. I think that it is important for all of us to get connected to food, however, whatever, that means to you, and however you can, wherever you’re at in your life.”
Ballerina Farm is truly a family farm. As they have grown and had to bring in ranch hands and others to help meet the demands of their growing business, they have looked to the community they have come to love. Almost everyone that works at the farm is local and, both the Neelemans and those who work with them, have expressed deep gratitude for the opportunities to not only work close to home but to work with friends, who are like family. Speaking of, the adorable, wild, Neeleman kiddos also pitch in every day. Daniel shares, “They love to work either at the shop or with the ranch hands doing chores with them. They love to earn their own money. If they are on the clock working then they get paid.” Hannah explains the importance and benefits of learning to work and a good education, “I love seeing how the kids feel a sense of responsibility. I think animals teach children how to be responsible. If they have a chore and it doesn’t get done, someone else is going to be hurting you know, the animals will go hungry. They feel a responsibility to take care of these animals, and to be good stewards of the livestock. They help with the bottle lambs and the milk cow. It gets them outside and gets them working, and they develop a sense of ownership which is really cool to see.” She continues, “We homeschool our kids. We bring in a teacher, our neighbor (she’s so good), to teach them three times a week. She leaves us homework, and Daniel and I work with them on the other two days.”
Being responsible for a growing family and a growing business can be daunting, but the Neelemans know with the support and help of their hard-working and dedicated ‘farm family’ they can meet the challenges and obstacles that come their way. For now, they are all excited and grateful for the growth and the new opportunities to connect more with the community and those who wish to visit the beautiful Kamas Valley.
Daniel states, “We have some pretty cool things on the horizon. We are putting up a 150 jersey cow dairy here at the farm. And, we are building a creamery in Kamas right now along with a farm store and café. Customers will have the opportunity to see our showroom of non-food items, as well as our food items, our beef and pork, we’ll have baked goods from our chefs here, and dairy products — including ice cream! Everything will be made here at the creamery or locally. We’re still working on the menu for the café, but we’ll have croissants made with our butter, and bratwurst on a bun or a hamburger with our hamburger. We want people to have the opportunity to eat some fresh hot food right here from products made right here.” The new creamery and farm store/café will also be a sort of living farm where visitors can come and witness all the action. Hannah adds, “We want the creamery to be a good representation of what Ballerina Farm is. We’ll have all the chickens over there with the eggs, we’ll have all the fresh farm products, gardens, and greenhouses, and we’ll have some bottle calves and pigs. We hope to give people an idea of how a working farm works.” If you’re lucky you’ll get to watch as the milk truck makes its two-mile trek from Ballerina Farm to the creamery. The hope is to open before the snow falls, but you have to admit — a grand opening in spring with all the new babies would be so fun! And, for those of you with subscriptions, don’t worry, all that delicious heritage pork and dry-aged beef will still be available to ship from the farm to your doorstep. Now, you can also plan a trip to visit the majestic mountains Ballerina Farm is nestled in.
“Our best moments are the foundations we use to reach for the sky.”
– Yumi and the Nightmare Painter by Brandon Sanderson
From that first moment mesmerized by a passel of pigs grazing on beautiful Brazilian pastures to the first surreal seconds taking in the view of their pigs grazing on lush Kamas Valley pastures, Daniel, Hannah, and their children have experienced countless moments; laying a foundation for themselves, their posterity, and those whose lives they’ve touched, to reach for their dreams. As the story they share is ever evolving, Hannah sums the moments up perfectly, “Everyone was shocked when we actually became pig farmers, and I think that they imagine that after some time the farm will eventually lose its magic, and we will regret doing all of this, but the truth is the farm becomes more magical every single day.”