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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Indiana Couple Use 10-Acre Farm to Grow Local Produce

Chicago Tribune

GOSHEN, Ind. — What began as Karen Wellington's personal quest for honest information about where food comes from has evolved into a local family farm that is reaping more than just healthier food -- it's producing a crop of friends.

Offers for free eggs from Karen and Jim Wellington's 10-acre farm, located within Goshen's city limits on Waverly Avenue, between the canal and the river, have appeared on Facebook. Karen drops off 10 to 12 dozen eggs a week at her husband Jim's downtown Goshen eye care office for community members to pick up. There's never any charge, she said.

Wellington was inspired to begin farming after reading books such as "Fast Food Nation" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and watching documentaries along the lines of "Food, Inc." which investigate genetically modified, corporate mass-production food systems and the complex politics and health concerns wrapped around the average American diet. Wellington reached a point in her research where she could no longer feed her family with meat from grocery store shelves.

"A neighbor raised a cow for us that we butchered and when the cow was gone I said, 'that's it.' We didn't eat any meat after that for two years," she said.

In mid-July, Karen is offering local people a chance to raise their own White Mountain chickens, from day-old chicks through to slaughter. The chickens are pesticide and antibiotic-free and are raised in a free-range pasture. Participants will divide the cost of the chicks and locally-milled feed, and will share a rotational schedule of caring for the chicks. They will participate in the slaughter together. All needed equipment will be free of charge.

For Janet Gulec, who follows her friend's farming adventures and who wants to eat more locally produced food, it's an opportunity for her kids to learn an appreciation for where food comes from. Janet is hoping to raise 15 pasture-raised hens. She loves the taste of Wellington's chicken and has time to invest in the experience. Gulec is buying a freezer and also plans to buy a quarter share of a cow from Wellington.

"Karen's a great person to be offering her resources to help people in the community to try this. Goshen, for a small city, is very special in so many ways, and this is just one more great thing that adds to the flavor of our community," Gulec said.

For an amateur almost-city farmer, there have been sad times and difficulties, as Karen learns "by trial and error," she said.

"Last summer a gentleman came to me and asked if he could do work for me in exchange for putting his horses up at my pasture. Since I wanted to raise my own beef, we spent some money beefing up my fence and he did the labor. I paid for all the materials, starting with 16 calves."

Wellington learned -- a little too late -- that calves need several weeks of mother's milk before feeding on grass alone, she said.

"I think it stunted their growth a little bit. They're probably not as big as they should be."

Last summer she lost two calves. One became sickly and died shortly after transport. Another succumbed to pneumonia.

And then there was Buttercup.

"We bought a dairy cow and milked her for two or three months but she got mastitis and she didn't get better. We butchered Buttercup into hamburger because she was an older cow. She really was an outreach to the community because we'd invite people to come out and milk her, and take the milk home for free, because you're not allowed to sell raw milk in Indiana," she said.

Overall, it's been an easier go with the chickens. "Chickens can eat anything -- corn, grain, grass, bugs. What I've learned is that chickens and cows have a very interesting, symbiotic relationship. A cow poops and it's infested with flies and maggots, and chickens love that. The chickens sanitize the pasture and the manure keeps the grass growing to feed the cows. When chickens are separated from cows on a farm, the benefits of this natural relationship are lost, she said.

"If you look at nature, I'm convinced those things are all meant to work together," she said.

Karen enlisted help to build some 8-foot by 8-foot "chicken tractors" which hold about 20 chickens per tractor. The tractors transport the hens around the pasture, ensuring they move to new grass daily to fertilize the land and to eat insects.

"Broilers are pretty lazy. They sit around waiting for you to bring them food."

The Wellingtons' hens produce far more eggs than Karen, Jim and their three children can eat. They love to give the rest away.

"It's fun. Yesterday I passed a woman who was collecting grass clippings after mowing. I needed the clippings for my vegetable garden, so I traded eggs for them and the woman was thrilled."

Karen plans to give the woman a dozen eggs every weekend from now on, she said.

"You try to find ways to brighten someone's day. We get three or four blue eggs a day. That's pretty cool. It still gives me a tiny thrill when I collect the eggs and I try to put a blue one in almost every dozen."

Karen's co-op of new chicken farmers will buy all the one-day old chicks on July 13th and will raise them up for eight to ten weeks before taking part in a butchering day together.

"For me, I have the land, I have the means, and in my circle of friends there are so many who, if they had the land, would do this, because they care about what they put into their bodies. Why wouldn't I want to share? Part of it is selfish, because I don't want to do all the work myself," she said.