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Sustainable farming keeps the farmer alive

Cow-a-hen farmer Bill Callahan interacting with customers at the farmer’s market.
May 20, 2015

Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Voices of Central PA

Bill Callahan’s alarm sounds at 5:30 every morning. He takes time for reading and reflection, and then goes out to feed his animals.

Callahan has lived on the 100-acre Cow-a-Hen farm for the last 34 years. He considers himself a sustainable farmer, allowing his “critters” to graze the land and avoiding the use of herbicides.
However, he does not practice sustainability because it’s a hot-topic, or because of his personal ethics, or because he wants to create a better tomorrow. He practices sustainability because 22 years ago he realized the hazards of unsustainable farming.
“There was a pair of herbicides back at that time that came in a pack about the size of a teabag, and mixed with water, they would burn everything within two acres,” he said. “And I’m getting to think about it, ‘Do I really want to be anywhere close to something like that?’”
He continued to say that he didn’t want to risk his life with such potent chemicals. He explained that farmers are notoriously susceptible to the long-term effects of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, and that well documented health conditions can be tracked back to them. “I just decided that I didn’t want to be another one.” 
Callahan also sees sustainability as a challenge, and he’s not one to turn down a challenge. He started to transition his farm to become more sustainable in the early 90s, and explained he didn’t have all of the tools and knowledge we have now to help him out.
“Initially, we started off grazing cattle and that was kind of heresy at the time. Everyone said you have to finish with grain; well… no you don’t,” he said with a chuckle. He explained that cattle can finish on grass just as well as they can finish with grain. It just takes a little more skill and a different phenotype of cattle than what you would find on a grain-fed farm.
Callahan also has a distinctive philosophy when it comes to what his animals eat. “The approach we’ve always taken is there’s no such thing as a weed,” he said. “There are a lot of alternative forages out there. They’re not weeds, and the
challenge becomes to find something that eats everything that grows there.”
One of Callahan’s newest experiments, sheep, has helped him to meet this challenge. He’s had them for about a year and seems to be impressed with how they’ve turned out.“
All that stuff that was out there that nothing else would touch – the sheep clean it up pretty nicely,” he said. He said if he didn’t like them, they would have been back on the market without a second thought. Callahan, who grew up on a dairy
farm, has a sense of humor about his relationship with animals.. He said that pigs, for example, can definitely be peskier than others. “They’ll destroy anything they come in contact with and that can be aggravating,” he said. “The pig has 24 hours
a day to lay out there and figure out how he can aggravate the pig herder.”
“The pesky ones we eat,” he said with a smirk. “Aggravation will get an animal out of my place very quickly.”
Despite his jokes, his farm and his critters are his pride and joy. At the Boalsburg Farmer’s Market he greets his customers by name and with a smile. With his apparent passion for farming, his long white beard, and a lifetime of trust from his clients, they keep coming back for more. “I’m just an old farmer,” he said, “perfectly content on the farm.”

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