by Pat Malin
NORTH BROOKFIELD, NY — A flock of white turkey hens is busy clucking, loudly announcing the arrival of a visitor to Happy Pasture Farm. Yet they remain blissfully unaware of the impending holidays and their fate.
Happy Pasture Farm raises and sells grass-fed, free range turkeys, ducks, chickens, guinea hens, pigs, rabbits and replacement heifers. It is gearing up for its first Thanksgiving and the outlook is favorable — for the farmer, that is. For the first time since Henry (Hank) Szewczyk Jr. began this endeavor last January, he has the enviable task of keeping up with demand. “Ever since the fourth of July, we’ve been busy,” Szewczyk said. “It’s been all word of mouth.”
He was astounded when a customer from New Jersey arrived at the farm recently. “They really loaded up on sausage and kielbasa,” he said, smiling. “They said they had not had a good meal since they moved (to the U.S.) from Poland five or six years ago. They found us by using their GPS. They couldn’t believe they could buy directly from the farmer.”
Apparently, they discovered Happy Pasture Farm while traveling through the area and seeing a new Utica-based monthly magazine, Mohawk Valley Living, which is based on a weekly TV show. The producers and hosts, Lance and Sherry Whitney and Richard Enders, visited the farm while touring Madison County. The magazine’s November edition highlighted several local farms and the TV show was broadcast on a recent Sunday.
Szewczyk (pronounced Chev-zik), who hails from rural Paris Hill in Oneida County, was a conventional dairy farmer for 12 years, milking 70 cows on 250 acres in North Brookfield. But by 2009, he was drowning in bills and the future looked extremely bleak.
“My last milk check was for $9.24 in December 2009,” he said. “It seemed everything was going belly up. I had two kids in diapers and I had to do something. I couldn’t afford to hire an extra man. It’s bad enough to be working all day and just breaking even, but I wasn’t coming close to that.”
He sold off most of his cows, but kept some beef heifers and concentrated on growing hay and grain. Meanwhile, he and his partner, Tanya Giedraitis, considered alternatives. Giedraitis, 39, a Brookfield native, fortunately has had a steady job for the last 10 years as a dietician-technician at Upstate Cerebral Palsy in Sauquoit.
Szewczyk, 37, said he looked around at neighboring farms and noticed their success growing organic vegetables, meats and homemade goods. “I’d watch as 20 people lined up waiting to buy their bread. So I started going to the farmer’s markets and checking out the meat vendors and their prices.”
He admitted he was surprised at the success these vendors enjoyed. “This was quality, instead of quantity,” commented Giedraitis. “We wanted to grow smaller quantities of (food) at higher quality. They’re all grass-fed and grain finished.”
Szewczyk and Giedraitis began purchasing and breeding turkeys, guinea hens, cornish hens, broiler chickens, ducks, pigs and rabbits. They are raised on pasture and get personal attention. “They were born with hooves, not sneakers,” Szewczyk said, explaining why they’re given free range. They are fed limited grains with no chemicals, hormones or antibiotics. At night and during the coldest parts of winter, the animals are housed in the barn, although they still have spacious and well-ventilated quarters.
Szewczyk said he got “pointers” from his veterinarian, but he felt he had no resources to draw upon when he started his new business. He couldn’t ask fellow farmers which breeds of chickens to raise or to divulge the secrets to their success. “You can’t get the truth from a future competitor,” he insisted.
“We didn’t know how it would go,” Giedraitis added. She admits they’re still learning. “We don’t have any method.” On a rare occasion when an animal gets sick, they treat it and return it to health by using antibiotics. But they won’t sell the animal; they keep it for their own consumption.
By last January, they were confident enough to open Happy Pasture Farm to the public. They set up a small retail store in their home. They keep two freezers stocked with ground beef, beef patties, ribs, roasts, steaks, sausages, hams, bacon, pork, chops, poultry and eggs. They are open from 9-9, seven days a week. They also make deliveries.
Happy Pasture Farm has a flock of about 300 Long Island Reds and New Hampshire hens. There are just 26 pigs and 70 cows. The cows and pigs are sent to a USDA slaughterhouse nearby, while the poultry is processed on the farm in a clean, safe environment.
Szewczyk and Giedraitis plan to spend considerable time this winter selling their products at indoor farmer’s markets in Poolville, Hamilton and Utica. They already sell their meats at a small neighborhood grocery in Utica’s inner city.
Nearly a year into his new operation, Szewczyk is pleased with his progress. He works just as hard on the farm, but enjoys more free time. “I get eight hours of sleep now!”
The couple now has three toddlers, Hanky, 4; Stella, 3; and Dolores, 1. Recently, when their son got sick, Szewczyk and Giedraitis could drop everything and take him immediately to the hospital. “We didn’t have to worry about Hank staying home to milk the cows,” said Giedraitis.
Henry Szewczyk Sr., a retired dairy farmer originally from nearby Clinton, is part of the extended family at Happy Pasture. “He watches the kids and does machinery repairs, fieldwork and general barn chores,” said Hank. “He enjoys working (with and) repairing his old tractors. I wanted to be a farmer too because of my father’s influence.” Giedraitis’s son, Addison, 15, also helps on the farm.
The couple is determined to make their farm a self-sufficient operation and ensure a quality of life for all its occupants, two-legged and four-legged alike. As Giedraitis noted, their animals lead productive lives into adulthood. “We don’t sell veal, suckling pigs or babies,” she said.
In more ways than one, life is good at Happy Pasture Farm.