'We're above and beyond organic'
Young farmer brings sustainable farm-direct practices to her operation
By MITCH LIES
PHILOMATH, Ore. -- Rachel Prickett raises food for the rewards of doing what she enjoys and contributing to people's health and well-being.
She hopes one day to also make a living at it.
For the time being, Prickett's Provenance Farm is supplying her and her husband, computer engineer Keith Prickett, a second income and a sense of fulfillment.
"I've always had a fascination for animals, and I like putting good food on people's tables," Prickett, a 2006 graduate of Oregon State University's animal science program, said.
Prickett farms under the principles of Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, a leader in the sustainable farm-direct movement.
She runs laying hens in winter months on 5 acres she owns near Philomath.
The 450 hens lay eggs in a hoop house and roam in a fenced area that she moves every two to three days. She moves the portable fence at night when hens rest in what she calls an egg mobile.
During spring, summer and fall months, she moves the hens in the egg mobile to the 50 acres she leases, using a rotational grazing system that includes running sheep and steer ahead of broilers and layers.
The grazing rotation provides the pasture free fertilizer, she said, and helps keep insect populations in control, as the broilers and layers peck fly larvae out of cow pies.
Keeping grazing paddocks small ensures that in addition to grazing off fresh grass, sheep and steers graze off weeds and other less desirable forage.
She moves the sheep and steers daily, and moves broilers and layers every two to three days.
The fresh grass consumed by layers in spring and summer months makes up 15 percent of a hen's diet, giving egg yolks the increased beta carotene levels and bright orange color that consumers love, Prickett said.
Prickett isn't certified organic, but follows many organic production principles, and doesn't use hormones or antibiotics in her production.
"I think we're above and beyond organic," Prickett said.
One of the main stumbling blocks to obtaining organic certification, she said, is finding non-genetically modified corn for feed.
Going organic would increase her feed costs significantly, she said, and force her to nearly double the $4 she currently charges for a dozen eggs.
Prickett said she has more demand than she can supply, but is refraining from increasing the size of her operation to ensure its financial stability.
"What my husband and I are trying to do is start our farm debt free," she said. "We're trying not to get ahead of ourselves."
Prickett sells primarily to restaurants and customers who visit the farm.
"We have a pretty good customer base, and we let them know by e-mail when we have fresh products and when they can order things," she said.
"I enjoy having people coming out to the farm so they can see where their food is coming from," she said.
One expansion plan on the horizon involves building the first portable poultry processing unit in Oregon. Prickett and two farmer-partners in the operation just recently received the go-ahead from the Oregon Department of Agriculture to start building the $30,000 unit.
The partners plan to operate the unit on their own farms this summer, and rent it to other farmers beginning next year, Prickett said.
It is being built to process as many as 400 birds a day, Prickett said.
Prickett raised about 1,000 birds last year and hopes to double that this year.
Prickett sees no end to demand for locally produced farm products, but she plans to limit her operation to a size that fits her sustainable philosophy.
"I want to keep it a size that is manageable, so I can ensure the quality of the life of our animals, and the quality of the food we are producing," she said.