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Organic farmer at home on the range

August 23, 1998|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

McCONNELLSBURG, Pa. - Michael Binder and his career have constantly been on the move.

He was a geologist in the Alaskan oil fields, then a home builder in the cold wilds of northern New Hampshire. Now he is an organic farmer on a Civil War-era farm he bought last summer in Fulton County, Pa.

Binder, 41, hopes to create a "sustainable agriculture" operation on his farm in Cito, a village of farm families off U.S. 522 four miles south of McConnellsburg.

His plan is to raise livestock and crops that will bring income with a self-imposed condition that what he sells for human consumption will be raised without inorganic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.

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Take his chickens, for example. He raises them on the range, a couple of hundred at a time, in 3-foot-high pens measuring 12 feet by 12 feet that he moves a few feet twice a day.

"It's an ideal poultry-pasture technique," Binder said. "The chickens grow better, have firmer meat and the manure, spread in light doses, is excellent pasture fertilizer." He said it takes eight weeks to grow a broiler to market weight of about 4 pounds.

Binder kills and processes about 25 chickens at a time for people who prefer his birds over those raised in commercial conditions, he said.

"I usually let my customers know the day before I kill the chickens," he said.

In the next few weeks he will bring in 25 turkey poults to raise for the holiday season. They, too, will grow up on the range.

In the same pasture is a large, tentlike pen fenced on the sides and top. Inside are 300 young pheasants.

They'll be full-grown by early November, in time for the fall hunting season. Binder will sell some for meat and some to private hunting preserves.

A pheasant hunter himself, he is trying to re-establish natural habitat on his farm.

"I'll keep a few birds to hunt for myself and my friends," he said.

He sells fresh eggs from the 30 laying hens in a coop near the house. He also is raising 18 dairy heifers that he plans to sell when they reach milking age.

About the only livestock on the farm that don't carry their weight are five horses, including a pony for his kids, a 28-year-old Morgan horse that his wife, Sarah, bought when it was 6 months old, and a Belgian mare and her 3-month-old foal.

"They're lawn ornaments," Binder said.

He sells vegetables from a large garden near the house with rows of sweet corn, white and sweet potatoes, peas, green beans, squash, tomatoes and pumpkins.

He also plants crops for livestock, including wheat and hay. He put up 10,000 bales of hay he plans to sell to horse owners over the winter, he said.

"A lot of what I'm doing here is experimental. I'm trying to start small with a variety of enterprises," he said.

Binder will go back to his contracting work in the winter months. "I'll be doing small jobs for people around here," he said.

He was born in York County, Pa., and wanted to return to his roots, he said. He and his wife looked at farms in York, Lancaster and Franklin counties in Pennsylvania before they bought the one-time family homestead of Hollis Mellott. Mellott still comes around to make sure Binder is taking good care of the place, he said.

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