Farming by God's DesignMay 31, 2019
Story by Leann Burke
Photos by Daniel Vasta
Local organic farmer Jerry Steckler, 58, herded chicks around his chicken house one April afternoon as he worked to build a larger enclosure for his flock of Cornish cross broilers. He’d purchased the chicks a couple of weeks earlier a few days after they hatched, and would spend the next month and a half raising them on a steady diet of grass and other organic feed before butchering them. That April day, the chicks were little puffs about the size of softballs and were nearly ready to take to the pasture. When it came time to butcher them a month later, they’d tripled in size.
Unlike conventional livestock farmers, Jerry relies on nature and his roughly 225 acres of grassy pastures to feed his livestock at Steckler Grassfed in Dale, where animal inhabitants include the broilers, two flocks of laying hens, herds of dairy cattle and herds of sheep. In pens, Jerry also raises whey-fed pork, which he feeds cheese waste from the on-site cheese-making process that uses milk from his dairy cows. The pigs root around and would destroy his pastures if they were free-range.
To manage his land, he rotates his animals from pasture to pasture throughout the warmer months. The chickens eat the insects, so he has no need for pesticides, and the cows and sheep both eat different greens, so rotating the herds protects the pastures from overgrazing. When the weather turns cold, he moves the animals inside the barns where he feeds them a grain-free diet.
It’s a method of farming not common to the area, but to Jerry, it’s farming the way God intended for it to be.
“To me, it’s almost a reverence to God’s creation,” Jerry said. “We can work with that and not against that. If we don’t, we’ll never survive. We’ll starve ourselves out.”
Today, Jerry looks at grass-fed, organic farming as his calling, and he loves being able to provide healthier animal products for people in our area. But he didn’t always farm that way.
Steckler grew up on a conventional dairy farm. In 1987, he and his late wife, Marsha, who passed away three years ago, bought a farm of their own about a mile from where Jerry grew up. There, Jerry raised corn and soybeans that he fed his cattle and other livestock.
They raised their seven children — Charmian Klem of Bretzville, 38; Rachel Waninger of Ferdinand, 32; Shelly Hedinger of Mariah Hill, 33; Jill Sermersheim of Huntingburg, 30; Lindsay Hoffman of Dale, 27; Isaac Steckler of Ferdinand, 23; and Lezlie Steckler of Dale, 19 — on the farm, where the kids were expected to help with the hours of daily work that goes into farming. Now, Lezlie is the only one still living on the farm, but the siblings still help out. Shelly helps with the cheese-making process, and the family gathers three times a year to butcher birds — twice for chickens and once for turkeys.
“We learned to work really, really hard, and to have fun doing it,” Charmian said.
Charmian still remembers when Jerry decided to switch from conventional farming to his organic grass-fed model. It was 1994, and Jerry attended a seminar sponsored by Purdue University on rotational grazing.
Something clicked in his mind, and he decided to convert his farm. The conversion took years, and involved phasing out his crops to create pastures and building miles of fencing to help manage the livestock. That was a lot of work, too, but afterward, it seemed like the livestock took less work.
With conventional farming, Charmian pointed out, farmers have to feed their livestock every day. With grass-fed, you just let the animals into the pasture and let them feed themselves. Then, a few hours later, you move them to a different area.
That doesn’t mean that organic, grass-fed farming is easy. There’s a lot of land management and ecosystem monitoring that goes into it. And you have to keep an eye on the animals for bloat, especially in early spring when there’s a lot of clover in the fields.
But as long as you can keep the system balanced, Jerry said, it works great.
“Nature takes care of itself,” Jerry said. “The design is there. [This farming] is the new, old way of thinking.”
Economically, Jerry said, it’s a “tough road to hoe.” A lot of government programs that aid farmers are geared toward conventional methods, so there’s not as much help out there for drought years or other hard years. A few times, Jerry said, he’s had to rely on grants to keep the farm going.
“I’ve just always taken it on faith that this will work out,” Jerry said. “And it has, one way or another.”
But Jerry is hopeful that economically, organic farming will become easier as more and more farmers latch onto the idea. He’s already seeing the trend shift as younger generations take over family farms and as consumers demand organic, healthier foods.
Consumer demand for products like Jerry’s has been steadily increasing, too, with organic foods representing a $50 billion industry in 2018, according to the Organic Market Analysis Association. And there is science behind the claim that grass-fed is healthier. Organic milk and grass-fed meat and eggs have more omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for the heart. Jerry has also found that customers of his who have food sensitivities to meat or dairy can eat his products without issue.
As Jerry saw the difference his products made for his customers, he’s added more products. The Stecklers launched their grass-fed system with broiler chickens in 1995, spurred by Marsha’s dissatisfaction with store-bought meat. He added sheep that year, too, so he could rotate them in the pastures with his dairy herds. But it wasn’t until 2007 that Jerry got the farm certified organic. The next year, he started making cheese on-site to offer alongside the milk. In 2012, he started offering beef harvested from dairy cows who could no longer produce milk. He also butchers the laying hens when they can no longer lay eggs. He also offers lamb, pork and turkeys.
Animals are butchered as needed throughout the year. The larger livestock is sent to a local butcher to be processed before coming back to the farm or being shipped to local grocery stores. The birds are butchered on-site in a certified outdoor facility.
That was the fate of the broiler chicks Jerry was working with in April. On a Saturday morning in mid-May, five of Jerry’s daughters; his girlfriend of two years, Leshia Singer; and family friend Trent Owens gathered at the farm to butcher the chickens that were tiny chicks just two months before. Cornish cross chickens are bred for those short lives. A cross between Cornish hens to have a double breast and rock roosters for size, the chickens become too large for their organs to sustain them within a couple of months, so Jerry makes sure to butcher them at about seven weeks.
The process is quick and as painless as possible, with the birds being turned upside down — which naturally induces a trancelike state — before Jerry cuts their throats. The birds lose consciousness in a few seconds and are dead in a couple of minutes. Then, the family processes the meat in an assembly line before packaging it on-site for the farm store.
It’s a messy process, but Jerry does his best to make sure his animals’ deaths come as quickly and humanely as possible.
“You learn really quickly as a farmer that animals have their place,” Jerry said. “But we still definitely need to respect them.”
Part of that respect for Jerry is making sure his animals live their lives in an environment as close to the one God created for them as possible. That means the products Jerry sells come from free-range animals that are kept healthy naturally without growth hormone or antibiotics.
In Jerry’s opinion, farming according to God’s plan is better for the animals and creates food that’s healthier for us.
“In general, if we can follow that God design, we can stay healthy,” Jerry said.
Jerry sells all his products at an on-site farm store, as well as in grocery stores throughout Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky.
Although he already offers a variety of products, he’s always looking for something new to add or a new method of farming to try. Most recently, he’s been building his own mobile chicken coops for his laying hens, and looking into a structured water system to filter water he uses on his farm more naturally.
“It’s really just trying to get a better understanding of how God designed things to work together,” Jerry said of the water system.
But he’s hesitant to add anything that requires more work. Now that all of his children are adults, he’s the only one left working full time on the farm. He’s getting older, too, so the 14-hour days are becoming harder to handle.
“I tell him you’ve got to get some help,” Leshia said. “But he doesn’t want to quit. He knows this is his calling.”
He is looking for help, though, specifically someone who can manage the broilers. Ideally, he’d like someone to take over that part of the farm and organize it so that the chickens can be butchered during the week and taken to farmers markets on the weekends. As it is now, the chickens have to be butchered on the weekend because that’s when Jerry’s family and friends are available to help.
Jerry also wants someone to help with the online store for the farm, specifically setting up drop points throughout the area to deliver products and to amp up marketing.
As for him, he’d like to be able to be outside working with the land and animals as much as he can. He loves seeing how different systems in nature all work together, and he said he’s always praying to ask God to reveal more of how nature works.
“I think creation is the first Gospel that Jesus ever wrote,” Jerry said. “Being in nature makes me feel close to God.”
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