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Incorporating Regenerative Practices on Pasture-Raised Egg Operations

To design a replicable and regenerative pasture-raised model for laying hens.

Photo of Sycamore May
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Handsome Brook Farm

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Propagate Ventures

Website of Legally Registered Entity

http://www.handsomebrookfarm.com

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Under 1 year

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

New York City

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

The United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The towns of Liberty, Crofton, and Russellville Kentucky. Specifically, the Knobs and Mississippian Plateau regions of Kentucky.

What country is your selected Place located in?

The United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The Live Operations team at Handsome Brook Farm engages with farmers in our network to deliver on consumer expectations of pasture-raised eggs. Handsome Brook Farm works with and oversees a network of 75 organic, pasture-raised egg farmers from New York to Oklahoma – 30 of which are located in Kentucky. The farms of Alvin Jantzi, Dave Zimmerman, and Waylon Martin each face soil erosion-related degradation. If soil degradation is allowed to continue without mitigation, the sustainability of the farm’s capacity will be at stake in addition to its environmental and economic security. That is why all participating farmers are enthusiastically committed to diversifying their pastured poultry farms. Their commitments drive the progress needed to address the challenges in their production systems.

As the Project Manager for Strategic Development Initiatives at Handsome Brook Farm, I prioritize our company’s vision for regeneration and the sustainability of our farm’s agricultural ecosystems. Our shared mission is to restore soil organic matter on these three farms by planting cover-crops and fruit and nut trees to foster biodiversity. Regenerative agriculture, for layer hen operations, and small-scale farms more generally, is crucial to ensuring sustainable future food systems. This strategy to regenerate soil may be useful for other pastured poultry farmers across Kentucky and the United States.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Since 2019, Handsome Brook Farm has liaised with regenerative agroforestry consultancy Propagate Ventures to incorporate tree crops on three farms in our Kentucky network. Our goal is to increase pasture resiliency by introducing value-added crops. The three Kentucky farms belong to Alvin Jantzi, Waylon Martin, and Dave Zimmerman.

In Crofton, Kentucky, on 29 acres, Alvin Jantzi tends his flock of 11,700 birds. Alvin is Amish and lives close to his family. He has a couple of horses and two family dogs named Sheila and Charlie. On my January 2020 visit to his farm, Alvin led our joint team of Handsome Brook Farm and Propagate Ventures to a gully that had formed behind the chicken barn. With nothing to absorb the rainwater, Alvin’s soil eroded so severely that craters spanned the length of his pasture. Harry of Propagate Ventures suggested Alvin plant river cane, a native species of bamboo to absorb water. The river cane establishes thick roots and will withstand the hen’s scratching while providing shady cover from predators. But because of the high cost of establishing value-added crops, the extra time and effort it takes to implement changes, Alvin struggles to mitigate this deteriorating environmental challenge.

Farmer Waylon Martin of Liberty, Kentucky faces similar erosion issues. His 34-acre farm is home to 13,500 hens. Waylon is one of many Mennonite farmers in the Handsome Brook Farm network. On my recent visit to his farm, Waylon’s short-haired golden retriever followed us back to the pasture where the hens forage. The bare earth from the barn to the wooded area beyond Waylon’s property was a result of soil erosion. Without shade-providing vegetation, predators such as hawks pose challenges to the flock’s mortality. High rates of predation on Waylon’s flock accounted for nearly 10% of his last flock’s mortality rate. Harry of Propagate Ventures suggested Waylon plant elderberries provide shade, fruit, feed for the hens, and extra income for Waylon. Wary of the cost, Waylon struggles to implement this solution.

In Russellville, Kentucky, Dave Zimmerman built a layer hen farm after moving from his Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The hens on Dave’s farm, are not afraid to range freely on the pasture. However, a lack of a rotational grazing strategy has resulted in an extreme lack of vegetation. Like Alvin, Dave’s pasture has gullies, especially on the hill behind his barn where the hens spend time foraging. Dave wants to implement changes that will increase the soil organic matter on his pasture while increasing his flock’s resiliency to predators. Like Waylon, Dave is wary of investing in tree crops that offer long term benefits, but do not immediately add value. 

These farmers take pride in providing local diets for their families. “Flour” is the extent of Waylon’s grocery list. Farmers Alvin, Waylon, and Dave are all determined to create thriving, resilient and sustainable layer hen farms for their children to inherit.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

9893

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Handsome Brook Farm keeps pace with consumer demand for nutritious food while increasing welfare standards for hens. Handsome Brook Farm eggs are marketed and sold under a pasture-raised label. As of 2020, “traditional” pasture-raised poultry operations use mobile coops to rotationally graze hens and manage the quality of their pasture. This model is time-intensive, scale-limiting, and resource-demanding. Pasture-raising layers under a commercial model consist of a stationary barn with pasture surrounding at a rate of one acre for every 400 birds housed (in accordance with leading welfare certification standards). In casting aside the mobile coop model in favor of static barn efficiencies, the pasture allotted to the birds is poorly utilized. Unless the commercial model incorporates regenerative agriculture practices by 2050, the challenges of mismanaged pasture will continue to impact the environment, diet, culture, economy, technology, and policy of commercially produced pasture-raised eggs.

Poor pasture utilization has a direct ripple effect on the farmer and flock; pasture surrounding the 100 ft off the barn becomes overgrazed and eroded. Because the pasture often lacks biodiversity of crops, the frequency of soil erosion is compounded by overgrazing. Erosion increases standing water which can ultimately compromise the barn’s structural integrity, accelerating the depreciation of the farmer’s asset. Farmers recognize poor pasture utilization as an environmental and economic risk and an eyesore. However, resources or direction on how to address poor pasture utilization while meeting the welfare standards for outdoor access by creating a regenerative strategy has yet to be implemented. The challenge of soil erosion will continue to persist if it is not mitigated with a regenerative strategy. However, farmers lack financial resources to address the issue of soil erosion and pasture management on their land. The costs of fencing and cover crops add to financial stress farmers currently face. One mitigation strategy to combat soil erosion is to plant value-added crops on the pasture where chickens graze. However, Amish and Mennonite lifestyles present unique obstacles of limited access to technology, which challenges incorporating value-added crops that require machinery. As technology advances, Amish and Mennonites will not be participating in the modernization of agriculture. To ensure the integrity of Amish culture, value-added crops need to be produced in their unique technological means.

By 2050, If vegetative loss and soil erosion continue to occur, the value of the farmer’s barn and their land will depreciate and there will be increased health risks for the hens in terms of standing water and limited protection from predators. Therefore, creating replicable company policies focused on pasture management strategies that regenerate the environment, sustain local economies and enhance the livelihood of farmers is needed.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

This vision will address the environmental challenges of soil erosion, lack of biodiversity on pasture, and Amish and Mennonite cultural abstinence from modern technology. Biodiversity will be achieved by planting value-added cover crops that do not require modern technology such as elderberries and chestnut. This will lead to an increase in soil microbes and insect species and increased resilience to climate change. Additionally, farmers’ success in producing value-added crops will strengthen local economies and cultural traditions. Farmers can turn crops like elderberry into elderberry syrup, which they can then sell to their friends and neighbors. Managing pasture through rotational grazing systems will foster increased resiliency to climate change, and soil regeneration. Pasture-raised eggs will continue to contain beneficial nutrients, which will positively impact hen and human consumption. Farmers will continue to earn a premium for producing pasture-raised eggs, as well as providing the labor required to manage a pasture-raised system, with the additional economic benefit of farm longevity due to pasture and barn resiliency. Creating company policies on pasture management will contribute to enforcing best management practices for rotational grazing and cover cropping.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Increased biodiversity on the farms will create healthier soil, offsetting carbon emissions and strengthening environmental resilience. The current “moon-scape” aesthetic of the pastures will cease to be bare earth and will instead be verdant and thriving with life. Value-added cover crops will contribute to the dietary health of farmers, hens, and their local community. Value-added crops will increase long-term profitability for farmers and strengthen connections with their local communities. Increasing long-term profitability will provide a sustainable foundation for future generations of family farmers. The children of Waylon, Dave, and Alvin will not have to worry that their farm operations will be eradicated by climate change. Instead, they will perpetuate the regenerative system their parents created. Handsome Brook Farm’s company policies will enforce and conserve best management practices for farmers, their hens, their land, and their local community.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision is to design a replicable and regenerative pasture-raised model for laying hens. How 400 birds can best utilize an acre is a challenge facing the food system. This can be solved with a regenerative policy that improves the environment, the diet of the hens, and the economic viability of small farmers with minimal technological impact to ensure the culture of the Amish and Mennonite communities. The challenge of whether to implement a cage-free, free-range, or pasture-raised model also challenges the future of the food system. Pasture-raised production systems are the best way to regenerate the environment, improve diets, and enhance local communities. Rotational grazing and strategically seeding paddocks with palatable legumes, grains, and value-added crops have a transformative potential to turn eroded soil into a lush pasture. 

Our community-rooted systems-focused approach for a regenerative and nourishing food future for 2050 is to implement pasture-raised policy to ensure the long-term economic viability of small, family farmers. While we understand that a one-size-fits-all pasture management design does not exist, a systems-focused approach is flexible enough to be utilized by farmers across the country and across various geographical regions. For 2050, these best management practices can be shared across our network.

Climate change is the most obvious challenge facing our collective food future. It is advantageous for producers to grow food that is of the highest ecological quality for consumers that will be making decisions based on a future ecological ethic. Consumers will only become more educated about where their food comes from and the ramifications for buying mass-produced eggs. The expropriation of small-holder farmers from their land will be a major challenge to the culture and livelihoods of Kentucky farmers and farmers throughout our network. By implementing systems-focused approaches that ensure the regeneration of soil and sustainability, the small-holders will be able to stay in business and defeat the Goliaths of corporate agribusinesses. If Alvin, Dave, and Waylon can plant fruit and nut trees, in the long-term their farms will be more adept to sell eggs in the future marketplace. By 2050, their farms will be much safer for the hens, eggs, consumers, and the environment.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Parabéns pela iniciativa! Sycamore.
Será que o meu projeto Sal da Terra pode ser útil para sua região (aqui nesta plataforma)?
Um forte abraço