Raising EMMA

By Angela Madaras

Husband and wife team, Mark Skowronski and Michelle Kahlenberg, own and operate a small sustainable farm, called EMMA Acres, west of Ann Arbor proper in the beautiful farming community of Manchester. They raise primarily heritage breed livestock in a sustainable and humane way. Their organic practices are inspired by the likes of Joel Salatin. It is no surprise that with so many health-related illnesses being linked to inflammatory conditions, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders (like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis) that these scientifically minded farmers found the perfect prescription for keeping their family, community, land, and animals healthy and happy.

Mark’s previous career was in the field of environmental science. He is now the full-time farmer, cook, and “stay-at-home” dad. Michelle Kahlenberg, M.D., Ph.D., is a rheumatologist and assistant professor in the school of medicine at U-M, where she also runs a lupus research lab. The two of them understand the importance of food and how it directly relates to our health. This is where their story becomes personal.


I was diagnosed with systemic lupus in 1985. My mom died of complications related to lupus in 1975. My entire adult life has been about managing this debilitating illness while fighting off the destructive side effects from treatments such as steroids and chemotherapy. Multiple joint replacements, kidney issues, seizures, arthritis, and other maladies are realities of my condition’s destructive behavior. Thankfully I was taught at an early age how to eat in a healthy way, and learned that weeding the garden can be a powerful form of therapy. This is why, at age 19, I got into sustainable agriculture, natural modalities, and healthy cooking. My garden is my sanctuary. My longtime rheumatologist Dr. Joe McCune, who heads U-M’s Comprehensive Lupus Program, told me a few years back about EMMA Acres Farm, and how I should meet this young farming family. It wasn’t until I began working on this article that I realized the connection.

I spent a couple hours with Mark on the farm getting to know a little about their incredibly active lives. He was just returning from school after dropping off the kids. While we were touring the farm, he watered and fed the animals, collected eggs, turned sheep out to pasture, opened up the barns, and received a call from the post office telling him his chicks had arrived. I could see the care that goes into each detail and every animal. He introduced me to the pregnant floppy eared sows that were lovingly fed and serenaded by classical music coming from the barn’s boom box. Hens were running about eating bugs from the grass, and the sheep moved from one well-managed pasture to another filled with clover and dandelions. I asked Mark to share his philosophy of farming, and he replied, “Know the basics, and then adapt it to your property and lifestyle.” I had a ton of questions for him:

Why the name EMMA Acres?
It’s an acronym representing the first letter of each member of our family: Emerson, Michelle, Mark, and Adyn. Michelle and I both grew up on farms; I was one of nine raised on a subsistence farm in Amish country in northeast Ohio, and Michelle grew up on a row crop farm in the former Black Swamp area of northwest Ohio. We met in college at Denison University in Ohio. We both love food in all its stages: growing, caring, harvesting, preparing, and eating it, especially with family and friends. I feel strongly that people, especially children, should be taught about where real food comes from, how it should be raised, and why we are raising livestock for meat. All of our animals are given food names to drive that point home. Our piglets are “baby bacons” and the meat chickens are “pasture-raised fried chicken.”

Why did you decide to leave your career and start EMMA Acres with your family in 2011? 
We discussed early on in our relationship back in college in the mid-1990s that we wanted to raise our children on a farm so they could have some of the experiences that we had growing up (experience real work, raise animals, have wide open spaces to play). We also began cooking and really getting into good, wholesome, healthy ingredients. As our careers progressed, life got crazy and our young son was spending more time at the baby sitter’s than with us. In 2008, we decided to make a major change and I left my career to become a full-time dad with the plan to eventually buy a farm. When the real-estate market crashed, land prices dropped, and an opportunity arose sooner than we anticipated, buying a farm.

Can you describe your farm?
We raise all of our animals in an ethical manner, free-range on lush pasture in small numbers to maximize their health and the meat’s nutrition for the folks that eat them. Our animals are happy, healthy, and delicious. Because we are a grass-based farm that practices ecological farming, most of our production occurs in the spring, summer, and fall. In the summer, we also grow vegetables using organic principles. Our lamb and beef are 100 percent grass fed, and our other animals are provided feed to supplement what is not provided entirely by pasture. In the winter, our animals are provided hay. Our hog feed is grown and ground by another local farmer. We also have large brown eggs available from our free-range pastured flock.

What inspires you to farm in this way?
We farm in a manner that improves our environment and provides healthy and delicious food for our family, friends, and community. It’s farming with nature and viewing the farm as an ecological system. I’m most motivated to farm this way because of my children. When I think about what kind of world they are inheriting, it’s easy at times to be pessimistic about the future or our species because of what we are doing to our planet and to each other. So, we all have to figure out what we can do to improve the situation, because we all can in some manner. For me, it’s farming the way we do and being a stay-at-home dad. For Michelle, it’s all of that plus helping patients and investigating some really horrible illnesses.

I initially came back to farming (from my youth) through food and wanting healthy, nutritious, safe, and delicious ingredients. I read a lot of Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin, as well as Wendell Berry, after college. Michael Pollan has a great quote: “You are what what you eat eats.” So, we graze all of our animals as they are naturally prone to do, and it results in really healthy animals that are happy and very tasty. The fat in our grazed chickens and beef is yellow, just like the color of real butter from pasture-raised dairy cows. You can see and taste the difference.

Describe your approach and timing of pasture rotation, and how it relates to soil and human health.
I graze small areas of pasture at a time with multiple species (cattle, sheep, hogs, chickens), then let it rest for about one month before grazing that same area again. This reduces parasite loads because most soil parasites are host dependant. Also, when pastures are grazed, the roots of the plants retract, and then they grow back as the plant grows. This constant dieback and re-growth of roots builds up soil organic matter fairly rapidly by mimicking natural herd movements. Our pastures are very diverse. We overseed with red and white clover to add to all the various grasses, herbs, and, what some call, weeds. I love the so-called weeds because they usually have the deepest tap roots that pull nutrients up from deep in the soil.

We do not feed our cattle corn or soybeans like most farms. Cattle are ruminants, which are designed to eat grass only. Feeding cattle grain dangerously raises the acid level in their rumens creating health conditions such as acidosis, which create prime conditions for the existence of E. Coli. Feeding cattle grain fundamentally changes the meat they produce, greatly increasing levels of unhealthy Omega-6 fatty acids and decreasing levels of healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. This change greatly impacts the healthiness of meat for human consumption. Scientists estimate that our Paleolithic ancestors consumed meat with an Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acid ratio of close to 1:1, and not more than 1:5. When cattle are grass fed and raised on pasture, the ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 is exactly where it should be for a healthy animal and therefore a healthy human eating that animal. These Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and a growing body of evidence-based research is illustrating their benefits for alleviating some autoimmune and inflammation-related diseases and symptoms.

What breeds of livestock do you raise?
I have two sows, Annie and Abby. Annie is a purebred Large Black Hog, which is a rare heritage breed. Abby is half Large Black Hog and half Berkshire, which is also a heritage breed. We have several kinds of meat chickens, all on pasture. Two of the types are heritage breeds: Plymouth Barred Rock and Freedom Rangers.

What is a typical day like for you?
Wake up at 5:30 a.m., do farm chores (feed/water animals), prepare breakfast for family, wake up kids, feed them, drive them to school, return to farm, work on farm projects (rotating animals, fencing, manure management), prep dinner, pick up kids, do farm chores, make dinner, work outside till about 9 p.m., sleep.

Can you describe Michelle’s garden?
The garden is grown with the intent to be able to cook and create any dish with our own ingredients. We try to grow most herbs and some interesting things like okra sweet potatoes. We grow many things in quantities to sell. Michelle likes to experiment with many varieties of heirloom tomatoes and heirloom garlic. We sell kale, chard, cabbage, peppers, shallots, onions, green beans, summer and winter squash, sweet corn, pumpkins, and more. Everything is grown with organic principles. We are proud of leaves with bug bites — they have more antioxidants! Michelle also likes to can and freeze our food for the winter. Her job as a physician offers her the opportunity to discuss healthy living and healthy food in a “practice what you preach” model. Her patients enjoy learning about and discussing the farm.

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My visit to EMMA Acres was amazingly inspirational, personal, and thought- provoking. I went home with a glimmer of hope for our farming and eating community, and for humanity as a whole. As Wendell Berry once said, “Eating is an agricultural act.”  

Mark Skowronski and Michelle Kahlenberg sell directly to the public from the farm. They also sell at Biercamp and Argus Farm Stop. Find them on Facebook, email emma.acres.farm@gmail.com, or call (216) 978-0206. You can also read more about my experience living with lupus at my blog: angelasguide.blogspot.com

For Further Reading: 
www.the-rheumatologist.org/article/rheumatologist-michelle-kahlenberg-md-phd-pursues-rural-dream/
www.med.umich.edu/lupus/
animalwelfareapproved.org

Posted on August 31, 2016 .