by Jane Primerano
If you’re heading north on Route 25 along the Connecticut River, you will pass through the hamlet of East Corinth. You may not notice, since the General Store is identical to other barn-red stores in the Upper Valley to the east of Vermont’s Green Mountains.
On Memorial Day weekend, making a right turn at the store took travelers to a tomato plant sale at Spring Chicken Farm and Knock on Wood Sawworks, the businesses of Betsy and Nick Zanstra.
Betsy starts the plants inside and in handmade frames but vegetables are not her primary interest as a farmer.
She did have a small CSA, but then, “I did a lot of soul-searching about the business,” she said, “the logistics of doing vegetables with a small child were complicated.” The Zanstras have a daughter, Claire, who turned two in January and Betsy is expecting another baby in December. While she and Nick still have a homestead garden, keeping the CSA proved impossible.
Betsy is used to working with animals from when she apprenticed on a farm in coastal Maine, so she brought in heritage poultry, lambs and steers.
Nick Zanstra’s main occupation is harvesting timber and running a sawmill. He built the chicken’s brood box, as well as the other structures needed in the pastures.
“It’s an Ohio brooder,” Betsy said, “with two hard-wired lamps. It holds about 200 chickens.”
Keeping the birds clean is important, Betsy said. She scrubs the water dishes twice a day. The bedding is peat, which has anti-fungal properties.
Once the birds are on grass, Betsy will move them around. She has shelters for them and their area is enclosed with an electric fence, which does a pretty good job keeping predators at bay.
“We have had some problems when the charger fails,” she admitted.
The chickens stay in an enclosure about 250-foot in circumference.
“They forage for bugs and fertilize the pasture,” she noted. “We get a deep blue-green grass. The chickens stay on grass for six weeks.
Betsy and Nick slaughter the birds on-farm under Vermont’s 1,000-bird exemption. The Zanstra’s raise about 500 each year.
“I feel strongly about bringing in the heritage breeds,” she said. “The Cornish cross just lie around and eat. They grow too fast and we lose too many.”
Hers are Silver Barreds, meat cousins of the Barred Rock Laying Hen, and they are all male — at least they were advertised that way. Betsy admits occasionally that does not prove to be the case.
Even pasture-raised chickens need supplemental nutrition. Betsy can buy organic grain from a mill about a half-hour north of her farm.
Although she is careful to use organic feed as supplement for the chickens, Betsy does not operate an organic farm.
“It’s so expensive,” she said, “there’s a lot of paperwork, and in reality the people who know us know what we use. The other thing not technically organic is the fish meal we used as a protein supplement.”
Betsy invites any potential customer to come to the farm and ask questions.
“We market as heritage-bred chickens raised on clean, green pasture and certified organic grain,” she said.
Eventually Betsy would like to breed her own sheep, but that will have to wait until she doesn’t have tiny children running around. She says she made the decision to become a full-time mother, which means staying a part-time farmer.
by Jane Primerano