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Jerry Peele

Food Voices: The Interviews

Jerry Peele, Farmer
Ancramdale, New York

Jerry Peele runs Herondale Farm in Ancramdale, NewYork. It is a mixed livestock organic certified farm on 250 acres and he leases another 150 acres. He raises cows, lambs, pigs and chickens.

I’ve been in investment management for about 25 years and the last 5 years of that, I have been working for myself, from home. I thought, A. I didn’t want to be doing that for the rest of my life. B. I wanted to do something more physical and I thought that given that I was working from home, I didn’t have to be living in the city anymore. We started looking around to be out of the city and try to find somewhere where I could have a combination of a more physically active kind of life, plus do some investment management. And the further I looked into it, I was drawn to farming because I had exposure to it as a teenager where I grew up. Working for other people on their farms. So, we looked around for about a year and found this property. It had pretty much everything we wanted on it, except a house that we could live in. We took the leap. I knew I wanted to do some kind of livestock farming and then I started researching what would be the best of combination and how to get going.

We sell them at our store. We sell some to restaurants. We do two farmers markets, locally. Both of which are within 20, 25 miles from us.  Then, we have an Internet business where we have products on the web site – individual cuts and we can ship them UPS. And then the final other way that we do is people mostly buy in the fall for a winter stock of meat that they enjoy. They will buy a split side of beef, of a side of beef, as side of pork, a whole lamb or something. And put it in the freezer to keep it through the winter. It’s retail, but it is more bulk retail. Our wholesale business: we do some business with restaurants and we do quite a bit of business with our beef with high end butchers who take whole animals and then sell them the way they cut them.

We don’t butcher them here. The only thing we butcher here is chickens. We have a local USDA certified organic plant. I have to book a long way in advance. At least six months, sometimes a year. Now I’ve got to a size where my wholesale customers want a regular supply, so I have animals going in there every couple of weeks. And then we built our own chicken processing facility here because it is so hard to find anyone to do that, at least anywhere near.  If you stress any animals, especially chickens before they go to be processed, the whole point of how they are raised is kind of lost because the stress takes away a lot of good taste. This has worked out really well having our own facility here. We are approved by the state – the Ag and Markets of New York comes in and inspect the plant at least twice a year and they can do spot checks any time they want. And then we have two licenses – a 5 A, which actually licenses us to slaughter the birds and process them and a 20C is a food processing license, which we need if we want to put them in a vacuum pack seal and sell them to retail.

We started out just me and a couple of the farm employees doing it, but the summer is always the busiest time and once you start processing chickens you can’t be doing anything else. Since we started doing our own birds, several other people in the area found out about it, so now they have their own little business processing, using our plant and other people come and use our own facility. It helps everyone and it helps pay our overhead a bit. And the guys who do the processing make some decent money. And it does really help the neighboring farmers because it is hard to find a good place to do it. None of the big USDA houses want to touch chicken, because they are a bit more work then the large animals. The nearest place I found was about an hour and thirty minutes due west of here out in Greene County. That’s not worth it.

Right now, the cows graze on about 180 acres. This is slightly tapping into the Holistic Management side. Up until now I’ve been doing what is called Managed Intensive grazing, which is moving them every day or two. Coming back into that same field about 45 days later or maybe as much as 60. With the Holistic Management, they have really developed what is called high density growth. There’s a subtle, but quite significant difference. You get pretty much your whole cow herd together, instead of having two or three groups, you move them all as a block. You move maybe twice a day. So, there’s a lot of cows in a small area, but they are getting as much feed as they need. They are always getting access to new pasture every 12 hours. They’re hoofed and just the way they move over the ground, there is an intense manure and urine activity going on. The whole thing really creates a lot of microbial activity in the ground. And then you give it a long rest. You give it 90 or 120 or 180 days. So, the grass plant has a chance to come back to full maturity before you go back in and graze it, instead of letting it come half way back. What is going on above the ground is the same thing going on below the ground. So, the roots go deeper. In that way, you are building a lot of organic matter above the soil. And below the soil, you are building a great root mass.

Then, you are more drought resistant and your soils are much more healthy. Over a period of two or three years, your fields will become way more productive than they have been. The managed grazing is a good way to move animals. You get a lot of use out of the pastures, but it is not as beneficial for the ground or the pants, for that matter.

I chose the Holistic path because if you can find a way that everything falls together, so you’ve got the ecological side of it working and the environmental side working and the economic side working, then I think that’s the path to sustainability. If we can use our animals in a way to better the quality of pastures that their prodigy will be grazing in, then it is a win-win situation. If we are doing that in a way that benefits us a human race, because we are eating healthy food, but also the way we are keeping animals is healthy and good for the planet. If you can create more organic matter in your soil, then that’s a carbon positive way of farming. So, that’s beneficial. If we can do it in a way that this farm as a commercial entity can survive, we are using land on this farm that may otherwise be plowed up and growing a commodity crop.