Written by: Claudia Stack | Photography by: Kimberly Dam
As much as anything else, Dave Borkowski’s mobile chicken house—big, blue, and underpinned by his old boat trailer—epitomizes how his life has changed since he retired from the United States Marine Corps in 2015. After flying fighter planes for twenty-two years, Dave now spends his days nurturing chicks and piglets. Formerly an avid fisherman, he put his boat aside in favor of tending pastures. Once an occasional gardener who admits that his tomato plants “were always eaten by rabbits,” Dave is now deeply involved in sustainable farming.
Dave, along with wife Victoria and their three children, came to Hampstead in 2013 after he was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station New River. As fate would have it, this move, the last of his military career, would also lead to a new passion. After retiring, Dave began to spend time at Humble Roots Farm in nearby Scotts Hill. It was there that he was first exposed to sustainable farming practices, which have been defined in various ways, but are generally recognized as practices that sustain human life without degrading soil or water resources. Over time, Dave began to form a vision for his own farming venture.
Changin’ Ways LLC, the name Dave gave his business, aptly expresses his experiences and goals. As he notes, his life changed as a result of developing a commitment to produce fresh, local, sustainably raised food. Using sound business practices is also important to him. He shakes his head at the fatalism expressed by some farmers he has met. Sometimes they shrug and say that you’re just going to have some good years and some bad, but Dave notes “you can’t run a business where the bad years outnumber the good!”
Another motivation of his is helping people reconnect with the sources of their food. “I do this because I enjoy it, but I want people to learn about their food. We’ve gotten so far away from our roots, we just expect food to arrive prepared on a plate. One hundred years ago, almost everyone would have either been farming or would have at least known a farmer.” Shaking his head, Dave recalls a conversation he had with a woman who was repulsed by the skin on a piece of fish she had purchased. Distress at our society’s tendency to strip away reminders of the sources of our food inspires Dave to be transparent. He is happy to show visitors around his operation, where pigs and chickens are raised on pasture and on wooded lots, in harmony with their natures.
At present, Changin’ Ways is focused on producing pasture-raised pork, eggs, and chicken. Dave’s operation is now located outside of Burgaw on My Father’s Garden farm, which is the home of the Veteran Owned Veteran Grown (VOVG) program. Founded in 2015 by Bill O’Brien and his wife, VOVG evolved from an effort to support military spouses into a group that now helps veterans find healing and economic opportunities through farming.
Late April of this year found Dave satisfied with his mobile chicken coop and the portable fence around it, but still striving to install the electric fencing for additional pig paddocks that would accommodate the purebred Berkshire pigs he recently purchased. Mobility is key in this approach to raising livestock. Like many of today’s sustainable farming startups, Changin’ Ways is influenced by the teachings of Joel Salatin, who farms in Virginia. Salatin is an iconoclast and an early advocate of rotating pastures for soil and animal health. You can get a sense of Salatin’s teachings just from the titles of some of his books: Pastured Poultry Profits (1993), You Can Farm (1998), The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer (2010). (This writer’s personal favorite is Folks, This Ain’t Normal (2011), which reminds us that small, diversified farms were the norm for thousands of years, until just six decades ago).
However, if Dave or any farmer gets too caught up in abstract thinking, the creatures, plants, and weather have a way of bringing him/her back down to Earth in a hurry. That is precisely when the fence charger fails and chaos ensues, or a violent storm flattens seedlings, or any number of other challenges arise. Still, good planning and a vision for the future keep things moving. Dave is working toward being able to supply not only fresh eggs and pork, but also healthful broiler chickens and year-round produce. He currently attends several farmers’ markets each week to sell his products, but in his mind’s eye he sees a time when he will open a year-round farmstand in Hampstead.
In the larger picture, sustainable livestock operations are just a tiny fraction of American agricultural production. USDA data show that upwards of 99% of animals raised for meat in the United States are raised on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Concentrating so many animals in one place creates huge amounts of manure, which on large hog farms is supposed to be contained by manure lagoons. However, a study published in 2015 by the United States Geological Survey concluded that Cape Fear Region streams located near CAFOs were likely to be affected by runoff pollutants.
Keeping the number of animals per acre at an appropriate level, along with rotating the animals through different pastures, are key components of a healthy pastured livestock operation. At Changin’ Ways, the portable chicken coop is closed up at night after the birds go inside. Every few evenings Dave hauls it to a fresh location in the pasture. The portable fence that surrounds the chicken coop is moved at the same time, allowing the chickens to have fresh forage and bugs every few days. It also allows the land to rest and break down the manure that the birds deposited.
Similarly, the pigs are rotated through a series of connected paddocks, allowing some of the land to rest while the pigs root elsewhere. Dave supplements the diets of all of his animals with high-quality feed and the spent brewing grains from a local brewery.
Change is the only real constant in farming, so the products Dave has to offer vary. Anyone interested in purchasing Changin’ Ways products can connect with Dave through his website (http://changinways.com/ ), Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ChanginWays/ ) or by calling him at (703) 967-6535.