by Mark Kastel
I admit I’m kind of crazy. I don’t take too many vacations. But I do get out of my office frequently and really enjoy the opportunity to meet our members, and new folks, around the country while visiting their farms.
In the middle of August I was invited to speak at the annual conference sponsored by the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, an excellent group offering the assistance of lawyers to farmers who are involved in direct marketing when they are, all too often, harassed by federal, state and local regulators. As giant corporations sicken and, literally, kill our citizenry, some of our very best and safest farms are finding it harder to operate.
Before my speech in Staunton, Virginia, I met with two excellent farmers. This really pumped me up since I have to, figuratively, swim in the (organic) manure lagoons all too often when doing investigations of giant factory farms gaming the system. When I meet excellent, authentic certified organic farmers, truly walking their talk, it’s a wonderful morale boost.
I first met with Rodney Martin, who I knew when he was a former organic dairy producer living in Pennsylvania. A while back he relocated to the Shenandoah Valley and, in addition to operating an excellent pastured poultry operation, he is a member of a group of Mennonite farmers doing their own distribution of pasture-raised eggs from about 10 farms. Their primary market is the Washington, D.C. metro area, including Whole Foods stores.
Rodney showed me his mobile facilities. I was impressed with his innovations for providing water and feed outdoors and how they are easily relocatable. Rodney and the other farmers he works with, who raise 250 to 1,200 birds each, move their mobile coops every day or every other day.
Unlike larger commercial producers, they let their pullets (young birds) outdoors at 6 to 8 weeks. So before these birds arrive at the farm, and ready for egg production at about 16 weeks, they are already quite familiar and comfortable with being outdoors.
Rodney’s 700 birds are rotated in an 8-acre field giving them 500 square feet each. This is the gold standard. This approach differs dramatically from the 2 square feet, outdoors, that the corporate-friendly National Organic Standards Board recommended for organic poultry operations. (Right now the USDA requires “access to the outdoors” but the specific amount of space is not specified.) It also differs from Organic Valley, the nation’s largest name-brand organic egg purveyor, which requires 5 square feet per bird. Rodney’s approach even exceeds the European Union’s requirements of 43 square feet for organic producers.
In addition to the shade the chickens currently enjoy under the mobile coop, the farmers’ next innovation will be experimenting with pulling some additional flat rack wagons out in the field so the birds can seek comfort underneath.
During the winter months, Rodney simply pulls his mobile coop into an overhang, attached to the barn, and the birds can continue to come and go as weather permits.
From the Martin farm it was a short drive to visit Jesse Hershberger and his son, who milk 140 to 165 cows organically. Their farm was originally purchased by Jesse’s father in 1965. They switched to organic management in 2007.
Illustrating a respect for grazing requirements inherent in organic production, Jesse’s family irrigates and puts a lot of time into managing and clipping (mowing) their pastures to control weeds and promote regrowth after grazing.
I really appreciate both of these busy farmers, on a hot summer day, taking the time to provide me with tours of their operations and tell me their stories, including what initially motivated them to get involved in organics. It’s one of the true joys of my job.
After a day of interesting meetings at the Legal Defense Fund conference we were treated to a wonderful dinner, and tour the next day, at the farm operated by Joel Salatin and his family (currently including four generations).
We ate well. Very well (including a nice doggie bag for my train ride home from Chicago and onto Wisconsin). Although Joel had invited me to his farm on a number of occasions over the years, a grand tour sponsored by the conference I was speaking at was my first opportunity to take him up on the offer and I was excited about it. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
Joel is one of the premier practitioners of intensive grazing of all species of livestock. And of course, he’s a widely respected educator and author.
The tour started with Joel’s “egg-mobile.” Each mobile set-up is rotated in about 50 acres. Joel says it is important to get the birds far away from the site where they were raised so you can break them of their homing habit. And these birds do a lot of beneficial work on the farm, in addition to the eggs they provide, by cleaning up the pastures following beef cattle being rotated through. This greatly reduces insects and harmful parasites and improves fertilization/nutrient retention in the pasture.
The birds need to be locked in the mobile coops for only one day before they imprint on their new homes enough to come in at night and to use the nesting boxes. The first day does take a bit of encouragement to get the birds in. After that, they are pretty much on their own.
Like Rodney Martin, the Salatins pull their mobile coops in a covered shelter in the winter. In their case it’s to giant hoophouses that grow vegetables during the summer. They are joined by hogs and rabbits in the structures.
After viewing the laying hens, we took a look at broilers that are rotated to a new spot of ground every day (using “chicken tractors”), assuring excellent nutrition from fresh grass and pasture improvement. Unlike most commercial operations, these chickens are not living with poor air-quality and in their own excrement.
Next it was over to watch some of the young pigs rooting around in their wooded pasture. I’m telling you, if you are a pig, this would be the life!
Joel’s beef cattle and turkeys all enjoy mobile structures to provide shade, and all these different species are integrated into one management program that continues to improve fertility around the entire farm.
Our tour, which was preceded by a hearty breakfast, was capped off with a great chicken barbecue, a few interesting speeches, and an extended Q&A with the Joel and and his son Daniel .
Winston Churchill once said, “When you find the work you love, you will never work again.”
It’s with great gratitude that I recognize our members who continue to employ me, and other Cornucopia staff, so we can continue to work hard to protect the organic label, and other marketing vehicles that connect farmers and consumers who seek truly authentic food.
Within days I was back in my office refreshed and ready to dive once again, if necessary, into the organic manure lagoon that’s been created by the unholy alliance between corporate agribusiness and the USDA. Through their marketing propaganda, they want to have us believe that the products they sell come from farms like those operated by Rodney Martin, Jesse Hershberger, and Joel Salatin and their families.
Our job is to make sure that these hard-working farm families are not placed at a competitive disadvantage by companies playing fast and loose with the spirit and the letter of the law.