Unexpected Dangers of Farming
Remember how I said I wanted to get more involved with local farms this year? Well, I guess it pays to be careful with your wishes.
A few weeks ago I met Joshua Rockwood for the first time at Bella Napoli in Latham. He’s the owner of West Wind Acres, a small but growing farm on the edge of Schenectady County in the town of West Charlton. Josh didn’t grow up a farmer. He has a background in construction, but he has gotten into farming for all the right reasons.
He wanted to grow healthier food for himself, his family, and his community. And he wanted to do it all in a sustainable way. So all of the animals are raised on pasture and the manure is converted into nutrient-rich soil. He raises chickens, sheep, pigs and cows and all of them are bred to thrive on pasture and endure our harsh winters.
Except this winter was harsher than most. How bad was it? Well, the city of Troy found parts of its main water line frozen several feet underground, and some Lansingburgh residents were without fresh running water for over a week. What does this mean if you have a bunch of pastured animals? Well, as it turns out, the animals are totally fine.
Farmer Josh on the other hand is trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare.
It’s a long story, and you can read the whole thing on his blog. Fundamentally, Josh is a big believe in transparency. He has nothing to hide. Raising animals for meat isn’t always pretty, but if you want to see what goes on, Josh will gladly show you. That an admirable trait.
So when a police officer came by and asked Josh to show him around, he agreed. From there it gets a little complicated. Here’s the timeline.
Wednesday, February 25: Police show up and inquire about unlicensed working dogs, and Josh shows them around the farm. Uninterrupted, Josh would have been off to do afternoon farm chores. So the authorities observe the animals only have frozen water. Hydration tests are given and passed. Still, Josh is given a ticket for “failure to provide proper sustenance.”
Thursday, February 26: In an attempt to get ahead of future problems, Josh calls his veterinarian and makes an appointment for a farm wellness check.
Friday, February 27: The vet comes out, and files a report that all the animals are fine.
Tuesday, March 3: Police return with search warrant for the farm and the house, and Josh was informed that more charges might be brought up against him at court on the following Thursday.
Thursday, March 12: Josh finds himself facing 12 charges in Glenville Town Court that cover problems with drinking water in various frozen states, the lack of available feed, and absence of adequate shelter for the animals in his care. Because Josh still believes in transparency, you can see them all here.
Sunday, March 15: I wanted to drive up to the farm and see this operation for myself. Plus I wanted to buy a couple of chickens and help provide a little more income to the farm in order to defray some legal costs and increased vet bills. But when I arrived, there were more police, and a trailer. Without a trial, and with a clean bill of health from the vet, the authorities seized his horses.
The police want to seize his perfectly healthy pigs, but right now have no place to put them, so they have remained on the farm…for now.
You may be asking yourself, “What the heck is going on here.” I had the same reaction. So I asked a fourth-generation farmer who is also a lawyer (and who was not previously involved with this dispute). Aparently, Josh isn’t the first farmer of pastured meats who is facing this kind of challenge.
This whole thing is a problem for smaller scale farmers that pasture their animals and often have animals sheltered outdoors during the winter. There are many studies showing that animals can actually thrive outdoors in winter conditions so long as provided with adequate shelter and food. I can see this is baby calves who live in hutches outdoors. They actually are very bright and grow well and strong in calf hutches where they are protected from germy indoor barn conditions, drafts. Yet, if a non-farmer sees a calf living outdoors in a hutch during the winter, they freak out.
There are also some proponents now of keeping herds of dairy cows in semi-shelters and outdoors. So, if this is done, will we then face easy prosecution by local busy bodies who think animals should be indoors all the time? We also have the pastured pig movement where it might be an option for farmers to make some money and some good local meat. I saw Stephanie Strom of the NY Times tweeting a few weeks ago about how great it was to see pigs on pasture using their snouts to break ice to get water. OK, [but the] same comment in Schenectady County could land the farmer in the prosecution situation!!!
The irony of all this is that Josh is being charged with cruelty to animals and not providing them proper sustenance. Yet in many states it’s perfectly okay to keep pigs in gestation crates. Here in New York, it’s standard practice to keep chickens in unthinkably small cages. And I don’t even want to get into what passes for animal feed. The care and feeding that Josh’s animals get don’t seem to be the issue.
It would appear that what’s happening here is that his way of farming doesn’t look like the way it is conventionally done.
I don’t know if you are outraged by what feels like government overreach and a miscarriage of justice. But if you want to help, you can do a few things.
1) Reach out to Josh and West Wind Acres over social media just to voice your support. This is an incredibly difficult time for him and his family, and it’s reassuring to know that people are behind him.
2) Visit the farm this weekend and see the animals for yourself. Just call ahead to make sure there isn’t another police action on the farm.
3) Buy his meat. Amazingly, though all of this, the farm is still making deliveries to Delmar, Latham, Rensselaer, Troy, Clifton Park, Schenectady, Malta, etc. Of course, you could also buy some while at the farm.
4) Finally, Josh is hoping some people will show up to his hearing at the Glenville Town Hall March 24 at 5:30 pm.
Farming can be dangerous. Mrs. Fussy grew up in a farming community. People lose eyes, fingers and limbs. Tractors roll over and crush their riders. And let’s not forget all those deer ticks. Lyme disease is no joke.
But this legal handwringing isn’t the kind of thing anyone signs up for when they make a commitment to honor the land and try to improve the health and wellbeing of us all.
Talk about a thankless job.
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3/18/15 Addendum: The From Scratch Club dug up a podcast about West Wind Acres in their archive. If you want to hear farmer Josh talk about his farm, his animals, and what he does, you should listen.
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3/19/15 Addendum & edits: The From Scratch Club has shared another story on West Wind Acres from their archive. Also while the days of the week in my timeline above were correct, I had the dates a little jumbled. Wednesday, Thursday & Friday are February 25, 26 & 27 and not 23, 24 & 25 as previously posted. Thanks to @upstateashley for the catch.
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3/21/15 Addendum: West Wind Acres has begun a GoFundMe Legal Defense Fund. I could make an appeal for your support, but this blog has done a much better job of that than I ever could.