College Farms are training grounds for students who want to learn about farm management, from small organic operations, to large industrial farms. C.J. Walke is the manager of Peggy Rockefeller Farms, part of The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. He shares with us the history of the farm and specifics of its poultry program.
Background of the Current Farm
Peggy Rockefeller Farms (PRF) is a small scale, diverse livestock operation located in Bar Harbor, Maine, owned and operated by the College of the Atlantic, a school with 350 students and a strong focus on the relationship between humans and the environment. A farm is an ideal location to study human ecology, focusing on the connections between people and food – how and who produces food, different methods of production and food gets from fields to our plates. Students are involved in nearly every aspect of the operation at “Peggy”, as they affectionately refer to the farm.
The farm itself is 125 acres of farmland and approximately two-thirds of the property is forest and wetlands. PRF works with both the Acadia National Park and the US Geological Survey to maintain the land. In addition to grass-based beef and lamb, PRF has certified organic, pastured broilers and turkeys as well as a flock of laying hens. All of these enterprises show students the cycle of farm to plate.
Working with Students
As a college farm, we focus on education during every step of the farming process, but also rely on student labor to get the regular work of the farm accomplished. I usually have 4 or 5 students that work with me on the farm during the academic terms (COA holds three 10-week academic terms, compared to the typically two semesters) and they work between 8 and 10 hours per week, depending on their work study financial aid award.
The main challenge is that each student only works two 4-hour shifts per week, so the continuity can be lost during the days a student is not on the farm. The assumption is that more student workers would help fill in the labor gaps, and I have employed more students per term in the past, but the increased management of work schedules, academic schedules, field trips, conferences, sick days and the student stress around the last few weeks of the academic term, does not balance out to a more productive student staff.
So, in recent years I have focused on a farm crew of just four or five committed students, who are hard workers, eager to learn and willing to challenge themselves with the physical labor and emotional stress required to run a small-scale, diverse livestock farm operation. The farm could not operate at its current level without these devoted farm students and their positive energy and attitudes truly make our small college farm what it is today.
How We Got Started with Broilers
The farm was donated to College of the Atlantic (COA) in 2010, after sitting fallow for close to a decade and having previously been a cattle operation. The fields and pastures were quite overgrown, fence lines were buried in the duff and most of the infrastructure was in rough shape. The cattle and sheep programs in place at another COA farm were in line to be added at PRF, but a lot of work and improvements were needed first. However, poultry operations were started quite quickly.
We started the first year (2014) with 100 broilers, a few lengths of electronet fencing and a solar charger. Chicks were purchased in two batches of 50 that were a couple weeks apart. After brooding them in the corner of the barn for a few weeks, we moved them onto pasture in a couple make-shift chicken tractors that have since been refined. At about 8 weeks of age, we slaughtered and processed the birds at a nearby organic farm, Mandala Farm, that is owned and farmed by two COA graduates.
In 2015 and again in 2016 we raised 450 broilers, increased the fleet of chicken tractors that were still fluctuating in design, added more moveable fencing and a second solar charger. For these two years, we worked on a schedule of receiving chicks in batches of 50, every week for 9 weeks, starting with the first chicks in early May and processing the last of the broilers in mid- to late-September.
On Thursday mornings, we loaded up 50 broilers and traveled about 45 minutes to Mandala Farm, where they processed their own weekly batch of broilers, and then ours. Mandala had their own crew for processing and I usually had two COA students working with me, so we would all work together though all the steps and typically be cleaned up, birds packed in coolers and ready to head back to the farm by noon.
Keeping It Legal
The State of Maine allows three different levels of exemption from continuous inspection for on-farm poultry processing: a less than 1,000 bird exemption, a less than 20,000 bird exemption and a small enterprise exemption. Mandala Farm had been operating under the less than 20,000 bird exemption for several years, which allows the production of up to 19,999 birds in year, but the birds must be grown on the registered farm.
In order to process our broilers legally, Mandala Farm changed their registration to the small enterprise exemption, which is similar to the 20,000 bird exemption but allows the registered farm to buy in and process birds from other farms. So technically, we sold our birds to Mandala Farm for processing, then bought them back for resale. This meant the birds were legally labelled for sale and we could use them in COA’s dining program and cafeteria. The only catch was they were labelled as a Mandala Farm product and couldn’t have the Peggy Farm name on them, which was fine for use at COA because everyone knew they were our birds. When we would sell some birds off-farm and are careful to explain the labeling, giving credit to our student workers and Mandala Farm.
Bringing on the Turkeys
In 2016, we brought on 100 broad-breasted white turkey poults in mid-July to raise for the next four months and slaughter the weekend before Thanksgiving for the fresh, organic turkey market. We ran the turkeys like the broilers: in larger moveable shelters and with a lot more electronet fence and pasture. We processed the birds at Mandala Farm and sold about 25 turkeys fresh off the farm. The remainder were sold through a nearby general store. They used a sign-up sheet for customers, and when the turkeys were ready, handled the distribution from their walk-in coolers.
Staying at Home
By 2017, we began looking at what it would take to process our birds on the farm and asked an inspector from the State come out and provide guidance. The farm had an existing, small building with heat and water, but would need a good deal of work to get up to regulations for processing. Fall of 2017, we gutted the back room of the building, about a 12” x 16’ space. We re-insulated and sheathed the walls with ½-inch CDX plywood and covered them with glassboard. We also painted the ceiling with semi-gloss paint and installing stainless sinks and work surfaces.
By early fall of 2017, we were all set up and had our less-than-1,000-bird-exemption registration from the State. We processed 100 broilers in the space and were able to package them with our own label–that was rather unattractive but legal–and it felt great to be processing our birds on the farm. That November, we processed 116 organic turkeys on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, which really put the little facility to the test. With our Mandala Farm friends and a handful of COA students, we finished just after dark and delivered close to 100 turkeys to the local general store. The remaining birds were refrigerated on the farm for our neighbor customers.
Refining the Process
After the two seasons of growing 450 broilers, we realized that production number was a little high for our local markets. As a college farm, we have been sensitive to the operations of other local farms and have not wanted to compete in local markets. Our marketing has been a mixture of collaboration with other local farms, filling in supply gaps at odd times of the season and selling by word of mouth from the farm, all in addition to the “sales” that occur with COA’s dining services.
In 2017, we cut back to 350 broilers per year, which is where our current broiler production stands and seems steady. However, our turkey numbers have fluctuated. The 2017 year of 116 processed turkeys was pretty intense for our small farm, especially with a very wet fall and a late October storm with high winds that blew a turkey tractor up into the air and across the field like a tumbleweed. I had to cram the exposed turkeys into the other shelters, cut the tarp roofs off the other shelters so they didn’t blow away during the rest of the storm and wait for morning to assess and rebuild.
In 2018, we raised only 25 turkeys, cutting out the local general store and limiting sales to neighbors and COA staff that had bought from us the previous years. However, that was too much of a cut back and I had to turn some previous customers away, so this year (2019), we will raise 50 turkeys. We also face some unique challenges as a college farm. COA work study students are the farm’s primary workforce, but the fall term ends the Friday before Thanksgiving and most students leave for a 6-week winter break. Available labor for the weekend before Thanksgiving is always uncertain.
Where We Are Today
For the 2019 season, we are steady with 350 Cornish Cross broilers and 50 Broad-Breasted White turkeys, and we’ll revive the market with the general store for half our turkey sales. Our broiler chick schedule is to receive 50 straight run chicks every other week from late April through mid-July, with processing beginning the second week of June and finishing up by mid-September.
In our brooder shed, we now utilize two brooder boxes with heat lamps and move chicks out into the field in their third week, and then clean and dry the brooder box before the next batch of chicks arrive. Previously on a weekly chick delivery schedule, we would have three brooder boxes running, so consolidating to two boxes saves on space, requires fewer feeders and waterers, as well as heat lamps and electricity.
This order schedule also reduces our chicken tractor numbers and fencing materials once the birds are out in the field, saving a bit on labor with fewer tractors and fencing to move. We process the broilers weekly, starting at the seventh week of life. We gather up the 25 biggest birds from that batch of 50 original chicks. Our finished whole bird product weights are in between 3.5 and 4 pounds on average for this first batch. The following week, we processed the remaining 25 birds from that batch, in their eighth week of life, and product weights are usually between 4 and 4.5 pounds on average.
I’ve explained how our turkey numbers have fluctuated over the years, which is mostly a reflection of the labor necessary to raise turkeys on pasture, in moveable shelters and with portable fencing, especially when the weather here on the coast of Maine typically turns very wet and cold for the last month before turkey slaughter.
The first two turkey years, we ordered poults for delivery in mid-July and raised them for four months. The averaged whole bird product weight of 20 pounds was too large for most of our customers. Last year, our poults arrived in mid-August and we raised them for just three months to have smaller finished weights, but 90% of the turkeys averaged 15 pounds, which meant we couldn’t meet the customer demands for larger 20 pound birds. So, this season we are splitting the difference with poults arriving the first week of August, hoping to meet the range of customer demands on finished bird weights.
C.J. Walke is Farm Manager for the College of the Atlantic’s (COA) Peggy Rockefeller Farm in Bar Harbor, Maine. He works with COA students to raise MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) certified organic lamb, broilers and turkeys, as well as grass-based beef, on the 125-acre farm that lies in an historically agricultural stretch of land on Mount Desert Island, Maine. C.J. has been working in Maine agriculture since the late 1990s and has experience with livestock, vegetables, nursery stock and dairy. He also writes a regular column titled “In the Orchard” for MOFGA’s quarterly newsletter, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.