Final Report for FNC93-056
1) Our farm consists of 41 acres on which we raise free range chickens, pigs, cattle, potatoes, and squash for 47 families in our area. All vegetables and livestock production is based on orders. Order forms are made available through a quarterly newsletter which we send to all supporting families. We raise our vegetables organically and our livestock as chemically free as we possibly can. We also raise organic hay and corn which is fed back to the livestock. We do, however, purchase outside corn as we do not have enough acreage to supply all corn demands. Our cattle currently graze in a large pasture. In the future we would like to implement an intensive rotational grazing system.
2) We are faming the last 41 acres of our great grandfathers original 300 acres. We have done so for the last 7 years and have used sustainable methods from the start. Along with animal manures we use cover crops for fertilizer. Our green manures are hairy vetch as a nitrogen producer, rye as a weed suppressor, and buckwheat for other nutrients and use as a smother crop. Our crop rotation consists of corn/cover crop/corn, plow down then followed by a vetch/rye mix early fall which has a spring plow down followed by corn.
3) We received help form the Entomology department at Michigan State University. Dr. Stuart Gage and graduate student Sean Clarke showed us how to document beetle samples from the plants and how to divide the potato plots and what controls to use on the different plots. We also consult with Dr. Laura DeLind, Anthropology department at Michigan State University on the economic and cultural effects our farming practices hold for our community.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
We raise potatoes organically with out any chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. Our biggest problem growing potatoes has been the Colorado potato beetle. We had used diatomateous earth (a powder containing the skeletal remains of micro organisms that is mined from dried lake beds) the method of control is caused by the beetle coming in contact with the powder and the sharp skeletal remains cutting the beetles ectoplasm and the bug dehydrates and dies. This method works best when the beetle is in the larva stage. Control of the beetles was not always satisfactory. While giving a demonstration of our free range chickens to Dr. Gage we were asked if we had ever used chickens to control the beetles and if we would consider trying it. We allocated a small section of our garden potatoes as a mini test and we were nicely surprised with the results. The chickens devoured nearly all the beetles in sight and did a remarkable job of weeding around the plant. We were asked by MSU to expand our chicken control into the larger field of potatoes. We agreed hesitantly especially when we were told of documentation that would need to be done. Sean Clarke then told us about your organization and the possibility of acquiring a grant to defray some of the costs and hire some help for the bug count. So, we sat down with Sean and Dr. Gage and worked out a plan. The potato field would be divided into 3 plots equaling about a ½ acre. One plot would be fenced off and the chickens would be placed inside, one would be fenced off and the chickens would be placed inside, one would be controlled by ourselves picking and counting the bugs and hand weeding, and the third would be left alone with no controls. We would need to purchase seed potatoes, fencing for the chickens, housing and the chickens themselves. We also hired and trained a neighbor boy (16 yrs. Old) to help keep track of bug counts and do weeding as well as feeding and watering the chickens, we also hired a relative to help out. At the end of the growing season the potatoes would then be hug and weighed, comparing hills form the three plots and also checking for disease and potato size as well. These plans were completed by February 1994.
The potato field was fertilized with animal manure over the winter and following some tractor repairs we plowed the potato field May 18th, it was disked twice and ready to plant. It then rained for 2 weeks straight. We had a reading of 7 inches of rain at our farm. We were finally able to plant the potatoes on June 28th. Then it rained for another week. A large section of the chicken controlled plot was drowned out. On July 5th, we set up the chicken fencing. We had planned to move the adult barred rock chickens into the plots on Saturday the 9th of July, however, on the night of the 8th we discovered a predator (possibly a opossum) got into the chicken coop and killed all of the test plot chickens. We found some seventeen week old chickens to replace them during the next week. After driving to Indiana to get them, it was discovered on our return that their beaks had been cut which makes it difficult for the chickens to eat anything but feed. We put them in any way and hoped for the best. As with everything else this year we had very few beetles. Dr. Gage thought it had to do with all the rain. We proceeded to weed and pick what bugs were there. Then near the end of August we were dealt one final blow BLIGHT!!! We dug what potatoes were there and only had enough to feed our family.
The results were: yields in the chicken plot of 1.5 pounds per hill and yields in the other two plots of 1 to 1.5 pounds per hill and little and no beetles were seen.
I am very sorry our experiment turned out to be a total flop because of this years disastrous results we are going to repeat the experiment next year and will gladly send you the results. The experiment will be done exactly the way it was this year but hopefully we will have more favorable results.
We have learned over the past seven years that farming without chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides requires a lot more work, thought and cropping strategies. Because we use neither routine antibiotic therapies nor any steroids to promote quick growth or insecticides on our animals we must be on the look out for potential situations both environmental and physical that could cause illness in our livestock. We feel that farming sustainably and without chemicals makes farming more of a specialized profession. You have to watch and study the environment around you and learn to work more closely with nature rather than trying to chemically subdue it.
We prepare a newsletter three times a year. These contain information on the status of the farm in general. Covering topics such as what crops we are growing, the status of our livestock, updates on our crop rotation or new practices we have implemented. We also include news items to help keep our customers abreast of issues that affect sustainable farming. We mail the newsletters to our customers, hand them out at local food co-ops and place them in doctor and dentist offices. We also participate in MSU’s Agriculture and Natural Resources week which is held annually in March.
To prepare for our first ever farm field day we wrote a special article in our spring 1994 newsletter. We also prepared a single page invitation which we mailed to our customers, left copies in area businesses, and also placed a notice in a “what’s happening” column in the Lansing State Journal. Our farm day was held on July 23, 1994. We opened with a brief history of the farm and why we decided to operate the way we do. We gave an overview of our operations and the ways in which the whole family works to share and divide labor. We had a brief introduction of Sean, Dr. Gage, and Dr. DeLind from MSU whom we refer to as our “consultants”, and also other producers whom we have provided access to our customers.
Next came our actual tour. We began in the barn with our chicken brooding area and the cattle. Outside once again we moved on to the pigs. From the pigs we moved further a field to where we pasture our chickens in range pens. Our grand finale was the potato patch where graduate student Sean Clarke gave an in depth explanation of this experiment and fielded many questions from our guests. We then went back to our starting point where guests mingled and many ideas were exchanged over refreshments.