Couple takes second mentorship for new farm enterprise: livestock
By Kelli Boylen
When husband-and-wife team Anton Ptak and Rachel Henderson decided to add livestock to their fruit operation they turned to a resource that had already served them well: the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program.
“We were well aware of the power of mentorships,” Henderson said, referring to their past experience with the MOSES program, as well as the Land Stewardship Program Journeyperson course.
Ptak and Henderson run a fruit farm, named Mary Dirty Face Farm, near Menomonie, Wis. They grow apples, cherries, plums, pears, and apricots, along with currants, gooseberries, raspberries, and a half acre of table grapes. Their 60-acre farm is about half woods, while a little over 5 acres are planted in perennial fruits.
They decided they wanted to diversify their operation in order to protect their income in ways that complemented their orchards. Since weather can easily wipe out a fruit crop, the livestock will give Henderson and Ptak a bit more security.
The mentoring program coordinator, Harriet Behar, matched Ptak and Henderson to Mike Miles of Anathoth Community Farm near Luck, Wis. Miles is passionate about the philosophy that the ecology of a working farm needs to include animals.
“All we are doing with animals is mimicking what nature did before civilization got in the way,” Miles explained. “Everything was symbiotic and it all improved because of this.”
He and his wife, Barb Kass, incorporated animals into their operation seven years ago. “Once we started with animals, I became convinced that animal agriculture done right is essential to a healthy ecology on this planet.”
Ptak and Henderson said they appreciate working with someone who shares the same views, lifestyle and values. Henderson added that they find it very helpful to talk with someone who not only understands the technical aspects of adding cattle to an operation, but also understands the frustrations that can occur.
“It’s easy to see that the benefits of rotational grazing—to humans, to livestock and to the soil—are something that is really important to them,” Henderson said. “The way they look at land stewardship and animal care really reinforced our approach of how we want to do things.”
Anathoth Farm is not your typical operation; it is a community of homesteaders and activists. The farm features a 2-acre garden where the farmers grow food for themselves, for sale and for food pantries. The farm is about 80 acres total, of which about 13 acres are pasture. The farmers are in the process of adding four more acres of silvopasture (wooded pasture). They have 14 acres of hay they harvest for winter feed after stockpiled pastures are no longer useable.
Miles says they have a crew of “soil engineers,” as he likes to call them: seven steers, six pigs, and 50 laying hens. They also raise about 250 broilers a year.
“We sell most of our meat, use some of it in catering we do, donate and gift some, and eat the rest,” Miles said.
He started out with his steers in larger paddocks; now they use intensive rotational grazing on about 14 permanent paddocks which are subdivided into almost 100 smaller paddocks as the summer goes on. The steers are moved every day. This system works much better for the forages, people and livestock, Miles said. “Once we started doing that, plant health and diversity improved very quickly. It was very exciting.”
This is the first time Miles has been involved with the MOSES mentorship program—he jumped at the chance to be a mentor when asked.
“I am thoroughly convinced animals need to be on farms, and if someone wants to make that happen—and wants to make sure that happens in the best way possible—I’m glad to be involved. I’m almost evangelical about animal agriculture. It’s great fun and it’s important,” he said, illustrating the passion he feels about this topic. He has shared his farming experiences with many, many visitors to his farm over the years, he said, adding that he’s excited to have this more formal mentoring experience. “A good mentee is going to take full, enthusiastic advantage of the opportunity,” he added.
“Mentoring makes me have to understand and explain what I do,” he explained. “It also pushes me to know more. Being a mentor makes me feel like what I am doing is valuable and that people value what I do enough to want to do it, too.”
Miles hopes he can help Ptak and Henderson skirt some of the issues he has faced over the years. “If I had known 30 years ago what I know now about rotational grazing, my place would look completely different,” he said. “It benefits the animals, soil, trees and pasture—properly managed it improves everything.”
Miles added that although he enjoys having animals on his farm, it’s the micro-organisms in the soil under his feet that are the most important.
Henderson said although they knew about half of their land was well suited for grazing, they wanted advice on how to best utilize it. “We wanted a mentor for this next step to make our farm more viable,” she said, adding they appreciate Miles both for his enthusiasm and his experience.
Henderson and Ptak’s eventual plan is to integrate smaller animals into their farm, such as hogs, sheep and poultry. They plan on selling the meat to friends and family.
They fenced in 10 acres last fall. For this first year they are doing contracted grazing with a rural neighbor who has put seven cow/calf pairs on their pastures. Although they are not planning on having their own beef in the future, this is helping them learn the basics. “This way we are learning about rotational grazing, watering and all that, but we don’t have to worry about things like calving.”
With a toddler and a second child due this summer, Henderson and Ptak didn’t want to take on too much too soon.
She said they are looking forward to exploring options that would help them manage the grass around their fruit trees without needing to mow. “We currently spend a lot of time mowing. I like the idea of having animals that eat the grass and then we eat them. I love the synchronicity of it,” she said.
Miles visited their farm in January and they traveled to his in March. “He has shared a lot of practical and technical information to help us get started, and we loved seeing what he has done thus far,” Henderson said. “He understands the benefits of rotational grazing and the benefits to both humans and livestock. It’s easy to see that is something that is very important to him.”
Henderson and Ptak are not yet able to make a living from their land, but that is their goal. For now, Ptak continues his part-time work with a renewable energy development company and Henderson does some part-time work for the Organic Fruit Growers Association. Although they are looking forward to integrating livestock on their farm, they said their fruit will remain the top priority.
The couple learned about fruit production early on from a MOSES mentor as well. “We learned a ton from our first mentor,” Henderson said, adding that they still keep in touch. She feels Mike’s background with a diversity of grazing species makes him a good match as well.
“We were again looking for someone who is open to sharing various aspects of their farming work, including details of production, day-to-day logistics, marketing strategies, business planning, and philosophy/values,” she said. “It’s great to work with a mentor who is actively researching and exploring and learning about his methods and systems—farmers who have been doing the same thing for many years may not remember as much about that learning process. In this case, it’s clear that Mike can easily relate to where we’re at in the process.”
Henderson, Ptak and Miles met as mentees and mentor for the first time at the 2016 MOSES Organic Farming Conference, which is where program leader Harriet Behar launches the mentor program each year. The matched mentors and mentees receive admission to the conference at the start and end of their year-long mentorship.
The program is available for farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, and North Dakota and South Dakota. Information and applications to participate as a mentee or mentor in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program are on the MOSES website. To request application materials by mail, contact Behar at 715-778-5775. The deadline to apply for the 2017 program is Oct. 31, 2016.
Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer whose work often appears in major farm publications. She lives in Iowa.
From the July | August 2016 Issue