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Valley Pike Farm in Broadway, Va.
on June 23, 2009

Advocates for agriculture

Award-winning farm families use their actions and their words to promote the role of farmers in environmental protection.

Agriculture, particularly animal agriculture, is frequently attacked because of perceived negative impacts of modern agricultural practices on the environment. One of the most important and effective ways of combating misinformation and incorrect assumptions about animal agriculture is to educate regulators, activists groups and the general public about how farmers really go about their business. Poultry growers are at the forefront when it comes to conservation and environmental protection, but sometimes poultry growers and integrators don’t make the effort to let society at large know what they are doing to protect the environment. U.S. Poultry & Egg Association’s Family Farm Environmental Excellence Awards recognize poultry growers who do outstanding jobs managing their farms in ways that enhance the environment on their farms and in the surrounding areas.

Four broiler and two turkey growers were recognized at IPE for going the extra mile to be good environmental stewards. The contributions of these farm families do not end at the farm gate, they also take the time and put in the effort to help educate their neighbors about poultry farming and serve as a voice for the industry.

Valley Pike Farm

One voice that is heard frequently is that of Matt Lohr, who works with his father Gary Lohr on the family’s Valley Pike Farm in Broadway, Va. Matt Lohr was selected in 2004 by the American Farm Bureau Federation to be one of 10 participants in the Partners in Agriculture Leadership (PAL) program. The PAL project trains farmers on ways to discuss agricultural issues with the public. Growers need to be willing to speak out on topics that affect agriculture, particularly topics where the public has been misinformed, according to Matt Lohr.

“Farmers for so many years have done a great job of producing their product, but not the best job of being vocal about educating others on Ag issues. They seem comfortable going about doing their job, but not about being at the forefront. We need people in Ag to step forward on these issues who can say, ‘this is not the whole story,” he said.

Gary Lohr and his wife Ellen own the farm, which has been in the family for over 100 years, and their son Matt and his wife Andrea also live on the farm. The Lohrs raise broilers in four houses for Pilgrim’s Pride. In addition to the broilers, the family raises hay, cattle, sweet corn, pumpkins and small grains on the farm’s 250 acres. Valley Pike Farm was selected as the Family Farm Award winner for the mid-Atlantic region.

Besides working on the farm, Matt and Andrea operate a speaking business, New Directions Communications, designed to educate the public about agriculture. They have shared this message at over 25 State Farm Bureau conventions, three American Farm Bureau conferences and dozens of state agricultural events.

Matt Lohr was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in last November’s election, and, as the only full-time farmer serving in Virginia’s legislature, he will have the opportunity to help educate his fellow legislators about agriculture.

Hidden Hills Poultry

Loraine Buckingham said, “The responsibility rests on us, as poultry growers, to go above and beyond the normal scope of environmental stewardship, for we must set the example and prove that large scale farming can be an integral part of the balance of nature.” Loraine Buckingham along with her husband Butch and their son Stacey operate Hidden Hills Poultry in Fulton, Ky. The Buckinghams raise broilers for Tyson Foods in six houses, which were built in 1997. Their farm won the award for the mid-south region.

“When we decided to build our barns we were met with stiff opposition,” Loraine Buckingham explained. “Neighbors, with whom we had excellent relations for thirty years, became angry, fearful and hostile. They expressed concerns that our farm would ruin property values and their quality of life. Some worried about odors and disease, while others worried about dust and traffic. They issued ominous predictions and threatened dire consequences. We understood their fears and concerns. We answered their questions honestly and kept them informed as to what we were doing, all the while reassuring them that we would give them no reason to regret our presence.”

Buckingham said that the process of educating their neighbors and the rest of the community was just beginning when they built their houses. “Since the inception of our operation in 1998, we have given dozens of farm tours, not only to allay fear and suspicion, but to give a better understanding of a working poultry farm. We talk with interested people about our operation and explain our litter practices and the steps we are taking to be good stewards,” she said.

Now Buckingham believes that her family’s outreach to the community has paid off. “I feel we have been successful in our endeavors because now our county is fraught with controversy over a large-scale swine producer who has announced the intent to locate here; poultry has not been brought into the issue. Our county judge, who sought by every means at his disposal to keep poultry operations out of the county in 1997, recently toured a swine facility and said it didn’t smell like he had feared. He further stated for public record, ‘People were upset when chicken barns were built here, and now you don’t hear them complaining about them anymore.’ I would like to think we were instrumental in that change of attitude,” she said.

Midmeadow Farm

Rick and Sue Shiflet have been raising turkeys on Midmeadow Farm in Swope, Va., for over 20 years. The Shiflets raise hens in one turkey house for Cargill, and their farm was named an Environmental Pioneer at IPE. The 185-acre farm is in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. In addition to the turkeys, Shiflet raises sheep and cattle and grows hay for local horse owners.

Midmeadow Farm was an original model for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and Shiflet built one of the first manure sheds in Virginia in 1987. A forested buffer was repaired and reconstructed along Edison Creek, and this was fenced off to livestock. Hardwood trees were planted on three acres of the CRP land. The farm has 20 acres in a permanent flood plane, and in this easement four plats were subdivided and rotational grazing practices are employed. In this area, cattle are watered with creek-fed watering troughs. Rick Shiflet has hosted educational tours and field days for four years at his farm for high school children. Several stations were set up teaching a broad view of agriculture. Students were split into erosion and run off teams, and control measures were constructed. Water quality was tested with the help of the Soil and Water Conservation department, and the farm creek rates at one point below the pristine class.

Rick Shiflet doesn’t just take time to educate high school students about agriculture; he has also been a host of Ag Day at Beverly Manor Middle School for over 10 years. He teaches a turkey production program for 300 sixth graders. Rick shares a video and gives an informative talk complete with live day-old turkey poults.

Garrett Farms

Jerry Garrett and his brothers had been row crop farmers in Oconee County, Ga., but declining prices and increased land rental rates forced Jerry to leave farming and start his own business. In 1990, however, Jerry and his wife Sheila had a chance to buy 125 acres of Sheila’s family’s old farm, including six old curtain-sided broiler houses. This allowed Jerry to get back into farming full time. Garrett Farms, Winder, Ga., was selected as the winner in the southeast region. The farm now has six modern, solid-sidewall, tunnel-ventilated broiler houses. In addition to raising broilers for Wayne Farms, the Garretts also grow hay.

Jerry Garrett has been quick to adopt new technologies and has not been afraid to innovate. After doing research, he concluded that composting inside his litter shed in the deep stacked litter would be more labor efficient, yet just as safe environmentally as the four-stage composting method that had been used. He received permission from the Georgia Department of Agriculture to do this, and he now composts mortalities in the litter piles in the shed. Many growers have abandoned composting and gone back to incineration to handle on-farm mortalities because they thought that using composting bins required too much time. But Jerry Garrett didn’t quit, he found a better way.

Sells Farm

Wayne and Donnie Sells are brothers who formed a partnership to raise 20 head of cattle on 120 acres in 1992. Sells Farm in Prairie Home, Mo., has grown to include 929 acres, 350 brood cows and four turkey houses. Donnie Sells manages the farm and oversees four full-time employees, while Wayne Sells owns Sells Development Group. The brothers raise tom turkeys under contract with Cargill, and their farm is the winner in the south-central region.

Water quality, natural habitat protection and the prevention of soil erosion are causes in which the Sells are diligent in protecting. To prevent cattle from destroying pond banks and waterways, Sells Farm has implemented the use of 13 freeze-proof cattle waterers, with plans to install more. This helps control erosion and protects the habitats of fish, frogs and waterfowl. The majority of pastures on Sells Farm are terraced to prevent erosion and runoff. The 350 cows are divided into several herds that are pastured across the farm. To avoid overgrazing, Donnie and his son Brent utilize rotational grazing by moving the herds every two weeks. This prevents the cattle from destroying natural habitats by eliminating their need to seek additional forage.

Donnie believes that even though poultry producers have an obligation to meet all environmental requirements, they should also work hard to go above and beyond those requirements. “It is the responsibility of every landowner to implement good environmental practices to insure that future generations have the opportunity to farm like I do,” he said.

Silver Run Farm

Karl and Elma Hess own Silver Run Farm in Lancaster, Pa., and the farm has been in the Hess family for over 250 years. Karl and Elma and their children represent the eighth and ninth generations of the Hess family to work on the farm. Silver Run Farm has two broiler houses on contract with Tyson Foods. In addition to the broilers, the Hess family feeds out 300 head of cattle per year in a feed lot, raises market hogs and raises grain. The 250 acres of cropland are all operated under an approved conservation plan and all manures are applied according to the guidelines of an approved phosphorous-based nutrient management plan. Field crops are corn, soybeans and small grains. These crops are used primarily as feed inputs for the cattle feedlot. The feedlot is Pennsylvania’s only feedlot licensed by Certified Angus Beef.

A stream running through the farm has been studied by the biology department at Millersville University for over five years. This research has shown that the water in the creek actually improves from the time the water flows onto the farm until it leaves the farm. Karl Hess said that this improvement in water quality is the result of careful monitoring of timing and rates of manure applications over the years, something that has resulted in a very low loss of nutrients into the stream.

“We are thankful that we can operate our farm with a high concentration of livestock with a minimal impact on the water quality of the stream that traverses our farm,” Karl Hess said. He continued, “Environmental stewardship means doing what is right when no one else but you and God would know any difference. I seek to do the right thing even if local, state or federal government may not have a regulation about a specific practice.”

This year’s Family Farm Environmental Excellence Award winning growers all put in extra effort to insure that they are good environmental stewards. These growers have also taken steps to show their neighbors and the rest of the community the ways that poultry growers are protecting the environment. They know that the industry has to speak out proactively about its practices to prevent misunderstandings.

Hidden Hills Poultry in Fulton, Ky.
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