By Kim Jordan
Snipes Farm and Education Center in Morrisville, PA, was one of five farms awarded grants in April 2013 from The FruitGuys Community Fund, established in 2012 as a fiscally sponsored project of Community Initiatives. An outgrowth of the South San Francisco-based fruit delivery company’s former Farm Steward Program, the Community Fund gives resources to small farms for sustainable agriculture projects that contribute to environmental and economic health.
Snipes Farm and Education Center in Morrisville, Pennsylvania is a veritable hive of activity: the sprawling 110-acre farm includes 30 acres of vegetable plots and fruit orchards that grow food for around 300 Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) members; farm animals provide natural fertilizer and keep weeds down; and, yes, about 10 active beehives are on hand to pollinate the crops.
The pastoral environment almost makes you forget that the farm is located in suburban Bucks County, just 30 minutes north of downtown Philadelphia. In October, I visited the farm and the folks at Snipes were kind enough to show me around.
We started our tour on the bridge overlooking the corn maze, “the least sustainable part of our farm!” Susan Snipes-Wells, current Executive Director, wryly commented. Least sustainable because the same crop is planted year after year with little chance for cover cropping or other soil remediation practices, methods they pay much more attention to on the rest of the farm. Even so, we glimpsed a few areas where the corn stalks looked healthier or the weeds had less of a toehold, giving Susan the chance to point out that these areas of the field briefly housed a chicken coop over the winter or had been planted with a cover crop.
The corn maze is one of many attractions that bring in families and school groups. This is vital, because the mission of Snipes Farm, according to its website, is “to model and teach sustainable farming, while building community and reconnecting people to the land.” The day I visited, Susan was readying a lesson on soil health for a class of seventh graders. Last year, close to a thousand children visited Snipes Farm with school tours as part of an after-school group for summer camp; many more visited with their families during summer music festivals, apple-picking, or fall bonfires. In addition to community education, hundreds of Snipes Farm CSA members participate in volunteer workdays and venture out to pick their own herbs, apples, berries, or cherry tomatoes.
Snipes Farm greatly expanded their menagerie with the addition of cows, sheep, pigs, turkeys, and chickens when The FruitGuys Community Fund awarded the farm a $5,000 grant in April 2013. The money paid for portable electrified fencing that can be moved from field to field allowing for animals to be safely corralled and protecting chickens and turkeys from the occasional fox. Prior to this year, the only animals in residence were chickens.
Toria Harr holds the title of Head Herdswoman at Snipes Farm. She and her partner Shaun O’Brien spent a year training at Brookford Farm, a dairy farm in New Hampshire that emphasizes diversified, organic farming methods. 2013 was the first year Snipes incorporated animal production (other than laying hens) on the farm, hoping to diversify their farm income as well as contribute positively to soil health by adding animals into their crop rotation. The farm also saw it as an opportunity to provide their CSA members with meat from animals that were raised humanely and sustainably.
At the start of the season, Toria (with assistance from Shaun) was charged with caring for six Hereford cows, six lambs (Katahdin, an American heritage breed), six pigs (mainly Large Black, another heritage breed), 75 turkeys, and the farm’s nearly 900 chickens, including 200 egg-laying hens. These birds reside in Cluckingham Palace and do a great job eating up bugs around the orchards and berry bushes. The animals are moved from field to field throughout the planting season: gleaning the leftovers after harvest is done, munching on cover crops planted in fallow fields for their gustatory pleasure, and leaving behind their fertilizer to help out next year’s crops. The animals are also sold to CSA members through a private share agreement. The farmers believe that it is most humane to process the animals in the habitat where they are most comfortable, so they are purchased live and processed on the farm.
So far, the farmers at Snipes are pleased with the outcome: the sheep have happily grazed on a steep hillside that had always threatened to overturn the tractor used to mow it. The fields are benefitting from laying fallow, supporting cover crops such as hairy vetch and rye to feed the chickens, and are now protected from predation by the electrified fencing purchased with The FruitGuys Community Fund grant. The animals are contributing their part to soil fertility, and in the end helping to provide the Snipes family and their CSA members with a bounty of sustainably grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
Toria Harr notes that “The grant gave us the opportunity to comfortably start a new business venture that has made the existing businesses of vegetable agriculture and farm education tremendously more meaningful and sustainable. By implementing the animal program on Snipes Farm, we were able to cut down on mowing and add fertility to the farm, and increase sanitation for our orchard fruit.”