NEWMANSTOWN, Pa. — At Hidden Spring Farm, the hogs eat grass.
The two semi-retired Belgian horses eat grass.
The layers eat grass, the broilers eat grass and the turkeys eat grass.
On rented ground in Schaefferstown, nine miles away, there’s a Hidden Spring herd of 46 mixed-breed steers. They eat grass.
Nearby in Berks County, there’s a farmer who pastures the Hidden Spring cow-calf herd. They eat grass.
Eric and Kristen Fetter own Hidden Spring Farm. For about half the year, Eric operates a full-time off-the-farm business.
He cuts grass.
During an interview on the patio outside the farmhouse where Eric grew up, Kristen said the lawn care business — which also involves mulching, trimming, tree work, etc. — is an important part of the family finances, but they hope one day farming will be the sole family enterprise. Eric said that with four children, three of them boys, he’d like to keep them interested and occupied in agriculture.
Kristen grew up on a dairy farm. And while Eric grew up in the family farmhouse, his dad was in the trucking, not the farming, business. Shortly after graduating from high school, Eric took over his family’s 15-acre homestead.
What made him decide that farming was his future?
“I’m a farmer,” he said, in a way that meant it was as sufficient a reason as it needed to be.
The Fetters got married 10 years ago and they are both committed to the production and direct marketing of their own grass-fed beef, pork, poultry and eggs. And if their 36-bird turkey experiment works out, they’ll be growing turkeys next year, too. They also sell raw milk and butter they get from a neighbor.
Since grass is the foundation of their program, we asked Eric how he manages that crucial asset. How does he control insects and weeds? How does he fertilize? When does he make hay and what kind of equipment does he use? What forage species does he like to see in his pastures?
We were standing in the pasture up the hill from the farmhouse. He recalled seeding that pasture some years ago, but didn’t remember when. It had a specific mix of species but he didn’t remember exactly what they were. Since then, what comes up, comes up and the animals eat it. What we saw in the pasture was a mix of grasses, legumes and forbs. Without paying particularly close attention, we noted timothy, ryegrass, mustard, plantain, clover and other stalwarts of nature’s balanced diet.
There are no insecticides or herbicides used anywhere on the farm. The animals fertilize the fields with their manure as they graze. Their hooves and claws grind the vegetation, promoting its decomposition and returning its nutrients to the soil. If he did decide to put some fertilizer down, Eric said it would be an organic mix. But he doesn’t foresee a need to do that.
Eric used to put up dry hay and baleage when the meadows were flush in the spring, when the grass grew faster than the animals could consume it. But after a full spring day of taking care of other people’s grass, putting up hay late in the day could be a tough slog. He sold his haying equipment. “It was tough,” he said, “because I’m an equipment guy.”
He’s found a dependable custom operator to take care of his haying chores, and both he and Kristen — his life/business partner — are happy with that choice. “If anybody were to ask me for advice on how to do what we do,” Eric said, “one thing I would tell them is to buy animals, not equipment. The animals are making money while the equipment is sitting in a shed depreciating.”
Rotational grazing is the key to keeping the pastures flourishing and the animals feeding. Everybody moves at least twice a day, sometimes more often. Eric likes to keep the cattle on pasture as late into the year as possible. “My goal is to not start feeding hay until January,” he said.
He tries to feed as much of his own hay as he can, but generally has to buy some to tide the animals over until the pastures begin their spring growth. In addition to the 15-acre home farm, the Fetters rent another 55 acres of pasture for the cow-calf herd in Berks County and the steers in Schaefferstown.
The layers live in the open, with two movable high-tunnel-style coops where they lay their eggs. Eric would love to let his hens roam free in the 7-acre field behind the house. He knows the hawks and the foxes would love that idea, too. Keeping them somewhat confined guards against their being breakfast, lunch and dinner. The hens stay on the job for about two years before they’re slaughtered. They eat the grasses, scratch for bugs and the Fetters supplement what nature provides with a non-GMO organic grain mix.
The Fetters get 1,000 day-old broiler chicks about every two weeks, shelter them, and give them plenty of grass and bugs to eat in 10-by-10-foot open pens with roofs. They supplement their pasture diet, again with a non-GMO organic grain mix. When the broilers hit a market weight of about 4 pounds, a mobile processor comes to the farm, takes in live chickens at one end, dresses them, chills them and produces vacuum-packed birds ready for market at the other end.
The hogs come to the farm as 35-40 pound feeder pigs and head to slaughter at about 245 pounds. Eric said he likes to feed hogs of varying maturities so there’s a steady supply for his customers.
A USDA-inspected butcher shop takes the steers at about 24 months of age and turns them into frozen cuts for sale either in bulk or at retail in the on-farm store. The Fetters also wholesale retail cuts to a stand holder at the Fairgrounds Farmers Market in Reading. That vendor also sells chickens, eggs, raw milk and butter supplied by the Fetters. If the turkey experiment works out, they will also be sold at the Fairgrounds Market.
It became clear in talking to the Fetters that their Hidden Spring philosophy aims to be friendly to the environment, friendly to the animals in their care, and friendly to their customers who are willing to pay a higher price for their specialized products.
It’s a decidedly organic approach to agriculture, but Eric said they’re not particularly interested in pursuing USDA organic certification. “If a customer has any questions at all about our methods, we’re happy to explain to them exactly what we do and why we do it that way,” he said. “I think that means more to them than anything they can read on a label.”