While some farms confine their animals to small crates and crowded pens, sheep at Heatherhope Farm in Sycamore are free to stretch their legs and graze the pastures.
Heatherhope Farm is managed by retired pastor John Seraphine, who is one of 10 local farmers supported by Crate Free Illinois, which is working to create awareness about the differences between traditional farmers and concentrated animal feeding operations, where animals are confined.
Crate Free Illinois aims to help people buy directly from local farmers via its new mobile app – which includes a variety of options for DeKalb County residents.
“We believe in pasture-raised,” Seraphine said. “We believe in sheep and other ruminants have evolved over thousands and thousands of years to live on grass, so we practice what you might call intensive pasture management or grass management. You take good care of the grass and the pasture, and when needed, you don’t permit them to overgraze.”
Some of the local farms in the county on the Crate Free Illinois app include Knutson Farms in Malta, Wissman Organic Farm in Waterman, Whitfield’s Family Farm in Hinckley, Larson’s Country Market in Sandwich, and Farm Direct in Maple Park.
The sheep at Heatherhope are sheared for their wool and sold for meat.
“I think if you do confinement right, you can keep your animals healthy,” Seraphine said. “If you do the free range and you manage it well, you’re also keeping them healthy, but there is that kind of emotional side to it. It’s more satisfying in an emotional way to see sheep or cattle living a way they were evolved to live over thousands of years – to be out grazing.”
Animals raised on factory farms
often are limited to tight, crowded quarters, where they are deprived of basic necessities, according to Crate Free Illinois, which is begging factory farmers to implement more humane practices.
Letting animals wander has its benefits for the land, too, Seraphine said, who trains herding dogs to keep his sheep moving.
“One of the things that is destroyed by confinement is the place of livestock in a diversified system. When you raise something on a field, the animals help to break the cycle of the weeds. They’re grazing on grass rather than corn. They’re breaking the cycle of the worms, and the manure helps to fertilize the ground,” Seraphine said. “In the agriculture we do now, we’ve lost that whole rotation of the fields.”
Although Heatherhope is only a small farm, Seraphine feels strongly about keeping animals comfortable, off antibiotics whenever possible, and, above all, healthy.
“We originally got into the sheep because of the sheep dogs, but once we got into the sheep, we wanted to do it right,” he said. “Even though we have a small operation, we try to be evangelists about sharing the idea of healthy stock management.”
The Crate Free Illinois mobile app is the first of its kind to help Illinois consumers find local options to buy meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farmers who do not subject their animals to inhumane, extreme confinement methods, according to the release. Consumers can type in their ZIP code and locate nearby farmers, farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture shares, as well as learn how to volunteer and support the organization’s efforts.
David Ouellette of Batavia volunteers for the nonprofit Crate Free Illinois. Ouellette said it’s important for consumers to know where their food comes from, and understand what the words on packaging mean. It’s also a good idea to support local farmers whenever possible, he said.
He said he likes the Crate Free group’s proactive approach.
“They (Crate Free Illinois) approach the problem of today’s factory farm industry and CAFO facilities with optimism and a pragmatic attitude,” Ouellette said. “They didn’t want to broadcast the issues just for the sake of awareness; they also wanted to come up with solutions that could be implemented right now.”
For more information, visit CrateFreeIL.org.