The Farm Side of Farm-to-Table

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Martha shows off one of the newborn lambs. All nine of the Schloss children participate in caring for the animals on the farm.

By Doug Marrin, STN Reporter

As consumers move away from highly processed foods and the vulnerabilities of distant supply chains, locally-sourced foods from area growers are increasing in demand.

Sarah Schloss, her husband Pat, and their nine kids/farmhands are part of a growing number of small farms filling the ever-increasing desire for locally sourced food.

Sarah and Pat Schloss purchased their 25-acre property, nkidsfarm, 12 years ago and began farming almost immediately.

I am well-acquainted with local farm-to-table finished products, particularly local meats purchased at Agricole in Chelsea, Dexter Mill, and the newly opened and delightful Manchester Market. But I’ve wanted to learn more about the other side of the equation—the farms.

As luck would have it, Sarah invited me out for a visit to her family’s farm, nkidsfarm, near Dexter for a glimpse into the farm side of the farm-to-table equation.

Pigs

We began at the pigpen. Sarah introduced me to a rotational concept that they employ with all of their animals. The pigpen was actually twelve separate pens that opened into a shared alleyway.

“Pigs really destroy the land,” began Sarah. “Having these different sections makes it possible for us to move pigs from one section to another, so they have green plants to eat during the growing season.”

The practice means moving the pigs to a new section to allow the pen they were in to recover and regrow. The pigs rotate between the twelve sections, which is easier on the land and healthier for the animals.

The pigpen is divided into 12 sections to rotate the pigs and allow the ground to recover and keep the animals foraging naturally.

“Pigs really like to dig in the dirt,” explains Sarah. They’re omnivores and like to eat bugs, roots, and lots of green plants. When the plants are growing, we can rotate them to areas that have regrown so they can behave like a pig and enjoy digging in the dirt for roots and bugs.”

I would soon learn this is a crucial practice for nkidsfarm—giving the animals a chance to act as close to their natural instincts as they can.

Nkidsfarms breeds pigs, selling the piglets but also raising about 30 pigs a year up to finishing weight for sale to individual customers. Sarah has recently partnered up with Colleen Dauw of Dancer Creek Farm to form Washtenaw Meats, a company designed to give small area farms an outlet to sell their finished products.

Sheep

Next, we walked out to visit the sheep. Sarah and Pat use a similar rotating practice as they do with the pigs.

Sarah’s crew is all business when it comes to the farm. (L-R) Peter (8), Martha (6), Sarah, Jacob (10), Simon (4)

“For our grazing animals, the method is called ‘Management Intensive Grazing,’” says Sarah. “This is where you put a lot of animals in a relatively small area, and you move them daily.”

She explained that because they are in a relatively small area (which didn’t look that small to me), the sheep will eat everything in there, even the weeds they might not necessarily like. The young and palatable burdock and thistle get eaten along with the alfalfa and clover.

“These areas of the pasture are then allowed to recover for weeks before the animals are put back into that spot again,” added Sarah. “It mimics the grazing habits of wild herds like buffalo and deer.”

Pat, who is also a Professor of Microbiology at U-M, moves the sheep to a new spot in the large pasture every day keeping the animals’ experience more akin to their wild nature and instincts.

“With this method, the sheep get more of the nutrients that they need,” said Sarah. “They eat more. It’s great for the pasture. This allows the farmer to raise three or four times the number of animals on a given amount of pasture as you could with traditional set stocking.”

Set stocking is the practice of leaving a herd in the same area, which often results in overgrazing.

Chickens

Next, Sarah and the kids lead the way to what looked like a tiny house on wheels, with a lot of chickens milling about.

“The chicken coop is on a trailer so that we can pull it around to different places,” said Sarah. “Right now, it’s close to the pigpen so that the chickens can clean up after the pigs. We feed the pigs in bowls, and they waste quite a bit of food on the ground. So, the chickens come and clean it up.”

The chickens also help keep livestock healthy by eating parasite larvae.

Keepers of the coop Jacob (top) and Peter (bottom)

“Chickens are an ‘end host,’” explains Sarah. “They eat larvae. The main idea of having the chicken coop on the trailer is to have them follow the cows in the pasture and scratch through the cow pies for fly larvae. That reduces the fly infestation on the cows.”

The chickens roam free-range, and the coop gives the birds a safe place to sleep at night. The grated floor allows their droppings to fall back onto the pasture for fertilization.

“Raising chickens free-range like this is healthier for the birds and the eggs they lay, but it is also a tradeoff for other problems,” says Sarah. There are lots of things that kill chickens, especially when they are out in the open, like hawks.”

Turkeys

The 100 turkeys of nkidsfarm don’t enjoy the same open-range freedom as their smaller cousins, but similar to the sheep, their fences are moved every few days to give them some new turf to scratch, peck, and fertilize.

“Chickens and turkeys are fantastic fertilizers,” explained Sarah. “Their scratching and droppings mix and blend the soil. You can see how lush everything is from where they’ve been.”

If you’re looking for a good, locally sourced Thanksgiving turkey, check out Washtenaw Meats website.

nkidsfarm

I asked Sarah what the inspiration for the farm’s unusual name was.

“It’s a variable,” she laughs. “We had to keep changing the name because we would have more children, ‘Four Kids Farm,’ ‘Five Kids Farm,’ and so on. We finally settled on ‘n’ to represent any number, like an algebraic variable.”

And Sarah makes clear their nine kids are at the heart of their farming endeavor. They all participate. Peter and Jacob are in charge of the chickens—feeding, watering, and collecting eggs for selling. Martha looks after her two rabbits (pets not for eating). Grazing out front is a herd of twenty-five beautiful Belted Galloways that belong to 16-year-old son Joe.

Sarah and Pat believe that by teaching the kids to be compassionate and caring for the animals, they will learn to be compassionate and caring for people.

“I started raising animals to provide for our family,” said Sarah. “And then, I raised more to pay for the ones that we were raising for our family. It just escalated from there because this kind of locally-sourced food production is in such high demand, raising animals in a healthy way.”

But it is more than healthy animals Sarah and Pat are raising.

“Raising animals is good for kids because they need work, and they need responsibility,” explains Sarah. “Getting the kids to participate is a big part of what we do.”

“Our farm motto is, ‘We raise adults,’” says Sarah. “We are raising these young people to be adults. We’re teaching them responsibility and empathy for the animals. We teach them to figure out what the animal needs and show compassion by taking good care of it. In learning that, they’ll learn how to take care of each other as well.”

All photos by Doug Marrin

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