Harley Farms

Family approach, natural approach at Harley Farms

KEENE – Harley Farm is sustainable from the ground up.

That might sound redundant. Of course their business runs from the ground up. It’s a farm, after all.

But the Harley family is a different breed with a unique approach to livestock farming, meaning the ground they steward – 1,300 acres of soil stretching along both sides of Heritage Line north of Keene – is particularly vital.

All they have is the ground and what grows on it. There are no barns for shelter. Their cattle, pigs and sheep live outdoors, 24/7, 365 days a year.

The operation is also entirely organic. No pesticides. No chemical fertilizer. No genetically modified seeds.

It is, Roger Harley believes, the largest-scale farm in the country that operates on those principles. The Harleys currently have 700 pigs (with plans to double that number next year), nearly 700 sheep and 200 head of cattle.

Innovation makes it work.

Roger and his son, 23-year-old James Harley, explain the ins and outs of the operation as we sit under a bright blue sky in front of the plain, neatly efficient retail store where a small percentage of the meat they produce is sold directly to the public.

Humane treatment of the animals is the key to their marketing success, Roger says.

They are the only farm in Ontario certified for humane animal care by the SPCA (Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and AWA (Animal Welfare Approved) audit programs.

Animals are happiest and healthiest when they live outside, the Harleys say. But that means selecting the right animals.

They use two breeds of cattle. Belted Galloways are native to the cold, blustery highlands of Scotland; “old style” British Herefords are from the England-Wales border area.

“You can take a Blonde Aquitaine cow (from the south of France) and you can put it outside and say, ‘Oh, it’s looking fine in the summer.’” Roger says.

“At minus 40 it will be shivering in the corner and looking dead. That is not animal welfare, that’s bloody cruelty.”

Their pigs are reddish brown and hairy, not “pink and naked” like pigs in a barn. Some live in the woods. They are, as Roger notes, clean and happy . . . and they don’t stink.

Pigs are social animals so they do have huts. Knocked together out of two-by-fours and plywood, the huts cover about 50 square feet and serve five or six animals. When it’s time to move the pigs to a new field the huts and electric fencing can be rolled up and reassembled in a single day.

Moving the pigs is an essential part of the Harley Farm system. It is, the two men agree, all about rotation.

None of the acreage ever lies fallow. About a third is pasture for the animals. Some is planted in forage crops and vegetables for feed. Ever innovative, the main Harley forage is sorghum, a hardy plant originally from Africa that does well in varied climates.

Pigs are the primary fertilizers so they move twice a year. The rest of the rotation is annual: pigs, then forage crops, then hay, then cattle or sheep, then pigs again.

No animal barns means very small energy bills. There are no buildings to heat, light or cool.

Solar battery packs about the size of a lunch box power the electric fences.

The Harleys buy their tractors from Germany, where strict environmental regulations have resulted in clean, high efficiency diesel tractors that cut fuel costs by a third.

All the family works the farm: mother Julie, daughter Emily and James’s partner, Jessica Farrell. Julie and Jessica are also nurses and Emily is a student in the Fleming College health and fitness program.

Working as a family is rewarding, Roger says, particularly when everyone is committed to the outdoor, all-natural approach.

“Some days when it’s pouring with rain, blowing a gale, you think: ‘What the hell am I doing out here?’ ” he says. “But then you get a day like today, there’s no better place to be.”

This is one of a series of articles commissioned and paid for by Sustainable Peterborough and published in partnership with The Peterborough Examiner. By Jim Hendry, Peterborough Examiner, original article published Saturday, October 8, 2016.