A Sustainable Farm that Isn’t

The hard, heart breaking reality that sustainable farming is not as sustainable as we once thought it was.

My heart ached as I stood at the edge of a field on another farm and looked at what had once been Salatin style pull pens, used for raising pasture-raised chickens. The pens laid smashed together on a pile in the woods. That style of chicken pen is named after the man who promoted the design and method. The pens at one time had been two feet high and 10 feet wide by 12 feet long. The pens are called pull pens because they are pulled across the pasture by moving them one pen length a day. It is a very labor intensive system. Almost every farm here in America that starts raising chickens on pasture uses this method. The method is romanticized and made appealing to new farmers.

A pile of smashed Salatin style chicken pens
A pile of smashed Salatin style chicken pens that had at one time been used for raising chickens on pasture. It represents the smashed dreams of two sustainable farmers, and the unsustainability of what is supposed to be sustainable agriculture.

The pasture where the             pasture-raised chickens had been raised
Turning around from where the above picture was taken, this is the view of what had once been the pasture where the pasture-raised chickens had been raised. The farm was located in Maryland State Park property. After the sustainable farm failed, the land (about 50 acres) has become a wasteland filled with noxious weeds, thorns, and poison ivy. About four years ago the Maryland Forest Service planted it in trees to reforest the land, never to be farmed sustainably again. The last crop that a farm grows is trees. (We have not yet been able to prove to the world that sustainable farming is the answer to feeding the world and that we are more sustainable than big corporate agriculture. We have more work to do.)

The farm, Full Circle Farm here in Maryland, went out of business over 10 years ago. The pile of chicken pens represents not only the labor of the farmers and their wasted funds, but it also represents the smashed dreams and hopes of a man and a woman who had been told that the system that they were using was the answer to conventional confinement agriculture. They thought they were practicing sustainable agriculture that would last and endure long after the conventional, confinement, big corporation chicken houses had gone out of business for being unsustainable.

Little did they know, as beginning farmers, that the method that they were using was not sustainable and that few people who would try it would be able to make a living wage with it. Most of them would quit after a few years.

I am writing this in hope that the many farmers and want to be farmers who subscribe to this newsletter do not make the same mistakes that I made and that Full Circle Farm made. I used to think that it was me that was having the problems and that others were being successful. I kept hearing glowing reports about how great everything was on other farms. But as I have observed things over the years, and from reading articles in Stockman Grass Farmer Magazine, I have pieced together that the profits were not there that those giving the glowing reports made it sound like it was. From my perspective, the reason that many sustainable pasture based chicken farms are no longer in business is not the farmer’s fault, but the fault of the system that they used. If you are experiencing some of these failures, it is not you, it is the system you are using. Chickens will not be super healthy just because they stand, sit, and sleep on the cold wet ground with grass on it 24/7. If we are going to have sustainable pasture based farms and last long after the conventional, confinement chicken houses have gone out of business, we need follow a different method.

There are a number of reasons why pull pens are not a sustainable method of raising chickens on pasture.

  • It requires too much labor for the few number of chickens that the farmer is raising to make a living wage. The pens have to be moved once or twice a day or the chickens will sit in their own filth. If you have 20 inexperienced apprentices running around your farm working basically for free, building and pulling pens is good grunt work to keep them busy.
  • The chickens are not protected enough from the heat, the cold, the rain and wet ground, and from predators. I will not go into details, but it is not a humane method. The death loss is too high. Every chicken that dies represents a loss of profit. The overhead costs and feed invested in the dead chickens are still there.
  • Because of the high labor input, it is difficult to have enough time in a week to raise, process, and market enough birds to be able to make a full time income. In other words, the hourly wage is below minimum wage. That is why most farms using the pull pen method stay part time or shut down. It is not profitable. They have to have off farm income to live on. For a sustainable farm to be sustainable, the labor input has to be low enough for the number of birds raised, to be able to raise enough chickens with a normal day’s work to make a living. Those that have promoted this method of pasture based farming have made it sound like the animals do most of the work. That is not true.
  • Pull pens are a micro version of confinement chicken rearing, only it’s on pasture. The chickens have very little space to move in their small pen.

Likely, unbeknown to the farmers at Full Circle Farm, there was another significant factor that may have contributed to them not being able to sell enough chickens to make a go of farming and be sustainable. The farmer who had taught them the method of raising chickens on pasture had a big name recognition and was illegally delivering chickens that were not USDA inspected across state lines into Maryland to customers relatively close to Full Circle Farm. At that time period in Maryland, Full Circle Farm could only sell their chickens at their farm because their chickens were processed under Federal exemption and were not USDA inspected. People had to go to their farm; the chickens could not be delivered to drop points like the other farmer was illegally doing. It is one thing for a farm to compete with a legal competitor, but it would have been very difficult for them to compete with a competitor with name recognition that was doing things illegally to provide what the customers wanted and taking business away from them.

The black market of illegal pasture raised chickens coming from Pennsylvania and Virginia into Maryland and Washington DC continues. If you are a farmer that is doing this, please stop. If you are buying this black market chicken, please stop. If the illegal chicken and illegal raw milk does not stop coming across state lines, it will endanger the sustainability of all pasture based farms.

For sustainable agriculture to be sustainable, the farmers have to stay in business. As sustainable farmers, we need to look out for each other and help each other and not take business from other sustainable farms by doing things illegally or misrepresenting our products as something that they are not. If you are a consumer, do not hurt the sustainability of the sustainable farms in your area by supporting the big guys (or the little guys) who are doing things illegally or are misrepresenting their products. One of the most common misrepresentations is a farm giving customers the impression that their chickens and eggs are organic when they are actually not feeding their chickens organically and are feeding non-organic feed. Non-organic feed is much cheaper than organic feed. Contrary to what you might think, a pastured chicken actually eats more feed than a confinement raised bird because they get more exercise and because they need to keep themselves warm during cool weather and on cold nights. It is important that the feed is organic.

Sustainable agriculture is a team effort of farmers and consumers. If we do not make sustainable agriculture sustainable, big business, confinement, “pasture raised” animal operations will be what is sustainable.

Related articles from past newsletters on this subject:
Sustainable Farming – The Farmer Has to Stay in Business
Our Quest for a Better and More Humane Way to Raise Chickens on Pasture
Our Quest for a Better and More Humane Way to Produce Eggs on Pasture

For those who are farmers
Here in the United States, much of the information that we have been given about raising chickens on pasture is outdated by 20 years or more. There have been a lot of advancements in the last 20 years that we as small growers have not kept up with. Europe with their free-range chickens, and the larger poultry breeders have a lot of beneficial information for us to learn from. Raising chickens on pasture is a lot more high tech in meeting their nutritional and other needs than we have been led to believe. Small mistakes in nutrition and management can end up costing a farmer a lot of money and may mean the difference between making a living and going broke. Here are some valuable resources that have been beneficial to us:
The following three books available from 5M Books – http://www.5mbooks.com/agricultural-books/poultry-books/poultry-signals-training.html
Poultry Signals
Broiler Signals
Laying Hens

Online Resources:
Ross 308 Broiler Handbook
ISA Brown Egg Layer Alternative Management Guide
ISA Brown Nutrition Management Guide
Hy-Line Brown Egg Layer Red Book – A Management Guide

Poultry Processing Inspection and Certificate

Our chicken and turkey processing facility has been inspected by the Maryland Department of Agriculture and we have received certification. We are now certified to sell our poultry at other locations other than our farm, including stores. While this inspection is not required for on farm sales of poultry, it gives you a level of confidence that the chicken and turkey that you purchase has been processed in a facility that has been inspected and has been processed in a sanitary and approved manner.

We did some investigation into having drop off points for the chickens or to sell our chicken in some of the Maryland MOM’s stores. We did not get much interest in the drop off points and so at this point we will not be pursuing that. After talking things over as a family, we decided not to pursue selling chickens in the stores at this point. It would mean significantly increasing production and processing chickens every week. None of us enjoy processing chickens enough to do it every week and the wholesale price would also reduce our profit margin. We are open to any suggestions you may have.

Homesteading In the City

Homesteading in the city is a practical, efficient, and cost effective way of providing high quality, great tasting, nutrient dense food for your household. It is a method of homesteading that many people have overlooked. Homesteading in the city does not require any land, and you don’t have to move or quit your job. It also avoids a lot of the problems with the traditional method of homesteading, plus it significantly reduces the amount of work required. First we will look at the problems with the traditional method of homesteading and then look at the advantages of homesteading in the city.

What most people promoting homesteading will not tell you is that the traditional method of homesteading is a life of poverty unless you have a source of outside income. Homesteading is a smaller version of a small farm and has little income. The great difficulty of trying to make a living from a homestead is seen in the following statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The latest statistics that the USDA has for farm income is for 2004. While those statistics are not current, what they reveal has probably not changed much. According to the statistics, 82 percent of all the farms in the U.S. had less than $100,000 in sales of farm products, while 18 percent had more than $100,000 in sales, and only 8 percent had more than $250,000 in sales. For a farm to have $100,000 in sales may sound like it is doing well, but the profit margin is very low. After all the expenses are subtracted off – farmland land rent or mortgage, fertilizer, seeds, fuel, equipment costs, animal purchases, vet bills, feed, electric, supplies, etc. there is very little left of the $100,000 to pay the farmer or homesteader for their labor. The USDA report states: “For the 82 percent of U.S. farming operations that have annual sales of $100,000 or less, off farm income typically accounts for all but a negligible amount of farm household income.” (http://www.usda.gov/documents/FARM_FAMILY_INCOME.pdf) This is an incredible and sad statistic. 82 percent of all the farmers in the U.S. make practically nothing off of farming.

The bottom line is that homesteading is not self sufficient financially. A person almost has to have off homestead income in order to have enough income to cover living expenses and medical costs.

Another problem with the traditional concept of homesteading is the economy of scale is too small. A homestead tries to raise everything it needs and has a little of this and a little of that. The homesteader can end up spending almost all their time raising their own food, preserving it, spinning, weaving, splitting firewood, developing the homestead, etc. just trying to exist. For example, it takes almost as much time to care for one beef cow as it would to take care of 50. Each type of animal, type of poultry, each species of vegetable or fruit requires a certain amount of time, equipment, and expertise. The more different kinds of things that one tries to raise, the greater the chance that other things will suffer because there is not enough time and expertise to produce the quality and quantity of food that is desired.

Homesteading in the city (or in the country) that I am recommending takes on a different approach. My mother practiced homesteading in the city and I got the concept from her, even though she never called it homesteading. Our family lived on a small 1/3 acre lot in town with 40 full grown trees on it. There was no place to have a garden. She did have a spot where she was able to have several tomato plants. Instead of growing our own food, my parents sourced some of it from local sources that they trusted. My parents bought a large 20+ cubic foot chest freezer which they kept well stocked with food. They bought a quarter of a beef each year from a farmer. Sometimes they bought a number of jugs of milk from my uncle that had a dairy farm and put them in the freezer. Another uncle planted a number of rows of sweet corn at the edge of his corn field each year. We would go to their farm for corn day and process 1200 to 1500 ears of corn, cutting the corn off the cob and putting it into freezer boxes. It was like a holiday, except we socialized by working together. My mother would go to a local orchard each year and buy three to five bushels of Red Haven peaches. We would help her can them so that we would have great tasting peaches to eat that winter. She would often buy several 20 pound boxes of blueberries when they were in season and put them in smaller containers and put them in her big freezer treasure chest.

Homesteading in the city is not about trying to grow all of your food or even to preserve all your own food. It is about buying food from local farmers and sources that you know that have a great tasting product and that is nutrient dense. It is buying food in bulk in season and freezing it or canning it for the rest of the year. Homesteading in the city is letting others do the hard work of raising the meats or fruits and vegetables, and you reap the rewards of their labor. It is about being part of community rather than being individualistic.

And since you are homesteading, don’t forget to buy “insurance” for your big freezer that is filled with all those delicious, nutritious treasures. If the power goes out you don’t want to lose all that wonderful food. The “insurance” is a generator. It does not have to be a whole house generator, and it only needs to run several hours each day to keep the freezer and your refrigerator from warming up too much. A 3000 watt generator can be purchased for a little over $300 or a 5000 watt generator for about $600 and will last for many years.

The right tools make homesteading in the city easier. We bought several of these propane burner units this year and are very pleased with them. They are similar to a turkey fryer burner, but they produce a lot more heat (170,000 BTU’s) than a turkey fryer ( 40,000 BTU’s). It is also much more fuel efficient than the propane weed burning torch that we used to use. You could use a large galvanized wash tub with this burner to can 19 quarts at a time. The burner is available from Agri Supply for only $39.95 http://www.agrisupply.com/carolina-cooker-12-in-cooker-stand-and-burner/p/49469/

In addition to keeping the heat out of the house, we feel this method is much safer than canning on a stove top. A person is not as likely to burn themselves with the hot water when taking jars out of the canner. The burner is only 12 inches high and very sturdy, which keeps the canner close to the ground. It is much easier to take the jars out as well.

You can also make your own mini walk in cooler with a window air conditioner and a Coolbot. I first saw this idea used at Cathy’s uncle and aunt’s house. He had made a closet (about two feet deep and six feet wide) into a reach in refrigerator where they could put things from the garden. He used a small 6,000 btu window air conditioner as the cooling unit. There are many times when a fruit or vegetable is available, but you don’t have time that day to freeze or can it. It needs to be refrigerated so that it can hold until you have time to get it put up. This summer when we put in a new walk in cooler for the eggs, we used a Coolbot controller and a high efficiency window air conditioner. With this setup, we use 30% less electricity than with a conventional walk in cooler refrigeration unit and it is a fraction of the cost.

The Coolbot was designed by a farmer for their CSA farm. It can be purchased here: http://www.storeitcold.com/

Here is a suggestion for a homesteading food gathering trip in the Lancaster Pa. area:
The first stop is Community of Oasis at Bird-in-Hand 60 N. Ronks Rd, Ronks Pa 17572 http://www.reallivefood.org/
Oasis has organic, grass fed, raw milk for a reasonable price. They also have a large variety of cheeses. Their drinkable yogurt is very good.  .

Next door in the same building is Lancaster Ag. There you can buy soft rock phosphate and high calcium lime for your garden or raised beds. They also carry garden blends of organic fertilizers.

Continue north on Ronks Rd. several miles to the village of Bird-in-Hand. There, just down from the corner at 2805 Old Philadelphia Pike is the Bird-in-Hand Farm Supply store. It is an Amish hardware store with prices that are considerably lower than Lowes or Home Depot. There you can buy a quality Amish made pulley style clothes line. But the real find is their food room hidden on the left side of the store. We did not find it until the second time we visited the store. There you can buy raw organic cheese for $4.35 a pound in five pound blocks. The price is a little higher for smaller sizes. They also have some of the best prices on canning supplies. You have to look carefully, most of the food is not organic, but there are some great deals on some other food items as well.

If you need some organic potatoes, continue east on Old Philadelphia Pike toward the town of Intercourse. On the left is an Amish farm with a white house that has a sign for organic potatoes. We have purchased 50 pound bags of potatoes from them several times when we ran out of potatoes. Note: most Amish farms are not organic and do not use organic practices. Just because Amish farms are selling produce along the side of the road does not mean that it is nutrient dense, health giving food.

The last stop is several miles north of Bird-in-Hand on Ronks Rd. On the right you will find Miller’s Natural Foods. It is a large health food store on an Amish farm.

One of the real joys of homesteading in the city is the satisfaction of having a bunch of good food in the freezer, or canned on the shelf. It gives you a feeling of self-sufficiency knowing that you don’t have to run to the grocery store every time they are calling for a snowstorm to make sure you don’t run out of food. It also gives you a satisfied feeling, knowing that you have stored away some really good healthy food for the winter.

Happy homesteading!

From the “Evil” Scientist Lab: Killer Corn

Another reason to eat organic food.

The seed treatment on corn seeds is much more deadly than what we realized.

I was shocked the other week when we received an email exposing how the pesticide and fungicide usage on most of our country’s corn crop is killing honey bees. In the early part of May of this year, beekeepers reported staggering losses of honey bees in Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio, after their hives foraged near pesticide-treated corn fields. The seed corn is treated with pesticides and fungicides. The neonicotinoid pesticides are very deadly to honey bees. Just one gram can kill 11 million to 22 million honey bees. When combined with fungicides, they are 10 times more deadly than when used alone! The coated corn seeds are sticky, so talc is added to the seeds to make them flow better in the corn planter. However, the powdery talc is readily carried by the wind to plants and areas beside the corn fields where bees are foraging. The talc is contaminated with these neonicotinoids and fungicides and the dead bees test positive for these chemicals. The source for this information is a new report released by Purdue University this year –

We are used to change in technology and society. But what we are not used to is rapid change behind our backs in our food. Everything appears to be the same as before, but it is not. In the last 15 years there have been significant changes in the way corn and other crops are grown that we are unaware of. Genetically modified plants are only one part of the problem.

From the Huffington Post – “Bee Kills in the Corn Belt: What’s GE Got to Do With It?” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/heather-pilatic/bee-kills-in-the-corn-bel_b_1520757.html

“Over the last 15 years, U.S. corn cultivation has gone from a crop requiring little-to-no insecticides and negligible amounts of fungicides, to a crop where the average acre is grown from seeds treated or genetically engineered to express three different insecticides (as well as a fungicide or two) before being sprayed prophylactically with RoundUp (an herbicide) and a new class of fungicides that farmers didn’t know they “needed” before the mid-2000s.
A series of marketing ploys by the pesticide industry undergird this story. It’s about time to start telling it, if for no other reason than to give lie to the oft-repeated notion that there is no alternative to farming corn in a way that poisons pollinators. We were once — not so long ago — on a very different path.

How corn farming went off the rails

“In the early 1990s, we were really good at growing corn using bio-intensive integrated pest management (bio-IPM). In practice, that meant crop rotations, supporting natural predators, using biocontrol agents like ladybugs and as a last resort, using chemical controls only after pests had been scouted for and found. During this time of peak bio-IPM adoption, today’s common practice of blanketing corn acreage with “insurance” applications of various pesticides without having established the need to do so would have been unthinkable. It’s expensive to use inputs you don’t need, and was once the mark of bad farming.

“Then, in the mid-to-late 1990s, GE corn and neonicotinoid (imidacloprid) seed treatments both entered the market — the two go hand-in-hand, partly by design and partly by accident…

“Then, as if on cue, Monsanto introduced three different strains of patented, GE corn between 1997 and 2003 (RoundUp Ready, and two Bt-expressing variants aimed at controlling the European Corn Borer and corn root worm). Clothianidin entered the U.S. market under conditional registration in 2003, and in 2004 corn seed companies began marketing seeds treated with a 5X level of neonicotinoids (1.25 mg/seed vs. .25). [Each seed has enough to kill 9,000 – 18,000 bees. – Myron]

“… and in the space of a decade, U.S. corn acreage undergoes a ten-fold increase in average insecticide use. By 2007, the average acre of corn has more than three systemic insecticides — both Bt traits and a neonicotinoid. Compare this to the early 1990s, when only an estimated 30-35 percent of all corn acreage were treated with insecticides at all.”

“When I spoke with one Iowa corn farmer in January and told him about the upcoming release of a Purdue study confirming corn as a major pesticide exposure route for bees, his face dropped with worn exasperation. He looked down for a moment, sighed and said, ‘You know, I held out for years on buying them GE seeds, but now I can’t get conventional seeds anymore. They just don’t carry ’em.'”

It used to be that pesticide sprays were sprayed on the surface of plants, fruits and vegetables to kill bugs. But in more recent years, systemic insecticides have been developed and are being widely used. Systemic insecticides and fungicides work by going into the plant and traveling through the entire plant and fruit or vegetable. Any bug that eats the plant is killed. It also keeps insects from eating the fruit or vegetable. There is no way to wash off a systemic insecticide or fungicide from a fruit or vegetable the way it was possible in the past. The insecticide and fungicide has become part of the food.

We found out about the killer corn one day after we had planted some sweet corn we purchased from Southern States. We had planted three different varieties of organic sweet corn seed that we purchased from Fedco.com. The Honey Select variety had basically 0% germination. Being ignorant of what was on the seed coating of sweet corn,  we purchased a pound of the Incredible variety sweet corn and planted eight, 80 foot rows of Incredible sweet corn where the Honey Select had been planted. I thought that the pink seed coating was just something bad tasting to keep the birds from eating it.  I could not read on the package what the seed treatment on the sweet corn seed was, so I went to Southern States to find out. I was concerned that we might have planted something that would kill our bees. It had five different fungicides! – Apron, Captan, Dividend, Thiram, and Vitavax! Apron is a systemic fungicide. I felt disgusted and betrayed. We waited until the corn started coming up and we dug it all up. The picture above shows the pink fungicide loaded seed still there, putting its chemicals into the plant.

One of the things that farmers across the US are complaining about is that they cannot buy bee friendly corn seed. Almost everything is genetically modified and treated with pesticides and fungicides. About the only way to get untreated seeds is to buy organic seeds or for a farmer to save his own seeds.

What this means is that the “All Natural” label on chicken, eggs, and other foods with corn ingredients is probably a bogus or misleading claim on most products. Non-GMO corn is not safe if the seeds have been treated with systemic fungicides and neonicotinoid pesticides.

I wish farmers knew how to grow high brix, nutrient dense corn. They could eliminate the chemicals, lower their production costs and provide a far superior food for their fellow human beings. It can be done. Last year we produced high brix sweet corn that had very few bugs. Instead, legal bio-terrorism on the farm is killing our honey bees, poisoning our food, and giving us poor quality food that is making us sick. Sick Care (Health Care) in America is the #1 industry. We are what we eat. Health begins in the soil and in the seed.

We need to help each other in these changing times and keep each other informed so that things do not unknowingly get changed behind our backs. Ignorance is not bliss when it affects our health or the health of our family and friends. Most people are ignorant about their food. I am amazed at how little most people know. They assume that all food is basically the same and that cheapest is best. The other day, I was getting gas in Pennsylvania, and the man at the pump next to me wondered what I was hauling on my trailer. I told him it was organic protein concentrate for our chicken feed. He asked, “What is organic?” in a way that showed he was clueless to what organic really is and as if organic was just something unimportant and more expensive. I was surprised that a 60-year-old man was so clueless about his food. Times have changed and he is still assuming that they are the same.

Other articles about corn and honey bees:

Fukushima Update

The media has largely gone silent on the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. However, the problem has not been fixed and is a much bigger disaster than what was reported. I have been following the http://www.fairewinds.com website. Arnie Gundersen, a retired nuclear executive, traveled to Tokyo and took random soil samples around the city and sent them to a lab. The soil samples are so contaminated with radioactive material that here in the US they are considered nuclear waste. Tokyo is 200 miles from the Fukushima disaster. Japan has a much higher level of nuclear contamination than what has been reported. It makes one wonder about all the radioactive water that was dumped into the ocean and the safety of eating fish caught in the Pacific and near Alaska.

Last month Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon visited the Fukushima power plant and was shocked by what he saw. The structures that are still standing are very fragile, in particular reactor #4. He is very concerned that another earthquake could cause a major nuclear disaster even greater than what has already happened. He states on his website: “The scope of damage to the plants and to the surrounding area was far beyond what I expected and the scope of the challenges to the utility owner, the government of Japan, and to the people of the region are daunting. The precarious status of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear units and the risk presented by the enormous inventory of radioactive materials and spent fuel in the event of further earthquake threats should be of concern to all and a focus of greater international support and assistance.”

Sustainable Farming – The Farmer Has to Stay in Business

There has been a growing interest in local and sustainable agriculture in recent years. Most of the emphasis on sustainable agriculture has been on sustainable farming methods. But there is another very important part of sustainable agriculture. The farmer has to stay in business or it is not sustainable!

Last month the Pennsylvania dairy farm, Rainbow Acres Farm, announced that it was shutting down. Dan Allgyer and his Rainbow Acres Farm had been delivering raw milk, milk products, eggs, chickens, and other farm products to thousands of customers in the Grassfed On the Hill buying club here in Maryland for the last 6 years.

The following history of Rainbow Acres and the Grassfed on the Hill buying club is from the Grassfed On the Hill website: "The group started to gain momentum in the Spring of 2006, word was spreading about the good products from Rainbow Acres and Liz Reitzig and I had teamed up to run the group. She was passionate about her milk and was born and raised in Maryland and knew many fresh milk enthusiasts. She had previously been part of a cow share program in Maryland but the State shut that program down in 2006. Once Liz joined me, the group grew exponentially. The system we had in place could handle infinite growth provided the community would support more drop locations—which it happily did. By 2007, 200 households participated in the group; by 2009 it grew to 1000 households."

"Also in 2009, we attracted the FDA’s attention. Dan received his first visit by the FDA, state troopers and armed federal marshals in Feb 2010. They didn’t have a warrant so Dan told them to leave. They returned in April 2010 with a warrant. They searched the farm and asked him questions which he refused to answer. The next day he received a warning letter from the FDA to stop transporting raw milk across state lines. We continued to operate as usual. The group continued to grow, providing nutrient dense, fresh milk to those who seek it and those who were willing to join a private buying group to access the food they choose." http://grassfedonthehill.com/grassfed-on-the-hill-history/ (Now unavailable)

The Food and Drug Administration convinced a federal judge to impose a permanent injunction on Dan Allgyer prohibiting him from selling raw milk to customers across state lines in Maryland. Judge Lawrence Stengel said that if Allgyer is found to violate the law again, he will have to pay the FDA’s costs for investigating and prosecuting him. Rainbow Acres and the Grassfed on the Hill buying club decided to close down.

Rainbow Acres was a "sustainable" farm. It was using sustainable pasture based farming methods. It had a very successful marketing and sales model. But it went out of business in only six years. It ceased to be a sustainable farm. It failed because it was doing something that was illegal. It was illegally delivering raw milk across state lines into Maryland.

The role of the consumer in the failure of a sustainable farm
A lot of focus has been put on the role of the government in shutting down Rainbow Acres and preventing people from receiving raw milk who were depending on it for health and nutritional needs. But the consumer also played a role in the failure of a sustainable farm. They asked the farmer to do something illegal for the convenience of the consumer. It was not illegal for Maryland residents to travel to Pennsylvania where raw milk can legally be sold, purchase raw milk and transport it back to Maryland. It was not illegal for small groups of families to take turns going to Pennsylvania to purchase raw milk and bring it back. Raw milk can be purchased in large quantities at a time and frozen, reducing the number of trips to Pennsylvania. But it is illegal for the farmer to deliver the raw milk across state lines to the families in Maryland. We too wish that raw milk could legally be purchased here in Maryland… someday it will.

It was the part that was illegal that was not sustainable and caused the farm to close. When a farmer does something that is illegal, it hurts not only himself but also other farmers as well. In the court case the judge set a precedent ruling that could in the future hinder other Pennsylvania farmers from selling raw milk to Maryland customers who then transport it back to Maryland. The Complete Patient website reports "He suggested in a footnote that individuals who traveled to Allgyer’s farm to pick up their milk and bring it back to Maryland would be in violation of federal law. He said that "the purchase of raw milk by one who traveled between states to obtain it, or traveled between states before consuming it or sharing it with friends or family member, implicates ‘commerce between any State…" http://www.thecompletepatient.com/article/2012/february/9/no-raw-milk-your-subterfuge-food-club-federal-judge-tells-md-members.

In recent years there have been a number of farms that have illegally transported pasture raised chickens across state lines into Maryland that were processed in other states under federal exemption. The federal exemption for on-farm processed poultry requires the poultry to be sold in the state where it is processed. The consumer can take it across state lines, but not the farmer. The federal exemption for on-farm poultry processing is a privilege that pasture based farms in America are fortunate to have. I hope that a few, who are not content to abide by the law, don’t mess up everything for the rest of us and cause the federal exemption to be revoked.

Not all sales are profitable sales

Another thing that the consumer needs to be aware of in attempting to support sustainable agriculture is that not all sales are profitable sales even if the dollar figure looks high. People will ask farmers to do things for them, thinking that they are supporting the farmer, but it is not a profitable sale. For example, it is not profitable for the farmer to drive a half hour to deliver $50 worth of products. Nor is not profitable to raise 10 chickens of a special breed for just one customer; chickens that take twice as long to grow, and have to be butchered separately. A special pen has to be built and a lot of extra labor goes into caring for those few chickens. It takes about as long to feed 10 chickens as it does 300.

Each year there are a number of new farmers markets that are opened to promote local agriculture. We are often asked to join a new farmers market. In my opinion, sales at most farmers markets are not profitable sales unless it is a large farmers market that attracts a lot of people. Farmers go to farmers markets because they are asked to sell there, they need to sell more products and people are not willing to come to their farm. I was surprised when I found out that the average sales at a farmers market was only $500 a week. It takes two people an hour or two to get the products ready and loaded to go to the market. Another half hour or hour to get to the market. Two people spend three or four hours at the farmers market, and then there is the travel home and unloading.  It can easily take 14-16 man hours to sell $500 worth of products. That may sound like easy money until you count in all the labor and expenses that went into growing the products, the equipment, land costs, utilities, packaging, and the 25% or so of unsold produce that was carried home and had to be thrown away. The poor farmer might only be making $5.00 an hour. That is why most farms today have off-farm incomes. One of the spouses works at an off-farm job, or they have retirement income or other investment income. If you go to a farmers market, support the farmers by buying their products. They really do need you to buy from them.

A sustainable farm has to get big enough to support a full time income for each of those working on the farm. Trying to make a living off of 200 hens or a half acre vegetable patch is like a doctor trying to make a living by only seeing two or three patients a day. We have seen a number of small pasture based farms start up and then close down because it was not profitable at the small scale that they were trying operate at. The homesteading mentality of having a few chickens, some cattle, a few pigs, goats, and a vegetable plot is not a profitable farming model to support a full time income. If a farm is too diverse it is hard for the farm to be successful. It would be like a medical doctor without any employees who saw several patients a day. He was also a certified public accountant and did a little accounting work for people. He ran a small roadside farm stand once a week where he personally sold produce that he bought from area farmers. He would mow a few lawns for people in town. Lastly, he had 50 laying hens to produce eggs to sell at his farm stand. This scenario sounds ridiculous but it is what many small "sustainable" farms are trying to do. They are trying to do too many things and cannot be successful at any of them like they should.

We need small family farms, like Rainbow Acres, to stay in business. We talk about "sustainable" agriculture, which implies that conventional agriculture is not sustainable. Do we really believe conventional agriculture is not sustainable? If you believe that conventional agriculture is not sustainable, are you preparing for the day that it is not able to supply enough food? The news has not been reporting much about how unsustainable conventional agriculture really is. As I am seeing some of what is happening in big agriculture and the unsustainable things that are going on, I am concerned that one day some of the big players will be gone and there will be a shortage of food. A number of sectors of conventional agriculture are losing money right now. For example, the poultry industry is losing hundreds of millions of dollars each quarter. Feed prices are high, energy costs are high, there is an oversupply of chicken, and they can’t raise prices because other countries are not willing to pay the price. Here at our small farm, we have received at least 10 emails and phone calls from other countries looking for container loads of chicken parts. One lady that called was desperately looking for a shipping container of chicken wings. She asked Cathy if there was anyone that she could recommend. Cathy suggested Perdue. The lady told her that she had already contacted them and they were too expensive.  Several years ago, one of the largest poultry companies, Pilgrim’s Pride, filed for bankruptcy. A Brazilian company bought them out. Recently they have been losing over $100,000,000 per quarter. The beef industry is on a similar unsustainable course. 

We need more small sustainable farms that produce high quality nutrient dense food. A truly sustainable farm is one that uses sustainable agricultural practices, is using legal farming and marketing methods, is financially profitable enough to stay in business long term and is able to pass on a profitable farming operation to the next generation. That is sustainable agriculture.

Links to articles about Rainbow Acres Farm:


Poultry Industry Caught in "Perfect Storm"

There was an article in the October 29 edition of the Lancaster Farming Newspaper about how the conventional poultry industry is caught in a "perfect storm" of economic conditions which are largely outside of their control. Poultry companies are losing millions of dollars each quarter. There are a number of factors. One is the high cost of feed. Conventional corn went from $3.25 a bushel a year ago to $7.50. There is the dropping value of the U.S. dollar which affects exports. There are also high energy costs and the wholesale price of chicken is down because of reduced demand for chicken in the U.S.

It was stated that there has been nothing like this in the history of the chicken industry. According to the article, a major driver in the high feed costs is the production of ethanol. Ethanol production diverts half of the U.S corn crop into into fuel production and yet only offsets less than 1 percent of our petroleum imports. One thing that caught my eye was the prediction that corn will go up to $11 or $12 dollars a bushel next year. If it does, it will have a major impact on poultry, beef and pork production in the U.S. Hopefully this prediction is wrong. If conventional corn goes up to $11 or $12 dollars a bushel it could push organic corn up to $25 or more a bushel. That would hurt our farm as well. This year our small farm will spend in the neighborhood of $100,000 on feed! If feed costs continue to drastically go up our eggs and chicken will also have to rise in price as well.

Sustainable agriculture is not just about how we treat the land, but it is also about being profitable enough be able to continue to produce food. If a "sustainable" farm does everything right in how it treats the soil and how it treats its animals, but it fails to make a living wage, it is not sustainable. Most people here in America are disconnected from their food and what goes into producing that food. The assumption by many is that the grocery store will always be full and will have what they want at a cheap price. That may not always be the case. This next year looks like it is going to be an interesting year. Is our farm going to crawl in a hole and expect the worst? No! We are moving forward and hoping and praying for the best. Last week we received 1,100 new egg layer chicks to replace some of our older hens and to increase the laying flock. The demand for our eggs is still greater than what we can supply. Thank you for your support in these difficult economic times.