Healthy Food: Nurturing The Natural Process
Cornish Cross Chickens
Gallery: Owens Farm [14 Images] Click any image to expand.
Nate Seigel grew up on a farm outside Mifflinburg where his parents grew and produced food consumed by the family. Seigel returned to live on the farm with his wife Kelly and their two young children with a goal: raise healthy food and teach his children respect for the process.
“For the first time, we’re out of touch with our food source,” said Seigel, general manager of Mifflinburg Lumber and Susquehanna HomeScapes. “There’s something very humbling about farming—nurturing the natural process in what’s become an industrialized farming environment.”
Where we’re at
Concentrated Area Food Operations, or CAFOs, define in large part how the animals we eat are raised. It concentrates large numbers of animals in relatively small and confined places; issues ranging from water and air quality and public health and animal health and welfare concerns abound.
It’s not surprising, then, that the more the public learns about CAFOs, the more alternative options they seek. For Seigel, sustainability is the important factor in farming. “To me that means being a steward of nature,” he said. “How can I make the land my parents own, the farm I live on, better for the generation after me?”
A better way
Seigel’s research led him to Joel Salatin, who runs Polyface, Inc., a family-owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, local-market farm and informational outreach in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. “He’s a big proponent of pastured, naturally raised food,” Seigel learned. “Moving the chickens, and providing a way for them to get fresh air, fresh water, sunlight and unmedicated food, are the keys.”
Seigel settled on raising Cornish Cross chickens, the most popular breed of meat chickens. He starts when they’re a day old and raises them for 8 weeks before sending them to the butcher. The first three weeks they live in a brooder, a large kiddie swimming pool, where they have access to food 12 hours a day.
After three weeks, chickens are moved outside to a chicken tractor, a movable chicken coop with a cover and no floor, lightweight enough to be moved around the yard on a regular basis. It allows the chickens to stay dry, interact with soil and get fresh air.
“They are fed a regimented amount twice a day, which allows them to grow at the pace I want,” said Seigel. “Feeding them intermittently requires them to do a little scratching and pecking in the soil to look for bugs to eat.”
Every morning, Seigel moves the chicken tractor to a fresh plot of grass, which develops soil health. “The nitrogen [in the manure] is one reason the Chesapeake Bay has problems,” Seigel notes. “There’s two issues: one relates to the ability of the soil to absorb the nitrogen and the other is about the amount of nitrogen on top. The chickens scratch and peck, opening up the soil and aerating it—allowing the manure to soak down in, rather than run off.”
At eight weeks, each chicken weighs 4 to 6 pounds when dressed by Eli Reiff’s custom poultry business. Last year, Seigel sold 21 of the chickens he raised to family and friends and kept five for his family to enjoy. This year, he anticipates raising eight rounds of chickens at 30 chickens a piece. In the years ahead, Seigel envisions bigger things: raising 1000 or more chickens a year and expanding to pork, beef and lamb.
“We’re in a crisis right now,” laments Seigel. “The average age of a farmer is 62. There’s no way that 5 percent of the U.S. population can produce food for the entire country. We all need to be more involved. I don’t think about it every day, but when I have a discussion like this, it reminds me there’s more importance to this then just ending up with a frozen chicken in my freezer.”
Caroline and Dave Owens raised pigs and lambs for their own consumption on a 13-acre New Hampshire farm in the 1990s. It wasn’t long before friends and family asked to buy their meat. “Looking back, that’s when the sustainable agriculture movement was beginning,” said Caroline.
The Owens outgrew the farm and moved to a 112-acre farm outside Sunbury. Today, the Owens raise 200 lambs in the spring and the birth process is an educational event the public participates in through Lamb Slumber Parties and Adopt-a-Sheep programs. They also raise chickens, turkeys, pigs and bees sustainably.
Animals are pastured and moved often to allow them to eat grass. Integrated Pest Management is employed to manage disease. “By rotating and managing your grazing, you create much healthier soils,” said Caroline. “All animals are challenged by internal parasites, but they’re species-specific. So we graze horses where sheep have gone to break the sheep worm lifecycle.”
Going their own way
By breeding their own animals, and keeping only mothers that produce the fittest offspring, the Owens raise healthier strains and bypass the use of antibiotics and feed additives. ““People working within industrial models have contracts and obligations—animals have to reach a certain weight by a certain time,” Caroline explained. “We market direct to the consumer, and celebrate diversity. We have small families and families on a budget who want a small pig; the big ones are sold to families with five kids!”
The Owens’ sustainable model affords the freedom to raise heritage strains that retain a breed’s original characteristics. “Hogs have gone through many generations, and made quick genetic progress,” notes Caroline. “The heritage breeds are still good mothers—and have a lot of fat on them to withstand the cold.”
Sustainable practices are enjoying more popularity, Caroline notes, allowing her and fellow PASA farmers to grow their businesses. “More people are talking about sustainability,” she said. “Access to sustainably produced food is fueling that. In Pennsylvania, especially, it’s so easy to buy good meat. More and more families are doing it.”
Commerce in action
The value of sustainability is not lost on businesses who recognize the practicality and market advantage of sourcing locally grown food that focuses on renewability of resources. Weis Markets, for example, promotes partnerships with local businesses and communities to advance sustainable agriculture. In 2015, the company earned a Retail Sustainability Award from Produce Business magazine for its overall corporate sustainability initiatives. The award is presented annually to the most progressive North American grocery retailer for exemplary environmental sustainability and social responsibility efforts. In PA, Weis Markets purchases more than 24 million pounds of locally grown produce.
“We educate our customers on the importance of sustainable and local agriculture practices and provide them the opportunity to purchase fresh and sustainably-produced food and produce from local farmers,” said Dennis Curtin, director of public relations. “We process our own milk and use the excess butterfat to make our Weis Quality Ice Cream. And over 95 percent of our milk comes from Pennsylvania farms.”
Sustainable agriculture focuses on producing food in a way that does not degrade the environment. It’s often characterized by its three main goals: economic profitability, environmental stewardship and social responsibility. Sustainable agriculture is a journey rather than a destination—one in which we all can participate.
To learn more:
Learn more about Joel Salatin’s sustainable farming operation at PolyfaceFarms.com.
Farm tours of Owens Farm are at OwensFarm.com.
Information about sustainability is available from Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) at PASAFarming.org.
More information about Weis Markets’ sustainable team is at WeisMarkets.com/weis-markets-receives-top-honor-for-sustainability.