Area farmers choreograph a dance between plants, people and animals

Orting farmers choreograph a dance between plants, people and animals

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comFebruary 27, 2013 

As Carrie Little walked the muddy soil of her Orting farm last week her black retriever Moose let out a series of barks for reasons only he knew. A group of nearby tom turkeys immediately gobbled back a reply.

Satisfied by the response, Moose went back to chewing a deflated ball. The toms returned to lording over the 250 chickens they room with.

For Little, the inter species exchange was just a symbol of the ties that bind – a choreography, Little calls it, between the animals, plants and humans that occupy the land she farms with her husband, Ken.

“This is some of the most valuable topsoil in the world,” Little said as she looked around her 35 acres. She was speaking of fertility, not money.

The couple bought the acreage that they would come to call Little Eorthe Farm in 2009. It was one-third of the former Ford Farm, a dairy operation sold to three families in a transaction that permanently preserved the land for agriculture. One of the stipulations for farming the land was that it had to be certified organic.

Little’s self-taught farming knowledge comes mostly from the school of hard knocks, as she calls it. She first got dirt under her fingernails as a child by gardening with her parents in Colorado.

Little started Guadalupe Gardens in 1993 using abandoned lots in Tacoma’s Hilltop and created Puyallup’s Mother Earth Farm in 2000. The latter provides food for the Emergency Food Network. The Littles’ son, Canyon, now manages Mother Earth.

“I’m just a gardener who keeps getting bigger gardens,” she said.

The purchase of the Orting farm allowed Little to pursue her desire to farm organically and offer the produce to the public.

Carrie is the farmer. Ken, a former union carpenter, is the farm’s construction manager. “If a pig pen is falling apart, he fixes it,” Little said.

The farm has several pig pens. One near the couple’s farmhouse holds sow Peppermint Patty and her seven two-month-old piglets. They’ll be sold as weaners.

Nearby, in his own pen, is the piglets’ sire, Big Willie. Last week the big pig ambled over for a scratch behind the ears and Little obliged him. The boar, it turns out, is one crafty pig. He recently rolled a log onto the electric fence that contains him and made a slow motion escape. He soon was making friends with a surprised construction worker.

“Where a 1,000 pound boar wants to go he goes,” Little said. They eventually coaxed him back into his pen.

Other pigs are raised to butcher age. After slaughter, the hogs are sent to a Washington State Department of Agriculture inspected cut-and-wrap facility.

The 250 chickens are housed in a 12,000-square-foot enclosure that is periodically moved. That gives the chickens fresh grass to graze on, and the former space, fertilized with their droppings, becomes a vegetable bed.

The chickens lay 12 dozen eggs a day, which are sold to PCC Natural Markets, the Tacoma Food Co-op and other stores.

The chickens roost in several mobile coops. Some are repurposed campers – giving the yard the look of a chicken trailer park. It’s a minimum security facility; dozens of escapees scratch and cluck beyond the perimeter. Little knows she has to create a higher fence soon.

“It’s not going to work so great when I have pumpkins growing,” Little said. “We’ll have to tighten down the jail.”

Near the chickens are three brightly colored beehives. Each one is named after “cool radical women” Little said. The insects are mainly used for crop pollination, but the couple harvests some of the honey. Being a bee hasn’t been easy for the past several years. Colony collapse disorder, mites and insecticides have made it difficult to keep bees alive but the Littles’ seem to be thriving.

Animal husbandry doesn’t end with domestic animals on Little Eorthe. Providing habitat for wildlife is one of the Littles’ principals. The couple keeps a hillside and creek in its natural riparian condition. But it’s an entry point for visiting elk and the occasional coyote.

The latter are not welcome visitors. Last spring coyotes killed 25 chickens and six female turkeys.

A small herd of alpacas not only provide wool, but they act as an early warning system against predators. They let out loud high-pitched screams when they spot coyotes.

Most of the fields are now fallow for winter, but a few sport kale, collard greens, beets, carrots and green onions. Soon, Little will sow peas and fava beans. “And then the pace quickens,” Little says.

Little Eorthe Farm offers a Community Supported Agriculture food service. For a fee, every member of the CSA becomes a shareholder of the harvest. They get the first and the best of the harvest every week.

“It’s a relationship with a farmer that makes it meaningful for both them and me,” Little said. But the harvest also offers a connection between the consumer and the earth itself. “You’re living and eating what’s coming on,” Little said. “Not only is it seasonal and local but it’s educational”

Little grows 45 groups of plants (onions, carrots, lettuce, beets, etc.) and each of those groups can have anywhere from two to 20 varieties.

At the height of the growing season each CSA member’s box can weigh 15 to 20 pounds, Little said.

The Littles also sell their produce – and only theirs – at the Proctor and Gig Harbor farmers markets.

The seeds for this year’s crop have yet to be sowed but Little is ready. And she doesn’t need to drop a small fortune with seed catalogs.

“I’m a seed saving junkie,” Little said as she pulled out a container of yin yang beans – a unique black and white bean that looks exactly like the Asian symbol.

The preservation of seeds, particularly what’s become known as “heirloom” varieties, is important to Little. She’s concerned that GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds are crowding out varieties that have been grown for generations.

It’s not hyperbole. Agricultural giant Monsanto developed a very successful herbicide, Roundup, and then created GMO corn, sugarbeets, soybeans and other crops to resist the chemical. And Monsanto wants farmers to purchase seeds from them every year. If farmers save “Roundup Ready” seeds from their harvest Monsanto will sue them, the company states on its website. They have not lost a case.

Small-scale organic farming is not cheap. Industrial agriculture is cost-effective because it’s done on a mass scale. Insecticides cut down on crop loss, herbicides increase yields and save labor.

“We’re not getting rich doing this. We’d be happy if we break even,” Little said as she walked by a young fruit orchard and a berry patch near her farmhouse.

Still, her ambitions remain. A new greenhouse is empty but soon, like last year, it will be growing peppers, turmeric and ginger. This year she plans to add peanuts and sweet potatoes to her heat-loving crops.

A 1,000-foot arbor stands ready for a quick refurbishing by Ken before it can once again be planted with hops. The hops will go into Ken’s newest venture: beer making. A commercial kitchen is being constructed on site to handle that and the production of other goods.

If farming seems like a lot of work, that’s because it is. When the growing season takes off two interns arrive along with part time helpers. But that doesn’t mean Little goes on vacation.

“Every day is a work day. You’ve got to feed animals. You’ve got to sharpen a tool or maintain something. There are no days off,” Little said. “You’ve got to love what you do.”

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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