Monday, October 11, 2010

Greener Grass?

Rabbit houses and Dottie
When you pull up the drive of Green Akeys farm outside of Westminster, it's hard to imagine only a few years ago the owners were a suburban family. The more than 62 acres undulates like a prototypical Carroll County scene. Big open pastures, divided by fencing, are lined by dense woods. A handful of outbuildings, a barn, and a modest farm house. Behind the farm house lies a small grove of trees that is totally out of place. The remnants of a former nursery on the land, a large blue spruce and other ornamental specimens create an appealing, if slightly overgrown, stand. On one side of the drive lie large garden beds, and across the field on the other you can make out a herd of sheep. From the entrance here you can't see the chickens. But they are there, up on a distant hill. Occasionally the two great Pyrenees that guard the flock come into view as they patrol their perimeter. This is what you see as your eye pans the landscape. As the car rolls up the hill, you're first greeted by the dogs.

Dottie and Frank, especially Dottie, make you feel welcome. They'll gladly chase the ball for hours if you're willing. Otherwise they'll lie down nearby and hang out for awhile. They're farm dogs and it all fits the image of the family farm.

Passing into the barn, looking past the large freezers and various farm accoutrements, you will finally notice the goats. Well, first you'll notice the goat's ears. The big floppy ears of the Newbian goat look like those on a bunny rabbit you cooned over as a kid. The Akeys have four of these goats, two they are milking, two are youngsters. Besides being cute and friendly, they provide the family with a gallon of milk a day. Milk they use for cheese, yogurt, and cereal. Michael Akeys does the milking twice a day, and he points out that he spends 15 minutes twice a day, while most people spend a lot longer, twice a day, commuting between home and work.

One of the milking goats

This one's still a kid...
In addition to the goats, sheep, and chickens, there are steer and rabbits on the property. Most of the animals are being raised for meat production. The sheep are a heritage breed called Khatadin, which are hair sheep, rather than wool sheep. Their skin does no contain lanolin, and so their meat has a less distinct "lamb" flavor. Michael thinks the sheep are the most cost effective meat to raise on the farm, particularly when you compare beef to the lamb.

There are both layer chickens, for egg production, and meat chickens. The chickens are pastured on a large plot of land some distance from the farm house. Unlike some farms, most famously Polyface Farm, the chickens are not being rotated through the entire farm as part of an intensive management program. Nor do they have free rein of the 62 acres. But they are on a large open pasture: This hasn't been without its challenges. Foxes ravaged the flock on multiple occasions this spring. That's why there are two big white dogs in the pasture today. Their arrival has put an end to the fox problem.

Picture this setting and then imagine accomplishing this much in only a few short years. For most folks, building a fourteen member CSA would alone take two years. Do that with organic practices and toss in a variety of pastured livestock and poultry (of course there are turkeys too), and you simply have to shake your head in amazement. The first explanation might be that they're from a farm family, but they're from Chicago. Another explanation might be that they have lots of hired help, but they're doing it themselves, except for a small CSA time commitment. No matter how you look at it, there's no denying this family has jumped in with both feet.
CSA Members Collect from the list on the board

Green Akeys Farm has been in business for two summer seasons now. Last year, the family began raising pastured poultry and I originally met them selling at the Westminster farmers market. This year they added a fourteen member CSA, and dropped the markets altogether. Michael Akeys, once stay-at-home dad with their three kids, principally runs the farm. His wife has an outside job and tends a lot to the produce. In their previous suburban home, they grew what they could without land, including lots of container tomatoes. Now they have the freedom to grow what they want.

I asked Michael about the growth of their farm and learned something entirely new. Farm infrastructure is a costly investment and farm income from small ventures is, well, small. to get into the pastured livestock business, for example, would require some $100K in fencing for their farm. Then there's high tunnels for produce and irrigation equipment. The Akeys have taken advantage of government programs that support the growth of sustainable farming through cost sharing with the farmer. I had no idea there were such programs and I have never heard of the managing organization, the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). But sure enough, a web search reveals an organic transition program, for example, and touts success stories. So far, the Akeys have taken advantage of the option to install fencing, and they plan to build a high tunnel in the next year. Of course, restrictions do apply. They are committed to keep livestock, for example, for some number of years. They also can't heat the high tunnel and create a greenhouse.  But in the face of huge start up costs, these restrictions seem small.

Looking toward the future, the high tunnel and a more sophisticated irrigation system are priorities. This summer was a lesson to all the local farmers how unforgiving nature can be. Many were left rigging awkward irrigation systems to battle weeks of dry weather. The Akeys had cheap drip hose from the hardware store that proved inefficient and under effective.

They are experimenting a lot with the business of farming. What's the best niche for their land and resources? While maintaining a goal of farming ethically, they are trying different models. This year, that included only direct sales and a small CSA. Next year, they may divide the CSA into an early and late part, focusing on the produce of the border seasons and avoiding the high competition center of the season. They expect to continue making cheese from goat's milk at home, with the possibility of focusing on cheese sales a few years in the future. The sheep have proven an excellent investment, and they're here to stay. Hopefully the new dogs have eliminated their poultry problems, and while they experiment with pricing models, Michael thinks he's found the breeds he wants to continue to grow. The steer may not make the long term game plan. Pasturing cattle takes a lot of land - my primary source has about 120 acres - and is a large investment. One might look at this as dabbling, and I guess it is. But sustainable farming isn't about incredible sacrifice. To be successful, we consumers can't allow it to be. We need to support fair wages and be willing to close our mind's eye to the great deal we could get at the local Walmart. We have to swallow hard and spend our money on high quality food, provided ethically and in accordance with its true cost. We have to support farmer's paths as they discover how to feed the community and their family. So that's how I look at Green Akeys "plan" - a path to decision making that ultimately reflects the perspectives of both the Akeys and their customers.

The pumpkin patch at Green Akeys Farm

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