MOVE THAT LIVESTOCK!

MOVE THAT LIVESTOCK

If you thought raising livestock goes hand in hand with stomach-turning manure, repulsive smells, muck and slop, you need to visit one of the most innovative farms in not only the state but the nation, Homer Walden’s Sunnyside Farm in Newberry Township, York County. Sunnyside smells good- earthy, fruity, of turned over rich soil, fragrant blossoms, ripening fruit, warm animals, clean hay. Even though he has over a dozen pigs, half a dozen cows, and thousands of chickens, there is absolutely nothing offensive smelling on the farm. The secret- Homer MOVES all his animals every day onto a fresh patch of ground. It is a crazy and an amazing idea at the same time.

After spending much of his adult life earning a living as a pattern/model maker for Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and then retiring, Homer’s wife, Dru Peters, asked him what he wanted to do next. He wanted to eat better. Become healthier. Pretty simple. But he too had jaded and misconceived ideas of what a livestock farm smelled like (STINK!) and what the tremendous work load was like. His childhood experiences with cows had left a bad taste in his mouth for 50+ years.

But he decided to employ his bright mind and keen imagination to make the work load lighter and pioneer a new way. And the results have been nothing short of amazing.

Homer & Dru bought the 13-acre farm in___, and began with only 50 birds. Now, after 3,000 chickens later, (plus many other creatures) he’s living his dream and he has turned into a real farmer, albeit not a normal one.

After walking the property for only a few minutes, Homer enthusiastically demonstrates for me how his moving pens work. He loops a section of rope around the back of his strong and trim body, braces his legs and gracefully pulls the entire rolling 10X12 foot pen 12 feet further down the row. The little piggies inside happily move along with their pen as the wheelbarrow tires rotate. You can see and hear their squealing excitement over the new greens to eat and the firm ground to dig up. They have left behind, in the 12 foot section, rich soil that looks as if a rotor tiller churned it up and is ready for planting. Oh, they also gave their beloved master a gift too- they fertilized it for him.

“Pulled pork” I call this, Homer laughs.

Homer moves these pigs two times a day and hence clears and cultivates 24 feet every day. And that’s just the pigs- he also moves turkeys and chickens down his rows, estimating approximately 750 animals are moved a day, actually before he gets his breakfast! Everything moves- nothing is stationary at Sunnyside.

Because of his moving livestock, Homer NEVER has to mow, NEVER has to rototill, NEVER has to clear brush, NEVER has to cultivate, NEVER has to fertilize, NEVER has to weed. He NEVER burns fossil fuels. DOESN’T EVEN OWN a tractor.

The animals feast on bugs, worms, drink in fresh air and rain, and never wallow in their own feces. They have no need to escape. They love it in here. Farmers have always known that motion makes animals happier and healthier, coupled with access to fresh plants, nutrients and the ground. The animals are instrumental in turning Sunnyside Farm from a weed base to a grass base, allowing their owner to participate in workshops where he can help wanna-be’s learn to move livestock too.

Homer is very active in the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). For over twenty years, this network of innovative farms, businesses and other outlets have been promoting and transforming agriculture and food systems in Pennsylvania in a way that improves the land and restores health and well-being for all citizens. PASA offers Field Days and Intensive Learning Programs throughout the year throughout the state where you can learn anything from making cheese to going solar to “moving livestock” at Sunnyside Farm. Every February, a conference is held in State College, entitled “Framing for the Future,” offering a dizzying array of workshops and seminars under one roof, led by movers and shakers like Homer.

The cool thing about PASA members is that they are so willing to share what they know. Homer uses his farm as a laboratory, to invent things. All his moving contraptions began as mechanical drawings on a drafting table. He designs devices to seed the ground quickly, how to recycle rainwater and have it automatically water the garden, how to charge batteries from a windmill, move pens, etc. Even his moveable pens can double as something else. When a light goes inside one, it becomes a moveable brooder. Homer likes when things serve several purposes.

Even though both he and his wife Dru came from completely different worlds (she was a copy editor for Prentice Publishing) they have always lived in rural areas and loved the natural life.

They now keep bees, and raise cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys for meat (and eggs). They also raise vegetables on a 1 acre plot which they use to service their CSA- Community Supported Agriculture membership.

Over the last 20 years, CSA’s are a way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from a farmer. The farmers offer a certain number of “shares” of his harvest to the public. The share consists of a box of seasonal produce which the subscribers or members receive each week throughout the farming season. Most seasons run for 20-24 weeks and a small amount offer some winter options. Some also offer cheese, eggs and fruit. There are full and partial shares available, depending on your household size and needs. Only a handful offer organic meats like Sunnyside.

Homer raises his pigs to about 200 pounds. He found that after they reach 300 pounds, they start throwing the pen around like a rag doll and it gets a little scary. But besides the natural pasture, they feast on stale bread and juice bar pulp, which “they party in all day.” (It ferments).

While alive, Homer’s pigs have a very happy life. Survival rate is 99% when a pig is raised on fresh earth like this. Pathogens build up in an animal in 14 days when they attack their immune system. Homer’s goal is to not have any of his animals get sick and not use antibiotics. Since they are moved past their droppings every few hours, the scat becomes nutrients in the soil. “There is a finite balance between earth and impact and my goal is to not go past that balance.”

“When there is a smell, something is wrong. But we grow a lot of animals here. The goal is keep them moving, keep the grass growing- that is the idea.”

It is one that is working almost magically. Homer’s pork melts in your mouth. It tastes NOTHING like commercially raised pig, as well as his grass-fed beef. Homer raises about 10 cows at a time and also moves them in 1/8 of an acre plots. Their “cow buffet” consists of grass, water, salt lick, kelp, and luxurious shade.

And you can tell the way Homer works with his pigs and cows, talks to them and even pats their heads…he cares about his animals. That makes for happy lives and tasty meat.

“My pork tastes like pork from another planet. I am embarrassed to admit that I ate a ½ of a pig in four months!”

They were just recently awarded a Food Alliance certificate that recognizes the environmental benefits of Sunnyside Farm, their use of heritage varieties of vegetables and breeds of livestock, their efforts to monitor native plants and wildlife populations, conserve water resources as well as teach others what they know. Before an operation can receive and display this prestigious seal, they must meet rigorous standards and be evaluated on how the farm is managed. It is a great honor.

Sunnyside Farm did not win this award by gleaning advice from traditional farmers. “All I’ve ever heard from them is “You can’t do that!” But Homer is willing to share his unique knowledge and skill. “Some folks have asked if they could intern, but no one has shown up yet” he laughs.

This is such a different life than what I was used to,” Homer admits, but you can tell by his healthful glow, spry step and never ending smile, that the lifestyle agrees with him. “I’m living my dream,” Homer beams.

This story appeared in the March/April issue of Pennsylvania Magazine- www.pa-mag.com

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