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.