March 20, 2015

Farm of the Month: The FARM Institute

The FARM Institute is a non-profit teaching farm that has been renting the historic Katama Farm from the town of Edgartown since 2005. They run programs for every age: from 2 year-olds through adults. In the summer they have farm camp and day programs; in the off-season they invite island students to visit the farm on field trips. It is a priority to get their produce into the school cafeterias whenever possible. This month they donated 48 dozen eggs to the schools for lunch and Harvest of the Month tastings.

We talked last fall with Julie Scott, former farm manager at The FARM Institute, to get her perspective on raising chicks and eggs. What is the process of raising chickens, from chick to egg? We get our chicks from a hatchery, normally from the Midwest. We get them as day old chicks, and they come in the mail! We have what is called a brooder- an insulated area that we can keep warm and really control the temperature, so the chicks can stay nice and warm. They like it at about 96 degrees for at least three weeks, and then we can slowly decrease the temperature as we see fit. We have heat lamps hanging, so if they’re cold, they’ll all be huddled under the lamp, and that means we need to make it a little warmer. If they’re too hot, they’ll all be scattered really far away, so we really watch the birds to make sure that they are comfortable. Depending on the time of year, they could stay in the brooder anywhere from six weeks or longer, if it is the dead of winter. Then we move them to a stall in the barn, which is still protected but not heated, and when they are fully feathered and ready, they move out to our egg mobiles - our henhouses with wheels - and they live free-range out in the field alongside either the sheep or the cows, which we think helps with predators. It takes about four months, if you’re lucky, to get an egg, but usually it takes about six. The hatcheries only have chicks available from March through November, so we usually get them August-November, so they’re ready to lay in spring and summer, when we have our markets.

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What are other important roles of the chickens on the farm, besides egg production? We love using the chickens to help us clean up after the other animals, so we keep them with the cows to help spread the cow’s manure. They make pretty big patties, and the chickens get in there and scratch it all up so it’s easier to absorb into the ground. We also use them for prepping our garden. We put them in an area where we want to plant, and the chickens scratch it up and eat all the weeds and bugs that are there and leave it in a much better state to work with. For us, as a teaching farm, the chickens are a great educational tool for getting kids really up-close and hands on with animals. So many kids don’t have any clue about eggs and where they come from, like how the chicken has to lay that for you, so we like to have chickens around for the educational opportunity.

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Why do you love your job as a farmer? I like doing what I do because every day is so different, and I like the controlled chaos of it. I like the idea of knowing where my food is coming from, and get really excited talking to people who have no idea. It’s really great being able to share with people through an educational farm. It keeps you on your toes. There are really hard days to farming, too. Nobody likes to deal with hard or sad things, but that’s part of it. It just feels like a natural thing for me to do. What is your favorite way to enjoy eggs? I actually don’t like eggs! But my son has just really started eating solid foods, and he loves eggs. So I love being able to raise the chicken, bring the egg home, cook it for him, and have him enjoy it, is amazing, because it’s something I produced.

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