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From Local Farms – Sunworks Farm

09.17.10

My time with Ron Hamilton of Sunworks Farm left me drowning in fascinating content – making this the most challenging edit to date. Ron and Sheila have been at this game longer than all the others I’ve covered so far, and have achieved a level of success in the organics business that places them as leaders in their industry. Being the biggest also makes you a target for criticism, and it seems like one of the emerging local ethics-of-food debates is whether one can get this big without compromising values. Ron addresses scale, growth, ethics, feed, conventional vs. organic practices both outdoors in the summer and in-barn in the winter, among many, many other topics.

I find feed interesting – and specifically the quest for farmers to achieve high-protein diets required to build meat without the use of soy. Ron says the roasted soy they use has 38-40% protein while the next best protein source, peas, has 20-22% if conventional, and  18-20% if organic. Problem is, much more than 15% peas in the ration doesn’t agree with the chickens’ tummies, and makes them sick. Another feed element that helps is alfalfa meal at 18% protein, also offering a greenness to the flavor of the meats. It currently comprises 12% of the ration. But the challenge remains: how to get birds to put on meat fast, with the use of local feed. I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked that Ron knew all this stuff off the top of his head, you might too if you had to feed 8000 lbs of it a day to your birds.

One of the many new frontiers for Sunworks Farm is a brand new value-add facility where they’ll capture current waste products [chicken livers, wing  tips, etc] into patés, stocks, and other prepared foods on a large scale. I love the idea – more locally produced organic products, they can reduce waste from the animals the already produce, and it creates a new revenue stream for them in the value-add game. They also have a new facility with giant drum composters to handle waste they generate, turning it into healthful-for-the-land compost, and continue to build innovative facilities as practicality requires. It’s an exciting time in the world of Sunworks Farm, and they’ll be a key player to watch as the regional, ethical, and artisan food industry moves forward.

10 Responses

  1. bruce king says:

    It’s interesting to hear this guy talk about his operation to a point, but the proof is in the pudding. Looking at the turkey pens behind him, I see no grass under the turkeys feet at the time of the video, and no grass to the left, presumably where the pen came from. To me, as a boots-on-the-ground farmer, that means he’s moving these turkey pens infrequently, less so than he should in my opinion. If you want to claim pastured, you have to move them enough so that they have access to green stuff constantly, otherwise the birds are standing on bare dirt and compacted manure, which isn’t really the point. By being outside he doesn’t have to control ammonia, which means he’s saving on wood chips per his operational description.

    His barn operations are pretty standard; with the feed offered being the biggest difference between a conventional operation and his operation. He might have more space per bird than some conventional operations, but I’m guessing that he has less than others. there is no standard of square footage per bird that all farms follow, so saying he has more is a bit of a stretch, for me at least. That said, all of the animals looked in good shape in the buildings.

    And I would have loved to see the process of moving any of his animal pens — he says he moves the pig pens twice a day. Let’s see the actual move as we did with the pig pens on a previous video.

    The laying hens did have grass under their feet, but he didn’t talk about how often he moves their pens or what the process is to do that. Without the footage of the actual operations this interview could have been done in an office somewhere, or I could have been listening to it on the radio. Being on the farm didn’t add much value to the content without the operational footage, for me.

    Summary: Interesting, but I’d like to see the actual operations and animal conditions for each type of animal produced. Just the guy talking doesn’t do it for me.

  2. bebdonald chalmers says:

    Bravo, thanks for posting this, i think creating transparency in local agriculture is a very important.

  3. Well, I have read what you have written and the comment above. Now I am going to watch the video, but before that must add: YOU HAVE DONE IT. You have started a very meaningful conversation about who produces our food and how they do it. Bruce King has read, listened, thought, and is now questioning. Perfect. Maybe on trip two, you can provide Bruce with what he wants to see, but, more importantly, Bruce is engaged. So am I. So, I will comment again after the video. I cannot wait to see it.
    :)
    Valerie

  4. What an intense interview. Very informative and eye opening. I have been buying from him since 2000, I think… all eggs and chicken and then turkeys… and some other items. Their carcases make incredible and real chicken broth. They are great to work with. Did you ask about corn as a feed for chickens? I definitely noticed the specific information about soy, then peas, then alfalfa… etc. But, am wondering why throughout the entire Eastern Block the feed is corn.,, or, the “best” feed is corn. I am curious.
    Excellent information, Kevin. I love your project.
    V alerie

  5. Kevin says:

    Bruce – I’m pretty confident they move the birds daily. They move the pens with a tractor, which he did talk about in footage that was cut. He also mentioned a few times that the birds were scheduled to be moved, but were having trouble with some machinery so were behind schedule. All that said, the condition of the post-bird-ground certainly made me think about the density of birds in the pens, but I was also surprised how much impact the pigs at Nature’s Green Acres had in only 12 hrs on a piece of ground. This topic is ripe for discussion, I feel.

    I completely agree that having operational footage – or perhaps simply ‘seeing the condition of the animals and their environment’ is a key value piece to what I’m trying to do. But in this case, and less so in others, farms are diversifying such that often not all of their products are raised by them. I couldn’t shoot pork pens, as they simply weren’t on that piece of land. To capture their product line would have required a drive around a substantial part of our province. I’ve started writing a piece on consumer perception relative to this issue, as I think it’s a very powerful one. I get the economic justification of this on the farming end – I’m just not sure the consumer is aware of how this works, and I think they should. I knew part of the content [interview vs. farm footage] would compromise the ‘watchability’ of the edit, but felt the information about where the animals Sunworks raises come from critical to their consumers.

    I really appreciate your comment.

    BC – thanks for the feedback, glad you appreciate it!
    Valerie – I’m not sure the provincial tour required to satisfy Bruce or myself would be feasible, as it would essentially require interviews with 5 or so farms, just to cover 1!! Great question about the corn, I’ll ask next time in front of a poultry producer. Ron gave me a couple chickens and the one I’ve cooked was indeed fantastic. Tasty, thoughtful towards ethics, local, and trying to achieve scale to have a positive impact on environment and health – pretty compelling reasons to buy their poultry when it comes right down to it.

  6. Jered Serben says:

    Hello Kevin,

    I watched Sunworks video, and thought it was amazing! Ron really has the experience and the reality of farming on a large scale. When I looked around his farm on the video, I saw he did things right.

    His farm brought back a lot of memories for me in how we used to farm. I mean, what you saw, when you came out for our interview is not the same farm from years ago. I wish I would have showed you an Ariel photo of the operation. Barns were clean, no junk around, grass was all cut, the barns weren’t falling apart! It was a true clean operation, just not a right operation. Now that I look back on how we did things, we could have easily created an organic farm. Our two older barns have 4×8 foot pens with straw bedding, where the sow easily turned freely in her pen, We didn’t use antibiotics when the pigs were in these barns for the simple fact they were deep straw bedded. The barn I showed you was the “modern” style, which was to have more control. It failed miserably! Those crates for the sows, not only was torture, it was an enormous breeding ground for ecoli! That barn had more antibiotics running through it than I would like to admit.

    So what needed to change? I think if we wanted to change to organic at that time, or even now, we simply would have tore out the crates in the farrowing sections, filled the slurry pits and then capped with cement. Fill the floor with straw, feeders and water nipples. This would be the weaner section. These two rooms would be used once the piglets with the sow are 4-5 weeks old. The advantage of this would be having the same environment for the animal, clean, dry, less ammonia, disease and ecoli. The pigs would have freedom, able to use their rooting instincts! I very well could and probably would move the sows along with her piglets in to this section once the piglets were four to five weeks old. I would leave the sows with their piglets in this large co-ed pen for an additional four to six weeks until the piglets are starting to self wean and eating more feed than milk. From there the sows would go back out to the corral to get bred, the now 8-10 week pigs would be transferred outside to movable pasture pens outside. The barn cleaned, disinfected and ready for the next batch. Now, this all sounds great and very do able, so tell me this………….Where is the market? Where can I sell my end product? Is there an Organic killing plant begging for Organic hogs? I wish! I just can’t put all my time and money in to such a good product with out a market, a market that would take everything I produce, with out ever saying no, rather begging for more!

    Like I said, I love what you have done with this series, It is a real eye opener for everyone including me. We are in the middle of more changes! Although I know my pork is raised free range, with very little maintenance, I don’t like that they are on black ground. It always starts off green, but gets eaten and rooted up quickly. Even though we rotate our pens and the pigs are happy, in a dryer year, the pens will be nothing but dust. Not really prime growing or health conditions for an animal. In dry, dusty conditions we just may get caught with Haemophilus pneumonia, necrotic Rhinitis or other diseases. We didn’t have a problem with our gestating sows in these pens because they were older and not as susceptible. This would be a huge blow to our operation. We are now studying different style pasture pens to be on grass or grain or from grass to grain from the age of 8-10 weeks.

    We are also trying to configure a better, easier pasture pens for poultry. I really like the style Sunworks farms has. Easier to maintain, feed and water. The problem being the cost. I haven’t figured out how many birds need to be produced in each pen in order to pay it off within 3 years. We are also trying to figure out how to market properly. As Ron said, we may be making money, but we aren’t making a living. I don’t see a major problem producing 20, 30 or 40 thousand birds in a year with the right tools. I do see a problem getting rid of them. I remember telling you, it’s not producing the animal that is a challenge to me, it’s selling them at the end. This is where my experience lacks because for as long as anyone can remember, there have always been marketing boards taking care of that for us. Now that it is on our plate, marketing is the absolute hardest thing I have faced in my life. Plus, killing plants, stores, ect. Just don’t want to deal with a small operator. What real advantage do they have dealing with me? They want volume, big producers(like Sunworks) where they can see a continuous profit year round, not just for two months out of the year. It’s a real catch 22. What do we do? Go forward, risking everything, to build a large production to attract bigger buyers but possibly not and lose everything, or continue the way we are, working off farm to make ends meet and pound away at getting bigger in production hoping that at the end we can attract big buyers and finally end the struggle?

    I guess it all comes with baby steps, which is tough to do when you know where you want to be and know that at one time you were there. I wish there were organic slaughter houses begging for pork at a good price because it wouldn’t take me long to change a few things and produce for them. For now, the learning curve is steep. I will use my own idea’s as well as Julia’s and others as we go along pounding away trying to make a living at this crazy disease they call farming:)

    Thanks so much for introducing your self to us, for having a real passion for real food and for connecting all of us with more people interested in local foods. If you ever want to purchase a side or a whole pig give me a call, I can arrange that for you. I am not sure if you have cut a hog for fall or not, but if you want one let me know. I charge a $1.30/lb on the rail plus $12 transportation to the kill plant. Usually my pigs are 190-210lbs on the rail.

    Thanks Kevin,

    Jered Serben
    Owner – Serben Free Range
    780-656-5244
    http://www.serbenfreerange.com

  7. ron hamilton says:

    I want to thank Kevin for coming out to the farm and seeing how we raise our animals and as I mentioned to him when he came out if he does this for a couple of years he will be the most knowledgeable person in the Edmonton area on how local food is produced and raised.

    We move our birds everyday so that they always have fresh grass. In the interview I was standing at the back of the shelters. We have a 40 horse power tractor with a hook on the 3 point hitch and we move our chicken shelters ahead 24 feet every day. We have designed this not to be a chore so that when it is not a chore it is done everyday. It takes about 45 minutes to move all of the chicken shelters each day. The reason why we move them 24 feet ahead is so that we do not run over any of the birds with the end of the range. The shelters are 48 ft long by 15 ft wide. We have limited land space and we move them from one end of the quarter section to the other each year. This is another reason why they are only moved 24 feet. Thus they are given 24 feet of green grass every day. The most a portion of the shelters/ranges will be on the same piece of land is 48 hrs.

    Our farm is certified by the BC SPCA and Certified Organic. Both of these programs have protocols covering the square footage that is required for each broiler. We have to have so many kgs per square meters at full growth – with our weight of bird it works out to about 1.5 square feet per bird. There are no conventional producers that have this light density. We could go into a system where the birds run free but because of predators and for humane reasons we have to keep them away from the skunks, foxes, coyotes, owls, hawks, etc.

    Our pigs are raised on another piece of land that is part of our farm but is located 2 miles South of the home location. Kevin unfortunately did not have time to go and see the pigs but they are raised in the same manner as our broilers and our layers. The pigs are moved every day – if not twice a day depending on how big they are and how much they are rooting.

    Kevin only has so much time to film each family farm and only limited amount of tape he can put on the site. We have our farm field day every Labour Day Monday where guests are welcome to come and see in person how we raise our birds and animals in summer and winter production. We don’t change anything for that day – we don’t hide anything – there is no part of the farm that isn’t seen by our guests – this year we had one of the best Family Farm Days we have ever had with over 120 people visiting us from as far away as Calgary. The questions were outstanding and they would have verified that Kevin’s video showed the real thing.

    Corn is very abundant in the East and is subsidized in the US. The grains that are mostly grown in the East are corn and soybeans so that is what is used in chicken rations in the Eastern parts of Canada and the US. We don’t use corn in our ration because it is low in protein, not local and our nutritionist advises that the best ration for poultry includes a diversity of small grains. Wheat is abundant here so it is our main grain of choice. The corn changes the color of the birds fat but doesn’t necessarily make a noticeable change in the flavor.

    Thanks
    Ron

  8. Kevin says:

    Jered – I really appreciate your openness, honesty, and drive to constantly be doing things better. I’ve replied to this via email, so we’ll leave it at that!

    Ron – I really appreciate the time you offered me on your farm, and have nothing but respect for what you and Sheila are doing. Thanks for commenting on the video, and providing some additional information and feedback. You’re right, there’s only so much I can cram into this online format, and a full discussion of practices and philosophy warrants hours of content, not 12 minutes.

  9. bruce king says:

    Ron, thanks for clarifying the turkey pen footage. My concern is that the birds have access to green every day, and your 24′ moves do that.

    I’ll contrast that to “free range” operations in the US that cut a door into the side of a confinement barn and open it during the day. Chickens don’t like to leave the flock, food or water, so while they are theoretically “free range” they are in reality identical to the completely enclosed barn birds. Same birds, same feed, same operation. I consider the US “free range” label to be misleading.

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