Sharon Palmer: Healthy Family Farms, Santa Paula
By Joanie Blaxter
I asked Sharon Palmer of Healthy Family Farms why, after both her marriage and the mortgage business she shared with her husband collapsed 10 years ago, she chose to go into sustainable farming. After all, she had no land, no equipment, no buildings and three small children to support. Without a moment’s hesitation she split a big grin: “For the community of it!”
“Community?” I repeated blankly, thinking about solo farmers driving tractors over hundreds of acres. “What do you mean?”
Her arms circled to include her house, gardens and barns. “What could be better than this? The entire neighborhood comes here. My neighbors help with the work. Their kids play with my kids every day. We have animals to take care of. I get to feed people. What could be more important than growing good food to feed people?”
As a single woman in a male-dominated profession, Palmer’s entire farm definitely has a woman’s touch. The barn has a clothcovered worktable, matching overstuffed couch and chairs and walls decorated with framed paintings and string lights. “I want my workers to be comfortable,” she said.
Healthy Family Farms has been in business nine years, four at the current 60-acre location in Santa Paula. Small and diversified, it sells through seven farmers’ markets and a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. With 4,000 egg layers and 1,000 meat birds, the majority of her sales are poultry, although Sharon also offers lamb, pork, rabbit, duck, beef and organic vegetables.
“You have to know your animals and if you don’t protect them appropriately, it’s like sticking your toddler in the middle of the highway!” Sharon passionately declared. “We don’t lose babies here.”
Not an easy feat without the use of medications. This approach, she says, allows her animals to live out their “destiny.” Destiny? “How they’re meant by nature to live,” she clarified. “You have to know your animals and if you’re truly committed to giving them what they deserve, they don’t need to experience fear.” To increase profit, typically farm animals are separated from their mother as soon as possible. For example, piglets are weaned between the ages of 16 and 30 days; Sharon’s, however, are 3–4 months old.
“When the certifier from the Humane Farm Animal Care organization was here she wanted to know how long before my piglets are weaned and I didn’t know why she was asking. I passed!” Sharon’s eyes sparkled. “Just this last year our sheep and pigs both tripled their birth numbers.” Sharon pointed to her feeders. “You see how they’re all off the ground? That’s very important to keep animals from getting parasites.” Bright orange hollowed-out pumpkin shells, a natural de-wormer, dot the enclosures everywhere, and are organically grown onsite. According to Sharon, other than grain, the majority of animal feed comes from the gardens at Healthy Family Farms.
At least one dog accompanied us wherever we went. Sharon’s first location for her farm in Fillmore was plagued with well problems. When she moved to her current location in Santa Paula four years ago, she lost over 1,000 birds, half her laying hens, in a single night to the resident mountain lion. “The Trail of White Death” she called it. The six months it took to rebuild her flock was a huge financial loss. But now with the protection of her four working dogs, resident donkey and two llamas, she’s had no further problems.
“If you’re going to have a healthy bird, the first month is critical. They need to be protected from sun, wind, rain and cold,” she said. Two-week-old chicks are moved into their own sturdy shack. The floor is thickly covered with clean sawdust, food and water hang from the ceiling and the wire-protected sides are opened during the day and closed at night. Inside are several space heaters. The birds “need access to fresh air and water that’s always moving, that’s very important,” Sharon said, pointing to specially installed waterers. “That’s another mistake a lot of farmers make. Still or stagnant water is a breeding ground for disease.”
At 1 month of age, the birds are moved to a larger enclosure. Planted in the broilers’ 3,000-square-foot fenced-in area are 12 orange and lemon trees. “The trees provide both shade and food for the birds. Chickens absolutely need to be able to take dust baths. That’s how they de-mite themselves.”
A longterm frustration for Sharon has been finding high-quality feed. For example, she believes soy to be much too challenging to a chicken’s digestive process to produce a truly healthy bird. After a long search she finally found a supplier that custom mixes her own soyfree, non-GMO recipe including high-protein whey and pea, flax, essential minerals, etc.
To compensate for the lack of green grass during summers, Sharon invested $25,000 in a computerized, hydroponic seed sprouting system from which she harvests two to three tons weekly. The chickens, as well as the ducks, rabbits, pigs and sheep, all enjoy fresh organic barley sprouts daily. Highly unusual for a farm is the number of “nonworking” rescue animals: llamas, emus, horses, cats, one blind kitten (anonymously dropped at her gate) and a … geep? Sharon laughed. “Oh, my kids named him Dumbo. He’s a sheep/goat cross. I got a call from the Humane Society awhile back to pick up animals from a farm doing extreme inbreeding.” I get the impression Sharon gets a lot of those calls. Also unlike many farms, Sharon takes the time to host regular farm tours for anyone who would like to see her operation (see the website for the schedule).
Plans for the future? Many! Sharon is acquiring a caged quail operation but must build an appropriate aviary for them first, since all Sharon’s birds are cage-free. She also would like to construct a root cellar and begin a canning business. “Like an old-time farm,” she declared proudly.