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Women’s Ag Conference Attendees Learn from PA Farm Tour

Posted: December 6, 2011

Lancaster Farming 12/3/2011 10:00 AM By Stephanie Beeman Central Pa. Correspondent

REEDSVILLE, Pa. — On Monday, Nov. 7, attendees at the Women in Sustainable Agriculture Conference gathered new ideas for value-added products on a tour of Kishacoquillas Valley farms, Reedsville, Pa. The Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network (PA-WAgN) hosted the annual conference to facilitate networking opportunities for women interested in sustainable agriculture practices.

The tour included stops at four farms in Belleville, Pa. The farms visited include Byler’s Goat Dairy, Zook’s Orchard, The Josie and Melinda Zook Farm and the Hameau Farm in the Big Valley. The value-added products and methods utilized on each farm were diverse and presented a variety of potential new perspectives for the women on the tour.

James and Darla Byler live on a fourth-generation farm where the previous three generations had milked cows. In 2008, James left his career in the forest industry and entered the dairy goat business. Over the past three years, the Bylers have built a herd of 46 milking goats, mainly Alpine breeds.

In the processing plant adjacent to the milking parlor, James Byler described the processes used to add value to fluid goat’s milk by producing aged cheeses, cheese curds, chevre, kefir and drinkable yogurt. The Bylers market their cheeses, yogurts and milk (raw and pasteurized) directly to consumers from the farm. Many of the products are also sold at local farmers markets and grocery stores, including Wegmans in State College, Pa.

Goats are seasonal breeders that do not produce milk throughout the entire year. This poses a resource issue for the Bylers in meeting customer demand for their products. So the family is beginning to experiment with a lighting system that will simulate the daylight hours of the fall breeding season. This program will allow the Bylers to manage the breeding system of the herd to ensure a yearlong supply of milk.

“It’s an awful lot of work,” Byler said. “But the goats are sociable and easy to handle.”

Amos and Rachel Zook of Zook’s Orchard market their produce directly from their farm and a nearby farmers market. They grow a large variety of fruit including apricots, blueberries, plums, peaches and apples. Heirloom and hybrid varieties grow in the orchard. Their range of varieties draws customers looking for familiar and unique fruits.

Fall is a busy season for the Zooks as they pick the apple harvest. The harvest requires the labor of seven employees: six picking the fruit and one transferring the fruit from the orchard to the stand. Their fresh apples sell as fast as they can be picked.

Further processing of the Zook’s fruits transforms excess yield into unpasteurized cider to gain an additional marketable product. In the cider shed, an antique hydraulic cider press squeezes the juice from apples to make gallons of cider each fall for them to sell.

Just down the road from Zook’s Orchard, Josie and Melinda Zook produce a diverse assortment of agricultural products, including milk and vegetables. The vegetables provide the main source of income through on-farm sales to customers seeking fresh food. The staple products of their vegetable business are strawberries and potatoes.

One of the buildings on the Zook vegetable farm houses a unique icehouse with two-foot thick insulated walls. Each winter, tarps are laid out in the yard to collect snow and rain. Once frozen, chain saws are used to cut the ice into blocks to fill the icehouse. The collected ice lasts through the summer and aids in cooling their cantaloupes, watermelons and milk.

The Zooks’ icehouse provides a low-cost method that achieves good management practices while complementing the Zooks conservative lifestyle.

The ingenuity displayed at the tour sites inspired many of the conference attendees. Victoria Ligon, Havre De Grace, Md., has an ambitious business plan to start a sustainable homestead in partnership with her husband, Markley. Their 5-year plan is to farm full-time and be supported by the sale of a variety of their vegetables, eggs and meats. They want to focus on pasture-raised meat including beef, pork, goat, duck and chicken.

Ligon found it interesting to see the variety of options that are possible when seeking to add value to farm products. She specifically enjoyed the stop at Byler’s Goat Dairy.

“I took a lot of snippets from each person but (the Bylers) showed me how easy it can be,” said Ligon. “(James) made it seem much easier than I had made it in my mind. It’s only been two years and he already has such a diversified product list.”

The Bylers’ story was familiar to many women on the tour including Stacy Atkinson of Lamar, S.C. Atkinson has a goat dairy in addition to her heritage turkeys and chickens.

“I sell milk, frozen custard, cheese, soaps and anything I can add value to,” Atkinson said.

Audrey Gay Rodgers of the Hameau Farm in the Big Valley takes an approach similar to Atkinson’s in managing her business.

She raises Barred Rock chickens, pigs, Jacob sheep, and Ayrshire and Scottish Highland cattle using methods such as pasture grazing. Rodgers loves the rural lifestyle but her passion is for the all-girls summer camp she has been running for 17 years.

Nearly two decades ago, Rodgers took a job at a local winery. “I wanted to learn if it was possible to bring people to the Big Valley and if so, how,” said Rodgers. “I found that it was possible.”

She put her new knowledge and ideas to work building the summer camp that hosts girls, ages 8-14. Each summer there are three sessions of camp lasting two weeks in duration. Approximately 30 girls attend each session and live in cabins located in a hollow near the main house.

The camp provides opportunities for the girls to learn about agriculture through participation in daily farm chores. Also during the two weeks, the girls work to train their chosen animal for a judged show similar to a county fair. The summer camp sessions culminate in the farm show.

An annual retreat for authors, painters and other artists also brings more visitors to the Hameau Farm.

“Artists come to the farm because it is safe, with many views,” Rodgers said. The Hameau Farm nestles at the base of the Jacks Mountain surrounded by rolling hills.

Future plans to add value to the products of Hameau Farm include cheesemaking, raw milk and a commercial kitchen.

“It’s an evolving farm,” Rodgers said.