Organic: A Better Way to Grow

An interview with Donna Stoltzfoos by Makayla Boyd

When you eat a tomato, do you really know what you are eating?  Sure, it may taste good, but was it once covered pesticides or synthetic fertilizers?  Or does it contain modified genes to make it resistant to herbivores or the cold weather or hormones to make it grow larger?  Today, people are becoming more and more aware of what they eat and consumers are realizing that foods produced by conventional means may be not the healthiest foods available.  This is one reason why organic foods are becoming more popular.  These foods are “grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation” [1].

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Outside of the Fairgrounds Farmer’s Market in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Personally, I would rather eat something grown naturally without the use of pesticides or genetically modified seeds for the fear of these being harmful to me and future generations.  This is the main reason why I wanted to understand more about the process of organic farming and how someone becomes an organic farmer.  I contacted a friend whose family owns a stand at the Fairgrounds Farmers Market in Reading, Pennsylvania, and she gave me Donna Stoltzfoos’ phone number.  Donna and her family own an indoor organic food stand at the market.  After calling Donna, we agreed to meet at the market and then drive to her farm.  She enthusiastically explained, “You need to see both the farm where the food is produced and the stand where it was sold.”

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The right side of the Country Lane stand. Included at this side of the stand are a variety of milks, yogurts, eggs, meats, and poultry.

When I arrived at the Stoltzfoos’ stand, the first thing I noticed was a sign hanging behind the meat counter that read “Organic: A Better Way to Grow”.  The stand was named Country Lane Poultry and Produce.  Donna greeted me with a cheerful smile and introduced me to the small girl who had been trailing behind her.  This was Abby, her youngest daughter.

She and Abby then took the time to walk me through the items sold at her stand.  She began at the right end where the cold goods were kept, including a variety of organic milks, yogurts, eggs and finally the meats.  Donna explained, “The milks and yogurts come from other farmers, but most of it is produced locally and I only buy from people I trust.  I wouldn’t sell anything to my customers that I wouldn’t feed my children.”  Their main contribution to the stand was the poultry and eggs.  The Stoltzfoos’ farm is actually named Country Lane Poultry and they butcher approximately eighty chickens per week to be taken to the market.

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The sign above the produce section (top) and some of the fruits sold at the Stoltzfoos’ strand (bottom).  DSC_0095

Donna then proceeded to walked me through the remaining items at her stand, which largely included a colorful array of organic produce.  All of produce came from other farmers, some local and some from California.  Again, Donna explained that the produce was obtained only from farmers she trusted.  Included at the stand were apples, oranges, kiwis, pears, and even grapes, an item she named as one of the “dirty dozen”.  “The dirty dozen,” she explained, “are foods that must be sprayed because their skin is simply too thin to withstand the environment and survive long enough to be eaten.”  The last section of the stand was named the Country Lane Pantry.  This section contained various organic household goods, such as dish soap, soups and ketchup and even some organic packaged snacks.

From the market, I followed Donna to her home in Denver, Pennsylvania.  As we drove, I noticed how the landscape changed from that of a bustling city into rolling farmland.  Upon pulling into the Stoltzfoos’ gravel driveway, I saw a large red barn to my right and Donna’s home to my left.

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The barn on the Country Lane Poultry Farm.

Donna had previously explained to me that her chickens were kept in the barn in large sectioned spaces until spring because the weather was too cold and they would become fatty if allowed to roam outside.

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The baby peeps within the barn. They are kept under a heat light to stay warm during the winter.

I was unsure whether this barn actually contained animals because I did not hear the ensemble of chucks that I expected from a barn full of chickens.  However, after a tour of the barn by Donna’s father, Grandpa Leroy, I learned that the barn was in fact full of chickens.  They chickens were divided into sections within the barn.  The brown, egg-laying hens were kept in a house that allowed for the separation of the eggs so that they could be packaged and taken to the market.  The other chickens that were raised for meat were separated based on age.  The baby peeps were kept in the back under a heat light.  They also had separate divisions for the two week chickens, and four week chickens, and then chickens that were ready for the market.

Abby then walked me into their home, where I was introduced to two more of Donna’s younger children, Faith and Caleb.  Donna arrived shortly after I did and while she was preparing for the interview, I glanced out of the window, and saw several pigs walking about in a pen.  “You can go out and see them,” Donna said while smiling, “but be sure to bring something to feed them or they will be angry.”  I declined her offer for the moment, but explained that I would certainly visit the pigs before leaving.  “I wish you could see it in the spring,” she said, “when all of the chickens are also outside.”

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The pigs on the Stoltzfoos’ farm. When I went to the gate, the pigs came running up because they expected food.

A short time later, I found myself sitting across from Donna in her kitchen, her gently leaning forward with her fingers laced together on the kitchen table, prepared to answer any of my questions.  I began by asking, “Is farming something you have done all of your life?”

“Well, I married a farmer,” Donna responded with a laugh, “I grew up farming different.  My grandparents owned an orchard and I learned a lot about produce and selling it.”  Donna continued by explaining that her husband, Norman Stoltzfoos, was at one point an animal farmer.  “He had another job for some time,” she said, “but he wanted to be at home more and work at home so that’s when we started raising organic chicken.  That was back in 1991.”  She mentioned that her husband’s cousin was an organic turkey farmer.  They made the decision to raise chickens because Norman’s cousin was able to help them get started and this was a way for her husband to spend more time with the family.  They chose to grow organic chickens because they believed this was a better way to grow food.  The Stoltzfoo’s realized in 1991 what many people today are just beginning to realize: foods covered with pesticides and other synthetic chemicals may not be the way to go.  As Donna explained, “When you eat out, you never know what kind of food you are getting.  I always joke with my husband and tell him that he is never allowed to feed me any chicken other than his.  It tastes much better than chicken grown by conventional means.”

“So how did you end up at this farm?” I asked.

“Well, we used to grow for a bigger company, said Donna, “We raised thousands of organic chickens.  But we wanted to sell straight to the consumer because we felt like that company took too much of the farmer’s money.  They were the middle man.  They would butcher the chicken and package it and put a name on it.  The company was actually featured on a magazine cover and we looked at that and said, ‘man, that’s our chicken’. We raised that chicken but they put their name on it.  That’s when we started thinking that we could raise our own chickens to sell.”  Donna continued by explaining that this was the turning point in their lives.  They began to raise their own chickens on their farm in Lancaster to sell at outdoor markets in Philly and West Chester, and later sold at indoor markets because they could produce food year round.  This was when they started to sell at the Fairgrounds Farmer’s Market, and three years ago, they choose to move to Denver because they wanted to be closer to the market.

I continued the interview by asking questions about the process of farming organically and specifically the meats produced on her farm.  To gain a better knowledge of the practices that would occur on organic farms, I asked, “What makes something organic?”

“Let’s start with the soil,” Donna said, graciously willing to answer my question thoroughly, “The soil can’t have harmful things added to it to kill the weeds.  We’re very labor intensive here.  If we have weeds, well, guess what we pull them out by hand or we use a rototiller to cut the weeds, instead of using chemicals.  In the past, I’ve had people roll their eyes when I tell them the price of my heirloom tomatoes.  But you know what; we worked hard for those heirloom tomatoes.  We pulled the weeds by hand and we hoed them.  You are paying someone to do your dirty work, and we work really hard to bring this product here.  We worked hard to grow these beautiful, tasty heirloom tomatoes you just can’t get any other place.  I’m not here to grow cheap food because the only way you can do it is with shortcuts with the animal, the feed, or the environment.”  Donna also mentioned that conventional farmers use chemicals to kill the weeds, but those chemicals not stay on the plants.  They enter the ground and can run off into the nearby creek and eventually end up in the Chesapeake Bay, making it unbalanced.

“That’s just one aspect.” she said, “It is also about how you care for the soil.”  She explained that the same crops should not be planted in a field year after year because they can drain the soil of nutrients.  “You want to rotate it and maintain a healthy soil,” she said, “We need to preserve the earth for future generations and loading it with chemicals or destroying the soil is not going to keep the earth healthy.”

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Non-GMO label. Click image for more information.

The next aspect of organic farming that Donna addressed was the seeds.  “Do you want to use heirloom seeds that have been around or generations,” she said, “or do you want to mess with genetically modified seeds?  We are messing with Mother Nature in this regard.  It’s scary because the genetic modified foods haven’t been tested enough to know if these are healthy.”  She also explained that California recently passed a law that genetically modified foods do not need to be labeled.  “We fought hard for these foods to be labeled,” she said, “but lost that battle.  So the organic farmers came up with their own label that identifies foods as non-GMO”, she said pointing to a cereal box on the table that was labeled “Non-GMO”.  I was able to deduce from the letters that GMO means genetically modified organism.

“What about your animals,” I asked, “what makes them organic?” 

“Concerning the care of the animals,” explained Donna, “we are more than organic.  You can say you have an organic chicken or a pig or steer but then keep it inside.”  She said that as long as the weather permits, the chickens are outside pecking at the ground for food.  Donna explained that her chickens are free range and grass-fed, but that they do supplement the chickens with grains and soy because it takes too long for them to grow.  “The conventional owners only want money,” she said, “They jam as many chickens in a house as possible, do not let them outside, and leave the lighting on so the bird continues to eat and to grow.”

Donna continued by explaining that her family has a system for raising the birds so that they have enough chickens for the market each week. “We have this cycle,” she said, “and my family and boys know how to do it.  Not that we’ve had perfect mortality rates.  Sometimes diseases come through and we have to fight that naturally.  We are not allowed to give medicines, such as antibiotics, that would affect the meat.  When our animals get sick, they usually die and then we compost them.  It is sad that some companies either load their animals up with antibiotics or butcher the sick animals to use the meat.  Eating meat from a sick animal does not seem safe.”

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The white butchering trailer.

“Humane slaughter,” she said, “is also one of the big things.  The white trailer outside is our butchering unit and we humanely kill our animals.”  She explained that their chickens are not stressed when they are caught because they catch them in the dark so that the chickens are not startled.  “Conventional owners,” Donna explained sadly, “do not care.  Many of the chickens are shipped off with broken wings because of the way they are captured.  I think organic farmers are more alert to how their animals are treated.”

“You really need to know your farmer,” Donna said, “Our slogan is that we are bringing the farmer back to the farmer’s market.  This is why I know my customers by name.  Some people say you should know your farmer’s name and how he farms as well as you know your dentist.  My husband would say pay the farmer or pay the doctor because we feel a lot of diseases are linked to the use of the antibiotics that are fed to animals.”

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Donna and her two youngest daughters. From left to right: Faith, Abby, and Donna Stoltzfoos.

I finished the interview by asking Donna, “How has organic farming changed your life?”

“You realize,” she said, “how related you are to God’s earth.  Our kids understand everything doesn’t come out of a package.  We eat real food.”

Donna also explained that although she must charge higher prices for her organic food, she does realize that some people cannot afford to eat organic.  She said, “This is why we’ve helped at the food bank and donated there so that some people who couldn’t normally eat organic can.  It is always a goal of mine to help others.  I want to be able to give back for how blessed I am.”

[1] Organic Community. “Organic Frequently Asked Questions.” Foerstel Design, n.d. Web. 26 March 2013.

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