Michael Conner and Marcie Boettger own and operate Sarahsway Farm in Gilbertsville, PA. They farm 280+ acres of hay and are currently transitioning to organic.
Can you tell us a bit about your operation?
Michael: We started this operation in June 2013. We started leasing the farm, just the land and the barn initially. We tried some wheat and rye and didn’t have success with it but that’s because we didn’t know then what we know now. We didn’t like the fact that you had to use the conventional way of chemicals; burn it down, spray this, plant this, spray it again so we just stopped doing it. We didn’t like that and didn’t feel comfortable with it so we quit. We then just grew grass and hay. We were doing hay all along but then just stuck with making hay. We specialize in making really good quality horse hay that’s dry. We don’t usually have people come back with any mold or dust issues because we take the time to get it dry. We don’t spray hay with a drying agent.
What is your inspiration to become certified organic?
Marcie: The way I look at it is that you need to work with nature and not against it. I am all about the birds and the bees, the butterflies and the bats, the worms, and the microbes in the earth. We should all be working together. What’s been ringing in my head the last couple days is a Joni Mitchell song, A Big Yellow Taxi. There’s a line in it about “farmer farmer put away your DDT. I’ll take spots on my apples. Leave me the birds and the bees please.” That’s the way I operate. I am the type of person that when there is a spider in the house I put it in a cup and carry it outside.
Michael: The motivation is similar but then there are some differences. For me, I just didn’t understand why we had to keep spraying Roundup on a product to then plant it and then spray Roundup on it again. I didn’t feel comfortable with it. I just chose not to grow those items because I didn’t feel right inside for signing on to that method. The reason to transition and become certified organic…the fact is that we all know there’s a movement but on top of that, through this process of learning, I learned that you don’t have to do that (use chemicals). I didn’t know that before. I had to get educated. The education of going to Rodale and learning about cover cropping. And now listening to Rick Clark, innovative no-till farmer, and his scientific tests of cereal rye and how if we wait a little longer it has all the nitrogen that it needs. That’s what’s gotten me fired up. Let’s do this thing and let’s change the planet.
Marcie: My little motto in life is: Learn, grow, mature. Even before we started growing our own crops, it was: how can you justify putting something in your body that’s been sprayed with Roundup? People wonder why they have so many health ailments, it’s probably because of that.
What has been the biggest stumbling block to certification and how are you working to overcome it?
Michael: The hardest stumbling block was the lack of education that was out there about how to become certified. I fell victim to the rumor mill and I had heard guys say for years that “it was $20,000 to get certified and you have to do this and that.” I just listened to the misinformation instead of finding out for myself. The information needs to be more widely available with the details that it’s very inexpensive. If I had known this I would have searched this out a long time ago. I didn’t do my due diligence and I have learned my lesson. With everything we are now doing our due diligence on our own. We listen to people, but then we will go verify and not just “drink the Kool Aid.”
What advice would you give another farmer considering transitioning to organic?
Michael: Read the Lancaster Farming. Read the back of a Kashi cereal box. Kashi is paying transitional farmers more money even when they are in transition to support them. Bell and Evans is now paying transitional farmers more for their transitional grain because they want everything organic and from Pennsylvania. What they might have thought was a hurdle really is not a hurdle. Plus, the other side to it is, if they are looking at they won’t get paid any more- they don’t have to spend the money on herbicides and pesticides so you are still getting more money because you are saving money.
We all know that farming is extremely hard work, often requiring long days in difficult conditions. What motivates you to get up each day and keep going?
Marcie: To be out in nature. I don’t care how hard the work is. We have a work ethic to beat the band. The satisfaction at the end of the day when you’ve gotten your crop in and it looks great, smells great and you’ve beat the weather. It’s a really awesome feeling, even if you are exhausted, because you’ve accomplished it. It’s a great feeling to be productive like that and be out in nature the whole time.
Michael: If you love what you do it’s not work. I love what I do: number 1. It’s the fact of enjoying what God has given us and being able to meet every challenge. For attitude, I have a never surrender attitude. There’s always a solution and there is always a way to overcome every obstacle. You just have to keep going.
Is there anyone who has influenced you in your farming journey that you want to tell us about?
Marcie: My grandfather before I was even around was a dairy farmer and then of course we had horses as little kids. Michael would spend summers as a teenager working on the farm. My grandfather taught Michael how to repair all the equipment, use the equipment and to make hay.
Michael: To hear a guy like Rick Clark talk- I just want to emulate that. I am looking forward to the day that I can drive into 6ft cereal rye with my no till drill planting green and then I can come back after germination and roll it down. That’s going to be amazing!
Are there any fundamental farming “lessons” that you have learned in your farming career that you would like to share with farmers who will read your interview?
Michael: Buying new equipment. If you say you can’t afford it, you will never be able to afford it. We had old equipment and were going to start with it. We couldn’t get it fixed fast enough. We were getting ready for our first harvest and started looking and saw a New Holland ad in Lancaster Farming. I traded in all of my old equipment and it was all in pieces. I bought an entire package of new equipment. Because of that I never had the equipment failures where you are in the field working on the equipment until midnight and then you are a day or more behind.
There’s a strategy with payments. Let’s say you buy a tractor with a 3-year trade in. You trade it in before the 3rd payment is due you don’t have to pay the 3rd payment because usually the tractor is worth more than I owe. So I never paid the 3rd payment yet I used the tractor for 3 years. If you get an annual payment on the new one, you basically get to skip another payment. It’s the 4th year, you’ve paid only 2 payments and you have had 4 years of new equipment.
About This Story
Marcie and Michael are working with Sam Malriat, Organic Crop Consultant at the Rodale Institute, through the FREE consulting service program available to Pennsylvania farmers transitioning to organic. Farmers that are interested in receiving consulting services can contact the Rodale Institute directly at 610-683-1400 or e-mail Sam at email@example.com. Wherever they may be in their transition to organic, or if they are starting a new farming endeavor altogether, Rodale Institute aims to support farmers and landowners that strive to be good stewards of the land. Consultations typically begin with a phone call, followed by a site visit and initial discussion session.
This article originally ran in the fall 2019 issue of Organic Matters, the magazine of the PCO.