Story by Leann Burke | Photos by Daniel Vasta
Local organic farmer Jerry Steckler, 58, herded chicks around his chicken house one April afternoon as he worked to build a larger enclosure for his flock of Cornish cross broilers. He’d purchased the chicks a couple of weeks earlier a few days after they hatched, and would spend the next month and a half raising them on a steady diet of grass and other organic feed before butchering them. That April day, the chicks were little puffs about the size of softballs and were nearly ready to take to the pasture. When it came time to butcher them a month later, they’d tripled in size.
Charmian still remembers when Jerry decided to switch from conventional farming to his organic grass-fed model. It was 1994, and Jerry attended a seminar sponsored by Purdue University on rotational grazing.
Something clicked in his mind, and he decided to convert his farm. The conversion took years, and involved phasing out his crops to create pastures and building miles of fencing to help manage the livestock. That was a lot of work, too, but afterward, it seemed like the livestock took less work.
With conventional farming, Charmian pointed out, farmers have to feed their livestock every day. With grass-fed, you just let the animals into the pasture and let them feed themselves. Then, a few hours later, you move them to a different area.
That doesn’t mean that organic, grass-fed farming is easy. There’s a lot of land management and ecosystem monitoring that goes into it. And you have to keep an eye on the animals for bloat, especially in early spring when there’s a lot of clover in the fields.
But as long as you can keep the system balanced, Jerry said, it works great.
“Nature takes care of itself,” Jerry said. “The design is there. [This farming] is the new, old way of thinking.”
Economically, Jerry said, it’s a “tough road to hoe.” A lot of government programs that aid farmers are geared toward conventional methods, so there’s not as much help out there for drought years or other hard years. A few times, Jerry said, he’s had to rely on grants to keep the farm going.
“I’ve just always taken it on faith that this will work out,” Jerry said. “And it has, one way or another.”
But Jerry is hopeful that economically, organic farming will become easier as more and more farmers latch onto the idea. He’s already seeing the trend shift as younger generations take over family farms and as consumers demand organic, healthier foods.