Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Perennial and annual wisdom

Fortunately for all of us there are still people working the land for whom farming is more than just a business. For them it is a way of life -- and invaluable and irreplaceable part of the social fabric. Farming is hard work, and for so long it seemed like those who are committed to doing it responsibly might not be able to compete with agribusiness. One of the things that has helped these hard-scrabble farmers survive has been the development of new relationships with their urban neighbors. Nowhere are these relationships stronger and deeper than at farmers' markets. (GW)

Sustainable farms cater to a growing niche

MIFFLINBURG — The life of a domestic goose is dandy — until it trips over chickens because its farmer is chasing it around the coop.

When complimented for his superior catching skills, Bill Callahan shrugged and said, "I probably only caught him because he was the fattest one."

Geese aren't the only thing that can be found at Cow-A-Hen farm.

One finds the usual chickens, cattle, and pigs.

As butterflies flit past, it's easy to trip over a crowing rooster, hear a barn swallow's song, coo over a pig named Minimum (who wasn't that at all), and even be gobbled at by a nameless Bourbon Red turkey. With the turkey trailing along behind him, Mr. Callahan said, "I just buy a bunch (of animals) and throw them into the mix."

Mr. Callahan is what is traditionally known as a sustainable agriculturalist.

His farm is a far cry from the industrial-style of agriculture, otherwise known as factory farming.

Being "sustainable" carries with it a whole slew of implications: chiefly aimed at meeting three goals: economic viability, environmental protection, and social responsibility, according to Brian Snyder, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA).

The farm must be able to thrive simply by using resources that are indefinitely available on-site.

Cow-A-Hen Farm boasts about 30 cattle (bulls, calves, and cows) and about 60-70 hogs. Though he is not certified-organic by federal standards, his cattle, for example, come from certified-organic herds.

He rotates the animals around his approximately 100-acre plot of land. Fifty acres are wooded and the other 50 are divided into paddocks for the animals. The ground in the pig area is hoof-beaten, and a substantial amount of grass has disappeared, in comparison to the rest of his farm. "The grasses come back, though. If you take the pressure off the ground, it would only take about five years for this to revert back to woods," Mr. Callahan said.

He has no need for using antibiotics on his animals and he has not used herbicides in about 10 years, Mr. Callahan adds.

The animals are free to roam in their allotted pieces of land and are only separated by species.

There is nothing harmful on the fences, and they are easily stepped or hopped over by Mr. Callahan during feeding-time.

"There's no magic in the stuff I do, it's just having a deeper understanding of what they (the animals) do," he said.

Observation is the key.

"You have to understand how the animals interact with each other," he said.

Products like Callahan's present a popular niche in the market (especially in urban settings), but it is not standard, nor is it cheap.

"This is still something that is catching on," said Mr. Snyder.

For example, Mr. Callahan sells his hot dogs for $7 a pound.

"My product is what it is, not what it's priced," he said.

Many are willing to pay the extra money to guarantee that nothing harmful is going into their family's stomachs.

Mr. Callahan caters to a small, but growing band of customers. He is a regular at Lewisburg's weekly Susquehanna Grower's Market, along with Milheim Farmers Market and Boalsburg Farmers Markets. In addition, he sells his products wholesale over the wintertime, when the animals aren't demanding too much of his attention. A long-time entrepreneur in his own right, Mr. Callahan has been livestock farming since 1992.

"Loyal customers bring more customers," he quips.

The demand for his product isgrowing. Though he is primarily a one-man operation, he cooperates with local farmers in the area. He acquires some of his animals from his competition at the farmers' markets. "Good, clean competition is something to take advantage of," he said

There is a 24-week window in which he makes most of his profit, during the summer months.

"This is not a get-rich scheme. If you don't enjoy it, you won't do it for the money," said Mr. Callahan. However, he harnesses more control over his business than a corporate-owned farm. He sees his products' beginning and end result, sells his products, and decides to whom to sell it.

And the majority of Mr. Callahan's customers are locals.

"I'm so fortunate that I have a customer base that will support me on this," he said. A great contribution of farms like Callahan's is the emphasis on strong presence and participation in the community. "Locals benefit from sustainable agriculture because money stays local," said Mr. Snyder.

"I would rather see five more growers like myself than get five times larger," said Mr. Callahan. "This is a work in progress, and we're still tinkering with the system."


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