Breaking into the Egg Business

By Kelly Klober

Perhaps the best place to begin a discussion about the egg business would be with the egg itself. There is just a nine-ounce difference between a dozen medium and a dozen jumbo eggs. A dozen large eggs, the standard in the retail mar­ketplace, weighs twenty-four ounces. A dozen medium eggs, commonly used in the food service sector, weighs twenty-one ounces—just three ounces less. These slight dif­ferences can become big factors when calculating what it costs to produce a dozen eggs.

Egg business growth needs improved production
A six-pound hen that lays two or three eggs per week will eat as much as one that lays five or six.

Egg grades—AA, A, and B—have nothing to do with egg size or shell color. Rather they are used to rate shell cleanliness and uniformity and the condition of the egg’s interior. Under examination and candling, an AA egg will have a clean, unbroken shell with even shape and shell surface. The air cell will be 1/18th-inch or less in depth, and regular in shape. The white will appear clean and firm, and the yolk will be centered and free of defects.

An A-quality egg will also have a clean and unbroken shell. The air cell will be 1/4-inch or less in depth and fairly uniform. The white should be clear, although not quite as firm as that of the AA egg. The yolk should be fairly centered, have a more defined outline, and should also be free of de­fects such as meat or blood spots.

The AA and A grades are re­ferred to as “table eggs.” The fancy, more naturally produced table egg is at the core of the modern rise in poultry keeping. For many it has been encap­sulated in the large and extra-large brown-shelled egg. These brown eggs are not always the most economical to produce, though, and neither size nor shell color are mandated in the production of heritage, cage-free, organic, or any other value-adding production mea­sure.

Egg Business: Improving Performance

“Brown-shelled egg” is a descriptive term that is becoming as commonplace and unexciting as “two-door sedan” or “generic peanut butter.”

Eggs from specific regional breeds appear to be an emerging market. An Amish client called with a question about poor egg production, and the solution we arrived at was to develop better performing Ameraucana chick­ens. The challenge was to find the necessary genetics and then to breed them up to levels of perfor­mance that will make his market niche truly profitable. We agreed that he would develop a green-and-blue egg true breed.

large brown eggs produced by less-productive breeds
The root to success with a laying flock, regardless of the breed, is to make the long-term commitment to careful breeding and performance upgrading.

The root to success with a laying flock, regardless of the breed, is to make the long-term commitment to careful breeding and performance upgrading. There have been a lot of fad breeds in poultry keeping of late, and many are not high per­formers in the laying house. Others have not been held to any performance standard for many decades or were not bred to maintain, let alone improve, per­formance.

Fortunately, there are a great many pure breeds with practical roots from which to select, and within these there are often a great many color and pattern varietals. The Plymouth Rock, for example, has name recognition on par with Chevrolet or Black Angus beef. The White and Barred varietals are the most generally recognized breeds, but are perhaps a bit too commonplace for some modern niche marketers.

There are, however, Buff, Silver Penciled, Partridge, Co­lumbian, and Blue varieties of the Plymouth Rock. All but the Blue have been recognized by the American Poultry Association for over a hundred years. The Buff and the Partridge varieties have the look and also the history to be highly marketable. The American Poultry Association Standard of Perfec­tion lists sixteen Leghorn varietals, and the Society for the Preser­vation of Poultry Antiquities has documented several more, including Duckwing varieties and the Exchequer Leghorn.

If we are to follow the historical example, the next step after selection and breed preservation should be the propagation of those breed-specific flocks for improving economic performance. Richly-colored eggs will be only a market of the moment if they cannot go on to be profitable.

A short burst of popularity is not enough on which to launch an egg business. Novelty will get you a look-see, but only by consistently delivering the goods is a business built. The Exchequer Leghorn—the ‘Scottish Leghorn’—had such a recent flower­ing of interest. It is one of the largest of the Leg­horn varietals, with a distinctive white and black hatched pattern. It has an appealing image, but there were only small populations, and early on in the flurry of interest many farmers encountered prob­lems with its color pattern, leg color, mature size, and genetic purity.

It was not the uber-Leghorn for range pro­duction and certainly suffered from too much early de­mand. A lot of chickens got shipped that shouldn’t have been hatched. It is still a worthy bird, though, for those willing to take the time to learn its his­tory and then get serious about making it an economically important breed again.

Many of these same points could be made about the much more common Light Brown Leghorn. Even within my lifetime, interest has fluctuated way up and down for this breed. When I was younger many hatcheries boasted about their strains of Danish Brown Leghorns and filled many catalog pages with their accomplishments.

It will take roughly fifty or sixty years before the Light Brown Leghorn and most other heritage breeds are restored to anywhere near their former levels of productivity. Consumers who buy these “special” eggs will reward producers for their good efforts and will again make the farm-fresh local egg a valuable resource.

Egg Shell Color & Productivity

Large brown eggs are generally pro­duced by larger, less productive chicken breeds. They require more feed per doz­en and housing space, and annual per-hen output is often much lower than with some of the white egg laying breeds. The large white egg is the traditional egg for many U.S. consumers, and the economic temper of the times could eventually point to a growing number of heritage-bred, white egg flocks profiting from the production of heirloom and natural large and even medium white eggs.

easter eggers produce colored eggs
There is a demand for colored eggs, but the birds that produce them have never been bred for increased productivity.

The bargain hunters and the price-driven consumers are going to shop the retail outlets where factory-farmed eggs are still treated as loss leaders. In these market outlets, eggs are sold at a loss to get people into the store; this is not the market venue for independent egg producers with their heritage breeds.

We are still in a somewhat flag­ging economy, and while the case can be made to price a dozen extra-large, brown, organic eggs at $4, fewer and fewer people have room in their budgets for this up­scale item. Consumers know that there are differences in eggs—the nightly news tells them that often enough—but not all the goodness and freshness is wrapped up in big and bigger brown-shelled eggs.

The small flock producer knows just how much individualized spin he or she can put on an egg and still market it profitably in optimal numbers. The transition from hen numbers in the tens to hen numbers in the hundreds is one very big step upward and outward, be­cause the producer will have to reach well beyond the farm gate to get those numbers sold. Farmers must acquire genetics with dependable productivi­ty, find steady buyers, and devise a plan of operation from breeding to marketing.

I recently fielded a call from an Amish farmer that had found a niche in the $2 to $2.50 per dozen range for green-hued eggs. He had invested in five hundred “Easter Egger” pullets and was encountering problems with per-bird productivity. The Easter Eggers too often skate along on the nov­elty of producing some green and a few blue eggs. There is a demand for such colored eggs, but the birds that produce them have never been taken in hand and bred for increasing productivity. A six-pound hen that lays two or three eggs per week will eat as much as one that lays five or six.

That said, I should add that you can’t starve a profit out of a bird. The benefit of putting layers on pasture is not that it drastically decreases feed costs, but rather that it allows birds exercise, exposure to sunlight, and access to additions to their diet in the form of insects, seeds, and greens.

Birds on range should be left on full feed. Ranging activities and weather stress may reduce or even increase food consumption. Either way, the birds need regular access to a well-formulated ra­tion offered as a full feed. Chickens are not grazers. They are omnivores with a strong reliance upon seeds and even some animal protein; too much greenery can bind their crops.

A neighbor feeds the same base ra­tion I do—a plant-based feed formula—and promotes his eggs as being produced on a vegetable diet. His birds also freely range and freely and eagerly consume any number of animal protein forms (worms, insects, and the odd baby mouse or small lizard). In other words, his birds are as bloody of beak and talon as any of the hunting raptors that soar above.

It is up to the individual producer to set the spin and find the niche that will enable him or her to profit from an egg venture. Organic is going to remain one of the priciest production methods, and cage-free eggs are be­coming ever more commonplace.

Due to the local and artisanal move­ments in foods and farming, what adds substantial value now and for the fore­seeable future is the presence of the producer’s hand on the egg carton. To express that most simply, the producer has to take a “my hens/my eggs” stance from farm to fork.

The best way for a consumer to know that an egg is farm-fresh is to buy it from the farmer. And the farmer has to establish a strong relationship with his or her customers. This can begin with a farm name, production data, and contact in­formation on the label atop each carton of eggs.

It does no good to make an egg special if you fail to inform the buyer why and how you made them special. Until the shell is cracked, the only thing that gives an egg business value is what the farmer says.

This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Kelly Klober specializes in raising livestock using natural methods. He is the author of Talking Chicken, Beyond the Chicken, and Dirt Hog: A Hands-On Guide to Raising Pigs Outdoors… Naturally, all of which are available from Acres U.S.A.

Wool Artist Supports Fiber Farmers

By Abbey Smith

Lani Estill at the Warner Mountain Weavers shop in Cedarville, California.

Lani Estill met me at her shop in downtown Cedarville, California, and showed me pictures of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We sat in the store, surrounded by brilliantly colored yarn, soft and earthy colored scarves, hats and rugs, and Estill shuddered as we scrolled through picture after picture of the pile of plastic the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean.

“The sixth-graders wrote essays about it today,” said Estill. As is common in rural communities, she wears many hats. In addition to being a fiber artist and rancher, she is also a substitute teacher at Surprise Valley Joint Unified School District, where her son attends school.

“Some companies boast that they make products out of recycled plastic. But it is still plastic. It still goes into our rivers, oceans, land and our bodies,” she said.

This is why Estill uses natural dyes and sells combed top wool, yarn and fabric products to artisans, who turn them into beautiful (and warm) garments. Her business, Lani’s Lana (“lana” is Spanish for wool), is located inside Warner Mountain Weavers, and her online store also includes garments such as hats and scarves produced from her wool.

“It is the right thing to do,” she said. “Once you’ve woken up, you have to something about it.”

Estill grew up in Cedarville — population 514 — and is proud to operate her fiber artist business on Main Street. Besides her dedication to reviving rural communities, Estill has practical reasons for setting up shop in this tiny town.

“It is less expensive to operate and to live here,” she said. “I can run an online store, have a retail presence and still do everything else I want to do.” Everything else includes substitute teaching at her youngest son’s school, serving on the Surprise Valley Education Foundation board and devoting herself to environmental causes as president of the Vya Conservation District. She is also a founding member of the Northern California Fibershed Cooperative.

As a mother of four children, a grandmother of one and a person deeply involved in her community, she still finds time to hike (usually to collect natural dye materials), ski and knit.

“Lani’s Lana is very important to small rural communities like Surprise Valley because it reminds us to believe in our dreams,” said fellow Surprise Valley Education Foundation board member and Surprise Valley resident, Sarah Diven.

The Estill family farm, Bare Ranch, is home to the flock of Rambouillet sheep that produce the wool featured in Lani’s Lana products.

Hands at work.

As a member of Fibershed, a California-based organization that supports regenerative fiber systems, Lani’s Lana products never leave the United States for production.

“Why would we send our wool to China when we can put people to work here?” said Estill. In addition to focusing on regionalized production, Fibershed supported Estill in creating a Carbon Farm Plan for Bare Ranch. It is estimated that the implementation of this plan sequesters 4,068 metric tons of CO2 annually. This means that the wool produced by Lani’s Lana is climate beneficial.

“I could not do what I do without Fibershed,” said Estill. They provide business support, graphic design and other services for producers in their network.

Scaling Up

The Estill family purchased Bare Ranch in 2003 to raise cattle. In 2007 they expanded their sheep enterprise. Fiber arts started as a hobby. Her interest piqued while working on an Ag in the Classroom project as a member of the local Cattlewomen’s Association.

Bonnie Chase, Estill’s mentor and friend, and the owner of Warner Mountain Weavers, taught her to weave and spin. “She said there is never a good time to learn — you just have to start,” Estill recalls. So she did. And she loved it.

Fibershed helped her turn her hobby into a business. She started milling with 30 pounds of wool at a small mill. Then she milled 600 pounds. Then 1,000 pounds were sent off to Mountain Meadows, in Buffalo, Wyoming. Today she produces more than 20,000 pounds and sells to well-known brands such as North Face, Pendleton Woolen Mills and Brooklyn Tweed.

“We can help any scale producer find their niche,” Fibershed founder Rebecca Burgess said. “We focus on healing the relationship between the producer and end user. It has become so opaque. We help create transparency for the end user.”

Burgess explained further that, “There are amazing products, such as grass-fed beef, ending up in dog food. Developing direct markets is a challenge, but Lani has so much to work with. There is a real opportunity to make a difference.”

Estill said that diversified product offerings are key to her success. Larger companies purchase combed top, but professional and hobby fiber artists purchase yarn and fabric.

Wool From Sheep to Scarf

Lani’s Lana products start as protective coats for thousands of Rambouillet sheep that roam in bands across Bare Ranch — which covers areas of northeastern California and northwestern Nevada. Sheep shearing is an annual event in May on sheep operations such as Estill’s.

After the sheep are relieved of their winter coats they head out into the spring meadows and their fleeces are sent to Chargeurs Wool in South Carolina where they are turned into clean, fluffy, soft combed top.

Chargeurs Wool is the last commercially sized American combed top maker.

The combed top comes back to be sold by Lani’s Lana. Other wool continues along the production chain to be turned into yarn or fabric. Jagger Spun in Springvale, Maine, makes the yarn. Skeins are made at Maine Dye and Textiles in Saco, Maine. Fabric-fated wool goes on from Jagger Spun to Houston Textile Company in Rancho Cordova, California. Fabric and yarn then return to Cedarville, where Estill adds labels and, for some, small batch natural dyeing.

Adding Color with Natural Dyes

Natural dyes are mostly plant-based, Estill explained, although some do come from insects. Estill’s fiber products are dyed with materials gathered in Surprise Valley. These include wild sunflower, wolf moss lichen and madder root, which is grown by Surprise Valley gardeners. A small planter box of it grows outside the Warner Mountain Weavers shop.

Lani’s yarn is dyed using natural products such as indigo leaves, madder root and wolf moss lichen.

“Madder is my favorite,” said Surprise Valley gardener Kay Antunez de Mayolo, who grows madder root for Lani’s Lana products. “The scarlet red to orange dye comes from the mature roots of several related madder species found in different parts of the world. It takes several years for the roots to mature. My crop is now on year six and producing a few pounds of dyestuff. Madder is a direct dye, meaning that by carefully simmering the soaked roots, the dye is released and can be transferred to fiber.”

Some materials can be gathered from kitchen scraps such as onion skins and avocado pits and skins. Some dyes are imported, such as the cochineal beetle from Mexico and Peru. Lac is another beetle, and Brazilwood dye is made from the bark of the Brazilwood tree.

Burgess grows indigo plants, which are used to turn white wool into a beautiful deep blue color. Most commercially produced indigo is a powder made from tropical plants.

There is a temperate climate species, though, which Burgess discovered. It is grown in Japan where the same processing methods have been in practice since the 1600s. She worked with Japanese farmers to learn and “gently modernize” the ancient process, even inviting them to her California farm to collaborate with her.

“We needed to break from tradition just enough to get it out to more people,” said Burgess. She learned that a good crop is about a half acre of indigo. This will produce 300 to 400 pounds of dried indigo leaves. Twenty-five pounds of Burgess’ dried indigo leaves and flowers were fermented, using a Japanese process and sent to Estill. Bacteria eat the cellulose in the leaves, Burgess explained, leaving the blue pigment behind.

In the quiet back room of Warner Mountain Weavers sits a vat of indigo dye. It took 12 days to make. First, Estill explained, hardwood ash water was created. The water was siphoned off and added to the sukumo. Wheat bran and pickling lime were then added to the mixture.

All the products in the process are accessible, said Burgess. It does not require any synthetic compounds. The mixture was created in November 2017 and was used for small batch dyes through March 2018.

Before leaving the cozy shop, I asked Estill why she scaled up. Why was it not enough to have a fiber arts hobby? Like Estill herself, the answer was both practical and visionary.

“As I dabbled at the hobby level, I realized that I could make it a business. It became what I really wanted to do. I realized it could be profitable and fun. I wasn’t always this ‘environmental,’ but we cannot stay on the course we are on. There are things we can do to make a difference in the health of our communities, our environment, our soils. We just have to do it. We have to make natural fibers available to people in our region.”

Learn more about natural dyes and Lani’s Lana products. To see and feel Estill’s soft, warm fiber products, plan a trip to far Northeastern California. The shop is located at 459 South Main Street, Cedarville, California.

Bonnie Chase and Lani Estill offer classes at the historic Warner Mountain Weavers shop. A Wool Gathering is planned for September 7, 8 and 9. There are also classes on spinning, natural dyes and knitting.

This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Abbey Smith is a leader of the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, a Savory Global Network hub serving Northern California and Nevada. She is proud to call Lani Estill her friend and neighbor in rural Surprise Valley. Their children attend the same elementary school and they both serve on the Surprise Valley Education Foundation board.

CSA Creates Community Connection

By Francesca Camillo.

There is a duality to the benefits of CSA, and nearly every point in the food network receives gains. People in the community are better able to forge strong relationships with the farmers producing food around them, and food is distributed and enjoyed locally.

Spiral Path Farm, owned by Michael (Mike) and Terra Brownback, is a prolific organic farm resting on silt loam and flinty soil in western Pennsylvania’s Perry County. Although neither had deep agrarian family roots, plucking from and merging a dedication to the land from their respective histories, they’ve created robust, fruitful environs on the original 56 acres when the farm was established in 1978. That eventually swelled to the current 255 acres when they were able to acquire adjacent land.

The farm is broken into two sections, making approximately 160 acres of the total 255 tillable and ready to support their meticulous rotational scheme.

“We do tillage on vegetable land,” said Mike, making about 80 acres prime for vegetables. “The rest of the land is in semi-permanent fallow. We have a lot of good buffers that are woodland.” The remainder of untilled acreage is “very important because it’s part of our watershed and helps with infiltration and recharges our aquifer.”

Spiral Path Farm is situated within the Susquehanna River Watershed and is part of the Tonoloway Formation, which houses a limestone aquifer.

The family takes pride in being mindful of the synergy between the health of the land and their interactions with it, ensuring a balance between input and output.

Sweet corn at Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania.
Sweet corn at Spiral Path Farm in Pennsylvania.

“It’s a flint soil, so the stones are very hard,” said Mike. “If we till in the evening, you can see the sparks coming off of the ground. It’s a very abrasive soil, but it has good porosity.”

The Brownbacks’ decision to become certified organic more than 20 years ago is also a boon to the groundwater supply.

“It’s my responsibility to catch every inch of rain that falls on my land and try to get it to infiltrate so that I have access to it in the future,” said Brownback.

They employ a rigorous rotational scheme for their fields and rotate the vegetable crops by family.

“I’m in the process of rotating out of my spring crops, squash and cucumber. We have to grow as many as five types of squash to stay in the market for the season. They’re planted in the end of April and are (or starting to be) done by mid-July. We follow those crops typically with our fall brassicas: possibly broccoli, cabbage, bunching greens — all type of kale and collards — and we always plant those crops on bare ground (no plastic).”

In order to make the transition into the next phase of cultivation a smooth one, the Brownbacks work off of what is currently in the ground.

“We plant in a way that, at the last cultivation, we can overseed with a cover crop. We really like crimson clover, which needs to go in early. This cropping scheme allows those cover crops to not interfere with the crops harvested for market.”

As summer segues into autumn, some fields at Spiral Path Farm are covered in clover. “You have a later opportunity with clover. We have to get it in by very early September. Then we switch to rye and hairy vetch,” said Brownback.

Through experimentation, the Brownbacks have formed new methods of cultivation that produce vegetables to nicely complement their CSA boxes. This is most notable with the way that they harvest kale.

“We’ve learned to let the kale flower,” and not cut the tops, as is done traditionally.

In their temperate climate, the kale rests through the winter and is reinvigorated in the spring, making it a young kale that, according to Brownback, is “very succulent and tender.”

By giving the crop more time, the Brownbacks learned that “it creates an absolutely unprecedented opportunity for pollinators.” While the pollinators were arriving in their fields in the early spring, they were also “getting predator insects,” said Brownback. “We’re creating a lot of habitat through this. It’s a semi-intentional means of pest management because we’re trying to mimic natural processes and not just clean the fields. We want to let the cover crops grow.”

This complements their desire to minimize using external inputs.

“We try not to add nitrogen onto the fields, and instead we want to grow it. There are challenges with intense rotations in vegetables, but we’re learning that it’s a viable system.”

This system has also been helpful with managing specific pests. The brown marmorated stink bug (halyomorpha halys) has been a problem throughout the area. According to Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, the bug was not previously seen on our continent and was first collected in September 1998 after accidentally being introduced in eastern Pennsylvania. Perry was one of 37 confirmed counties as of September 2010.

“We’ve found that stink bugs get drawn in. We’ve had them here forever. We haven’t noticed any increase in the brown marmorated stink bug, and have always had some damage from it. We’ve found that if we keep those particular fields clean, try to cultivate as long as possible and trying not to have weeds between those rows really helps.”

Another means by which the Brownbacks manage pests is using the Tricagamma wasp. The wasps arrive in weekly shipments and Brownback makes his rounds putting them on each field.

“We released them into the sweet corn, and they really helped with pest control. We used to have to spray our peppers at flowering with an organic spray, but we’ve not sprayed a pepper since we’ve started releasing these wasps.”

Although there are few pests in the fields at Spiral Path Farm, the Flea Beetle and the cucumber beetle are sometimes a problem. They use 50 by 500 foot row covers.

“We use sand bags. We put sand bags on and they help immensely with the cucumber beetle because they don’t like getting under a cover. If we put a crop in, put the cover on, we can take that crop — particularly zucchini — almost to flowering.”

CSA Success

CSA workers

In many ways, CSAs are, as Brownback says, “an introduction to the way that you look at the food.” It provides an opportunity to help potential consumers and community members understand process and the perspective of the food producers.

“CSAs in general have a high turnover, and ours has over the years also. We’ve had some people with us the full 20 years. This year (2013) is our 20-year anniversary. We started with 20 members … we stuck with it, and it seems that every year it’s grown.”

That has been encouraging for the Brownbacks, making it easier for the CSA to gradually expand throughout the years. Today, Spiral Path is a 2,000-member CSA with distribution throughout south central Pennsylvania and into Maryland. “With a CSA, to some extent, you’re a jack-of-all-trades as a produce farmer. We raise everything from asparagus to zucchini; some of the items that we raise we couldn’t do at the wholesale level at the quantity and quality that we expect. Specific crops are restrictive. We couldn’t grow onions or potatoes and compete as organic growers at the wholesale level. Having a CSA, you have to have a lot of variety.”

Although seemingly rhetorical, Brownback wades into a discussion about food production, consumption and scale.

“How many times a day do people partake of food? It’s become so removed of the producer of the food to the actual eater. The CSA concept puts a face on the connection.” For the Brownbacks, illumining the story behind the food that appears in their CSA delivery is meaningful. Terra has been writing a newsletter that’s distributed to CSA members and has been very well-received over the years. “People really relate. They love to know, and they want that connection to the farm,” says Brownback.

Adhering to the old truism location, location, location, Spiral Path Farm has found a way to work with being outside of the immediate proximity of potential customers.

“We have an absolutely horrible location to have consumers come to the farm. We’re about 40 minutes to an hour from Harrisburg, and the lion’s share of our CSA customer base is far away,” said Brownback. Getting their produce to clients has taken a communal feeling of flexibility, trust and generosity.

“We have some members come to the farm to pick up, but we have 28 drop-off sites in the area,” said Brownback. “We have customers (or businesses, or churches) that are willing to open their homes up to help people pick up boxes. We realized many of the challenges early on … so we decided to drop extra boxes off at each site. We called those extra boxes ‘green tithing.’ We use the concept of tithing and those boxes go to the site hosts. Those hosts are then empowered to do what they want with them, and typically donate them to charity.”

Along with events like monthly farm days that can bring nearly 500 people, CSAs are possibly the most tactile way to help community members understand the process of organic food production close to home.

Extending the synergy from the field to one’s home is important, and is a core tenet of the philosophy that Spiral Path Farm applies. In addition to using a holistic approach to cultivate their crops, the Brownbacks encourage community members to be engaged in the cycle of food production and consumption. Dispelling the limitations of organic farming has also proven important to the Brownbacks.

They have been able to make much of their land productive using thorough, sustainable ways, by leaning on the efficiency of a polyculture system. The system that they — and many farmers like them — use not only reflects elements of holistic management, but also illustrates that the previously perceived limitations of organic agriculture do not have to limit production and capacity.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the October 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Mike & Terra Brownback led a Managing A Modern Day Large-Scale CSA course at Eco-Ag U at the 2017 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show in Columbus, Ohio, in December 2017. Visit the Acres U.S.A. Events Page to learn more about the next upcoming Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show, plus other educational and informative events throughout the year..

Alternative Poultry: Getting Creative

By Tamara Scully

Plenty of today’s small farmers have found productive and profitable means of pasturing chickens and turkeys, but sometimes chicken (or turkey) just isn’t enough. Heritage breeds expand a business’ poultry selection and increase the diversity of the farm.

“Fowl” refers to both land and water birds. The land birds belong to the order Galliformes, while waterfowl are of the order Anseriformes. Waterfowl include ducks, geese and swans. Land fowl include chicken and turkey, as well as game birds — those traditionally wild species for hunting, although they can also be domestically raised. Partridge, pheasant, squab, quail, grouse, chachalacas, doves, woodcock and guinea fowl are included.

There are other types of birds, some of which are also domesticated for meat. Ostrich, rheas and emus fall into this category. These ratites are large, flightless birds.

“Poultry” typically refers to any domesticated fowl kept for eggs, meat or feathers, but the definition isn’t clear-cut for farmers.

Chris Pinto and Abra Morawiec at Feisty Acres Farm
Abra Morawiec and Chris Pinto with Bourbon Red turkeys in 2017 at Feisty Acres Farm.

The United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration oversee food safety and, depending on classification, livestock slaughter. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has exemptions that allow on-farm poultry slaughter.

The processing of some domesticated non-traditional poultry, however, is regulated differently than that of more mainstream poultry species, including domesticated ducks and geese.

Ratites must be USDA-inspected, despite being a domesticated, farmed bird. And not all game bird species, even when domesticated, are included in the FSIS poultry slaughter regulations. State regulations for poultry processing and sales can vary too. The FDA oversees wild game bird processing.

Feisty Acres

Partners Abra Morawiec and Chris Pinto co-own Feisty Acres, on the North Fork of Long Island, New York. They raise a variety of pasture-raised poultry and game birds for local markets, including New York City. Feisty Acres has rapidly expanded from a first batch of 200 quail in 2015 to approximately 2,000 quail and 750 other meat birds raised, processed and sold in 2018.

Feisty Acres was once certified organic. The farm website explains why they are no longer seeking organic certification: “Our decision to end our organic certification status was not made lightly. For the past two years, we’ve debated back and forth the pros and cons about being certified organic. … It’s hard to fork over your hard-earned money to a certification, which has become so diluted over the years that barn raised fowl are now equivalent to the robust, pasture raised birds we supply to Long Island and the New York City markets. Because so much of our business is based upon direct relationships with our customers, we are comfortable in relinquishing our certified organic status because our standards now exceed those set forth by the USDA.

quail and eggs
Bird’s-eye view of quail in their open-bottom pen.

Although the business began with Coturnix ( Japanese) quail, it now includes French guinea fowl, Chukar partridge, Silkie chickens and heritage breed turkeys. Their first ducks arrived this year, and squab may also be on the horizon.

Feisty Acres processes birds via a mobile processing unit that is owned and licensed by Browder’s Birds in nearby Mattituck. Browder’s operates under New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets inspection regulations. According to Morawiec, the USDA considers game species of birds to have different inherent biological hazards than traditional poultry. They were required to apply for a waiver to process some of their game birds in the mobile poultry unit.

Branching Out

Feisty Acres finished its first year on its current property in 2018. It was a year of learning about the land and the birds’ interaction with it. Their 8 acres, leased from a nature preserve, came with a mix of native vegetation, including dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), which can be toxic (the birds avoid it), plus an unfortunate invader — mugwort. They cut back stands of dogbane before it goes to seed, and the mugwort is mowed down by their Silkies.

“Poison ivy is another plant we have a lot of, but all of our birds love it,” says Morawiec. “Before this year, neither Chris or myself knew that game birds and poultry could eat poison ivy without ill effects, but it turns out that poison ivy is an important food source for many local animals.”

Pasture grasses are primarily native species such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Tridens flavus — a bunch-type warm-season grass commonly known as purpletop; and deer tongue grass, a clump-forming perennial.

This pasture mix might sound like weeds to some people, but to Feisty Acres fowl it’s the basis of a gourmet diet, as well as for the human eaters who ultimately consume the poultry.

“When the season is coming to a close, Chris and I most likely won’t be seeding the land with an orchestrated pasture. The vegetation that’s here is conducive to the birds we have as they are all well-versed foragers,” says Morawiec. “Our unique pasture also lends our birds a flavor that is unmatched. When your poultry and game birds have access to a wide range of foodstuffs, their meat and eggs are going to be superior.”

Pasture-Raised Promise

All of the birds at Feisty Acres are pasture-raised and to varying degrees receive a good portion of their diet from natural foraging. Part of their ability to do so stems from their innate genetic makeup: these birds aren’t selectively bred for confinement production.

The birds at Feisty are “better foragers, have higher disease resistance and are hardier than breeds developed for intensive, indoor production,” says Morawiec. “They take longer to reach market weight but have far less health problems than their industrial counterparts.”

The birds can also breed naturally. Pinto and Morawiec are just beginning a heritage turkey breeding program using Black Spanish and Narragansetts. They also have a breeding flock of about 400 laying quail to supply the eggs they need to meet customer demand. They don’t breed other birds themselves, purchasing day-old chicks and poults from a variety of specialty breeders.

“We did our research in finding the best sources for each breed and species. We sought out farms with strong genetic lines with a focus on being compatible with pasture-raised operations,” Morawiec explains. “We source all of our day-old chicks and poults from hatcheries around the United States.”

cleaned silkie chicken
A fully cleaned Silkie chicken, ready to be packaged for market.

Each species has its own foraging requirements, receiving supplemental feed accordingly, and is housed in a manner to suit its innate needs while offering protection from predators. Coyotes are not a problem in the area, but hawks and raccoons can be. Turkeys find their home amongst cedar and aspen groves, where they roost in trees at night and enjoy the shade on hot days. Feisty Acres is designing rolling roost structures on old trailers to provide roosts even if trees aren’t available.

Pinto and Morawiec keep the turkeys in the brooder for four weeks after their April arrival and then clip their wings and move them into a roofed structure with an open bottom for pasture foraging. Turkeys forage the underbrush once they are old enough to do so without escaping through the poultry netting, which establishes the boundaries of their pasture. They learn that the fencing is their boundary line. After clipping the forages down in their half-acre paddock, they are moved throughout the farm until harvest in November.

Guinea fowl, like turkeys, are great foragers. But they are nervous and fly up into trees when excited or frightened. They require a sturdy roof to contain them and to help them feel protected. They can’t be crowded, however, as they also tend to smother one another. Moveable coops, designed to suit the birds’ disposition, allow them to fly without escaping and to roost.

“Guinea fowl are ravenous eaters of pasture grasses and vegetation. Aside from our turkeys, they just might be the best birds for mowing the fields. We move the houses daily to keep up with their rate of consumption,” says Morawiec.

The Silkie chickens, partridges and quail all have their own Salatin-style chicken tractors, which can be easily moved across the pasture to provide fresh foraging ground. A high ceiling in the pens allows the quail to express their natural instinct to flush up. The Silkies have tall pens too. Partridge reside in taller and longer pens than those of the quail. These have small roosting areas, as partridge don’t nest on the ground like quail. Both quail and partridge prefer low pasture — no more than 4 to 6 inches.

guinea keets
Guinea keets (guinea fowl chicks) in the brooder.

Pens have roll-up sides to increase air circulation and higher ceilings to allow the farmers easy access. Housing is moved depending on manure load and forage availability. Lightweight PVC construction allows two people to easily move the pens, but requires that the houses be tethered down if winds are higher than about 20 mph. The pair lost about 50 percent of their quail the first season due to houses being blown over and the birds being eaten by hawks.

“We better understood why most farmers opt to raise quail in cages or barns,” says Morawiec. “Our quail are outside year-round. In the winter, we have our birds close to the barn to provide them with heat and electricity as needed.”

Water and feed are transported to the birds from the barn, located a quarter mile away. Five-gallon buckets of water are loaded into the pickup truck and driven out to the pastures every day. Feed for the week is stored in containers on the pasture. Certified organic vegetable scraps, collected from neighboring produce farms or farmers’ market vendors, are fed to the birds, in addition to specialty feeds.

“Over the years both Chris and I have observed pasture consumption habits of the different birds and have discovered that their consumption greatly varies based on a multitude of factors. Spring and fall grasses and vegetation are greatly preferred over summer, but in the summer there is a greater number of flowers, seeds and insects,” Morawiec explains.

The birds’ rations vary between 19 and 26 percent protein, depending on the growth rate and nutritional needs of each species. These high-protein, custom feed mixes are purchased from organic farmer Vernon Burkholder at Panorama Organics in Oley, Pennsylvania.

“We contacted numerous organic grain and feed growers in New York, but we were either quickly dismissed or told that what we were trying to do — raise quail on pasture — was ridiculous,” says Morawiec. “Vernon, on the other hand, was so helpful in telling us what we needed to ensure our birds received maximum nutrition. We highly recommend him.”

Getting to Market

The mobile processing unit doesn’t operate in the winter, so Feisty Acres is pursuing a state license that would also allow them to process birds from other producers along with their own. Customer demand continues during the winter months, although the number of birds they raise in winter is smaller than the hundreds they have on pasture during the peak of summer.

“We order quail 500 at a time, using some to refresh the laying flock. Silkies and guineafowl vary from 50 to 100 birds being raised at one time, with batches raised in succession and processed several times each season. Partridge, which breed only in spring, and turkeys are raised in one batch per season, with a fall slaughter. The bulk of our meat sales happen in the fall, though we do a lot of quail meat and quail eggs through the summer months.”

quail in pen
Close up of quail, with some of the small quail houses in the background.

Quail take about 8 to 10 weeks to reach market weight, while the partridge take 16 weeks. Chicken and guinea fowl take 12 to 14 weeks.

Feisty Acres sells meat and quail egg shares via a CSA and at local farmers’ markets. Another popular item is their pickled quail eggs, made in a certified kitchen, along with brine and stock.

“One of the biggest market trends we noticed, as farmers, is that value-added products and convenience products are highly sought after,” says Morawiec. “Seventy-plus jars of pickled quail eggs are usually gone in a week. We haven’t found the cap of our demand for this product yet, much like our meat.”

Feisty Acres serves the New York City market, so farmers in other regions may not have as much access to customers seeking specialty meats. Doing market research is a necessary first step before expanding into other types of poultry.

For farmers seeking to add to their poultry operations — beyond chicken and turkey — Morawiec has some final words of wisdom.

“The behaviors of the birds are going to be different based upon the circumstances in which they are raised. That is always the best advice we can give when folks ask us about raising different types of birds on pasture. Get to know your land. Get to know your animals. Watch closely how one affects the other.”

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the March 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Navigating the Dairy Crisis: Hope in Organic Dairy

By Tracy Frisch

At a time of profound hardship in the dairy industry, the few farmers optimistic enough to start new cow dairies are going the route of organic dairy. The name of Clover Bliss Farm refers to the contentment its abundant pastures bring to its bovine residents. It also sums up the aspirations that dairy farmers Chris and Samantha Kemnah have for the 190-acre spread and the old tie-stall barn in South Argyle, New York, that they took over from a long-retired farm couple.

chris and samantha kemnah
Chris and Samantha Kemnah at Clover Bliss Farm, their 190-acre spread in South Argyle, New York. Photos by Joan K. Lentini, JKLentini Photography

From the time they started about two years ago, the Kemnahs have been supplying organic “grass only” milk to Maple Hill Creamery. Maple Hill, which now collects organic milk from 150 farms across upstate New York, pledges to its customers that the cows producing its milk consume only pasture, hay and other forages, rather than corn, soy and other common dairy feeds.

Two years ago, organic production still stood out clearly as a bright spot that might offer long-term economic stability for dairy farmers. In contrast, the price of milk paid to conventional dairy operations had already fallen into what would become a protracted slump, setting off yet another period of economic distress that has reached a crisis point.

Farmers, advocates and policy wonks disagree on how, and even whether, to address the challenges facing the dairy industry. But there’s no dispute about the overriding dynamics behind the sector’s crisis. Milk production continues to increase, yet Americans’ consumption has been falling. Industrial-scale dairy farms, with greater labor efficiency and capitalization, have been the engine driving the increased production, and they’ve been adding cows and land as smaller family farmers give up and leave the industry.

Lately, some of the same economic forces that have plagued conventional dairy farms are showing up in the organic market as well — putting pressure on farmers like the Kemnahs.

There is now too much organic milk as well, and organic farmers have been hit with steep cuts in their pay price. At least one important organic milk buyer has imposed strict production limits. And in a parallel to the conventional milk market, some major organic milk buyers are unable to take on new farms, creating another barrier to the entry of younger people into agriculture.

Even so, new producers are breaking into the organic milk market locally. In June High Meadows Farm, a new organic dairy in the town of Hoosick, a mile from the state line with Vermont, started shipping milk. The farm is the creation of Eric Ziehm, who comes from a nearby conventional dairy farm that he and his brothers have grown from 50 to 1,200 milking cows over the years.

Ziehm’s ambitious entry into the organic market hinges on investors and a team of partners and employees, brand new facilities for a 200-cow operation — and a highly advantageous “cost-plus” milk contract with Stonyfield, the organic yogurt maker based in New Hampshire. Such contracts are virtually unknown among small organic dairy farms.

The stories of Ziehm’s and the Kemnahs’ farms reveal some of the promise of the organic dairy sector, but they also show that it isn’t immune from volatile prices and other problems that have long plagued conventional dairy operations.

Fewer, Bigger Farms

The economic pressures that have driven many small and mid-sized dairy farmers out of the business have been under way for decades. In the late 1970s, the nation had 1.4 million dairy farmers; today, there are barely 40,000 left.

But the pricing situation of the past few years has hastened the trend toward fewer, larger farms. This year is the fourth in a row in which the price paid to conventional farmers for their milk has stagnated at levels well below the average cost of production. The current price has been hovering around $15 per hundredweight (a unit equal to 100 pounds or approximately 11.6 gallons). That’s a price older farmers a remember receiving several decades ago — even though productions costs have steadily risen since then.

“What is happening now is really destructive to individual farm families and rural communities,” said Patty Lovera, the policy director of Food and Water Watch, in a recent conference call with reporters covering the dairy crisis. “The status quo is not working for anyone but the largest farmers.”

The situation has grown so dire that in February, the dairy co-operative Agri-Mark, which owns the Cabot cheese brand, enclosed with its members’ milk checks a listing of area suicide hotlines. Three of the co-op’s 1,000 members had taken their own lives in the past three years.

Over the last 10 years, New York farmers have been leaving the dairy sector at the rate of two to four a week. Since 2006, more than a quarter of the state’s dairy farmers called it quits, and the number of dairy farms statewide has dropped from nearly 6,000 to 4,400. In Vermont, the number of dairy farms fell from 996 in 2011 to just 749 this year, a decline of nearly 25 percent, according to state figures. These downward trends appear likely to continue.

But even if the number of dairy farms in New York shrinks to 500, we would still have milk in the supermarket, Cornell dairy economist Andy Novakovic said. The industry’s consolidation into larger farms with fewer owners isn’t causing an economic problem, Novakovic said, though he acknowledged that there were other costs to “the hollowing out of rural America.”

Many dairy farmers don’t believe this needs to be our trajectory. For them, concentrated ownership in agriculture is part of the problem, not the solution. Some point to Canada’s 55-year-old supply management system as a model of a more equitable approach.

In April Ralph Dietrich and another board member of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario travelled to Wisconsin to speak about supply management at a series of farm forums around the state. Some of the meetings drew standing-room-only crowds of farmers. Supply management uses a cost of production formula that allows farmers to have an adequate income. It’s working for farmers and processors, consumers and the government, he said.

“On May 1, 2018, we reduced our quota in Ontario. With a quota cut, everyone takes a bit of a hit,” Dietrich said. When there’s too much milk in the U.S., processors stop taking some farmers’ milk.

Novakovic dismissed supply management as something that Canada bought into but that’s at odds with “the American competitive spirit.” The conversation should be about selling more milk, not limiting production, he maintains.

“Farmers have a strategy for dealing with low prices for one year, but no one has a strategy for three years in a row,” he said. Novakovic, who grew up on a 28-cow dairy farm in Wisconsin, said many farmers are still hanging on because of “an accumulated expectation that it will turn around soon.”

Though sales of cheese, butter, ice cream and whole milk remain relatively strong, children and adults alike are drinking less beverage milk every year. Regardless of demand, dairy farms in the state, and nationwide, continue to ramp up milk production. According to state figures, in 2016 New York farmers cranked out 21 percent more milk per cow than they did a decade earlier. Despite a slight dip in the total number of cows, total production increased by 18 percent in 10 years. Very large farms generally produce considerably more milk per cow, and those farms are milking more and more of the state’s herd. The same trend holds nationally.

That pattern also holds for the farm that Ziehm, who started the organic dairy High Meadows Farm, came from. Dairy Herd Improvement Association records put Tiashoke Farm in the highest producing tier in the county; it’s also one of the largest. Last December its 986 Holsteins averaged 28,682 pounds of milk a year, more than 2,700 pounds greater than the state average. Similarly their Jerseys and crossbred cattle had very high herd averages for their type.

Seeing Hope in Organic

At a time of profound hardship in the dairy industry, the few farmers optimistic enough to start new cow dairies are creating organic ones.

In July a pair of regional agricultural organizations held educational events at two of these new organic dairy farms. The Agricultural Stewardship Association, a farmland preservation group, hosted a visit to Clover Bliss Farm. A week later, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York put on a field day at High Meadows Farm.

At Clover Bliss, Chris and Sam Kemnah told their story and discussed their philosophy and practices as committed grass farmers while Jersey cows grazed placidly in the background.

clover bliss
To produce milk without grain, Clover Bliss goes above and beyond organic norms. Grazing dairies typically give their cows new pasture after each milking, morning and night, but Chris often moves the cows on pasture three or even four times a day.

At High Meadow, Ziehm, who’s 40 and is a fourth generation dairy farmer, was among those who spoke to an audience of about 25. Milk cows milled around in the brand new free-stall barn, occasionally munching on feed. When a Jersey cow wandered outside to graze in mid-afternoon, a portion of the herd followed her lead.

When the Kemnahs established Clover Bliss Farm, they were already seasoned farmers, who were, in the words of Chris, who’s 42, “tired of living like college students with a family.”

In 2007, the year they started a community-supported agriculture operation in Greene County, Sam gave birth to Alex, the first of their four children. For seven years, the couple grew vegetables as CSA farmers, eventually adding meat, poultry and eggs to their offerings. They stuck with the livestock after they quit raising vegetables.

“With vegetables, we were working so hard and not making any money,” Chris recalled. So the Kemnahs went looking for a more financially stable and remunerative path that would allow them to stay in agriculture.

Organic Dairy: Better Prices, Healthier Demand

The Kemnahs said Maple Hill Creamery was a crucial factor in their decision to milk cows, as the company rewards its farmers well for certified organic, certified grass-only milk. “What saved us was the really high pay price for our milk,” Chris said.

When they had just started in July 2016, Maple Hill paid them $38 per hundredweight. In the winter, they also received a grass-only premium.

“With grass only, you’re not making as much milk, and it takes more feed to make it,” he explained. The problem is a lack of energy, or calories, in the feed. Cold weather only exacerbates the deficit because the cows need a lot of energy to stay warm, especially when they’re outdoors in the winter.

Five months after they began shipping milk, the Kemnahs received a notice alerting them of a future reduction in pay price. “We took a 20 percent pay cut, not quite a year after we started,” he said.

Similar cuts have hit farmers throughout the organic dairy sector. The price paid to farmers by the Organic Valley co-operative, for example, dropped more than 27 percent from January 2017 through June of this year, from a base price of $34.55 to $25.19 per hundredweight, according to one member farmer. Last fall, the co-op also instituted a $2 per hundredweight “inventory deduction.” And for the last two years, members haven’t been paid what had been a standard $3-per-hundredweight premium for winter milk.

Finally, because organic processors need skim milk even less than conventional companies, on July 1, Organic Valley raised its minimum butterfat content to 4.1 percent, up from 3.5 percent, and also set a higher minimum protein content. Organic Valley had imposed production caps on farmers earlier in the decade.

Novakovic, the Cornell economist, described the co-op’s action as “a pretty bold decision that stands out against the industry’s practices.” By implementing a quota system on its dairy farmers, Organic Valley “spread the pain around,” he said.

One Organic Valley member, who didn’t want to be identified because the co-op bars its farmers from publicly discussing pricing information, said the co-op imposes a penalty of $20 per hundredweight for any milk produced beyond a farm’s quota. (The quotas are set based on each farm’s past production levels.) Such a steep penalty acts as a powerful deterrent.

Love of Food, Farming

Chris Kemnah grew up making hay and milking cows for a neighbor in New Baltimore, a half-hour south of Albany in Greene County. But the farmers there, all older men in their 60s and 70s, urged him to steer clear of farming and get an education instead.

He took their advice and went to college and graduate school. He ran his own landscaping business and later got a job at the U.S. Geological Survey, but he missed working outside and growing food. For three years, he worked at Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, where he started the meat department and prepared to become a farmer.

Because Chris and Sam originally were drawn to agriculture by their concerns about genetically modified crops and a desire for healthful food, they knew from the beginning that their dairy would be organic. Similarly, the idea of a grass-only operation aligned with their values. It’s how they had raised beef cattle and family cows in the past, and it meshed with their understanding about what’s best for ruminants — and for the people who eat the animals’ flesh and milk.

What scared the couple was making the commitment that dairy farming entailed, Sam recalled. They put all their resources into the business and borrowed money for the first time in their farming careers. “We had tried to farm without taking out any debt,” Sam said. With their CSA operation, they farmed on a shoestring, making do with borrowed land. As they sought a better situation, they got listed on Hudson Valley Farmlink, which aims to connect farmers and would-be farmers with agricultural landowners.

In the fall of 2015, Janet Britt of the Agricultural Stewardship Association told them about the Argyle farm where Bob and Ruth Zink had retired from milking cows around 1990. By the following spring, the Zinks and the Kemnahs were able to work out an arrangement that both parties felt was reasonable, and Clover Bliss Farm was born.

Although the farm now has about 130 dairy animals, they’re mostly young stock. Chris currently milks 32 cows. But with 20 dry cows and heifers due to calve in the fall, by the end of the year they expect to have 50 head in milk.

Two fellow Maple Hill farmers had warned the Kemnahs that they would never be really happy milking cows until they had cows they raised themselves. Finally, Chris can see that day approaching. “Our home-raised, first-calf heifers will start freshening in August, and we’re both really excited about that,” he said.

Kemnah said he has had to buy three Jersey herds to get where he is today. Two years ago, he located a herd of 30 cows on a Vermont organic farm that had been struck by tragedy: A drunken driver had hit and killed the farmer. By the time the Kemnahs acquired them, the cows were thin and needed extra food and attention to bring them back to health.

The second herd came from a neighbor who had transitioned to organic and was ready to retire. Although this farmer’s registered Jerseys go back for up to 10 generations, they originally came from two well-known confinement dairy farms and thus were not selected for a grass-only grazing setting. Chris also bought a group of cows from an organic farm a couple hours north.

“One thing we learned is that not every cow is made for our system,” Sam said.

To produce milk without grain, Clover Bliss goes above and beyond organic norms. Grazing dairies typically give their cows new pasture after each milking, morning and night, but Chris often moves the cows on pasture three or even four times a day.

The Kemnahs believe it’s very important to them to raise calves in a way that the animals reach their potential. All their heifers get milk for at least six months. They also let heifer calves nurse on a mother cow for at least two months — and sometimes for twice or three times as long.

A Growing Partner

Clover Bliss was the 70th farm to sign up with Maple Hill two years ago. Sam said it’s a very good company to work with. “As they do better, they pass it along” to farmers, she explained.

Maple Hill founders Tim and Laura Joseph had never milked a cow when they bought a farm in 2003 and started a dairy. Before long they left conventional farming behind and went organic and 100 percent grass-fed. In 2009, they began marketing yogurt they made from their milk in a former barbecue restaurant, and Maple Hill Creamery was born. When the yogurt caught on, they started buying milk from two other organic farms. Exponential growth in sales has enabled Maple Hill to partner with more and more New York dairy farms; it now has more than 100 farms supplying milk for its brand.

The company is looking to sign up more grass-fed organic dairy farms and even has a waiting list. Maple Hill varies the price it pays farmers depending on the time of year, thereby providing a financial incentive for farmers to produce at more difficult times of year, such as in winter.

Only certified grass-only milk goes into the company’s expanding list of products. Having outgrown its first two processing plants, Maple Hill works with co-packers, like Byrne Dairy in Syracuse, which retooled its plant to make Maple Hill’s cream-top and drinkable yogurt in containers.

As perhaps the only grass-fed organic dairy farm in Washington County, Clover Bliss Farm’s milk goes on a blended truck (with organic milk from cows that are also fed grain), so the Kemnahs’ milk doesn’t actually go into Maple Hill products yet. The company sells this mixed organic milk to other processors like Stonyfield and Byrne Dairy, which bottles surplus Maple Hill milk under a private label.

Starting on a Bigger Scale

In comparison with Clover Bliss Farm, Ziehm’s concept for High Meadows Farm assumes a bigger, costlier operation from outset. “The goal is to milk 200 cows, but the total could go as high as 250 to 300 cows,” Ziehm said, describing his intentions for his new organic farm.

With a more financially ambitious farm in mind, Ziehm structured his farm as a partnership with investors and assumed the role of managing partner. His main investor is Tiashoke Farm, the 1,200-cow conventional dairy that he and his brothers Brian and Stuart run with another partner. With seven children between them, the three brothers have an interest in opportunities that will allow the next generation to join the family business in the future if they desire. “I was able to branch out and do something different,” said Ziehm, who continues to be involved at Tiashoke “on the financial side and with the big picture.”

high meadows farm
Partners of High Meadows Farm Sam Cottrell and Eric Ziehm stand among their herd of cows. The partners recently purchased the farm to revitalize its use as an organic dairy farm. When the grass stopped growing with this summer’s hot, dry weather, High Meadows Farm added balage to their cows’ normal generous barn ration to replace pasture intake. They also left the gates open so the cows could go out on pasture if they wanted.

Ziehm also brought in Sam Cottrell of Hos-Cot Builders in Hoosick Falls as a partner. Cottrell, 70, said he was “tickled” to be asked. As a teenager, Cottrell saw his life taking him in one of two directions, milking cows or operating a successful construction business. He has done the latter for more than 40 years, specializing in agricultural buildings. For the farm’s startup phase, he has been an important asset.

The farm has several employees as well as an intern from a Vermont dairy farm. Matt Hansen moved his family from western New York to work as farm manager and they live in the farmhouse. (Ziehm and his family do not live on the farm.) A couple works part-time. High Meadows also hired Greg Luke, the son of the farm’s former owners, and Bruce Moseley, who grazes a group of their heifers on his farm, which they rent.

The Ziehm brothers grew up on their parents’ 50-cow dairy farm nearby. Their father and grandfather had moved the farm from Albany County to its current location less than an hour north in the early 1970s to obtain more productive soils, find adequate water and get away from suburban development. Eric Ziehm and his brothers graduated from Cornell and each later returned to the family farm. After the family decided to expand the operation, they began acquiring additional farms and growing the operation to its current size, among the largest in the area.

A pivotal change occurred in 2007-08, when the family sold the development rights to their 244-acre farm in Buskirk and 343-acre farm in Easton to the Agricultural Stewardship Association. These transactions protected their farmland from development forever — and also gave the farm business an infusion of cash. The next year, Frank Ziehm turned over management responsibilities to his three sons, and over time they became full owners of Tiashoke Farm.

At Tiashoke Farm, Eric Ziehm initiated a grazing program a dozen years ago that has grown to include many of the dry cows and young stock. He said an organic dairy would give him an opportunity to do much more with pasture management. “I like the fact that the cows are out there harvesting their own feed and there’s less machinery investment,” he said.

He also sees benefits for his family. Even if they don’t decide to join the business, he said, he’d like his two children to have the experience of being involved in farming, and “a pasture-based dairy is a beautiful atmosphere to have my kids work with me,” he said.

But he acknowledged that a major motivation in developing an organic dairy is economic: He was seeking a better alternative to the rock-bottom milk prices paid to conventional dairies. The past three years of depressed milk prices have been “an everyday challenge” at Tiashoke Farm, Ziehm said.

“We do the best we can to be efficient and cost-conscious,” he said. “But you got to wonder where this is going … Twenty years ago I never thought we would need supply management.” Now he’s thinking, “if we want to preserve farms, we need to take a look at it.”

For Ziehm, steeped in the world of conventional milk production, the organic sector seems to operate more rationally and with more foresight. “Organic won’t sign up new farms if they don’t need them,” he said.

Troubles in Organic Dairy

It’s true that some parts of the organic dairy sector have tried to balance supply and demand without harming the farmer, but the story is more complicated than that. Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, said that there used to be “a working relationship between organic producers and milk buyers who would not take on more farms until the demand was there.” But those relationships were damaged by a glut of organic milk, he said in a conference call with reporters in May.

Between 2012 and 2014, the United States experienced a shortage of organic milk, he said. When the price paid to farmers went up, large industrial dairies in states like Texas, Colorado and California took advantage of a loophole in the national organic standards and transitioned conventional cows to organic production. As a consequence, organic milk flooded the market. Milk buyers cut the farmers’ price by 25 percent in a matter of months. That dynamic is still at play.

A March 23, 2018 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel drives home the magnitude of the impact wrought by industrial-type organic dairies on organic family farms. “Wisconsin’s organic dairy farmers are getting squeezed by mega-sized farms that are shipping milk here from more than 1,000 miles away,” screams the article’s subtitle.

Citing USDA’s Dairy Market News, it states that 6 organic dairy farms in Texas produced 481 million pounds of milk, 23 percent more than all 453 organic dairy farms in Wisconsin combined. And the average income of those industrial size farms exceeded that of the Wisconsin farms by almost 100-fold — $27.4 million per farm versus $287,000.

Many smaller organic farmers, as well as groups such as the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based organic watchdog, contend that organic sector has been hijacked by industrial-scale operations that are incapable of complying with the spirit or even the letter of the USDA’s national organic standards.

These standards require that organic dairy cattle have pasture access for at least 120 days a year. Fresh grass grazed by the animals must make up at least 30 percent of their diet. And farmers get a one-time transition for adult cows; after that, all animals must be raised from birth under certified organic conditions.

On eight visits in 2017 to investigate Aurora Organic Dairy in Colorado, the Washington Post found only sparse signs of grazing. A high-resolution satellite photo showed only a few hundred cows on pasture of the dairy’s 15,000-cow herd.

Regarding the overproduction of organic milk, Jim Goodman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and president of the National Family Farm Coalition, proposes a simple solution. “The difference between organic and conventional is that there are rules. Enforce the rules,” said Goodman, who began milking cows in 1979, has been organic for 20 years.

Making Organic Milk Under a Cost-Plus Contract 

Ziehm completed the purchase of High Meadows Farm about 18 months ago. The previous owners of the nearly 300-acre farm were Bert and Eileen Luke, who sold their cows in 1993.

Ziehm said he was able to transition the farm to organic standards in one year because the farmer who had been leasing 40 of the acres now in pasture hadn’t planted corn there for two years.

In 2016, before the sale was actually concluded, Ziehm seeded that land into a pasture mix. And last May, he selected a group of heifers from Tiashoke Farm to make the transition to organic — Jerseys, smaller Holsteins and some crossbred animals. This year, he bought two organic herds of about 40 cows each so he would have lactating cows by June 1, the date the farm was scheduled to begin milking.

But getting the cows and the land ready for a new organic operation was not Ziehm’s first order of business. “We actually investigated the milk market before we found the farm,” he said. He and his partners were able to enter into an unusual arrangement with Stonyfield known as a “cost-plus” contract. Such contracts eliminate price volatility and guarantee the farmer a profit — two core issues that ordinarily represent a huge struggle for dairy farmers.

Ziehm said the cost-plus contract involves a third party auditor who determines the farm’s costs. Stonyfield pays those costs plus an agreed-upon margin. With this contract, Ziehm anticipates that he and his partners will be able to pay back their substantial investment in the farm in a reasonable period — the buildings in seven years, and the real estate in 15 years.

“It all centers around sustainability for the milk market and sustainability for us,” he explained. “It helps Stonyfield, because they’re assured to have our milk.” Stonyfield also set up a cost-plus contract with another Hoosick-area organic farmer, Eric Sheffer, who milks 200 cows, Ziehm said. It’s easier for a milk processor to deal with fewer, larger farms and it simplifies milk pickup as well.

Ziehm’s cost-plus contract came about after Kyle Thygesen, Stonyfield’s director of milk sourcing and procurement, heard that his old friend was considering starting an organic dairy. The two men met as youngsters in the 4-H program in Washington County, where they both were raised.

Group Danone, the French food products company than owns the Dannon yogurt brand — and which purchased an interest in Stonyfield in 2001 and later became its sole owner — pioneered the use of cost-plus contracts in dairy with McCarty Family Farms, whose large conventional farms in Kansas and Nebraska milk more than 8,000 cows. Dannon required that McCarty use feed crops that aren’t genetically engineered so it would qualify for the Non-GMO Project Verified label. (Last year, Dannon sold Stonyfield to the French dairy conglomerate Lactalis.)

Asked about grass-only dairying, Ziehm referred to his need to produce a certain volume of milk, which he said would not be feasible without grain. At High Meadows Farm, about 80 certified organic cows are currently producing about 3,500 pounds of milk a day.

Last fall, Cottrell started construction on a free-stall barn that can accommodate 200 milk cows. This year, they built the milking parlor with radiant heat in the floor for human and cow comfort in the winter. The space is insulated, and windows provide ample light. As at Tiashoke Farm, labor efficiency is a high priority for Ziehm. “We’re set up for one person to keep up with 16 cows,” he said. “We would love to be able to milk 90 cows per hour with good quality milk.”

After having so much of their energy focused on construction so far, Ziehm said, “now we need to focus on pasture management.” Faced with a dearth of moisture — a half-inch of rain in close to 30 days — coupled with some wicked heat spells, Ziehm was caught off guard when pasture plants seeded out or stopped growing. “I thought I had more than enough pasture,” Ziehm said. Part of his solution involves converting more of the hay fields into pasture. And for the first time, irrigation is on the table.

In the freestall Ziehm’s cows each get 15 pounds of organic corn meal, soy and canola along with hay and minerals. When the grass stopped being palatable in late June, balage was added to replace pasture intake. With so much feed in front of them in the freestall, High Meadows cows aren’t going out on pasture with the motivation of empty bellies.

Ziehm tried a laissez-faire approach with the herd. “We had the gates open to see what the cows will do on their own. They’d be out and come back by late morning … If the cows need to be in the barn, we spent plenty of money on it. By having the ability to feed in the barn, we have that as a fail-safe,” he said.

A few weeks later, rains had returned and pasture growth resumed so they started locking the cows out at night to graze. At Clover Bliss, except during those exceptional periods when Kemnah has to break into his stored winterfeed, pasture is the only dinner. Those cows are eager to partake.

An earlier version of this story was published in the August 2018 issue of the Hill Country Observer.

Tracy Frisch is a journalist, advocate, and subsistence gardener in upstate New York who has been involved with the organic movement for more than 30 years.

Agritourism: Tips for Getting Started

By Barbara Berst Adams

Agritourism as an additional revenue stream for the farm can be tempting for some. Possible experiences for farm visitors may include education about farming such as sheep-shearing demonstrations, entertaining activities such as gourd-painting classes, or simply the opportunity to observe the crops and animals on a working farm. Visitors can range from the local community to international tourists.

When non-farming citizens come directly onto the farm enticed by enjoyable experiences, the farmer can benefit in multiple ways. In some cases, farm-owners use agritourism as a marketing platform to draw customers to the farm to buy and pay for the farm’s crops directly, eliminating both the need to deliver crops as well as the middleman.

Agritourism sometimes adds direct revenue to a farm’s offerings by charging a fee for workshops or tours. And though agritourism can range from a one-hour herb drying class at a backyard herb farm to overnight rural B&B stays, here’s one example concerning revenue from the well-known October pumpkin agritourism venture described by Jane Eckert, founder of Eckert AgriMarketing.

“While the average pumpkin sale might be $4-$8 per customer, they will generally spend at least $20 per family just to have a fun day on the farm. Fall season revenues might start for farms at just a few thousand dollars. But with a little bit of ingenuity, hard work and a good product mix, $100,000 is not a difficult goal for a farm to reach in October. After several years, many farms are approaching sales up to $500,000 and more. Most farms I know exceed $100,000 annually from their October season. The concept is to start small with pumpkins and then start adding the products, food sales, school tours, etc., and the revenue quickly builds.”

But the farmer gains even more subtle benefits when agritourism is operated successfully. For example, they get direct customer comments and feedback — something corporations call marketing research. It can be extremely valuable for an herb farmer to find out a customer’s cousin is opening a new organic Italian restaurant in town and wants to buy local and direct. Overhearing multiple customers rave about the new heirloom cucumber variety from the market farmer’s test plot can let him know it will be a popular crop to expand upon next season.

agritourism example artist painting lavender farm
A local artist attracts the attention of two young farm visitors during a lavender farm’s summer festival.

On-farm events are a great way to both gain and keep current CSA (community supported agriculture) customers. Agritourism can also help with products sold off-farm even if agritourists don’t buy directly from the farm during their visits. When the owner of Skagit River Ranch in Washington State led farm visitors on a tour of his ranch, they were stunned at how and why he offers life-giving humic acid to his free-range laying hens and how cleanly yet naturally he feeds his hogs that were enjoying the sunshine in their outdoor pen. Plus, people on the farm tour were genuinely appreciative of him taking time to show them what goes on behind the scenes. From then on, at every food co-op or restaurant those people went to that offered the ranch’s products, their name stood out prominently. People made comments in stores and restaurants to other people about how much they preferred the Skagit River Ranch products over other options.

But the idea of bringing large-scale agritourism to the farm can be daunting as well. Do farmers really want to manage ongoing crowds, install parking areas and haul in portable toilets? How about putting up signs, extra fencing and locks on gates to keep kids out of ponds and keep sheep inside pastures? What if a huge investment in agritourism was made, only to find out customers weren’t as interested as was initially projected? What if it turns out working with people is a lot more draining and difficult than originally thought?

Luckily with agritourism, there isn’t just a choice between nothing at all or becoming a rural edu-tainment mecca. Agritourism can be small, slow and gentle and remain that way, or at least start that way before expanding in scope. Even a one-time afternoon event can still bring benefits to the farmer. One summer, the Slow Food convivium of Skagit County, Washington State, connected with the owner of nearby Willowrose Bay Orchard. Willowrose grows rare quince trees and produces and sells a variety of products from those fruits.

The Slow Food movement is a worldwide organization dedicated to rediscovering rare and traditional crops and food processing methods. They have what they call local conviviums for Slow Food members to hold cooking and tasting events and tour local farms. This particular Slow Food group was on the lookout for local sustainable farms and field trips for its members. They worked out a deal to arrange an afternoon tour of the farm for any of their local members who might be interested. The leader of the Slow Food group at the time solicited interested folks who wanted to tour the farm. She gave them directions to the farm, arranged carpools to get them there and asked them for at least a $10 per person donation to go toward the farmers’ time. About a dozen people showed up to learn about quince, how it grows and how to cook with it. The farmer didn’t have to do any promotion to generate farm tourists, nor provide any crowd management. She received a cash donation for her time, she got valuable customer feedback, and the farm’s product and brand stood out to those tourists from then on.

When farmers invite groups that are already organized — such as 10 members of a long-standing garden club or 15 members of an established book group — there’s already a working synergy to the group that’s often missing when inviting the same number of the general public.

It’s usually far easier to deal with an already established group than a random group from the public. On a similar note, when inviting kids to the farm, an elementary classroom that shows up in spring after the students have bonded as a group and with a teacher they’re accustomed to listening to is far different than letting 30 kids from the general public be dropped off at the farm. Even if their parents are also invited, as described below concerning a horse rancher’s near disaster, there can be a lot more surprise crowd control than if a preformed group with an established leader — such as a teacher — shows up. Scout troops and kids’ church groups would no doubt also fall into the category.

Even with such groups, crowd control and management issues will arise, but usually not quite as many. When one classroom of 5th graders took a field trip to a farm, one of the farmhands was delighted to be given the job of answering their questions and showing them around. It can be very rewarding to share what you know. However, the kids were quite fascinated with the fact that sometimes people have died from falling off tractors. The farmhand showed them the various safety measures in place. For example, how roll bars worked and how a person learns to properly land and roll away if he does fall. Under the watchful eye of the attentive teacher, the kids respectfully raised their hands before asking him questions about these safety measures and about what could go wrong. After about 10 minutes of him surrounded by intent, serious, wide-eyed kids asking questions such as, “Yeah, but what if the roll bar breaks?” And, “Yeah, but what if he has a heart attack while he’s falling off the tractor but before he lands on the ground?,” the teacher rescued the farmhand and broke up the session.

Starting with smaller established groups as well as ones with a teacher or leader if the groups involve kids, can help those new to agritourism build up mental agritourism muscle for working with people. And there are other reasons that small groups and short, one-time events can be very useful to the farmer considering agritourism.

Agritourism: Testing the Waters

Some farmers love the social aspect of agritourism. Preferring to remain deeply rooted on their land, agritourism gives them a chance to share with others what they’re doing and to visit with people off the farm, sometimes even from other countries, without having to travel. Others have found that they like it only in small doses, whereas others find any on-farm visitors to be a huge mistake.

That’s why starting slow, small and with a short, one-time only event can be very valuable. For example, there are farms that work directly with local school districts. They set up weekly or monthly field trips throughout the year, even having the kids partake in crop planting and harvest, charging a per-head fee. But before jumping into this 9-month-plus yearly commitment, one could test the waters by sending an invitation to just one elementary school teacher to meet with the farmer to plan a future one-time on-farm field trip. After it’s over, the farm owner can assess whether the preparation, time spent with the group, and clean-up afterward was worth any income or farm promotion generated.

Starting Slow Offers Easier Adjustment

Starting small, with less investment up front, allows the farm owner to adjust original agritourism plans more easily. In the case of a small horse rancher looking for ways to add revenue, the skilled young horsewoman dreamed of having a horse school of sorts for the local kids in town. She owned small acreage with nice arenas and barns and horses, and had been a horse rider since she was a kid herself. But rather than opening an entire school right away, she invited families from the local general public to sign up to bring their kids out to learn about horses for a day. The parents stayed with their kids.

As the day progressed, the ranch owner found herself exhausted and appalled that the parents with young kids allowed their small children to climb in and out of dangerous areas including between the fence railing and run around the legs of the surprised thoroughbreds. Naturally, part of the program was to teach safety and tell visitors where they could and couldn’t go, but the kids took off before any group coherence could be established. The parents, unaccustomed to the realities of farm animals, seemed resigned from being responsible for their kids once they arrived on the farm. It was almost as though they were reacting as they did when visiting their kids at public school or summer camp — “Someone else is in charge of the kids’ behavior here, I’ll take the back seat now.” She never invited the general public out again and was relieved when the day was over and no one had been injured. She decided to add revenue by giving private lessons to one adult at a time.

In another case, a small-acreage lavender farmowner decided having kids make target games of throwing their empty drink cans in her farm’s pristine pond wasn’t worth inviting children out for farm tours, as much as she loved kids. Luckily, she hadn’t already invested in advertisements offering summer-long tours to children, nor made a commitment to local schools to allow groups of students to come out throughout the school year. She simply adjusted to adult tours only.

Eliminate Quirks Before Going Big

It’s amazing how many quirks will show up that just can’t be predetermined before actually trying out agritourism. When they happen, it’s convenient if the first efforts were on a smaller and slower scale. On a CSA farm in the Pacific Northwest, the owners decided to have an autumn harvest party with a small handful of farm friends and CSA customers. Many fun and successful activities went on, including a campfire, shelling beans and grinding corn. However, the apple-pressing project was hoarded with an almost locust-like attack of yellow jackets. This wasp takeover was a surprise to them even though they’d pressed apples many times on their property in the past without it seeming to be such an issue.

They can figure out ways to solve this quirk before they do a group apple pressing again, possibly on a larger scale. Not all of the other local apple pressing gatherings nearby had this issue; why did they? How can they solve it? Should they eliminate the project on their land during certain years of particularly high yellow jacket numbers? This is far easier to tweak and fix when only a handful of people are involved rather than a crowd of screaming folks running from yellow jackets with the reporter from the local newspaper standing by, camera in hand.

How to Start Slow

Consider starting with already self-supervised groups. One farmer who operated a small pumpkin and autumn ornamental patch had two young elementary school-aged children. He started by letting them invite their whole class out to the farm on a late October Saturday. As the patch and his confidence grew in size, he got permission from the school principal to have fliers handed out to the entire school. This provided all the on-farm customers the farmer needed each year, but it also got him used to dealing with a variety of kids and their families. Had he wanted to grow his pumpkin patch even larger for even more customers, he would have been far more confident in adding advertisements to attract the general public as well.

As expected, opportunities for the farm’s revenue expanded in other various ways just with the customers he had. One teacher asked to bring her classroom out to the farm during other times of the year and was able to supply a substantial fee to the farmer for the visits from a combination of educational grant money and a fun fundraiser the kids wanted to do. Another parent asked if he’d be able to grow an additional crop of a specific type of pie pumpkin for a yearly church project in the future. Two other parents wanted to hire the farm family to bring their ponies to nearby kids’ birthday parties.

Such groups also make agritourism marketing far easier. When putting up fliers or classified ads for the general public, one never knows how many, if any, will show up. By contacting the leader or teacher of an established group who promises to be there, specific numbers are almost always guaranteed without advertising. And these smaller groups generate word-of-mouth promotion for the farm far beyond their classroom or club after they’ve had an enjoyable and unique experience on the farm.

agritourism at tulip farm
Though some farms, such as this tulip farm, thrive on huge numbers of agritourists, large crowds aren’t always beneficial to every farm and can be overwhelming to the farmer new to agritourism.

There are some things to consider when approaching various groups as possible agritourism customers. Contact the group leader either by written letter (postal or email) or phone, and let them know you’d like to offer an exclusive group activity just for them. If they are interested, agree on a date, have that date written down and connect a couple days beforehand to make sure all is still in order. Have the leader confirm upfront that enough people in the group will show up.

If charging for the event, consider a fee you hope to charge in the future, then try to attract your first group by offering a discount just this once, letting them know they are the first to get to try this rural event out at a discounted price. Have the teacher or group leader collect fees for you and turn them in the day before the event, if possible, to assure the group will pay and show up. As time goes on, the farmer gains more experience and confidence in collecting fees from the general public if that’s the direction the farmer wants to go.

If it feels awkward for the farmer to invite a group while asking them to pay him for the event, he can consider using them just for practice and not charging just this once, letting them know this will be a fee-based activity in the future, and they can donate if they are able. If they enjoy the event, the farmer may then already have some of his future paying returning customers arranged. But farmers shouldn’t undersell themselves or set a precedent that they host group activities for free if that’s not the ultimate plan. It might be best to try to find a group you can charge full price from the beginning.

Here’s a starter list of groups to choose from that may exist in your area:

  • Preschool
  • Elementary schools
  • Homeschool groups
  • Boy and Girl Scouts of America
  • Church members
  • Garden clubs
  • Senior centers
  • A local Slow Food convivium. Slow Food is an international movement with national, state and local chapters. Members often love to tour farms. Each country has an online site that lists groups by location.
  • Audubon Society
  • Society of Retired Citizens
  • Veterans associations

Other local civic and ethnic organizations:

  • Local or regional community colleges with nature-related clubs or classes
  • Regional chef schools that take field trips to farms
  • Personal chef or caterer schools
  • A local chapter of the Transition Network. The organization supports individual chapters for communities to address local issues concerning sustainable ways of living, including local food supply.

Make an informed decision on whether to start out with a one-time event or an ongoing one. When inviting the general public or even an already established group, consider the differences between a self-contained, one-time, single-day event and an ongoing agritourism project. Both can serve the farmer wanting to ease slowly and gently into agritourism.

An example of a one-time, self-contained event would be a cottage cheese-making class on the dairy on a single Saturday in March. The advantage to the farmer new to agritourism is that he commits to this one event only and it’s over in a Saturday. If the farmer wants to add more Saturday classes in the following months, he’s free to do so, but there’s no up-front commitment. Each class is done when it’s done. The farmer can begin to assess whether the agritourism project really does pay off and whether energy and other farm chores aren’t compromised too much for the return the agritourism brings to the farm.

Admittedly, farmers can assess only to a limited degree with just one class, but it’s a start that can lead them to the next assessment of perhaps a three-month long commitment to agritourism, and then perhaps eventually an entire year, step-by-step rather than jumping in for a full year’s commitment before testing the waters. An example of an ongoing agritourism event would be a four-month-long cheese-making ongoing course that meets each first Saturday of every month. Students sign up ahead of time for all four classes, and each class builds on what was learned before, perhaps even starting to age the cheese made in the first class and students getting to take it home on the last one. The obvious disadvantage to this for the agritourism newbie is that without refunding money and getting a lot of people upset, future classes have to happen no matter what. On the other hand, if the farmer feels assured that teaching cheesemaking for four Saturdays is well within her abilities, she’ll have all four classes paid for upfront, and she doesn’t have to advertise again and again in hopes of getting more students for each class as she would if she chose to do four single self-contained classes. Also, she would be dealing with the same students each time, so she gets to know them better rather than starting over with potentially new people each time.

Eventually, new agritourism farmers may want to venture into the world of inviting unlimited numbers of the general public to their on-farm events. And there are certainly those that start out jumping right into big, unpredictable crowds and do just fine. Larger farms with open fields and relatively safe crops such as pumpkins and lavender often thrive — in fact depend on — larger crowds. When many free-roaming farm visitors show up, and every activity isn’t controlled by the farmer or her staff, pleasant surprises can appear when farm visitors spontaneously make their own entertainment. On Pelindaba Lavender Farm in Washington State, the farmers wisely invited local artists to paint their blooming fields during their festival. This created a form of entertainment visitors loved. But unpleasant surprises can also show up. Until the time when extra parking, portable toilets and liability concerns, yet alone ability to answer endless questions from visiting children are down pat, a slower entry into agritourism may be the farmer’s best starting point.

This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Barbara Berst Adams is author of The New Agritourism: Hosting Community & Tourists on Your Farm and Micro Eco-Farming: Prospering from Backyard to Small Acreage in Partnership with the Earth.

Shiitake Mushrooms as Specialty Crop

By Barbara Berst Adams

The flavorful shiitake mushroom is native to Asia where it has been harvested wild from forestlands for centuries.

Commercial production was introduced in the 1930s first by inoculating select logs, and later by growing mushrooms on sterilized sawdust, which sped up production. As its taste and nutritional value become more and more known and desired in North America, shiitake mushrooms present another possible niche farm crop to consider.

Shiitake can be sold in a variety of ways, including as fresh mushrooms, dried mushrooms, pre-inoculated shiitake logs or sawdust blocks for backyard or tabletop shiitake mushroom growers and of course as value-added culinary products that contain the mushrooms. Even the resulting “mushroom compost” can be a valuable product. For actual spawn production, a sterile or at least very clean laboratory-type environment is preferable.

But the purchase of spawn is relatively inexpensive. Also, in some states, a certified kitchen is required to produce and sell value-added food products such as mushroom soup, but the production needs of the other shiitake products can usually be set up on a typical working farm.

Cascadia Mushrooms of Bellingham, Washington, is a USDA and Washington State Department of Agriculture certified organic producer of gourmet and medicinal mushrooms, including shiitake. It was founded by Alex Winstead, who studied mycology, botany and organic chemistry in college before starting the mushroom farm in his rented suburban basement and garage. Eventually moving to its current location, Cascadia Mushrooms now offers fresh shiitake and other mushroom varieties directly to consumers and professionals through the farm’s website, farmers’ markets and relationships developed with chefs and grocers. The farm sells mushroom kits and spawn through farmers’ markets as well as online through its website and garden centers. The farm holds mushroom-growing workshops and also sells medicinal mushroom products. Finally, Cascadia Mushrooms sells mushroom compost in limited quantities, by appointment, direct from the farm.

shiitake mushrooms specialty crop

“Shiitake is such a great mushroom to grow and eat for many reasons,” said Winstead. “They are well-adapted to the Pacific Northwest maritime climate — this makes the growing season fairly long without the use of supplemental heating or cooling — they like to grow between 55 and 75 F.”

They also have an excellent shelf life. Fresh shiitake can be cooked and eaten with a freshly harvested flavor up to 7 or 10 days after picking. Dried shiitake can last for two or more years in a sealed container.

“Of all the specialty mushroom varieties, shiitake is the most recognized and popular in the American diet,” said Winstead. “Compare this to diets of some European or Asian countries where more than 10 varieties are eaten regularly — both wild and cultivated species.”

Shiitake Strains

In the wild, shiitake mushrooms grow on fallen forest hardwood logs, and there are many different strains of shiitake. The Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center of Lanesboro, Minnesota, for example, researched 52 different strains of shiitake to determine the best for cultivation on hardwood logs. Spawn suppliers offer warm weather, cold weather and wide range strains based on the temperatures needed for fruiting. For example, some cool season strains fruit between 41 and 68 F. Warmer season strains can fruit in temperatures as high as 86 F.

Growing Debate

It’s widely asserted that log-grown shiitake versus sawdust-grown most closely mimics nature and is a desirable choice as compared to large, commercial sawdust-grown shiitake.

Log-grown shiitake have commanded higher prices over sawdust-grown shiitake, with log-grown enthusiasts insisting the flavor, nutritional value and texture are superior.

Cascadia Mushrooms has a different theory and grows only a small portion as log-grown, using sawdust as the growing medium for most of its crop. Winstead says that growing them “indoors versus outdoors” also plays an important part in the quality of the mushroom.

“We grow almost all of our mushrooms on alder sawdust that is supplemented with bran and rye,” said Winstead. “In my experience, it’s not the log itself that grows a different mushroom but whether they are grown outdoors or indoors, the climate and temperature at the time of growth and the shiitake strain being cultivated.”

Winstead explained that natural UV light, the wind, shifting temperatures and so on seem to play a part in the difference in mushroom quality when grown outdoors.

Winstead said 99 percent of the fresh and dried shiitake available at stores and restaurants are grown indoors on sawdust. The industry shifted to growing primarily on sawdust under controlled conditions over the last 25 years.

“If you take one of our shiitake sawdust blocks and grow it outdoors it will be almost identical to those grown on logs,” said Winstead. “Conversely, if a log is grown indoors under controlled conditions the opposite will be true and the mushroom will resemble a typical commercial sawdust-grown shiitake. Sawdust growing has a greater potential to create a sustainable and profitable farming enterprise where shiitake or other mushrooms are the primary product. On the other hand, if someone is looking for supplemental income that is seasonal and requires little up-front investment or they want to enhance other farm offerings, shiitake log farming is a good choice and can add diversity to a small farm operation. I have chosen mushrooms as my sole farm product, so growing on sawdust was the right choice for me.”

While Winstead grows in a farm setting, timberland owners looking for alternative sources of income may also want to consider log-grown shiitake.

Cornell University in New York State has studied eastern forest-grown shiitake and provides educational materials and workshops for those interested in pursuing such an enterprise if their timberland supplies sufficient hardwood. The hardwood species suggested for shiitake production include oak, chinkapin, hornbeam, sweetgum, poplar, alder, maple, ironwood, beech and birch.

Besides assessing one’s local log or sawdust resources for deciding which to use for growing shiitake, an aspiring mushroom farmer should also consider potential customers. Is log-grown specifically in demand in the farmer’s customer base? As with direct-sale local farmers who grow vegetables, the “know your local farmer” trend also plays a part in whether a farmer chooses to grow in sawdust or on logs (or both). If the farmer can explain his or her operating method directly to customers — such as the unique quality of the local trees used for sawdust or the natural outdoor mushroom fruiting conditions, customers can come to understand the quality and sustainability of each individual farmer’s growing methods on a more refined level.

Sawdust-Grown Shiitake

The growing medium for sawdust-grown shiitake, called substrate, includes hardwood sawdust and sometimes a variety of other dry ingredients such as straw, bran or rye. Choice of substrate formula depends on what is available locally, the regional climate and the strain of shiitake grown. Alder, for example, grows plentifully in the region of Cascadia Mushrooms, and Winstead gets his alder sawdust from a local sawmill.

The dry ingredients for the substrate are mixed together with water and then placed in small transparent mushroom bags that are heat-resistant and breathable. The bags are then heat sterilized to eliminate spores of other types of unwanted fungus lurking in the material. The resulting sterilized sawdust is inoculated with shiitake mycelium and the bag set aside, often in a growing room, for the mycelium to grow or “run” — doing its natural job of breaking down wood.

That period can last from one to four months. Once proper growth in the spawn has been observed, various shocking methods — such as temperature change or physical agitation — induce mushroom fruiting for harvest.

Log-Grown Shiitake

For log-grown shiitake, mushrooms are grown on hardwood branches or logs usually cut late fall to spring during the dormant season so the logs have the best possible moisture content.

The size of the logs, sometimes around 3 to 4 feet long for easy handling and 3 to 8 inches in diameter, depends partly on the source of logs, how they will be inoculated, stacked or leaned once inoculated, and otherwise tended to once they are filled with spawn and waiting for harvest.

Sources of the logs are usually either the farmer’s own woodlot or logs resulting from timberland improvement. A row of holes is drilled into the log 4 to 8 inches apart and about 1 inch deep. Once that row is complete, the log is rolled to start another row 2 inches away, and this is repeated until the log is covered with as many holes as possible without them being too close together. Every other new row starts halfway between the previous row’s holes so distance between holes is staggered and a diamond shape is created by the holes once the drilling is complete. The holes are filled with loose sawdust spawn, which is a mixture of sawdust and the chosen fungal mycelium, then sealed with food-grade wax.

Alternatives to loose sawdust spawn for log inoculation include shiitake plug spawn, which are solid plugs that are hammered in. Also, thimble spawn is available. This type of spawn replaces the need for waxing by providing styrofoam caps already attached to the spawn. The drilling and filling process is slightly different for these alternatives, but the overall process is similar.

The inoculated logs are then set, leaned or stacked in their waiting location or “laying yard” to colonize the log, which can take six to 16 months.

Once colonized, logs may naturally fruit, depending on the local climate, or can be “shocked” by being soaked in cold water for 24 hours. This will force mushrooms to fruit within about a week.

“Outdoor-grown shiitake logs like shade,” Winstead said. “In our area this is not a very hard thing to find. We grow ours in stacks in a grove of cottonwood trees. The trees provide a nice shady canopy during the summer when it’s most crucial, and during the winter months, rain is able to fall unhindered on the logs because the cottonwood leaves have fallen. During dry summers we cover our stacks in 60 percent shade cloth, and I turn a sprinkler on them once a week for a couple hours when it’s not raining. Summer is also when most of the logs are in their fruiting cycle, so we submerge them in water for 24 hours about once a month to stimulate mushroom growth.”

Winstead said there are many options for outdoor growing areas: pine/fir forest, shade structure, shaded greenhouse with irrigation, barn or outbuilding with some kind of misting system. Almost any basic structure can be adapted for growing shiitake.

Learning the Process

For the aspiring shiitake mushroom farmer, live workshops, preferably in a similar bio-region, can be invaluable.

Shiitake mushrooms

Regional hardwood sources, local climate, including humidity, and sometimes the locality’s other native fungi species, all play an important role in how a farmer will produce shiitake. Plus, there are numerous variables and precise applications to preparing sawdust or choosing and inoculating logs which benefit from a hands-on and locally adapted approach to learning.

If workshops aren’t available nearby or if they are otherwise not possible to attend, a new mushroom farmer can also get a feel for shiitake growing in a learn-as-you-go way by obtaining pre-inoculated shiitake logs from a supplier and practicing growing shiitake within their own farm’s environment, asking the supplier questions along the way. Some suppliers who give live workshops also offer consultation as well as print and online learning resources. Once farmers are certain shiitake will be a good fit, they may be able to continue to learn how to prepare the sawdust or logs themselves by learning from a distance. For example, the owners of Field and Forest, a mushroom farm in Wisconsin, offer a helpful free video on their site which shows the process of inoculating logs with all three types of shiitake spawn — sawdust, plug and thimble.

Aspiring shiitake farmers can also check local agriculture extension services.

Cornell University has very recent publications and free videos on eastern forest log-grown shiitake cultivation. Some of the information can be adapted to any location. A search for “shiitake” at the university’s website will lead to these resources.

Marketing Shiitake Mushrooms

One of Cascadia Mushrooms’ marketing secrets is very similar to successful vegetable farms. Winstead communicates directly with his buying community.

“My first customers were at the Bellingham Farmers’ Market (in northwestern Washington State),” Winstead said. “I began Cascadia Mushrooms at such a small scale that my first harvests wouldn’t even last a full day at the market.”

This gave Winstead the opportunity to try growing different varieties of mushrooms and test which ones people liked the most and which ones he could grow successfully.

“It was a few years of trial and error, and after lots of growing and testing it was clear that shiitake was where I wanted to focus most of my efforts. Once I was able to produce more shiitake, my mushrooms got the interest of Bellingham’s Community Food Coop and the Mount Bakery Cafe, both of which have supported my farm and me from the get-go and continue to this day to be some of my favorite and best clients. Connecting with the community and telling folks my story has always been my best sales strategy. People today, especially in our region, want to be connected to their food and the people who help bring it to them. Being a part of people’s lives and sharing my work with them is the most rewarding part of my job, and it’s really the reason my business exists.”

Winstead’s Cascadia Mushrooms has prospered from the increasing popularity of shiitake. This mushroom has gained a lot of culinary ground since it was once wild harvested in the forests of Asia. There are many particulars involved in growing shiitake, from finding a reputable spawn supplier to recognizing the ideal moisture content in local logs used for inoculation, but growers say it gets easier. Once the basics are understood, a grower can then adapt somewhat to his or her own growing region and goals for the farm.

“I have fully fallen in love with shiitake,” said Winstead. “It is both a pleasure to grow with a fascinating life cycle, and it is my favorite mushroom to eat day-to-day. When I began growing mushrooms I wanted to focus on the even more exotic varieties and not something as popular as shiitake, but over the years (partly inspired by market demand) I have focused more than 90 percent of my business on this mushroom, and it is the one species I will eat any day of the week.”

Winstead continued, “Shiitake is one of the most used and studied of the medicinal mushrooms. Its history dates back thousands of years and research continues today on the beneficial effects of shiitake in combating cancer and viruses as well as being an excellent source of vitamin D, beta glucans, healthy protein and amino acids.”

As suggested above, aspiring shiitake growers with a source of logs or growing medium may want to experiment on a small scale at first with a few logs or sawdust-grown mushrooms.

This will let them know if the labor and local resources for growing appear to be workable, while the particulars for growing shiitake in their climate are learned at the same time. Eventually, shiitake mushrooms may become a prosperous main crop as they have for Cascadia Mushrooms, or perhaps a valuable addition to other crops on the farm.

This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A. 

Barbara Berst Adams is the author of the books, Micro Eco-Farming, and The New Agritourism: Hosting Community & Tourists on Your Farm. She also writes for the Micro Eco-Farming Center.

Regenerative Fiber Farming

By Barbara Berst Adams

It was sheep shearing day on my grandpa’s ranch in the mid-20th century, and all I knew was that I was having fun. Everyone, including Grandpa, was clad in blue denim jeans on this sunny day. Gathered with other neighboring small-scale ranchers, we sheared and then stuffed and stomped wool into the gigantic bag that would be taken to market

Though considered old-fashioned and outdated in that era of get-big-or-get-out agriculture, small farmers in our area still gathered for shared missions like this. And there was no reason at the time for a kid like me to realize that what we were doing — raising textile fiber (a.k.a. fiber farming) in an Earth-regenerative manner — would become a world mission to support the health of the planet.

Holistic by default, Grandpa’s sheep were rotationally pasture-grazed, the ranch was diversified, and he planted by the moon’s cycles. That’s the only way he’d ever farmed. Yet that type of farming didn’t appear out of an inability to know better. It evolved from a powerful ability to sense what is needed to thrive.

Fast-forward to being a grandparent myself, and climate change adds a sense of urgency for not just our food and fuel to be Earth-restorative, but also our clothing and textiles. The after-harvest processing of fiber must be considered when improving the ecological impact of the textile industry, but eco-farmers serve the initial production of the fiber themselves, and it must happen in a way that also sustains them financially.

organic cotton farming in California
Sally Fox of Vreseis Ltd., a Fibershed producer member in the Capay Valley of California, amidst the organic, naturally colored cotton she has been breeding for over 30 years. Photo by Page Green Photography for Fibershed.

So whether fiber farmers produce Earth-sustaining wool as my grandfather did, or other fiber staples such as flax, hemp, cotton, leather, nettle, or even dye crops, there needs to be high enough demand for the farmers to supply. On some fronts, it appears demand for U.S. farmers to produce more sustainable fiber may be on the rise.

Holy Lamb Organics near Olympia, Washington, produces handmade bedding products from organic or ecologically grown fibers, including wool and cotton. Their standards for supporting U.S. farmers who regenerate the Earth with humane treatment of animals is high. And while their wool is already sourced mainly from U.S. farmers, they’d like that to eventually also be the case for their organic cotton, which is currently sourced from other countries.

Tj O’Shae, marketing/social media team member of Holy Lamb Organics, recently confirmed that though at the company’s inception there were few U.S. farmers and mills producing the long stapled organic cotton fibers they need, they see this trend reversing. They plan to use U.S. cotton when there are enough secure and reliable suppliers. Consumer interest in their organic fiber products has also grown from more than 80 stores across the country and Canada. “At this time, we have 140-plus partner companies who carry Holy Lamb Organics products,” said O’Shae.

Regeneration International

Regeneration International, a U.S. nonprofit and project of the Organic Consumers Association, is also keeping an eye on the fiber industry. Regeneration International promotes a campaign to increase the global market for ecologically produced fiber. The organization’s overall vision is stated as, “a healthy global ecosystem in which regenerative agriculture and land-use practices cool the planet, feed the world, and promote public health, prosperity, and peace.”

And along with feed the world, they can now add clothe the world, as they promote the Care What You Wear project which they describe as: “The Care What You Wear campaign’s aim is to educate consumers about why and how to buy clothes that support organic and regenerative farming, responsible production and fair labor practices, and to expose today’s fast-fashion industry which perpetuates ethically and environmentally unsound practices with its ‘buy more, cheaper clothes’ message. We can’t fix the global clothing industry’s complicated and ‘dirty’ supply chain overnight. But by putting pressure on the worst offenders, and by supporting the brands that take steps to clean up their supply chain, together, we can move the dial in the right direction.”

Regeneration International networks and connects with more than 4 million farmers, consumers, activists, scientists and policymakers in more than 100 countries. It is also engaged in both hands-on and online farmer training. They offer a report from the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, “The role of ruminants in reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint in North America.” For fiber producers raising ruminants such as sheep and angora goats, this document can help alleviate concern regarding ruminants and methane, and can be used as educational material to share with an eco-rancher’s customers. The document discusses and compares various methods of raising ruminants.

As quoted from this report, “Owing to the methane (CH4) produced by rumen fermentation, ruminants are a source of greenhouse gas (GHG) and are perceived as a problem. We propose that with appropriate regenerative crop and grazing management, ruminants not only reduce overall GHG emissions, but also facilitate provision of essential ecosystem services, increase soil carbon sequestration, and reduce environmental damage.”

This organization also helps generate more sustainable fiber demand from consumers by supporting the clothing brands that sell products made from ethical and holistic farms and ranches. They operate a directory of responsible fashion brands in North America and Europe for consumers.

Fiber farming or eco-fiber agriculture organizations may want to become familiar with Regeneration International’s online and live resources to help keep up on the local and global direction of ecological fiber production and its markets. Some may even want to see if linking up with them directly may be of value, as it has been for Fibershed, a California-based regenerative fiber community that supports their own regional fiber and dye farmers, along with assistance to fiber and dye producers worldwide.


Fibershed, a nonprofit founded by Rebecca Burgess of California, offers research and hands-on education on carbon farming and biosphere regeneration within the fiber industry, along with networking and marketing support for its members. Its own active regional Northern California Fibershed serves as an example to other regions in the United States and around the world, as Fibershed aims toward the development of an international system of regional textile communities.

Regenerative fiber farming techniques include rotational grazing
Robin Lynde of Meridian Jacobs, a Fibershed producer member in Vacaville, California, describes her pasture management practices, which include rotational grazing. Photo by Page Green Photography for Fibershed.

Fibershed started about seven years ago with Burgess’ initial personal project of wearing a wardrobe sourced no more than a 150-mile radius from her location. The nonprofit blossomed from this initial experiment, and among various projects, now operates the Northern California Producer Program that offers membership to those involved in fiber production within a 150-mile radius of its San Geronimo, California. headquarters.

At this time, there are some components to the fiber production chain not available in this region. Fibershed handles that by verifying any inputs or textile services coming from outside its borders until those inputs and services are available within the region. Currently, these are listed as a milling facility for cotton and fine gauge wool, as well as most sewing notions (thread, etc.).

Fibershed members include farmers, ranchers, designers, sewers, weavers, knitters, felters, spinners, mill owners and natural dyers, which are listed in Fibershed’s Producer Directory. Those who grow fiber and dye crops receive free soil carbon baseline testing and support on improving the carbon farming methods on their land.

Fibershed developed The Citizen Science Soil Sampling Protocol in collaboration with UC Davis’s Gaudin Lab. It’s a soil assessment method that shows growers what their soil carbon baseline figure is valuable to have before implementing a further carbon farming plan. Fibershed then supports farmers with how-tos for ecological farming in their region.

WoolFulLove Farm and Fibers of Covelo, California, is a Fibershed member producer. The diversified crop farm includes Merino and Longwool breeds of rotationally grazed sheep that produce a wide assortment of naturally colored wool. Owner Jami Johnson said that as a farmer, Fibershed’s conferences and articles have helped her understand climate-beneficial farming practices and have helped guide her farming and producing choices and how she interacts with her customers.

“I have continually been inspired to use more and more natural dyes with my fibers and to use dyes that are native to my environment. I also now am a strong supporter of the slow textile movement. I am an advocate to all of my customers to think about where their clothes come from.”

Fibershed members are also offered a photoshoot and write-up of their operation on the Fibershed website, as is the case with WoolFulLove and others, including the story they present of Stemple Creek Ranch. The ranch produces grass-fed beef and lamb in Marin County, California. Author Sasha Wirth skillfully describes how up until a few years ago, wool from Stemple Creek Ranch’s sheep was only a by-product that barely paid for shearing costs. Wirth goes on to explain that the ranch operators then saw an opportunity in growing consumer interest in local fiber that helps regenerate the planet.

Stemple Creek Ranch became one of the first producers of Climate Beneficial Wool — another project promoted by Fibershed. This allows the ranch to sell heirloom-quality wool for fiber artists who know the wool helps capture more carbon than it produces. Among numerous carbon farming methods, Stemple Creek Ranch uses rotational grazing and spreads organic compost over some of their pastureland, according to carbon farming standards.

Via the Marin Carbon Project of which Stemple Creek has partnered with, Northern California carbon farming ranches have been studied to make certain compost spread on pastures does not add methane and nitrous oxides to the air, but instead improves underground carbon storage, water retention, drought resistance and forage growth.

Involvement and exposure with Fibershed can also help promote a farm or ranch’s products, as it has for WoolFulLove Farm and Fibers.

“I have received quite a few emails now from people interested in wool products or to purchase sheep,” said Johnson. She said that Fibershed generates customers that come to the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, looking for her yarn.

Members can also receive up to 100 free Fibershed Certified Product tags, discounts on workshops and other perks. Agricultural growers and producers in the Central/Northern California area who are interested in becoming part of this network can contact Fibershed for further information, and if they choose, can fill out the online form and pay a $40 per year membership fee.

For farmers and ranchers living beyond this region who might want to join or start their own regional fibershed, Fibershed offers an Affiliate Program membership which currently lists member communities across the United States, Canada and several other countries.

Members can learn from online webinars, network with other members who share the same vision of strengthening their regional fiber systems, become licensed to use the Fibershed logo and learn from others’ successes and challenges.

Some of the projects within the current Fibershed affiliate membership include the Northern Minnesota Fibershed which raised funds to bring fiber processing equipment and skills to their fiber region.

Others have organized educational field trips to farms in their region, organized local fiber marketing projects such as producing films, offering dyeing and fiber arts classes and even putting on fashion shows highlighting locally produced clothing, like the Upper Canada Fibershed.

Fiber Farming: Grow Your Own Blue Jeans

Locally and sustainably produced sweaters and socks are a remarkable achievement, but blue jeans, a wardrobe staple that transcends gender and generations, carries its own unique challenges from its soft but rugged denim and virtually un-rippable seams to its signature blue color (once coming from plant-based indigo, and now mostly from chemical dyes). It can seem far-reaching to produce them sustainably, yet alone locally.

In the fall of 2015, a Grow Your Own Jeans (GYJ) fashion show and fundraiser was held to celebrate the success of an unusual Northern California Fibershed pilot project. A limited edition of blue jeans were produced from organic California cotton grown on soil that is rotationally grazed by sheep. It was dyed with regionally grown Japanese indigo, which grows well in California’s temperate climate. The cotton was woven and sewn in the San Francisco bay area using notions made in the USA.

“It was a wonderful project and has inspired many other new projects, including the development of indigo extracts to commercial scale as well as building weaving capacity and developing our latest project, Climate Beneficial cloth,” said Marie Hoff, Fibershed Producer Program coordinator. “Essentially the GYJ project was a one-time project to experiment and showcase, however we’d be delighted to see someone take that research, prototyping and market demand and build it into a jeans company. As a nonprofit organization, we do not have this capacity. We can offer support in the form of research and development, public education, making connections with stakeholders, etc.”

Much more sustainable fiber and dye farming research and consumer awareness continues to happen among these and other organizations and independent farmers and ranchers. Far more is needed, but projects such as Grow Your Jeans initiate further study and practical education on regionally and regeneratively produced fiber and dye. Organizations such as Regeneration International and Fibershed link up farmers and ranchers with potential nearby production partners and customers that may not have known of each other. They help generate consumer awareness and demand, which fiber and dye farmers need to sustain their land-based businesses.

Even the variety of catchy names the various sustainable fiber system projects are christened add to the efforts to attract consumer awareness. The list also includes “Sheep to Sweater,” “Ranch to Runway,” “Community Supported Cloth,” “Soil to Skin,” “Farm to Garment,” and even “Soil to Soil Clothing,” where clothing that has outlived its use is traceably eco-restorative enough to be composted back into organic soil.

My Grandpa certainly would have believed in Soil to Soil clothing. (He tossed his spent blue jeans in the garden to smother weeds after Grandma removed buttons, zippers and any quilt-worthy pieces of denim for reuse.) But he had no idea so many people in the world would some day worry about a deteriorating environment.

Yet the bits of old denim remnants my grandma sewed into brand-new quilts remind me of the bits of Grandpa’s farming methods being recycled and expanded upon today. Farmers such as Jami Johnson of WoolFulLove Farm and Fibers, and organizations like Regeneration International and Fibershed, gather again in shared mission with that powerful ability to sense what is needed to thrive.

Whether it’s global fashion brands or local blue jeans, current and aspiring eco-fiber and dye farmers have a growing network of organizations supporting their markets and education as we move toward a more beneficial fiber and textile industry.

This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Barbara Berst Adams is author of the book The New Agritourism: Hosting Community & Tourists on Your Farm

7 Keys to Dairying, Cheesemaking Success

By Gianaclis Caldwell
From the July 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine

No one becomes a dairy farmer or dives into cheesemaking because they are looking for a simple, easy life with a large pot of gold at the end the rainbow. But if a cheesy (I like to think of that as a complimentary word) life appeals to you, and you choose to turn it into a business, it must be one that is sustainable — worth continuing from the aspects of workload and income.

wheels of cheese with wedge

Being a successful farmstead cheesemaker is no longer just a matter of gathering together a beautiful herd of dairy sheep, cows, goats, or water buffalo and making great cheeses.

Not only are feed and infrastructure costs higher than ever, but the artisan cheesemaker faces stiff competition from imported cheeses and those that appear to be made domestically but are made in part using imported milk (in the case of some water buffalo mozzarella), imported frozen curd (for some fresh and ripened goat cheeses), or simply made overseas (utilizing milk from mega-dairies) to make a custom-label cheese.

To the consumer buying cheese from a dairy case, there is no easy way to distinguish your barely-break-even $25 a pound cheese from a similar one that is half the price. While there are no easy answers that will properly deal with every facet of the job, if you clearly define your business, both before selling that first wheel of cheese and periodically over time, you are likely to be a success. Here are seven key topics that when properly considered will make your business a satisfying achievement.

1. Choose Your Cheesemaking Business Model

Americans typically define success by income. The traditional business model dictates that a successful business creates jobs, growth and profits — a growth model. While no dairy farmer or cheesemaker starts out intending to lose money, many begin with a different business model, the lifestyle business model. In this model, there is rarely enough income to put money away for retirement, but there are other, equally rewarding benefits for those who find the lifestyle appealing.

Living on the land, working where you live, sharing that life and its work with a partner, creating a product you can take pride in, and raising a family in a wholesome environment are just a few of the payoffs to which a price tag cannot be attached.

farmer milking cows
Growth requires increasing production, which requires scaling up equipment and other increased costs.

This model offers some financial incentives that are easy to miss and should be maximized — with the help of an honest tax accountant. A home business requires that many of your day-to-day costs, such as phone bills, property taxes, etc. are related to the work of the farm and can therefore be paid for by the farm. We farmers tend to be honest, straightforward thinking people, so often the convoluted tax system and the breaks that are legally taken by larger businesses may seem a bit slimy and sneaky, but if th

ey are legal, you should not short-change yourself these opportunities!

A farm that starts out as a lifestyle business does not necessarily need to stay that way. If the kids move away and show no signs of wanting to return, the model can change into one of modest growth that becomes an asset that can be sold when you no longer wish to run it. Or you may find that growth and expanding your product line is necessary to deal with increasing costs.

Growth should be approached with much planning; otherwise it may prove more costly than the income you thought it was going to provide.

Growth requires increasing production, which requires scaling up equipment and other increased costs. Unless these are forecast properly, with payoff times realistically projected, the growth might cost more than it produces.

No matter which model you choose, one of the most important things to do is decide how you want to leave the business — an exit strategy.

This plan will include when you think you will want to stop the work, if you will sell the property or just the equipment, brand and animals, etc. Even if you feel you want to do this work well into your golden years, have a plan. Your plan can change over time, but it is probably one of the most important, and most ignored, aspects of a successful small business.

2. Choose Your Product Footprint

How far and wide you plan to sell your cheese may seem like an unimportant or malleable decision, but it will dictate many of the other choices that will have to be made later, especially your regulatory model and product line, so I suggest considering it early in the process. There are three possible product footprints for most cheesemakers: local and regional sales only, small production with broad brand recognition and broad distribution.

If your product will be limited to only local and regional sales, you will need to figure out the market potential in venues such as farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture (CSAs), farm sales, local retailers and restaurants. This type of product footprint is probably the most volatile. In some parts of the United States local sales options are increasing — with more customers supporting local farmers and a growing taste for artisan cheeses — but in others, the number of competitors is growing faster than the market, meaning you will have to either make a product better than anyone else, different from any other products, or less expensive.

To keep your product sales stable in a local market will require attentiveness to many details, including keeping your product quality consistent, sharing your story, checking in with chefs and retailers to keep them in stock and building loyalty to your farm and cheeses.

I call the next product footprint model “small output with broad branding.” In this model, the producer does not make a lot of product, but ships or delivers their cheeses to larger, more elite markets, often far away, where customers are accustomed to paying more for fine cheeses. This model is especially useful if your local market cannot support your prices or doesn’t have a large enough population to support the number of producers making cheese. This model relies upon getting your cheeses into the hands of people in the know — from authors to high-profile cheese sellers (mongers).

You might enter cheese competitions to help further this goal. As in all of the models, creating a story and an identity is important as well as consistency and communication with whoever is selling your products.

The last model is that of broad distribution such as a high-end grocery store like Whole Foods and even Costco. Your product might still only be marketed in limited regions by these chains, so you don’t necessarily have to be a huge company.

This model will require working with distributors and perhaps even brokers and will most certainly require that you have a complete food risk reduction program (often called HACCP) in place. This model is, not surprisingly, best suited for more of a business growth model.

3. Consider the Regulatory Model

In some cases, you have no choice regarding the standards to which your facility is built, and the state regulations may require the same minimum as do federal regulators for all producers. But in many states, the state requirements are less limiting (rarely more) than those set by the federal government through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

making cheese
Beau Schoch stacks forms for pressing cheese at Schoch Family Farmstead.

Whatever the state requirements, I suggest building and operating at the federal minimum — unless you are certain that your product will never leave your state. Even then, you may wish to broaden your product footprint one day and then be limited by your facility.

To sell any product out of your state, you must meet all FDA requirements. Also keep in mind that the FDA has broad rights when it comes to inspecting food production facilities — very wide-sweeping and sometimes vaguely defined. You should always ask yourself how your business would fare should a surprise visit by government overseers take place.

4. Define Your Product Line

I’d say that this is one of the toughest choices for the artisan cheesemaker. We tend to be driven by our interest in our craft, not our business plan. But in order to be sustainable, the product line should be defined by the needs of the business. There are two basic models for product line that might be right for a lifestyle or growth model and any of the product footprint models. The first is a focused product line, where only one or a few cheeses are made. The other is a broad product line with many different cheeses or dairy products.

If a focused line is the right choice, it should be based on several things in order to succeed. First, there should be a demand for that product. Second, you might choose a product based on your skills and ability of your facility to properly produce that product. Lastly, it should also be produced based on the natural terroir (the French word for “a sense of place”) that your location, the type of milk you use and your region can truly impart to the product.

The focused product line works especially well with the footprint model of small output with broad branding and the broad distribution model.

A broad product line is often created more out of boredom and the excitement of creating something new (I have most certainly been guilty of this). It is also sometimes based on customer demand, but you have to watch out for this. People will recommend, suggest, and even beg for many products that do not have a broad audience or would disrupt the efficiency of your production. Make sure a new product will add true value, fits easily into your workday, requires minimal new investment and needs little or no additional marketing.

New products might also be crafted in order to build your brand by making your products available to a variety of markets and therefore a larger number of people. The broad product line works especially well for the local and regional footprint model, where returning, frequent shoppers crave variety.

5. Choose Your Farm Visibility Model

One of the most valuable assets you have as a farmstead cheesemaker is the connection that can be created between your customers and your farm. Remember, no matter how many robots the industrial cheesemaker can invent to try to duplicate handmade cheeses, they can never lay true claim to being a small farmer. How you share this reality with your customers depends in part on whether your farm is completely private and inaccessible to the public or is visible to the community and your customers.

aging cheeses

A private farm has its advantages in uninterrupted work and, of course, more privacy. It may be the only option for a farm that is remotely located or because of zoning, property limitations, insurance liability concerns, unhappy neighbors, etc.

A farm that is open to the public might only be open occasionally for special events or tours. You don’t need to turn it into a petting zoo or roadside attraction to have public visibility. I believe that finding some way to periodically make your farm visible to the public is a great choice. The connections you can create between your community and your farm are invaluable, and like I said earlier, it is that visibility of an honest, small, hard-working farm that is one of our most intangible assets when it comes to persuading consumers that our cheese is worth more than those created on a mass scale. Not to mention that public events are a great motivation to make that run to the landfill and recycling center that we all put off as long as possible.

If you choose a public model, or think you might go in that direction someday, be sure to think about accessibility when designing your buildings and layout. Pathways and viewing rooms that are safe and navigable by seniors and the physically limited are essential. If your farm is to be part of certain tours, it may need to have an Americans with Disabilities Act accessible bathroom. These are things to keep in mind early in your decision and design process.

6. Choose Your Livestock Management Model

The small farmer has the option of managing their herd in a much different fashion than the industrial dairy producer. This is another model choice that should be maximized when marketing your product and informing your customers.

There is a good reason that many cheeses are cheap, and most of it has to do with the massive scale of some farms and the commodity manner in which the livestock are managed.

The conventional and industrial dairy farm focuses strictly on high-volume milk production when it comes to managing their animals. This by no means suggests that they do not care for them well — indeed a healthy, content herd is at the core of good milk production. But it does mean that the animals are managed in a way that is efficient to the maximum.

While the small farmer is unlikely to have a robotic milking machine or even humans milking a constant stream of animals 24 hours a day, they might still prefer to treat the herd in a more casual, less personal manner. There is definitely less management time involved when dealing with livestock in this manner — recordkeeping is minimal, breeding season is simply a matter of placing a willing male with the herd, and young stock are sent away or raised in more confined or human-friendly setups.

The livestock management model that I encourage is one that involves turning your herd into an asset. It definitely involves more management time and recordkeeping. But the payoff is that over time you need fewer animals to produce the same amount of milk, and the young stock become a valuable asset to others — meaning they will pay you more money for animals from your herd. In addition, this model has the power of helping the public relate to what you do.

While none of us consider our dairy herd as a bunch of pets, there is a bridge that is created between the non-farmer and the farmer when animals have names and the public perceives that they are important for more than just their milk.

Again, we are not doing this simply to placate the public; we are doing it to increase the value of our product and the willingness of people to pay for that value. I believe that tapping into people’s sentimentality and showing them that by paying more they are helping animals is a real yet underutilized strategy.

7. Optimize Resource Management

How you design and set up your management of resources such as feed, water, waste and labor gets into the nitty-gritty, day-to-day realities of the dairy farm and cheese plant.

These areas are often out of our control regarding costs, but they must be considered early and frequently for the business to thrive.

In the best case scenario the dairy farmer will grow most of the feed that their herd needs. When this is not possible, the farm will be subject to increasing costs and feed quality fluctuations that can drastically impact the business. Developing a strategy to acquire and/or grow high-quality feed is a make-or-break part of remaining in business. In addition to growing your own feed insuring your survival as a business, it is a powerful part of imparting — and marketing — the terroir of your products.

Water and waste management are often dictated by regional weather and regulations. Even so, the way you use and manage wastewater and manure can be turned to the advantage of your land and your marketing.

When designing your facility, consider innovative uses of water that minimize what is needed and maximize how it is used. While each situation will be unique, some examples are grey water being used to flush manure through gutters, “living machines” that convert chemically laced waste water and whey to usable water and to feed plants and managing your water and waste with the permaculture model in mind.

If you are new to permaculture, one of my favorite books on the topic just happens to be an Acres U.S.A. book called Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard.

Many of the decisions that will keep your business sustainable are those that will occur behind the scenes. Others, though, can be shared and used to help the business succeed.

I really can’t emphasize enough the importance of understanding and harnessing the unique assets that only the small farmer and cheesemaker have. As so many costs increase and the industrial dairy industry starts (or rather continues) to try to mimic and capitalize on the appeal of traditional, handmade, artisan products, small and farmstead cheesemakers must learn to sell our reality. If we don’t recognize what we can do differently and why our products are unique, consumers will turn to the well-marketed imported cheese that is half the price — and tastes great.

No matter what models you choose, try to remember why you went into this business — one with long hours, hard labor, life-and-death decisions and low wages. Keep your vision in focus, and don’t undersell your product or your image.

In addition to managing their herd of dairy goats, Gianaclis Caldwell is the cheesemaker and owner (along with her husband, Vern, and their daughters Phoebe and Amelia) of Pholia Farm, a licensed dairy located in southern Oregon. Pholia is well-known for its artisan, aged raw milk cheeses; classes on small-dairy, goat husbandry and cheesemaking at all levels; and off-grid, sustainable lifestyle focus. Caldwell is the author of several books including The Farmstead Creamery Advisor, Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking, The Small Scale Cheese Business and Holistic Goat Care.

From Tree to Bottle: Maple Syrup & Agritourism

By Emily Sides

Dolores Neill and Alan Wolf visited Highland County in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia from more than three hours away for the 60th Annual Highland Maple Festival last March.

Tim Duff makes maple syrup
Tim Duff makes maple syrup at Fair Lawn Farm in Monterey, Virginia.

Over the course of two days, Neill and Wolf toured seven sugar camps where producers collect sap from maple trees and boil it down to create pure maple syrup. Wolf said he learned a lot during the tours, and they bought lots of pure maple syrup.

“Everyone is so enthusiastic about what they do,” said Wolf.

Neill said she had pancakes during the festival visit and trout from a local restaurant. Neill also bought buckwheat flour to make pancakes.

Dorothy Stephenson, Highland County Chamber of Commerce executive director, said the festival draws 50,000 to 70,000 people each year. The event started in 1958 with one sugar camp open to the public. Today 10 sugar camps participate in the festival.

Stephenson said she’s grown up with the festival; this was her fourth year serving as its executive director.

“Maple syrup is made in other places in Virginia, but we’re the most concentrated group of producers because of our climate and elevation.”

Fair Lawn Farm in Monterey, Virginia, the county seat, was among the sugar camps offering tours during the festival last year. The farm, owned by Tim and Terry Duff, offers tours, pumpkin patches and hayrides. They built their sugarhouse in 2005.

collecting sap
Collecting maple sap at Fair Lawn Farm in Monterey, Virginia.

Tim said that to collect sap from maple trees to produce syrup, the ideal weather is below freezing temperatures at night and warmer and above freezing temperatures during the day. Those conditions are often January through March in Highland County.

“That daily change in temperature causes the sugar water to run,” he said.

Tim said they hang 140 buckets on maple trees to collect sap. It looks clear when it comes out of the tree at 2 percent sugar; the Duffs evaporate the water out until it’s about 20 percent sugar.

The farm uses buckets to educate people on a traditional method of collecting sap. Commercial producers use tubing, which is more efficient than relying on buckets.

Some who’ve toured the farm have asked when he adds color, flavor or sugar to the sugar water to make syrup.

“You don’t,” he said. “The tree gives the sugar and the natural color; it all darkens as you cook it. The sugar becomes more intense, and the flavor comes out.”

In Monterey, vendors sold maple syrup along with other crafts and products. Adam Taylor, who co-owns Frostmore Farm in Dunmore, West Virginia, with his wife Rachel, said they first visited the festival as spectators and are now vendors. They took their syrup production from hobby to business in 2013.

The Taylors offered pure maple syrup, maple cotton candy, maple cream and leaf-shaped maple candy.

Producers such as Ronnie Moyers, who co-owns Laurel Fork Sapsuckers in Highland County, said the climate in the county is cooler than other parts of Virginia due to the higher elevation. Laurel Fork Sapsuckers’ elevation is 3,800 to 4,200 feet.

“Making maple syrup, you’re at the mercy of mother nature; the weather will either make it happen or stop it from happening,” he said.

Moyers uses tubing and buckets on his farm. Last year, they had 1,147 taps on trees. Early in the season, Moyers said the sugar content was a little more than 1 percent sugar. It took more than 80 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup. “Basically, you’re just evaporating as quickly as you can. You’re evaporating the water from the sugar water until you get a concentrate; then you have your delicious syrup.”

As the season progressed, the sap content increased to 2 percent sugar. Then it took 42 gallons to make 1 gallon of syrup.

In the past two years, Moyers said they have switched to smaller tubes. “We were pulling 50 percent more per tap than the larger tubing,” he said.

Moyers’ daughter, Missy Moyers-Jarrells, is a third-generation maple producer at Laurel Fork Sapsuckers. She said the farm measures sap volume and sap sweetness on an unmanaged plot of land and compares that data to an area that was sustainably harvested 17 years ago.

“The reason for this study is to see if harvesting timber — taking out overly mature trees and damaged trees — will increase the sugar content and volume of sap,” said Moyers-Jarrells. “By removing some of the trees, you create space in the canopy which allows the maple trees to capture more sunlight; through photosynthesis the tree can produce higher sugar contents in the spring.”

Moyers-Jarrells said the trees that were sustainably harvested grew at a faster rate than the unmanaged land.

“Sugar content will get much better when you take competition out,” Moyers-Jarrells said. “So you only want so many maple trees per acre. Creating a canopy — that makes the best and sweetest sugar water.”

Another Highland County producer, Jay Eagle, who owns Eagle’s Sugar Camp in Doe Hill, is the fifth generation to produce pure maple syrup. Eagle’s Sugar Camp has 200 acres, and Eagle leases additional acreage to collect sap from the trees.

Eagle uses 400 buckets and tubing to collect sap. Eagle said he taps 12,000 trees. He starts collecting at the end of January and collects until it’s too warm and the sap stops running.

“I’ve had good years; it was unreal making syrup. And I had two years I didn’t break even; that was rough,” he said.

During the season he offers maple cream, maple sugar, maple fudge and maple donuts, in addition to syrup. “Today my sales are matching my production,” said Eagle. “Now I’m frustrated I’m not making enough. Usually it’s all gone around Christmas.”

Highland Maple Festival sign
The Highland Maple Festival draws 50,000 to 70,000 people each year.

Eagle said the 2018 season was short because of warm days: for more than a week, his farm saw temperatures in the 70s during the days and 50 degrees during the nights.

“You have four to six weeks normally. A good season is eight to 10 weeks. You run yourself ragged, and during the festival I have to hire 14 people to help.”

Last year, on the festival’s first Saturday Eagle said his farm sold 400 gallons of maple syrup. “That’s a lot of syrup,” he said. “People come from Roanoke, from different states, overseas. We’ve shipped to seven different countries.”

Eagle said the farm is open year-round for people who want to visit.

“If they like maple syrup, and they don’t know how it’s done, come to Highland County,” said Eagle. “It’s a family outing — bring a picnic lunch. If it’s in season, you’ll see the sugar water running.”

This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Acres U.S.A. magazine is the national journal of sustainable agriculture, standing virtually alone with a real track record — over 45 years of continuous publication. Each issue is packed full of information eco-consultants regularly charge top dollar for. You’ll be kept up-to-date on all of the news that affects agriculture — regulations, discoveries, research updates, organic certification issues, and more.