Health and Wellness Through Regenerative Farming
First-generation farming sisters grow loyal customers, social media following
By Ron Nichols
After four undergraduate years of study, six additional graduate years of study and on the eve of defending her mechanical engineering Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Illinois, Ashley Armstrong decided to do the unthinkable: pursue a different career.
Today, 30-year-old Ashley says she still has a vivid memory of the day she told her graduate research advisors that after she finished her Ph.D., she was not going to be a professor or go into research and continue their legacies in academia. Instead, Ashley told them she was going to become a regenerative farmer.
“It was the hardest conversation I think I've ever had,” she says. “I was in tears. And because these advisors give you so much and help fund you through graduate school, it was just so hard.” To her enormous relief, however, the graduate advisors Ashley describes as her “second parents,” were very supportive.
First-generation regenerative farmers Ashley Armstrong, left, and her sister Sarah Armstrong established their 26-acre Angel Acres farm in 2021.
“It made me realize that at the end of the day everyone in your life wants you to do what makes you happy and wants you to do what you're passionate about,” she says. “I realized that no one is going to be upset, no one is going to be angry. They're just going to be happy that you're happy. And so, I think that the positive reaction from that meeting made me realize that it’s okay to do this and pursue something totally different and totally crazy and have the support of people that I look up to a lot. It was a really powerful moment for me.”
But the seeds of Ashley’s new, regenerative journey were planted years before.
As an undergraduate collegiate golfer at Notre Dame University, Ashley says she was “a little bit obsessive” about being perfect in sports, requiring “perfect nutrition,” and perfect exercise—and about “blindly listening to the mainstream health advice.”
To improve the nutrition of their eggs, the Armstrong sisters created their own organic, low in polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) feed that contains no corn, no soy, and no high PUFA ingredients such as flax seed, sunflower seeds or seed oils. The hens have access to fresh pasture daily where they forage on bugs and grasses, plus they receive meat scraps, meat organs, as well as our organic food scraps (fruits, vegetables, and more).
“I was just severely nutrient deficient, running on empty for a number of years and that had some profound negative impacts on my own health in my early and mid-20s,” she says. “Things that I shouldn't have had to deal with at such a young age, including hormonal issues, autoimmune-like symptoms and many others.”
Along the way, Ashley realized it was the mainstream nutrition advice that was as deficient as the food she was consuming. As she researched, then implemented the carnivore diet, she discovered that red meat and healthy animal products are the most nutrient-dense foods one can consume. Although she no longer describes herself as a “full carnivore,” Ashley says that dietary experience was an important step along the way because it allowed her to discover regenerative agriculture.
Facing health challenges together
About the same time as Ashley’s health struggles, her younger sister Sarah was diagnosed with lupus. At that time, Sarah was in her early 20s.
“The doctor told Sarah that she was going to be dealing with lupus for the rest of her life and prescribed drugs just to reduce the symptoms,” Ashley says. “That was a huge red flag and we thought that should not be the only option.”
Ashley describes Sarah (now 27) as her best friend, the two becoming even closer because of the health challenges they have faced together. “We've dug ourselves out of it and we both stumbled upon regenerative agriculture and the benefits of eating animal products together,” Ashley says.
Although she nor her sister come from farming backgrounds, throughout her post-graduate years, Ashley and Sarah volunteered at local farms to learn as much as they could about farming. Ashley subsequently immersed herself in learning more about regenerative agriculture by attending the Soil Health Academy at BDA Farms in 2021, taking Holistic Management courses, and by learning from regenerative pioneers Nicole Masters, Allen Savory and Gabe Brown. It’s also how her passion for regenerative agriculture grew.
Taking a ‘huge risk’
Ashley says that after graduate school, it was time for her to relocate, so she and her sister sold their house to make the down payment on a farm that was “too good to be true” in Marcellus, Michigan, about 40 miles south of Kalamazoo. Just before the outbreak of COVID in 2020, lower land prices made the farm acquisition possible, so Ashley and Sarah took a leap of faith and established what would become the 26-acre Angel Acres farm in 2021.
Describing the move as “a huge risk,” Ashley says the wedding barn on the property provided an additional income stream, allowing the sisters to expand the business by offering wedding and other events at the barn.
“It was definitely a hard couple of years, and I don't know if the path that I we took is one that everyone should take because I don't always advise people to borrow money and be in debt,” she says. “But it's ultimately what my soul was telling me to do. And I had confidence that it was going to work.”
Today, still paying off some of the loans, Ashley says things are “starting to come together,” crediting her team for their success to date. “We also visualized seeing what we wanted in the future and trusting that every single day we were moving closer to that,” she says.
Providing frank advice
Despite the appeal of their lifestyle and success to date, Ashley says the life of a regenerative farmer may not be a good fit for many people. “They're used to traveling a ton and spending money on various material items and going out to eat a lot, which can all get expensive over time,” she says. “I am in no way perfect, but I am a very simple person when it comes down to it. I want food, I want shelter, I want nature, I want happiness.”
The wedding barn on the farm provides an additional income stream in the future for the sister farming partners and is known as The Red Barn at Angel Acres.
Farming, she says, takes “certain sacrifices,” so when consulting with others who are interested in creating a regenerative start up, Ashley delivers frank, but important, advice.
“The sale of our previous home the income that we received from the Strong Sistas wellness business helped us get started,” she says. “It’s an important thing for people to realize because I've seen people go bankrupt in two to three years. Understanding where you're at financially will impact what steps you take forward to pursue your farm, whether that's completely leasing or working at someone else's farm and getting the experience firsthand.”
In addition to the financial challenges, Ashley is also transparent in communicating to prospective start-up farmers the amount of hard, physical labor that’s involved and what’s required in good animal husbandry.
“You really have to be able to put animals needs over your own and that was really hard for me to learn the first year because that's something I never really developed or learned growing up,” she says. “I really think it takes a special type of person to be able to be a part of regenerative agriculture. There are no weekends, no off days, no holidays, it is 365 days a year. Animals need to be fed and taken care of every day. And I don't think that there is enough discussion of how hard it is financially to get started, so I do try to make that abundantly clear when I talk to people about this because, honestly, there are more people that follow us on Instagram that want to do what we're doing more than they want to buy products from us.”
Angel Acres farm provides the eggs, some of the lamb, some of the beef, some of the pork, and a lot of the chicken meat for the recently created Nourish Cooperative, a collective of small, regenerative farms in the area.
Building the business ‘from the soil up’
Fueled by their passion for health and regenerative agriculture, the first-generation, sibling-farming partners focused first on revitalizing their soil and pasture resources to raise healthier food and add life back to the soil. Currently, the sisters are in the process of converting a row crop field (it was used for beans and corn for many years) into a perennial pasture. “We have a long way to go still but we have made some pretty awesome progress,” Ashley says.
That philosophy is front-and-center in the sisters’ management and also in their marketing and social media communications efforts, the latter of which Ashley says helped provide the customer foundation for their latest venture: establishing the Nourish Cooperative, LLC.
“Nourish Cooperative is a collective of small regenerative farms in our area that we’ve created that allows us to provide nutrient-dense food to consumers without us trying to just expand and expand and ultimately become a confinement operation,” Ashley says.
Instead, the sisters decided to create a farming partnership, with their own farm, Angel Acres, as one of the farm partners in the venture. “We provide the eggs, we provide some of the lamb, some of the beef, some of the pork, and we also provide a lot of the chicken meat,” she says.
Ashley has spent the last 6-7 months vetting farm operations, developing new products, and meeting with local farmers to help ensure that the products from the co-op’s partner farms are grown in a way that is consistent with the sisters’ regenerative philosophy. Sarah has led the efforts with developing the website, helping with product ideas, and developing a strong customer trust as she communicates with every single customer.
“It’s honestly been one of the most fulfilling things we’ve ever done.” Ashley says. “A lot of the farmers we are working with are like, ‘Well, I've got to do a 9-5 job to support myself because I don't have a market for my products. I want to just farm full time, but I can't afford to do so,’” Ashley says. “By working with these farmers, we can allow them to be full-time farmers and give them a guaranteed market where I can pay them above what they're getting at the sale barn and I can have a guarantee that their product is going to be purchased.”
The first products from the co-op to their customers were shipped on September 5, while they have been shipping their own eggs for more than two years now.
Ashley says their new co-op venture has been buoyed by the accumulation of followers from their six years of sharing on social media, which allowed them to establish “tremendous trust” with their customers.
“Our customers know that we’ve shared everything we’ve ever done so they trust our vetting, our sourcing and our products,” she says, “It’s been really cool. It really has.”
Growing the team for the future
From the Angel Acres website: “We started with just a few egg layers, and now, thanks to our new team members, we've grown to manage a large flock of hens, grass-fed lamb, forest-raised pigs, and both forest-raised and pasture-raised meat birds.”
One of the key Angel Acres’ team members is Brandon Embree. Sarah and Brandon began dating in early 2022, and Ashley jokingly says she initially gave him a hard time, her duty as “a big sister” to make sure he was in it for the right reasons.
“And he was. He showed that early on when he just started to help out more and more at the farm and packing eggs, and then at some point we were like, ‘Why don't you just join the team?’” Ashley says. “Having Brandon come be a part of the team allows me to focus on my administrative role and I don’t have to do as much of the day-to-day farm tasks like moving the chicken coop and collecting eggs, which also freed up some time for us to be able to get the farm co-op started. He was meant to be a farmer and has done a great job around here.”
Brandon will officially become part of the family next year when he marries Sarah at their wedding venue at their farm, The Red Barns at Angel Acres.
A key Angel Acres partner, Brandon Embree, shown here, is leading the farm’s ventures into pastured, corn- and soy-free pork and chicken, among other projects. He also built the farm’s mobile milking station for the goats, mobile feeding stations for the chickens, led the chicken coop construction, and built the new shipping building.
Coming full circle
Although it seems like a big departure from a career in academia or in the mechanical engineering industry, Ashley says her regenerative farming life and career will always be positively influenced by her years of engineering studies.
“I have to take a step back and realize that my education and experience gave me a way of thinking,” she says. “And I think that way of thinking can be applied to so many things in life—especially related to what I learned in graduate school. I had to really learn how to read research papers, how to dig through the literature, how to criticize research papers, how to find research papers. And that process has benefited me a lot in our health and wellness business, but also in the regenerative ag space.”
Ashley says the value of her advanced engineering degree isn’t a result of the things she memorized or theories she learned in specific classes, but rather how that experience has allowed her to see things from a complete, context-based perspective. “What I appreciated about my mechanical engineering degree is it gave me more of a holistic picture of how things worked or how you should think about complex problems,” she says.
Ashley says her years of engineering study also provided the basis for finding her life’s passion. “I honestly feel so blessed to be even in this position because I am happy that I found purpose, my passion, my obsession,” she says. “I found that thing that made me tick. It’s the thing I just can't stop thinking about.”
Being able pursue her passion, and armed with a holistic engineering mindset, is what Ashley says fuels her from day-to-day. “I feel a responsibility to give as much of my life as I can to this area because it's given me so much,” she says. “And that's kind of what ultimately fueled my decision to pursue this because one of my mentors helped me to see it that way.”
While enjoying some quiet reading time, Ashley is visited by some of the farm’s pasture raised sheep as the sun sets on Angel Acres.
Prestige and pride in farming
Ashley says it’s ironic, if not perplexing, that so many people believe a career in farming is “less prestigious” than a career in academia or mechanical engineering industry.
“There’s a perception that farming is not something that we need to be a part of anymore,” she says, “because it’s industrialized and that food is taken care of by the big guys, so we don't need to worry about it anymore.” Some of her friends and family members have asked Ashley directly why she wanted to give up a higher-paying career in academia or the mechanical engineering industry to grow food because our food needs are “taken care of.”
But for Ashley, the answer is clear. “We are seeing the consequences of someone else growing our food,” she says. “A growing number of people in my generation are saying, ‘We are going to deal with it ourselves.’”
And she’s emphatic that being a regenerative farmer isn't a “lowly position.” “It's the highest, the most prestigious position there is, because health is wealth,” she says, “and if we can help create healthier food, prestige doesn’t matter.”
The regenerative road to health
With more than 90,000 social media followers and customers from nearly every state, the Armstrong sisters recognize there is an appetite for food-and-health related information—and for the access to regenerative food sources. By combining honest, effective communications with the production of regeneratively grown, nutrient dense foods, Angel Acres farm (and their farm cooperative, Nourish Co-Op) is providing nourishment to the bodies and souls of their growing following.
“Everything we do revolves around health and health optimization, and I think that we bring that perspective into the regenerative ag space,” she says. “Sometimes, understanding the connection between food and health is really hard to get across unless you yourself have dealt with health challenges and health problems. We are providing really high quality food, and showing that not only does the way animals raise matter, but WHAT they eat matters, too. Which is why we made our own feed for our layer birds, meat birds, dairy goats and hogs. We are what we eat, eats, and we’ve documented this by lowering the PUFA (specifically, Linoleic Acid, an Omega 6 fatty acid high in vegetable oils) content of our eggs by changing the feed.”
Having experienced the adverse consequences of consuming nutrient-deficient food themselves, the Armstrong sisters are uniquely qualified to communicate the connection between healthier soil and healthier food. “We know, first-hand, that the first step in refining your health is prioritizing where your food is coming from,” Ashley says.
*All photos courtesy Angel Acres.