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Architect, farmer design portable shelters

WATKINS GLEN--Shannon Ratcliff and her partner Walter Adam call life on their organic farm "a different world." That would be an understatement for this former Manhattan couple who met in the city and fashioned the dream of owning a farm. Ratcliff, an architect, and Adam, a businessman, bought their 130-acre farm in 2011 during the dead of winter while it was still covered with snow.
Ratcliff, smiling, says, "It wasn't a good idea." When the snow melted, the "pasture land" was nothing but brambles and rubble. The land had lain fallow for over 20 years. The barn had blown over with all the equipment in it. Coyotes roamed through the unfenced acreage. "People thought we were hilarious," says Ratcliff, "stupid, crazy, driving in here in our red Volvo pulling a little trailer with baby sheep."
But the couple not only survived, through ingenuity, hard work and help from others, they thrived and Ratcliff has been finding ways to apply her architectural skills to farming. She has just been awarded her third competitive grant for the design and construction of portable animal housing from Food Animal Concerns Trust, or FACT. FACT is a small Chicago-based non-profit whose mission is to improve animal welfare by increasing the number of farm animals that are raised humanely.
Why portable shelters? Because ShannonBrook Farm practices managed intensive rotational grazing (MIRG), a way of grazing domesticated animals in pasturelands, rotating different species in ways that mutually benefit the animals and the land.
Ratcliff explains how it works. "Say we need to grow better grass. We pasture our chickens in that area. They scratch and fertilize and the next season, better grass grows. Then we can put our sheep there and they graze on the new grass. When we want to turn brambles and old growth into pastureland, we let our four Scottish cattle graze there. They are old gene cattle and they can eat twigs and bushes, very coarse stuff. Just by letting them graze, they turn useless wild land into pasture. Our pigs help too. When the ground is too dry and packed down, we put the pigs in that space. They root around and fertilize and help the grass to grow."
Can chickens fly? Yes, laying hens can, says Ratcliff. Her first invention, a mobile hen house, accommodates the needs of these birds she calls "athletic." From a high perch inside their wagon-like hen house, the birds can take flight and glide through an open door into fresh pasture land.
Are pigs clean? They are in a house built by Ratcliff. Her second invention of two identical 8' x 10' portable pig huts provides shelter in cold winter weather and shade during the summer. When the area around the hut gets dirty and muddy, the hut is moved to clean ground. Ratcliff explains this avoids the parasite larva in dirty pens that can mature and infect the animal. "You time the movement of the pens to the life cycle of the parasites," she says. "You end up with cleaner food, and these pigs hardly ever get sick."
Do hogs live in A frames? Ratcliff's will. Her third invention, still on the drawing board, is a portable shelter for farrowing sows. She borrowed parts of the design from a 1940 A frame design and added her own improvements.
Ratcliff feels indebted to many people who helped her learn how to farm. Brett Chedzoy, Schuyler County Senior Resource Educator with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, was instrumental in teaching her the theory as well as the practical "how-to's" of MIRG.
Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens of Lakeview Organic Grains in Penn Yan are supportive friends and mentors. "They have been in the business for over 20 years," Ratcliff explained. "Without them, I might have gotten discouraged and given up."
But she is grateful most of all, she says, for her next door neighbor, retired farmer Nelson Pratt. Ratcliff says, "Without Nelson, I don't know how we would have gotten started. In the beginning, he came by most every day. Nelson taught us everything, even the most basic things like how to drive a tractor, how to cut firewood, what kind of a bucket works best, just about everything." Ratcliff says that now Nelson feels like family. She is amazed at his willingness to give so much time, energy and attention just to help a neighbor.
Ratcliff and Adam are feeling more confident than ever their farm will go on being successful in the future. They have 110 breeding ewes, 150 to 200 laying hens, four Scottish Highland cattle, three guardian dogs (and four cats). Each year they raise about 60 pigs, 2,000 broiler chickens and 200 pekin ducks.
Within the coming years the couple hopes to expand their operation and use more of the forest land. They explain only about half of their 130 acres are now being used. The unused portion is a combination of forest and brush. The goal is to combine the forest land with the grazing operation so groves of trees become an animal shelter. She explains, "It's like the forest itself can take the place of a barn." Different varieties of trees can also become part of the farm income. Christmas trees and timber can be harvested. Nuts can be gathered. When forest is combined with pasture in a MIRG operation it is called a "silvopasture."
Ratcliff says she has not yet found a way to share her architectural inventions with others. She wishes there were a clearinghouse or organization where this kind of information could be shared.
The farm welcomes visitors. Just call ahead for a tour or to buy eggs, chicken, pork, duck, and lamb.

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