Evergreen students bring animals back into agriculture
BY HEIDI BROADHEAD
PHOTOS BY HEIDI BROADHEAD AND ALEA HOFFMAN
Alea Hoffman likes animals, and she wanted to learn more about them.
“The relationship that we have with animals, it’s a symbiotic relationship that’s evolved over time,” she says. “I feel a deep respect and connection with them.”
Hoffman grew up in Seattle but spent half of her time during high school—and one year afterward—on a ranch in Winthrop, in north central Washington, where she worked with horses. She came to The Evergreen State College in Olympia to learn about sustainable agriculture.
Evergreen students have been practicing sustainable agriculture at their on-site organic farm since the early ’70s. Students developed their own ag curriculum back then, inspired by a homestead on the Evergreen campus where the 3-acre farm is located. In 1981, the college instituted the Ecological Agriculture program, a three-quarter-long course of study that alternates every other year with another program, called Practice of Sustainable Agriculture. Together, they give students a full picture of how to farm sustainably.
Students in Practice of Sustainable Agriculture work the organic farm. They plant the seeds in the spring. In the summer and early fall they harvest a diverse assortment of organic vegetables, tree fruit, berries, herbs, fungi, chicken and duck eggs, vegetable seeds, and grains. The farm relies on their sales at Evergreen’s campus farm stand as well as a 20-week CSA and weekly deliveries to Evergreen’s food services and student-run cafe.
“We fund our own operations, ” says Melissa Barker, farm manager and faculty member. “It’s a real operational farm, not a play farm, so the business aspect is stressed.”
Evergreen’s student-driven learning system gives students a chance to establish their own projects, which also drives a lot of the work on the farm. Over the years, students have planned and built a community garden, permaculture garden, biodiesel facility, compost facility, composting toilet, cob oven, and processing kitchen. “It allows students to create an idea, develop it, share it, and make it a reality,” says Barker.
Chickens, ducks, and other small livestock have always been a part of the organic farm, but students like Hoffman who were interested in animal husbandry and more extensive livestock management really got to delve into all aspects last year in Ecological Agriculture. The program was taught by Steve Scheuerell, a soil scientist, and Mike Paros, a large animal vet, who sought to raise his students’ awareness of the crucial role that animals play in sustainability.
“Urbanization has separated feed from animals,” says Paros. “The feed is imported, and it’s grown with fertilizers, instead of being fertilized by the animals. In the old days they used manure to fertilize the grain and alfalfa that they used to feed the animals.”
Paros introduced students to a wide variety of farm operations. They visited organic CSAs, small and large-scale organic dairy farms, and small and large conventional dairy farms. They traveled to Three Mile Canyon in Boardman, Oregon, a 93,000-acre sustainable farm with 16,000 dairy cows, and visited Skagit River Ranch in Sedro Woolley, where they ate grass-fed beef. Some of the students rode horses to see rangeland cattle. The class even toured a large egg production facility and a feedlot.
“To speculate on a feedlot and never to visit a feedlot, is a shame,” says Paros, pointing out that a lot of the students in the class came from urban areas. Many were not interested in livestock agriculture at all, or had a negative view of it, but they also did not have a lot of exposure.
“They come in with a black and white view of agriculture,” says Paros, “but once students get to know the farmers, they have a different view. They see a real farmer, not a fictional character.”
As the class was coming to an end, Paros proposed an ongoing project to the students.
“Mike Paros had the idea of a student-run sheep flock, which was something that I was very interested in,” says Hoffman. “We then built in the details and got more students together.”
A small group of students formed the ESSAA, Evergreen Students for Sustainable Animal Agriculture, a student club that manages a flock of pastured sheep—18 Suffolk-cross ewes and a ram—the first and only active student organization at Evergreen that produces and sells meat. Paros helped connect the students with local farmers who had spare pastures where the sheep could graze, and the group rotates the flock between three locations. This gives the students a connection to the local community and lets them practice what they’ve learned about pasture management, grazing, and raising animals in a stress-free environment.
Last summer, Hoffman and Jesse Robbins, a former ESSAA member who has since graduated, talked about the sheep at one of these pastures on a farm just north of Centralia. It was a sunny day, and the ewes and lambs were grazing and sort of lounging around in a big patch of shade.
“The cool thing about all of this (gesturing to the sheep) is really being able to apply what you’re learning,” says Hoffman, who admits that managing a flock of sheep is more complex than what she expected. “I thought that putting animals on pasture is a natural cycle that just works, but a lot more thought and planning goes into it.”
For every decision, the group works together to come up with the most sustainable, natural method of raising the sheep. They chose not to dock the lambs’ tails, for example, even though tail-docking is a common industry practice. All the breeding is accomplished by natural methods instead of using artificial insemination, and the lambs are exclusively grass-finished, primarily through grazing.
“It’s mostly about raising grass, growing a crop of grass,” says Hoffman.
In order to make sure the ewes and lambs are getting what they need nutritionally, the students have learned to identify grasses and gauge their nutritional content as well as the amount of grazing each can withstand. They supplement with locally grown grass silage when necessary.
“Each pasture is its own ecosystem. You really have to integrate the needs of the animals with the lifecycle of the plant,” she says, “It’s always more complex than it is in the book.”
Working with the flock also gives them a chance to contribute positively to the local food system, and they encourage people to visit.
“Local food systems need people that know the farmers. Labels like organic and grass-fed are necessary because people are so far removed from the production of their food,” says Robbins. “Labels would be totally unnecessary if people came out and saw these sheep and met Alea and talked to her or someone who knows about the sheep and how they’re raised.”
Hoffman has moved on to another program this year, but she continues to lead the group, which now has seven core members and 10-15 people participating in different aspects of production. Their second group of lambs was born in February, and they will be selling half and whole lambs again this August by custom slaughter. It looks like they will sell out quickly: According to Hoffman, last year’s customers are ordering twice as much this year.
“I’m constantly learning,” says Hoffman. Asked if there was anything she was surprised to learn, she says, “I’ve learned that it’s as rewarding as I thought it would be. Now, having gone through the whole process, it’s really satisfying. You helped raise this lamb, and finally, you’re eating it and it tastes good.”
Heidi Broadhead writes for Amazon’s books blog, Omnivoracious, and Fantagraphics’ BEASTS! series.