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CRAFT Tour: Balsam Gardens and Pastured Poultry

November 19, 2012

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It was a rainy Saturday afternoonon September 29th for the CRAFT tour at Balsam Gardens, but that didn’t stop our dedicated CRAFT members from making the trip, nor did it detract from Steven Baltram’s  and Becca Nestler’s ability to provide a rich and insightful look into Raising Poultry on their small scale farm. Huge thanks to both of them for inviting us onto their farm and into their home for a truly personal and informative farm tour.

Balsam Gardens began when Becca and Steven moved to their property in Sylva in 2007. They took their first step into farming by setting up a stand at the nearby Sylva Tailgate Market in 2008. As the farm has grown they have moved into selling their produce and meats at the Waynesville Farmer’s Market, to some restaurants, a few distributors, and in a 30 family CSA. This will be the third season that Steven and Becca have worked for the farm full-time during the summer, but Steven will continue picking up carpentry work in the winters. After sticking to vegetables the first few years, they began to add animals three years ago and started with 3 batches of 50 broilers and 2 pigs. This year they have raised 30 pigs, close to 1300 broilers, 200 laying hens, and 200 turkeys.

ImageFollowing a brief introduction to the history of Balsam Gardens, we stopped to see the poultry processing equipment that Steven set up to demonstrate how they process the chickens and turkeys on the farm. Thanks to a grant they received from the Western North Carolina Agricultural Options program they were able to purchase killing cones, a scalder, and plucker machine. The killing cones are a circle of inverted metal cones where the bird processing begins. A bird is placed upside down in each cone with its head sticking out the bottom (there are two different size cones for chickens and turkeys). Then, they cut the main vein in the bird’s neck with a scalpel, and the blood drains out into collectors underneath the cones. This way instead of buying blood meal as a nitrogen addendum to their fields they’re sourcing it right on their farm!

Once the bird has died and the blood has drained, the carcass is moved to the scalder where it is dipped in water at 145°F for about 45 seconds. Steven and Becca’s propane scalder is large enough to scald 4 chickens at a time, and has a thermostat that regulates the temperature so it stays a consistent 145°F. Steven explained that if the water is too hot, the skin will tear when plucked but if it’s not hot enough the feathers will not come out as easily backing up the processing line.

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The next stop for the carcass is the plucker which looks like half a barrel with a rotating floor. The sides are covered with rubber finger-like attachments that catch and pull out the feathers as the birds tumble around inside. It only takes 30 seconds to de-feather 4 chickens in this thing. Removing feathers by hand is the most time consuming part of processing chickens, which is why Steven recommends that of these three pieces of equipment the plucker is the most vital purchase. The killing cones and scalder while still necessary can be rigged with a little creative thinking. But if you’re going to process large batches of chickens several times a year, a plucker would be a wise investment.

One or two people are able to run these three steps of the process. Next to the trio of equipment they set up two stainless steel folding tables. Here, one person preens the bird, or cleans off its remaining feathers, pulls off the head and cuts off the feet. The bird carcass is sent down the table where it is eviscerated, or all the organs are removed. Finally, the bird is rinsed, shrink bagged and labeled for sale. The chickens are then sold at the tailgate markets and through the meat share in the CSA, while the turkeys are pre-ordered by customers and picked up in time for Thanksgiving.

ImageAfter walking through their poultry processing method, we visited the laying hens. Steven explained that he parked the layers on a plot where his crop of beets was overtaken by crabgrass. At Balsam Gardens they purchase their laying hens, a Red Sex Link breed, as pullets for $6 because Steven found it’s cheaper than the $11 it takes to raise a chick to laying age. For their broilers or meat chickens they raise the traditional Cornish Rock Cross, and Broad Breasted White turkeys.

When asked how they keep their poultry healthy Steven explained that getting a nutrient balanced feed that has the right protein percentage is essential. They are able to have their grain feed custom mixed at a local mill in Sylva. “There is nothing higher risk than raising turkeys,” Steven told us, due to their disease susceptibility and predation when they’re young. When doing chores they will typically visit the turkeys first to cut down on carrying diseases, like Blackhead, that might be present in the chicken flocks to the turkeys. Blackhead is a protozoon that will kill all of your turkeys and persist in the field for up to 4 years once it is present.

ImageThen, we hopped in a few cars and traveled 7 miles down the road to a field Becca and Steven rent from Vegenui Farm. This year’s cycle of crop failures and repeated owl attacks on their poultry gave Steven and Becca a crisis of perspective. They began to rethink using the traditional pastured poultry model on Balsam Gardens, and decided they needed a more integrated system between their vegetable and animal production methods for their scale of farming. Instead of trucking in chicken liter from around the country, why not use the resources they already had on the farm! After crunching the numbers a bit, Steven found he could raise up to 4,000 chickens on an acre of garden space, and get 20 tons of chicken manure to add organic matter to the soil. A no brainer!

So, they converted the shelters for the turkeys into turkey tractors by closing off the ends. Each tractor is 10 feet wide covering two beds and pathways, and is rotated across the garden so it covers every inch of space. The birds are kept fairly dense for maximum impact, but are moved frequently. They are considering supplementing the diet of the turkeys by cutting and carrying in plant material since they no longer have as much access to open pasture, after they see how the quality of the meat changes after this year. To keep predators out, the three turkey tractors are surrounded by a 48 inch tall Premier 1 moveable electric mesh fence, that they to charge with a 1 joule suitcase style solar charger.

With the rain setting in again, Becca and Steven welcomed us into their home where we enjoyed another delicious and abundant potluck complete with a Balsam Gardens roast turkey! Thank you to those who were able to come and to Becca, Steven and the Balsam Gardens crew for sharing their poultry wisdom and hosting such a great CRAFT event!

CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers and their interns networking and learning opportunities. Membership is rolling, so join anytime! For more information or to join, click here.  Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Assistant at 828.338.9465 or cameron@organicgrowersschool.org.

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