CIRCLES OF LIFE ON A WASHINGTON FARM
In an expansive valley on the east side of the Cascade mountains a small Washington farm is demonstrating how sustainable farming can be good for both humans and the environment. As we pulled up to the Crown S Ranch entrance an alert herd of jet black cows spotted then moved toward us. As we exited the car a woman wearing a baby blue bomber jacket and exuding an air of confidence approached from our left. Jennifer Argraves is one of Crown-S Ranch owners who, together with her husband Louis Sukovaty, takes a clever and sustainable approach to raising livestock. Everything on Crown S Ranch is viewed as part of a wider circle of life. At its essence, operating a sustainable farm comes down to managing the delicate balance between the many living systems coexisting on a farm so that they all work together in a harmonious cycle. Jennifer points us to the principal slogan for making decisions as “Better for the animals, better for the environment, better for you.” On Crown S Ranch this has been refined into a masterplan that envisages working the sprawling 150 acres of land in 7 year rotating cycles.
The farm began in the 1960’s as the Sukovaty family farm to which Jennifer and Louis returned in 1999 assist his parents and raise their children. They did this while continuing to run their engineering firm – skills they would eventually apply to the innovative equipment designs now utilized on the farm. When they first started out the couple found little written information about how to raise animals without chemicals. As a result much of the current operational methods of Crown S Ranch have come through experimentation.
The costly mistakes that have been made along the way the couple now shares in classes and workshops they give throughout the state. Unlike most agricultural research which is done by and for corporate farming with little access given to outsiders – Jennifer is keenly aware of the importance of passing on lessons learned to current and future generations of farmers.
A deep dedication to long-term planning based on intensive research set the framework within which they presently operate the farm. Combining this with a willingness to experiment has been the driver of innovation in making this Washington farm into a model for sustainable agriculture. Here they raise a diverse group of animals including grass-fed cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens and turkeys as well as vegetables and fruit. Each of the animals is pasture fed with the any supplemental grains grown on the farm itself without hormones, pesticides, herbicides or any other toxic chemicals. Here there is a full commitment to the the sustainable farming vision.
Sustainable practice is not something new. In fact it preceded industrial farming. Natural farming in Japan and other countries apply a similar approach. Today in the United States industrial-style agriculture dominates. Industrial agriculture means that farms are large and run primarily on fossil fuels with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers derived from oil used to protect and police pests. It’s effects on the economy are seen as overwhelmingly positive and yet environment, culture and the long term economic viability of this type of farming appear worrisome at best. Many of the costs of industrial agriculture are hidden from view or ignored for short-term profit gains.
Long-term consequences of industrial agriculture are simply not deemed important. But the environmental costs of agriculture are mounting. Irrigation systems are pumping water from reservoirs faster than they are being recharged leading to droughts in some areas. Herbicides and insecticides are accumulating in ground and surface waters as fertilizers run off the fields and into our water systems that eventually disrupts ecosystems and kills fish.
Unlike industrial farming methods that prioritize economics over animal welfare, Crown S Ranch raise their animals using humane methods. Jennifer pointed out to us how the friendly black cows approached us when we arrived at the farm as an example of the positive effects of good animal welfare. Animal that are treated well don’t fear humans. The friendly greeting was both charming and telling of a greater truth.
CYCLES AND ROTATIONS
As we walked around Crown S Ranch each new area we encountered revealed yet another way in which this Washington farm was being shaped through adaptation. Understanding the forces of nature may allow humans to harness them to effect the changes we want without damaging future possibilities. At this Washington farm borders are marked physically by fences and on maps by drawn lines, the land is managed as though it is seamlessly linked to what surrounds it. As one walks around Crown S Ranch the first thing you notice is the mobile nature of the chicken housing – they are all on wheels. Louis explained that as the chickens, ducks and turkeys move around the pasture is fertilized. Pecking birds also contribute to a better balance of beneficial germs and natural antibiotics which in turn helps keep larger animals like sheep and cattle healthy.
Pig pens are moved seasonally so that year one’s wallow fertilizes the following year’s gardens. It is by utilizing natural cycles that the fields are protected and which in ultimately enriches the surrounding environment thereby contributing positively to the ecosystem.
TRADITION SPICED WITH NEW TECH
Each new day on this Washington farm the chicken cages are pulled through the pasture by a solar-powered robotic tractor. The “chicken train” allows the birds fresh grass to peck through each day. Solar also powers the automatic refilling of grain bins and water. Predators are kept at bay by an electric fence framing that is also powered by solar.
Techniques to control pests without resorting to having to use pesticides is rare post-industrialization and to the outsider seems like a more complex way to manage farm land. Understanding the natural forces that hold sway on domestic farms is key to finding sustainable solutions. At Crown S Ranch it goes something like this: after cattle work their way through a pasture sheep go through next and then are followed by pigs rotate and finally the chickens. It works because most animals are a dead-end host for parasites so the next animal passing through will not become sick. The Crown S Ranch system of rotating animals stands in stark contrast to current farm system which might best be described as completely stationary. It would be intriguing to know how veterinary costs are affected in these two farm systems. One thing we do know is that Crown S Ranch animals themselves help control pests whereas on most farms chemicals do that job.
CLOSING THE LOOP ON WASTE
On our visit Louis spend time explaining the importance to the farm of their composting. Organic matter without a direct use is always composted for fertilizer. Every remaining part of a butchered cow not eaten is composted. Water from the poultry processing facility goes through a septic system to remove the pathogens. When the compost heats up it is put it into a manure spreader and spread across the farmland. In this way nutrients removed from the farm are returned to the farm. Louis emphasized how the current state of Crown S Ranch soil is more fertile than when they first arrived and that comes down to the way they farm.
NATURAL FARMING EFFECTS ON FOOD
One of the visible prisms through which to see the difference the Crown S Ranch sustainable farming makes is their farm eggs. Collected daily, the color of the yolks will change color throughout the year. Their chickens graze outdoors and as the flora and fauna change on the farm so does the egg yolk color. The yolk color is a deep orange hue when the grass is really green at the height of summer. A supermarket is allowed to claim an egg as fresh when it is 10 weeks old and the color is often a very pale yellow which is highly indicative of its diet.
Beyond the visible improvements there is also the culinary upside. Not by coincidence Crown S Ranch products can be found in the kitchens of top restaurants like Seattle’s Herb Farm. My own experiences in cooking reinforces the idea that just as healthier soil and water leads to better vegetables and fruit, livestock raised on a wider variety of quality food is always healthier and tastier.
There is much to learn from Crown S Ranch and their approach to farming. Jennifer and Louis chose to take a challenging journey, one that swims against the currents of modern farming. In seeking a deeper understanding of nature and how agricultural practices can work within the framework nature has set out – rather than trying to go against it – leads to a path of discovering truth. Sharing these important connections with consumers helps us all to better understand the food system and strive to make it closer to what we want it to be and what it should be for now and the future of this planet. Crown S Ranch is a shining example of how to transform agriculture into a sustainable enterprise that works with nature rather than undermining the resources on which agricultural productivity and human healthy ultimately depends. We can support them with our patronage and by sharing their story. Together, our support can bring about positive change.
CROWN S RANCH
Address: 7 Twin Lakes Rd, Winthrop, WA 98862
Website: Crown S Ranch