(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — There’s just something about watching a group of pigs root through their feed. It’s simultaneously adorable, entertaining, and off-putting. The feed sticks to their snouts, and when they look up, you’re sure they’re smiling and proud of the messes they’re making of themselves. Rick and Danielle Copley of Copley’s Fresh Start Farm explain their operations as the pigs eat, their hooves wet from the mud. At higher ground, Nigerian dwarf goats bleat.
It’s a sunny day on the Waterford farm. The pigs, the goats, the laying chickens and the meat chickens all seem happy to be on the farm with the Copleys.
“We say, ‘One bad day’ — they live their very best lives, and then their one bad day is butcher day, market day,” Danielle Copley says.
On the farm, it’s a bucolic scene. Idyllic even. Here, the headlines are a distant situation.
Away from the farm, food prices are soaring. Away from the farm, there’s a baby formula shortage. Away from the farm, fuel prices are high and inching higher seemingly every day. That’s a present-day realty, not the beginning of some dystopian novel.
It’s not an exaggeration. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), food at home prices have risen some 10.8% over the past 12 months — the largest increase in about 42 years. Meat, poultry, fish and egg prices have risen 14.3%. Pallets of baby formula are being shipped to the US and distributed by the federal government. According to the BLS, gas prices nationwide were averaging about $4.27 per gallon in April (it was about $2.83 a gallon just a year ago).
The why of it all is well hypothesized and documented. First, the COVID-19 pandemic created gaps in the workforce which led to supply chain issues, it also slowed shipping, so exported and imported goods couldn’t be had. While the goods weren’t available, people still wanted and needed them, so the nation saw things like new automobile unavailability (blamed on computer chip availability issues) and used cars skyrocketing in price due to the simple economic principle of “supply and demand.” Recalls on baby formula have crippled the national supply, yet babies who are already weaned from their mothers continue to need nourishment. And record fuel prices allegedly are a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine impacting the world’s petroleum supply (also wheat).
“What does prosperity really look like?”
When the pandemic first began and shortages and limits were prevalent on products in grocery stores, people throughout the country started to look locally to fill those gaps. First came the limits on the number of eggs each customer could purchase, then the increasing prices of chicken wings due to a supply shortage — those moments sent Erie residents to Copley’s Fresh Start Farm in Waterford for their fresh eggs and chicken. Limits on how many gallons of milk each customer could purchase sent people to 86 Acres in Saegertown for its raw milk. Beef prices, availability issues, and panic buying saw local customers reaching out to Deer Run Acres in Edinboro for its beef.
Many of those new customers were seeking products they couldn’t find, hoping to secure their grocery staples where the superstores had come up short. What they maybe didn’t realize was they actually were shortening the supply chain. With ongoing shortages and international supply complications ongoing, shortening the supply chain could increase a family’s food security, at least for staples like meat and dairy. And the local products may be healthier.
“(Customers are saying) ‘Hey, I want to close my loop. I want to get something closer. I want to provide for my family. I want to be prepared for what’s coming,’” said Caleb Schenk, owner of Deer Run Acres. “I’ve been saying this the whole time I’ve had this farm, that our system in America — though incredibly efficient — is fragile… Is efficiency really necessarily the best way?”
Instead of buying cuts of beef from cows that were raised elsewhere (Texas, Nebraska and Kansas are the leading states for the industry, according to a USDA factsheet published Jan. 29, 2021), slaughtered, packaged, and driven 890-plus miles (Omaha, Nebraska and Kansas City, Kansas) or even more than 1,200 miles (Dallas), then sat on a store shelf (often after being frozen) awaiting a consumer — they now were buying a cow directly from a farm in Erie County. At Deer Run Acres, consumers preorder their half or whole beef (Schenk can’t sell by the cut due to government regulations). When they preorder, they own that cow (or half cow). After it’s grown, it’s slaughtered prepared and packaged locally where the customer can pick it up as soon as it’s processed.
About 125 customers are buying cows or half cows from Deer Run Acres. He’s no longer taking orders for this season, he said.
“Sure, I’m a provider to some degree, but really my passion is providing prosperity,” Schenk said. “What does prosperity really look like for people? It certainly doesn’t look like food shortages.”
Just about every product can be found cheaper at a grocery store. The Copley’s suspected their prices were competitive with poultry raised in the same way sold at a grocery store, but that quality of poultry isn’t available in every grocery store. Certainly it’s all more expensive than the meat and dairy sold at any of the superstores. But Danielle Copley says it’s on consumers to set their own priorities.
“When everyone is working on their budget, some people will say, ‘It’s important to me to put quality, healthy food into my body because I know how that translates into my health, my children’s health, my family’s health,’” Copley said. “It’s the theory of pay the farmer, not the pharmacist.”
According to Rick Copley, pigs store vitamin D in their fat. At Copley’s Fresh Start Farm, the pigs roam wooded acres, they have an unnamed creek they can use, they forage as if they’re wild boars. They absorb sunlight (vitamin D).
Their laying chickens roam, and their meat chickens are pasture raised in chicken tractors (6 foot by 12 foot open air structures with a canopy). The meat chickens are moved twice each day for a fresh patch of pasture. In moving the chicken tractors, the birds get fresh food and ground, and the ground gets respite from the agricultural traffic. The birds get nourishment from the ground, and the ground is fertilized by the birds.
“It’s the cycle of regenerative farming, and it’s just amazing,” Danielle Copley said.
Schenk is passionate about regenerative farming. He focuses on how to improve the quality of the land through agriculture.
“It’s super easy to see a cow, but what about the earthworms and all of the other animals and beings that are here — shouldn’t we respect those too?” Schenk said. “Thankfully, soil is very forgiving and it will heal itself when given time. But we can’t expect to just keep taking and taking and taking from the ground and never put something back in, and then expect your deposits of what you took to continue feeding you forever.”
The cows at Deer Run Acres are moved often, from pasture to pasture. They don’t have time to destroy the land while they’re using the land for nourishment. They, like the Copley chickens, ideally will take from the land what they need, leave what the land needs, and move along.
At 86 Acres, Chris Hemlock raises dairy cows, beef cows and pigs. They rotate the cows (Jerseys, milking shorthorns, guernseys, fleckviehs and New Zealand friesians) between pastures. He calls it “rotational grazing.” When the land needs manure, he adds manure. When it needs minerals, he adds minerals.
“We’re trying to mimic what the bison were doing here on North America before Europeans got here,” Hemlock said. They’re adding native grasses back into the pastures for the cows.
Hemlock’s niche is raw milk — that’s unpasteurized milk (they also make a popular yogurt that’s sold in a few select local markets). When the milk is harvested from the dairy cows, it’s chilled within 20 minutes. People come to 86 Acres to buy the milk directly from the Hemlocks. The cows at 86 Acres are grass fed, which the Hemlocks say results in a “more digestible” milk.
All three farms believed their products were healthier and have health benefits. Whether it’s healthier or unhealthier, they all believed they had products that were superior to anything found in the major grocery stores.
Back to the cost — the prices are higher for the local products. And to get the beef from Deer Run Acres, raw milk from 86 Acres, or the fresh chicken from Copley Farms, a consumer will need to make an extra trip, either to the farm itself or to one of the few local markets that sell their products. That’s asking a lot from consumers.
“There’s a lot of things that are just out of our control which makes us feel like there’s nothing we can do to change it,” Schenk said. “But what part of us and my own things is leading us to these things? Obviously, if we’re talking free market, people buy from what they want, and what goods and services gives them the best thing. And right now, we want what is most convenient.”
What Schenk suggests is a gradual investment in local farmers by consumers. If everyone in Erie County spent just $10 per month on local farm goods, that would equate to more than $32.6 million going into local farms every year.
And where do the dollars go when they’re spent locally? Schenk says he would invest the money back into growing animals. He’s purchased some $20,000 in wire fencing alone, $6,000 in water points, tens of thousands on machinery — in total he estimates he’s invested some $500,000 into his operation.
The Copleys shop at the Erie Crawford Co-Op in Union City, they buy their minerals from a Waterford business, they get their grain from local farmers. Their chicks come from further away, but the chicks still come from Pennsylvania.
“As much as we’re pushing local, we do as much as we can from a business aspect as locally as we can as well. We know that if we’re going to be saying it, we better be doing it,” Rick Copley said.
In fact, Copley Fresh Start Farm is “PA Preferred” certified, meaning at least 75% of the product and production is of Pennsylvania.
Chris Hemlock said he buys his grain from a neighbor, and he trades milk for eggs. And now, Hemlock’s customers purchase grain from his local supplier.
So, yes, it costs more, but much of the money is staying here.
And Schenk noted that consumers could be paying just as much for their mass-produced beef from the supermarket because taxes are collected and used to fund subsidies for large agriculture.
But if you are spending more, are you getting more?
“It looks like you’re spending more money on this, but what are the benefits?… Make a list — how many benefits are there? The local economy, your family’s health, supporting local farmers, securing your food chain,” Danielle Copley said. “The past three or four years, we have news people call us anytime there’s a (national) shortage… Bottom line, we (Erie County) don’t have a chicken wing shortage. We have chicken wings. Our chickens have wings. We’re growing them, we’re processing them, and we’re selling them. There are chicken wings in your figurative backyard.”
The Hemlocks at 86 Acres are encouraged by what they’ve seen. The increased interest in local farms that was spurred by the pandemic and further encouraged by supply issues has led to growth in their business. More often than not, they’re selling out of their yogurt. If they’re not coming in because of food chain issues, they’re coming to 86 Acres because they want to experience a farm, or they want to have a product they haven’t had since they were children. Either way, they have a new-found interest in it all.
“It’s pretty neat to see the growing number of people concerned about their food,” Hemlock said.
As the interest increases, the demand increases. That’s when the farmers step up and expand their production, the Copleys explained. When the current farmers can’t meet the demand, new farmers start up and begin filling in the gaps.
“If consumers show a demand for that, farmers will step up and do their very best, and new farmers will step in,” Danielle Copley said.
Supply and demand. Simple, right? Not so quick, Schenk said. While the people of Erie County could, in theory, shorten their supply chain and buy those food staples locally, at some point — not too far along — the demand could outpace the supply. Already, Deer Run Acres is done taking orders for the season. And though more farmers may step up and create beef operations in Erie County, it all hits a bottleneck when it’s time to process the meat.
Beef that’s individually packaged in the U.S. must go through a USDA inspected slaughtering facility. In Erie County, the current capacity (a single facility in Girard, according to a USDA map) only allows for about 10 beef to be processed each week, Schenk said. A New York Times piece, “The Food Chain’s Weakest Link: Slaughterhouses” published in April 2020 noted there are only “about 800 federally inspected slaughterhouses” that process the billions of pounds of beef we consume throughout the country. That article also notes that 50 plants do nearly 98% of the work.
For Schenk that bottleneck can be circumnavigated if he sells by the whole or the half cow to an individual through “custom slaughter,” but it also means he can’t sell prepackaged cuts at grocery stores.
All three farms — Deer Run Acres, Copley Fresh Start Farm, and 86 Acres — lamented government red tape that has hampered their operations.
Hemlock also sells beef at 86 Acres and is well aware of the same butchering issues.
“We’re seeing a number of local butcher shops opening around here, but our main supply chain for grocery stores is a limited number of large butchering facilities, and we’ve already seen what happens with that,” Hemlock said. “Having regional or more local butchering places would be a smart idea. That would go for milk, produce — whatever.”
The Copleys have a license to process, package, and sell their chickens on site. They have a processing room replete with a poultry scalder, a poultry plucker, an eviscerator, and everything else that goes into processing the birds before consumption. While they can do all of that with chickens, they can’t do the same with the pigs they raise. Regulations say they must send the pigs to a processing facility.
Somehow 86 Acres can package and sell its yogurt at stores, but it only has an on-premises license to sell its raw milk to consumers.
But if Erie County consumers invest in Erie County farmers, it could spur somebody or some group to open more USDA-approved slaughter facilities. And more slaughter facilities would theoretically ease the bottleneck. But as it stands today, “Erie County can’t feed Erie County,” Schenk said.
All three farmers also believed a change is possible if consumers continue to focus their interest locally.
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“How could I secure (my family’s) food chain? There is food in the backyard of Erie County — there’s beef, there’s pork, there’s eggs, there’s milk, there’s chicken, there’s turkeys, there’s produce,” Danielle Copley said. “And if you’re eating a nourishing diet, you don’t need all the packaged food.”