Small Farm Productivity

By: Alexandra Stafford, The Bulletin


Philadelphia - Over the weekend, I received an e-mail from a Bulletin reader with questions and comments regarding an article printed Thursday, Aug. 2 entitled "Grass Farming In Lancaster: A Post Industrial Enterprise." 

To help answer his questions, I spoke with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia, Amy Bruning from the Lancaster Farm Fresh CSA, Alvin Stoltzfus of Spring Water Farm in Lancaster, Bob Pierson of Farm to City, Sam Consylman and Dwain Livengood from the Livengood Farm in Lancaster, and Karen Brendle of Green Meadow Farm in Gap. Below I've responded to the reader's questions.

What do farms do in the winter? Do the cattle eat hay or grain? I presume that the Polyface Farm's rotating "eggmobile" way of producing eggs, and eventually chickens, doesn't work in a Mid-Atlantic winter at all, although it's probably a longer season in Virginia than here. I also gather that the chickens are only "harvested" after four months.

Farmers who practice rotational grazing do not stop grazing their cows in the winter, nor do they stop feeding them grass. In most of the country, animals can graze for 300 days a year. While winter lasts an average of 160 days, snow and ice cover the ground for only a small fraction of this period and very few days are extremely cold. In the northern two-thirds of the country, snow covers the ground on average 24 days annually, and in the northern one-third, 140 days. Allan Nation, editor of the Stockman Grass Farmer, writes, "Snow is no excuse for not winter grazing" in a 2005 article, "Getting Started in Grass Farming." 

On Polyface Farm, from the middle of November to the first of March, the cow and chicken coexistence (via the eggmobile) does in fact stop because the chickens, unable to endure the cold weather, must be moved indoors. The cows, however, live in an open-sided shelter where they eat hay - dried grass accumulated throughout the growing season that has been stored in sheds - and live on an area bedded down with a mixture of woodchips, sawdust and old hay to absorb their excrement. Only on the very coldest days do the cows move indoors.

While the chicken-cow relationship ceases for about three months a year, animal symbiosis still pervades Polyface Farm. Indoors, the chickens live on wood chips and other bedding where they roam freely below rabbit cages suspended from the ceiling. By pecking and scratching at the rabbit droppings, the birds eliminate parasites, keep the bedding spread out, and ultimately turn the rabbits' excrement into rich compost. 

And outdoors, the heavy cows tread on their nitrogen-rich manure and carbon-rich bedding, packing it together, allowing the mixture to ferment (anaerobic composting). By adding corn to the bedding, Salatin entices his pigs to turn the bedding into compost: When the cows return to pasture in March, the pigs dig through the densely packed bedding, searching for the tasty fermented corn, aerating the pile and turning it into compost for the spring.

During the winter, the hens continue laying eggs indoors, living for about two years before they are harvested and sold as stewing hens. Broilers, on the other hand, live for eight to 10 weeks, but unlike the laying hens, do not live indoors - Polyface does not raise broilers during the winter. So although production decreases slightly during the winter, Polyface Farm, on 100 acres of grass, produces 30,000 dozens of eggs, 10,000 broilers, 800 stewing hens, 25,000 pounds of beef, 25,000 pounds of pork, 1,000 turkeys and 500 rabbits a year. Salatin explains that "the miracle of freezers" has allowed Polyface to provide its customers with pastured meat year round. "Freezers have enabled us to have high nutrition unseasonally," he says. "That's why records like the 100-meter dash continue to be broken." Most critically, Salatin notes that the meat industry depends on "lots and lots of freezers" to supply their customers year round as well.

I realize that these are independent farmers, but is there a plan for a co-op or something to better distribute the products to us city folks? I don't live anywhere near South and Passyunk, so it takes much less energy for me to drive to my local supermarket. Also, I work during the time the listed farmers' market is open.  Is it open in the winter, or are we left to our own devices with industrial food most of the year?

Farmers' markets are just one outlet for purchasing local grass-fed products. To find other sources more conveniently located, visit the Local Food Philly Web site,, which lists all the farmers' markets, farm stands, retailers, restaurants, cafes, specialty stores, caterers, buying clubs, CSAs, and co-ops selling local, grass-fed products in Center City and the suburbs. Eat Wild,, is another good source. 

While the farmers' markets stop in mid-November, buying clubs, co-ops and stores such as the Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market sell pastured products year round. Both Local Food Philly and Farm to City,, have details about these resources.

So while the farmers' markets currently may not accommodate everyone's schedule, as demand for pastured products and locally grown food increases, more markets will open. According to the USDA, the number of farmers' markets across the country has grown over 18 percent during the past 12 years: In 1994, 1,755 markets operated across the country; in 2006, that number increased to 4,385.

In Philadelphia, Farm to City ran four farmers' markets in 2001 with sales totaling $205,700. Last year, the organization operated 12 markets, two CSAs and a Winter Harvest program with sales totaling $886,800, a fourfold increase. Bob Pierson, director of Farm to City, believes sales will exceed a million dollars this year. Pierson also notes that The Food Trust, operating 25 markets in the Greater Philadelphia area, continues to expand each year as well. 

As demand increases, market hours will also accomodate more people: In the past year alone, the Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market has increased its days of operation from four to six, now closed only on Mondays.

And as more farms adopt these sustainable methods for raising animals, the less industrial food everyone will have to rely on. When asked if he thought it feasible for small farms to one day provide enough food to support the population of the United States, Salatin answered unequivocally, "absolutely!" noting that his "pasture produces four times the county average." 

By creating a diversified environment where cows and chickens, and chickens and rabbits, and pigs and cows live together, Salatin produces more on one patch of land than any farmer specializing in a single species. And by mimicking nature, the charismatic Salatin says, "Cows can fully express their cowness and chickens can fully express their chickenness," and as a result, farmers can produce, using natural and sustainable methods, large quantities of healthy and tasty food.

When I asked Alvin Stoltzfus of Spring Water Farm in Lancaster the same question - if he thought small farms could one day support our country's population - he said, "There is no doubt in my mind." He noted that "there's no quick fix - no magic bullet, but there's a lot of ground out there and it's just a question of learning how to manage it properly." 

Stoltzfus, who raises organic dairy cows, pigs, chickens and turkeys, and whose raw organic milk can be purchased at the Fair Food Farmstand, expressed his excitement that "lots of new farmers are coming from the outside." He knows that "it's hard for farmers to change their ways" and believes the new generation of farmers, though not born into the farming tradition, are dedicated to sustainable practices and are helping the organic and pastured movement expand. 

I note your statistics that us 300 million Americans eat an average of over 80 pounds of beef and 120 pounds of chicken annually. I might note that the latter statistic is the result of chicken being so cheap, as it was almost a delicacy a half-century ago. The availability of chicken as a staple is the result of industrial work by Frank Perdue, Cobb Research, Tyson, etc.

Somehow or other we 300 million Americans expect someone to deliver the 26 billion pounds of beef and 43 billion pounds of chicken to our supermarkets and restaurants not just annually but regularly. I expect to stroll into any of the five markets within three miles of my house and purchase what I need. So, it seems that Tyson has delivered - I don't see the problem.

Indeed, Frank Perdue and Tyson have succeeded in reducing the retail price of chicken so much that chicken has become a staple in the American diet. Their means of achieving this low cost have been less than admirable, however, and widely documented: Tens of thousands of birds live together in extremely confined areas; runoff from these poultry farms and processing plants creates serious environmental problems; and birds, fed at rates so fast that their legs often can't keep pace and frequently fail, are injected with antibiotics to prevent diseases. 

Moreover, these facilities employ mostly migrant laborers who work under dangerous conditions. In the May 2007 UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, an article entitled "Poultry Talk" details the conditions of chicken slaughterhouses. In many of these plants, a team of two workers inspects 70 birds per minute. Many tasks are automated, but workers do most of the gutting and the cutting. Chicken feces frequently contaminate wash water; workers stand for hours in damp, cold and noisy facilities; wages are low and injury rates high. 

A Human Rights Watch report on meat and poultry plants in the U.S. classifies these industries as hazardous. Furthermore, a 2006 study from Wake Forest University School of Medicine reports that poultry processing has among the highest occupation illness rates of any private industry and that slaughterhouses are neither safe nor sanitary.

Perdue and Tyson keep their costs low by hiring low-wage workers, treating their animals poorly, avoiding responsibility for cleaning up pollution and cutting corners on food safety. Americans pay for these compromises in taxes, not when they purchase Perdue poultry. So while Perdue and Tyson have supplied lots of cheap chicken, they've not only harmed animals, workers and the environment in the process, but also imposed costs on the public, a byproduct of unprincipled business practices.

Finally, the post-industrial way of raising the food sounds fine. You cite six pounds of beef per gallon of fuel. What about the energy in distribution? Say Mr. Livengood uses about 20 gallons of fuel each week to bring 200 pounds of beef to market in a pickup truck. That's 10 pounds a gallon, but since folks must drive further to pick it up compared to the local supermarket, we're close. Shipping in Nebraska grass-fed beef from Grand Island to Philadelphia in 60,000-pound lots in highly efficient reefer trucks nets a similar total farm-to-kitchen energy. CSAs are real energy burners, with dozens of cars going out to farms 50 to 75 miles away to pick up small lots. 

Just think about it please. Meanwhile, what about the winter?

Just to clarify, raising six pounds of beef on a feedlot requires one gallon of fuel according to a June 2004 National Geographic article (200 gallons of fuel to raise a 1200 pound steer). This number excludes the cost of transporting beef around the country - it only reflects the costs of feed, fertilizer and fuel to run the machines.

In comparison, raising a steer on the Livengood Farm requires little if any fuel at all. That said, transporting the beef to the city does require gas, and Dwain Livengood's truck burns on average 12 to 15 gallons total during his 140-mile round-trip.

Comparing the farm-to-kitchen energy of Livengood beef to that of beef traveling 1,222 miles (one way) from Grand Island, Neb. to Philadelphia gets complicated. For one, in addition to his beef and pastured eggs, Dwain brings to the market an average of two tons of vegetables during peak growing season.

Moreover, where did the 60,000 pounds of beef leaving the processing plant originate? How far from the farm to the plant did the cows travel? (Dwain's cattle are processed in Lancaster.) Do the 60,000 pounds represent meat from one farm, or are several farms transporting their cattle to the plant? After the truck reaches a Philadelphia distribution center, how long is the meat stored before an Acme, Super Fresh or Whole Foods truck picks it up? Many more costs need to be added to the cost of gas burned per pounds of meat transported to accurately compare the farm-to-kitchen energy of beef journeying from Nebraska to beef traveling from Lancaster.

As for the statement that CSAs are real energy burners, this simply isn't true. The traditional model of a CSA involves a relationship between a farm and a family living ideally within 10 miles from the farm. For example, on Maysie's Farm in Glenmoore, a seven-acre farm, Sam Cantrell runs a traditional CSA, providing 175 families (each living about 10 miles from the farm) with a sizeable portion of their vegetables for 22 weeks a year. 

The Lancaster Farm Fresh CSA is not a traditional model because the vegetables travel from a cooperative of over 20 farms in Lancaster, about 60 miles from Center City. Together these farms provide vegetables for 400 families, amounting to roughly 1500 people. Each week, a small van makes a 120-mile round-trip journey to the southern half of the city, and a diesel truck makes a 215-mile round-trip journey to the northern part of the city, delivering boxes to a total of 19 locations. With two vehicles traveling nominal distances (compared to California or Florida, for example, where the majority of grocery store produce originates) to deliver vegetables to feed 1500 people for a week, the Lancaster Farm Fresh CSA is an extremely energy-efficient operation.

Finally, in regard to the winter, as Salatin and many other grass farmers have exhibited, small farms can produce large quantities of pastured meat and provide many people with high-quality protein year round. Vegetable farmers can achieve the same year-round productivity as well. I spoke with Karen Brendle, wife of Glenn Brendle, a farmer in Gap who grows vegetables for Philadelphia restaurants year round. From most of these restaurants, Glenn, a trained engineer, takes home used vegetable oil, which he in turn uses to heat three greenhouses on his farm and his home all winter long.

The greenhouses allow Glenn to grow lettuces, herbs and delicate microgreens throughout the winter. But even outside the greenhouse, his 15-acre farm grows vegetables such as onions, cabbages, cauliflower, carrots, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, celery, parsnips, turnips and rutabagas through most of the winter. Karen explained that some vegetables - potatoes, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas and celery - store well. These get pulled and stored in an insulated area in the barn that keeps the vegetables very cold but above freezing. Other vegetables such as carrots and Brussels sprouts can be picked from the ground as late as January and February, provided the ground is free of snow and ice.

Karen notes that "you learn to eat seasonally" by supporting local farms. "We can all wait to eat cucumbers in the spring."