Inventiveness and Business Savvy along with some Help from the Livestock Sustain Farm in Dover, PA
October 26, 2011 | Kelly Hatton
If you looked into one of the rain barrels at Sunnyside Farm, you’d notice three goldfish swimming in the collected rainwater. The fish help prevent algae growth and control mosquito eggs in the stored water, which is captured from the hoop house roof and used to irrigate the farm’s acre of heirloom vegetables. The setup is just one small example of how husband and wife duo Homer Walden and Dru Peters are using creative innovations to farm sustainably on 13 acres in Dover, PA.
Walden and Peters are part of a wave of new farmers seeking viable models for sustainable food production in response to the high environmental and economic costs of conventional farming. The environmental costs of feedlot livestock operations and monoculture crops include emissions from livestock and farm machinery, soil erosion, and loss of overall soil fertility. Separating the cow from the grass necessitates costly inputs including feed, fertilizer and machinery that can leave farmers in a cycle of debt.
At Sunnyside Farm, Walden and Peters have worked to integrate farm elements to reduce their overall costs, conserve natural resources, and maintain the overall health of the farm ecosystem. The farm is a model of symbiosis: each piece contributes to sustaining the farm as a whole, and new elements are added as necessary to fill a niche. For example, a small flock of geese help protect poultry from predators; ducks help control mosquitoes.
The farm began ten years ago as an experiment when Walden set out to prove that pasture-raised poultry tastes better. Walden, an engineer, worked with vocational students at the local high school to design and build a chicken tractor that would provide shelter and allow access to grass, bugs and grubs for poultry. The structure, which sits low to the ground, is light enough to be moved by one person for frequent pasture rotation.
“After that first harvest, the chicken tasted so good and left no hard white fat in the pan after cooking,” said Peters. “We knew we had to farm full time, so we could eat better!”
Now, in addition to raising batches of 600 broiler chickens, Walden and Peters raise 140 turkeys, 9 – 12 cattle and 9 – 12 pigs yearly. They maintain a flock of 200 egg layers, beehives, and also cultivate an acre of organic, heirloom vegetables. And they do it all without a tractor.
“We are most interested in running our farm as our sole source of employment, and at a profit each year,” said Peters. “We want to use as few fossil fuels as possible and support native plants, bugs, birds, butterflies. We found we hate the noise of a tractor as well as the smell of diesel.”
Poultry and pigs are kept in mobile pens, which Walden custom designed to be light enough to be easily moved, but substantial enough to withstand high winds. All pens have open bottoms, allowing livestock access to grass. Pigs dig in the soil, and this ability is put to use in the garden. By pulling the pen down the length of the field, the pigs do the work of digging the garden beds at Sunnyside and thus there’s no need for a rototiller. To keep pathways in the garden clear, Walden designed what he calls a ‘Row Toe Tiller’ where pigs and chickens are rotated in and out of large pens that run the length of the garden rows. Pigs dig up weeds, and the poultry help with bug control.
In the pasture, livestock are rotated to promote animal and soil health alike. Cattle trim tall grass, making way for poultry, who then scratch and fertilize the pasture. Feed is supplemented accordingly: poultry get a ration of non-GMO corn and soybean, pigs get scraps from a local, organic bakery and green grocer, and hay is brought in occasionally during the winter months for cattle.
The majority of Sunnyside’s products are pre-sold through a CSA, and excess chicken and eggs are sold at local Farmers Markets. Walden and Peters have both been able to leave their former careers to farm full-time. In a short time, they’ve developed a model that is both environmentally and financially sustainable. Still, the work is not over. The couple is constantly reevaluating, and looking for ways to continue to make the farm a more self-sustaining and profitable enterprise. In the coming year, they plan to increase the number of broilers chickens by 600 and layers by 50, and to add solar panels to reduce outside energy needs.
“We write a business plan every year, review monthly, have a more extended conversation about what worked and did not work in January,” Peters explained. “We know the costs of our infrastructure and our livestock, feed, insurances, market costs, and seeds.”
Peters advises young farmers to do the same. “Write a business plan,” she said. “Get it reviewed by people who will shoot it full of holes. Rewrite it until it is a solid plan and not an unrealistic dream. Don’t buy equipment that takes years to pay off. It makes you beholden to your banker and your loans, and kills the fun and creativity in having a profitable farm.”