January 8, 2016

Professor farms year-round to ‘make a difference’

By Brooke Moody–

For most students and faculty at U of L, winter break was a much-needed time to relax and recuperate before the start of the spring semester. But for anthropology professor Jeneen Wiche, total relaxation was simply not the case.

When Wiche is not in the classroom teaching courses on food and body politics or American Indian women, she is tending to the farm she and her husband Andy Smart own. Farm life provides little opportunity for breaks, even in the chilly winter months.

Swallow Rail Farm, named for the barn swallows and the railways that edge the street, has been in Wiche’s family since 1979. Her father began the farm with “the desire to develop a horticultural experience that emphasized ornamental and edible plantings.”

When Wiche and Smart moved back to the land in 2003, they worked to preserve the foundation her father built while retaining the purpose of the farm.

“We want to provide local food for the community. It’s not an option people normally have. We started farming because we want to make a difference,” said Wiche when asked about their motivation for moving back to the farm.

In 2011 Wiche and Smart bought their first laying hens to produce eggs, which they began selling to a local CSA, a program that allows consumers to buy directly from farmers. Soon they acquired boiler chickens and sheep to raise for meat. After five years, they have developed a strong customer base, including U of L students and faculty, CSA members and loyal direct buyers.

To meet the needs of their customers, Wiche and Smart work year-round to maintain the land and the animals. Not raising Broiler chickens in the winter gives them a break from the fast paced seasons spring through fall, but they can’t stop work altogether.

The couple uses the winter months to do special projects such as land management, fencing and planning.

“We have to figure out our numbers and the timing,” said Wiche. “We have to determine how many chickens we want, then call our processor to set a date for processing and then arrange for the chicks to be delivered nine to ten weeks before the processing date. And we determine new equipment we’ll need for the upcoming season as well.”

Besides special projects, there are still the everyday tasks that must be done.

“Around sunrise we open things up and get the layers in the light to extend their laying period and maximize the amount of eggs we can get in the shorter winter days. I then feed them and check water, breaking up any ice if need be,” said Smart.

“Andy also checks on all the animals to make sure everything’s alright and no one is hung up on something,” added Wiche.

“Then around 11 a.m. I do a check on the barn to collect the first round of eggs. In the afternoon I start feeding the dogs and the Ram lambs,” Wiche continued. “We end the day by closing up the barn and checking on the animals one last time.”

Though farm life is labor intensive, Wiche and Smart feel that it is worth it, and over the years they have learned to be more efficient and anticipate possible changes.

“Some things work, some things don’t, and you learn from those experiences. No two batches of animals are the same. The weather impacts you and feed changes. So you learn as you go along, and you have to be flexible,” said Smart. “Last year, the extreme cold was hard on the animals and the property, but we made it work.”

“You get through winter and you’re rested and ready to go again,” said Wiche.

 

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