Our Growing Practices (The Nitty Gritty)

Increasingly, we feel that labels are getting in the way of clean food. Do you want the organic chicken or the local, pastured eggs? What does “certified naturally grown” or “certified humane” mean, practically speaking? That is why we want our farm to be an open book. Come see for yourself. Ask us questions. Labels can be deceiving, but when you walk our fields you can make your own judgment about whether our food is what it purports to be.

What We Do In the Garden

In the vegetable garden, we begin all of our crops from seed or seed stock or sets, with the exception of sweet potatoes, certain tomato varieties, and strawberries. We control weeds by ocultation, hoeing, mulching, and hand weeding. We discourage pests by encouraging beneficial predatory insects, using row covers as a physical barrier, timing successions, and when necessary, squishing bugs! We cover crop our fields in between plantings to build soil organic matter and protect topsoil from erosion. We amend our soil with crushed rock powders, hydrolyzed fish (think Squanto and the first Thanksgiving), soil probiotics, and compost from healthy, unconfined animals (usually our own). We irrigate with water from our pond and wash our vegetables with our well water, which has tested negative for any pathogens. We never use GM seeds, and many of our seed varieties are certified organic. We do much of our winter growing in unheated high tunnels, which allow us to provide fresh green produce locally even when the temperatures outside are below freezing.

What We Do In the Fields

We manage our livestock with three primary goals in mind: happy animals, healthy land, and healthful food. Continual rotation onto fresh, green pasture helps us work toward all three. The animals are happy because they have new things to explore. The land is healthy because the combination of intense grazing and long rest stimulate the soil biota. The food (meat and eggs) are healthful because the animals’ diets include live clovers, grasses, and bugs. We give our pigs and poultry free access to grain-based feed, since they cannot live on grass alone. However, we try to maximize their consumption of our own perennial vegetation. Also, we never use any antibiotics, growth hormones, or parasiticides (a.k.a. “de-wormers”). Sunlight and decomposition (rest) take care of parasites before they cause problems.

Our chicks arrive through the mail 1-2 days after hatching. We raise them in a secure brooder on carbonaceous bedding until they grow their adult feathers and can withstand the temperature fluctuations of the outdoors. After about three weeks in the brooder, the broilers go out onto pasture, where they will spend the remainder of their lives in portable, floorless shelters. The shelters allow them to graze on pasture while protecting them from sun, rain, and predation. We move our shelters to a fresh piece of pasture every day at dawn, when the birds are most active. They chow down on plants, bugs, and any worms they can scratch up. Our turkeys spend the first halves of their lives alongside our chickens. After that, their size and their aggressive grazing dictate that we move them out of the shelters and into paddocks enclosed by electrified poultry netting, which move move once every two days.

In the spring, summer, and fall, we manage our laying hens in much the same way as we manage our turkeys, with portable electric netting that we move once every two days in order to maximize their consumption of pasture. The laying hens are the only animals we keep all year long. We think that pasturing them in the winter would be counterproductive because: 1) the soil biota, which normally incorporate manure, are dormant, 2) there isn’t much in the way of grass or bugs to eat anyway, and 3) it’s cold out there! We feed the hens as much fresh, green matter as we can, but their intake of it is still much less than in the spring, summer, and fall. However, they remain free to express their natural behaviors of running around and scratching for things I can’t see. We keep them on deep carbonaceous bedding and under shelter to protect them from the cold and the snow.

We primarily source our feeder pigs from Ernst Farm. The breeding and management practices of these farms mean that their pigs are better suited to pasture than conventional pigs would be. After “fence-training” the pigs in the barn, we move them onto shaded pasture. We move their paddock every four to seven days so that their natural rooting behavior encourages desirable plant growth, rather than leaving the area stripped barren.

In 2014 we began raising 100% grass-fed cattle and offering our beef for sale on the farm and at farmers markets.  We purchase weaned steers from Steve and Ruth Ann Derenbacher, who have been breeding and raising 100% grass-fed cattle for many years.  Over the course of about 12 months, we then raise the steers to a market weight.  We rotate our steers onto fresh grass every few days in the summer and we give them access to stockpiled forage grass and hay in the winter.  They always have access to a free choice mineral blend.  Our processor hangs our beef for a minimum of two weeks, which ensures tenderness and flavor.

In many ways, our farming practices are (we think) better than organic standards:

* We derive all of our fertility from cover crops, composted manure, hydrolyzed fish, and natural rock powders. Organic standards permit the use of concentrated fertilizer derived from Confined Animal Feed Operation (CAFO) waste.
* We use only the most benign, organically approved pesticides on our crops (Baccilus Thurengiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacteria, neem oil, or soap), and then only rarely, on a small subset of all the crops we grow.  We consider all pesticides, organic or not, as a last resort and we rarely need to turn to them.  There are more than a few pesticides and fungicides permitted under organic standards, and while they are generally less potent than conventional stuff, they can still be toxic to the workers who apply them or the farm environment if overused.
* All of our animals spend most of their lives on fresh, green pasture, where they derive a significant portion of their diet from grass and bugs. While we do not feed them certified organic feed, we do provide our animals a local, freshly milled non-GMO feed. We feel that their quality of life and taste is vastly improved by their “salad bar” diet and ability to express natural behaviors such as scratching and pecking. Organic chickens are only required to have “access” to the out-of-doors. This usually means that, two weeks before slaughter, someone opens a small door on one end of the organic chicken house, through which the chickens might venture into a small yard. They rarely do.
*We slaughter most of our chickens and turkeys on farm. This eliminates the stress of long distance transportation on the birds.

In some areas, we have chosen to depart from permitted organic practices. Here’s why:
*We buy all of our feed from a local, non-GMO farm. They are able to make a ration to exactly our specifications (well, really the Fertrell Company’s specifications) and they grind the feed immediately before we pick it up, ensuring freshness.

*We use pressure-treated lumber to build our chicken shelters. They last much longer this way, and we don’t think the chickens ever nibble on the wood.

*We do source some non-organic seeds. We make our purchasing decisions based more on desired varieties and price than on whether or not seeds are certified organic.  None of our seeds, however, are ever GM.