Turner Farms focuses on sustainability, connecting people with the land that feeds them – The Cincinnati Enquirer

turner-farms-focuses-on-sustainability,-connecting-people-with-the-land-that-feeds-them-–-the-cincinnati-enquirer

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INDIAN HILL – Danny Losekamp emerged from the forest like a firefighter emerging from a burning building, lugging the 1-day-old calf over his shoulder to safety.The newborn had been lying in the sun when he was spooked and began sprinting off into the distance, its young legs already quick.Losekamp, Turner Farm's livestock and pastures manager, ran toward the intermittent zapping of the pasture's electric fence to prevent the calf from getting struck. Five minutes later, he returned in dramatic fashion, 70-pound calf in tow.Calves have a directional instinct for their birthplace, and that's exactly where he was headed, Losekamp said. Soon, the calf was back in the shade, secure by its mother’s side.It was just another day at Turner Farm, an educational nonprofit in Indian Hill. But while animal drama is an everyday occurrence at Turner Farm, it's more well-known for its mission of sustainable agriculture.It’s not the hippie, modern, save the world one Meatless Monday at a time kind of sustainability some might expect, though. It’s much simpler than that.It's about recreating a natural, closed-loop ecosystem that benefits animals, land and the community. "Trying to mimic nature is leading to better nutrition for the animals, better welfare for the animals and better health for people," Losekamp said. "This system creates healthier soil, produces more grass, produces more bugs, produces more insects, produces more wildlife, which means we can produce more food.” Chicken dramaEarlier, the chickens had some drama of their own. Due to a rare poultry lice infestation, Turner Farm was catching every chicken, checking for pests and spraying them with what Losekamp called a “gentle insecticide.” It was a big operation, and the chickens didn’t want any part of it.Enter the hawk net.“Ever gone fishing for poultry?” Losekamp said.As he waved the hawk net in the air, an action that chickens confused for the predator, its swooping disturbance set off a unified fluttering of feathers and cacophony of clucking. The wave of motion was so synchronized it was as if all 200 chickens shared one brain.After several failed attempts, Losekamp caught a chicken long enough to check under its feathers for poultry lice. All clear. Just 199 some odd chickens to go.Chickens are omnivores, evident by their pointed beaks. Their natural diet includes a healthy dose of insects in addition to plants and seeds, which Turner Farm provides through fresh, non-GMO feed from local farms. They aren't meant to live off grain, cooped up indoors, a common occurrence in Big Agriculture, Losekamp said.Turner Farm makes sure the flock has room to move by shifting its "Egg Mobile" chicken coop several lengths daily and the outdoor pasture's electric fence weekly. They are protected from real hawks by Snowball, a Great Pyrenees named by former camp kids.But, at the end of the day, Snowball can’t save the chickens, or the cows, sheep and pigs, for that matter.Turner Farm slaughters its livestock and sells the meat at its market. Losekamp said that while he recognizes the “environmental atrocity and animal welfare crime that is confinement animal agriculture,” Turner Farm tries to let its livestock live like it would in the wild.“A lot of people want to demonize meat, and I think that is very misguided,” he said. “I love showing people that care about animal welfare – they do have a place where they could choose to eat meat and it is well-produced and well-cared for, and it's a happy animal right up until the end.”'A closed-loop system'Sam likes to work. Not long after Leah Bartel and Rob Atkinson, its trainers, start gearing it up, the Belgian draft horse is pawing its hooves with impatience.But ever the good horse, Sam waits until Bartel sprays it with organic flea spray and gives it a verbal command before beginning the trek to the fields, where he will plow the land. Bartel said the spray, made mostly of essential oils, is healthier than the "cancer in a bottle" sprays traditional farms often use, which contain harsh chemicals. One could call Bartel the farm’s resident horse girl. She grew up in a guinea pig, snake and salamander home, but didn’t get the chance to work with horses until attending Warren Wilson, a North Carolina college that Bartel described as a combination of a trade school and a four-year college. She chose to join the horse crew, where she learned to track nonverbal cues and form an emotional connection to the animals.Now, as Turner Farm's draft horse program manager, she’s made it her mission to replace all vegetable work done by tractors with the farm's six draft horses. She’s well on her way to success. Since her 2017 arrival, Turner Farm has increased the proportion of fields worked by horses from 10% to over 70%, Bartel said.Why? It’s still a two-person and one-animal job, with Bartel handling the lines, longer reins used for signaling directions, and Atkinson holding the plowing, tilling or cultivating equipment in position.And, well, it'stradition. Bonnie Mitsui, who launched the organic era of Turner Farm in 1994, loved horses. Her legacy lives on through the program. As importantly, horses are more sustainable than tractors, for several reasons: They can replace themselves through reproduction, something tractors haven’t tried. They are solar-powered, eating grass and hay nurtured by the sun instead of requiring regular fossil fuel injections. And, unlike tractors, horse manure adds to the soil’s fertility, and consequently, the nutrient density of crops. Without it, outside fertilizers would be needed to accomplish the same job. "You're not degrading some other land elsewhere where they're mining for whatever minerals and then you're bringing it on to your farm and calling it sustainable agriculture," Bartel said. “It's never perfect. But the ideal is to get as close to a closed-loop system as possible.”Ice cream and steakLosekamp speaks many languages, from Arabic and Latin to chicken, cow and sheep. The animals respond to his call as if he were one of their own, but he didn't grow up fluent in livestock language. After serving as a Marine in Iraq's Anbar province, Losekamp turned to sustainable farming to maintain the level of challenge and purpose his military service gave him. He recalled the lack of topsoil in Iraq, which led to dust storms so bad he would often walk into things. Upon seeing the Fertile Crescent, he was shocked how different it was from the lush oasis history textbooks described. "It was desert, desert, desert, 100 feet of palm trees, maybe Euphrates River, 100 feet of palm trees, desert," Losekamp said. "They couldn't grow enough of their own food."Losekamp said that was the catalyst that led to his current work at Turner Farm. He recognized the importance of creating sustainable agriculture systems that not only produce healthy food now, but will continue to be fruitful for future generations. While Losekamp doesn’t don a white coat, the farm is his scientist's lab. His friends used to call him a “grass nerd,” and they weren’t kidding. His job of planning where and when animals and crops will rotate for the best results requires experimentation, guided by his almost encyclopedic agricultural knowledge.A rotational system, as opposed to continuous grazing, is crucial to maintain the health of livestock and land, Losekamp explained.Losekamp, meanwhile, gets his own treat: the utter joy of listening to the daily stampede movement from pasture to pasture, the ground shaking from the sheer force of hundreds of hooves hitting the ground.Soil is everythingIt’s not often that artichokes rise from the dead, especially in Ohio’s climate. Gabe Steffan didn’t believe it until she saw it with her own eyes.Steffan, Turner Farm crop production manager, conducted the artichoke experiment as a winter project at the suggestion of the former crop production manager. It involved vernalization, a process that tricks the crops into thinking it’s their second year, when they normally produce an artichoke, by putting them in a fridge for two weeks before replanting them. Steffan doubted it would work, she said.“I went out there one day, they’re gone,” Steffan said. “I was like, 'Oh my God, where are they?' And so, I reached out to the old crops production manager, Abby, and she was like, ‘I think they’ll come back,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t think you know.’ ”Sure enough, sometime later, the artichokes made their resurrection. As it turns out, even Turner Farm’s crops enjoy their share of theatrics.Like Losekamp, Steffan and Claire McKamey experiment often to find the most sustainable methods. McKamey, crop production sales manager, said that one of their latest initiatives involves using tarps to keep weeds away. The tarps cover large plots of land so that the soil underneath gets so hot that the weed seeds germinate, but immediately die without sunlight.Vegetables are high maintenance. To thrive, they require significant amounts of nutrients, which they extract from the soil. They need air and space to grow, provided by snakes and rodents tunneling through the soil. They need beneficial insects around to eat the nonbeneficial insects that will stunt their progress.So it’s a struggle to keep even a small vegetable crop thriving. Small is relative, of course. Turner Farm harvests about 50,000 pounds each year.So restoring the soil’s nutrient density and maintaining a healthy ecosystem take a lot of work. Instead of using soil amendments or extra fertilizers to do the job, the crop production team typically spreads manure or mulch, made of broken-down leaves provided by the city of Madeira. "I think the soil health really is indicative of the entire health of the farm as a whole,” Steffan said. “Increasing the soil health, we grow a lot more plants. And you have more plants, you have more little rodents, so we have a huge rodent population, so we have a huge snake population, so we have all these cool birds of prey.”Bringing it homeTurner Farm doesn’t keep its harvest to itself. It shares it with the community, through its on-site market, off-site visits to Findlay Market and vegetable community-supported agriculture program.Since the pandemic began, demand for the farm’s produce and meat is at an all-time high, possibly due to an increased concern with health and sustainability.“I think last year, people had a lot more time on their hands to sort of think about what’s important to them when there’s this huge, crazy thing that’s affecting the whole globe,” Steffan said.Turner Farm’s vegetable CSA program, in which community members buy shares in the harvest directly from the farm, increased its waitlist from about 10 to well over 100 people this year. The program provides investors a share of the harvested vegetables for 22 weeks, with the option to work in the fields for a discounted price.Turner Farm also runs three small community gardens that serve Cincinnati's East End, Columbia Tusculum, East Price Hill and Winton Hills neighborhoods.Peter Huttinger, director of the Community Garden Program, said the idea is to provide not only produce, but learning and social opportunities.Huttinger wants to reconnect people with the land that feeds them, within a culture of generosity. All volunteers are welcomed, and in non-COVID times, the Community Garden Program offers gardening classes for more educational outreach. Once produce is harvested, any extra is shared with East Price Hill, which distributes it to social service organizations in the community.In 2019, 2,053 pounds of produce were shared. A week later, the escaped baby calf has acclimated to its new life. Its moos intermingle with those of its brethren as it hangs out in the cool shade.As Losekamp removes the fencing between pastures and sounds off his call, the calf is just another animal in the crowd racing to its next home. Like all the others, it  goes silent upon arrival, getting right to work eating the lush grass the day’s pasture offers.But as its tail wags with pleasure as a newly christened member of the community, back in the pasture sits another calf, born yesterday. It doesn’t know what to do. Losekamp carries it to his new home, as he’s done hundreds of times before.It's another day at Turner Farm.
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