Farming is a privilege for Milan and Emilie Young. And they express the commitment to their chosen way of life in the motto they’ve selected for their Sojourn Farms: “Farming because we get to.”
Part of their motivation comes from the desire to know where their food comes from, which means either growing or raising as much as they can themselves. But they think it’s not enough just to grow their own food; they want to create a sustainable enterprise. So here in the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains of southwestern Oregon, the couple are raising their children—four-year-old Jack and one-year-old Ingrid (a third child is due in September)—as well as chickens and turkeys that they raise organically on pasture then sell to local customers. It’s a way of life that the Youngs work hard at and cherish.
“We want to raise our kids in a good environment,” Milan said. They began their enterprise after settling into their rural home—a 100-acre farm previously owned by Emilie’s family—after their marriage in 2007. “The farm was here and the place where we were going to live,” said Milan. Although he works from home as a software engineer, the couple wanted the farm to be more than a hobby and to develop a sustainable farm-based income stream.
After considering a variety of farm products, they settled on pasture-raised poultry. Because the word ‘sojourn’ means a temporary stay, it seemed an appropriate name for their farm. “With the turkeys and chickens—the livestock—they come and go,” Emilie explained.
The adventure has proven to be a learning experience. “We definitely have had our struggles,” Milan said. In their first year, they brought in chicks in March—way too early for the pastured poultry approach to raising birds.
“The weather was the biggest thing. On April 29,we had 2 to 3 inches of snow,” Emilie recalled. “The tiny chicks were just days old.” And the couple struggled to keep them warm and healthy. “It takes hours and hours of time to keep them clean,” she added.
They raise their birds in moveable pens designed and built by Milan, and move the pens twice a day to provide the birds with fresh grass and keep them out of their own manure. “In my opinion, organic methods are mainly about avoiding the use of antibiotics,” he said. “You have to keep them out of their waste or they are going to die.”
The bird season begins when the first of up to three batches of chicks arrive as the weather warms, anytime from about late April to early May. The new chicks are kept indoors for about a week, and then it’s outside to a moveable pen equipped with what the Youngs call a “hover.”
The Chick “Hover”
This is a temporary brooder box rigged with heat lamps that hang inside the pen, giving the days-old chicks a warm refuge from the elements. In a few weeks, they’re on their own in the pens, feeding on bugs, worms and grass with organic feed rationed to the fast-growing birds three times a day.
Raising birds outdoors on pasture nurtures a hardier bird, they believe. “If you leave animals indoors too long they won’t develop a taste for grass, Milan said, “You want them to like it.”
They gleaned much of their infor- mation on raising birds from other poultry farmers, in particular Joel Salatin, the Virginia farmer who has pioneered innovative farming techniques at his Polyface Farm. They’ve stayed with varieties that have been bred for their hardiness as well as taste.
Tried & True
“One of the things [Salatin] said is that you can’t start raising some esoteric breed of chicken and expect people to pay $8 a pound,” explained Emi- lie. “We’ve tried heritage breeds, but it costs more to feed them, and you’d have to charge a lot more money.”
So they’ve stuck with the tried and true, raising Cornish cross chickens, which quickly grow to harvest size in about nine to 12 weeks. For the turkeys, they’ve chosen heritage varieties, including Bourbon Reds and Narragansetts. Unlike the chickens, the turkeys—with wings clipped to keep them from flying off into the forest are allowed to run free in a pasture. “They’ve turned out well, and the customers like them,” said Milan.
It’s important for the Youngs to raise the birds as birds, not as caged food funnels. In contrast, commercial birds “sit all the time at a trough,” explained Emilie. “None of ours are like that. They all run, and they’re robust and lively.”
“Or, as Joe Salatin puts it, ‘they fulfill their chickeness,’” Milan said.
Currently, the Youngs raise about 250 chickens and 25 turkeys a year, As Emilie put it, the number they raise “boils down to how many hours there are in a day.”
Because they sell their birds directly to customers,theYoungs technicallysell them while they are still alive by tak- ing pre-orders. Once the birds are sold, they set up a butchering day and make arrangements for customers to pick up their birds from the cooler.
Milan studied European poul- try butchering practices to come up with the most humane, efficient and sanitary way to get the job done. “We have a big stainless steel facility that I built,” he explained. “When the birds are butchered, they touch nothing but stainless steel and air.”
It’s important to the Youngs that farming be a real job, not just a hobby farm. “We want to teach the kids that it can be a profession,” said Milan. “Our goal is to have a lifestyle sustainable from the farm and farm income, but it’s hard. We want it to be real.” They constantly seek to improve their farming techniques and products. But the reality for them about raising birds is that hard work isn’t quite enough.
A New Venture
“I was pretty sure that if we produced a product for a reasonable price, it would sell. And I initially thought that we could scale it up and sustain it,” Milan said. “But you don’t make a whole lot of money on poultry.” Although, added Emilie, “turkeys are definitely more profitable.”
So, in addition to raising birds, they have a complementary business, using their farm as a venue for weddings, family reunions and other gatherings. Their own wedding reception in 2007, held inside their 100-year-old former dairy barn, proved to be the best test of the concept.
“We got a lot of good feedback on our own wedding,” Emilie said. The couple realized that people like the idea of being on a working farm. Their goal is to open their farm to no more than 15 events each season, which they limit to the warmer months of the year.
Perhaps the biggest lesson that the Youngs have learned so far is that “it’s harder being a farmer than we anticipated,” Milan said. “In order to stay interested, you have to be innovative.”
WHAT’S A WWOOFER?
Running a large farm is a lot of work. Helping the Youngs run the show are two WWOOFers. What’s a WWOOFer? They’re volunteers who seek to learn about organic farming by living and working with host families. In exchange for the help, the hosts provide room and board as well as hands-on experience in farming.
“We had an ad on the WWOOF-USA site that was very successful,” Milan said. “About every week we got an application. Then it took about a year to find Jamie and Dan.”
For New Yorkers Jamie Dea and Dan Howard, Sojourn Farms provides an opportunity to hone their farm skills in a new region of the country. “We were looking for a new post and a great place to stay,” explained Jamie. “It is good work and fits a lot of our interests.” In particular, her work experience includes event planning as well as website design.
“When I lived in New York City, I had a bad job with a one-hour commute across the bridge,” Dan said. “It was a thankless office job. I like the outdoors and animals.”
WWOOFing, they said, provides a window to new places and experiences. “It opens up opportunities in life, and especially to travel,” Jamie added. “WWOOFing leads to personal growth and allows you to give back to the community.”
Having help that takes an interest in their family farm also keeps Milan and Emilie more focused and excited about their endeavor, they said. “Jamie and Dan are a lot of help—you can really double yourself,” emphasized Milan.