Erica Solis and Joel Helge raise Certified AWA chickens (eggs and meat), sheep (wool and meat) and ducks at Emancipation Acres in Stoughton, Wisconsin.
After attending college and pursuing careers in special education and biology, respectively, Erica and Joel purchased their 40-acre farm in Stoughton, Wisconsin, in June 2010 as a way to provide sustainably-farmed eggs, meat and fiber for themselves, their families and the local community.
Located upon a glacial moraine hill, Emancipation Acres sits on the dividing summit between the Yahara River watershed and Koshkengon Creek. Erica and Joel’s goal is to use livestock to restore the fertility in the soil, manage the invasive weeds and create a fluid, sustainable system. As Erica explains, the steep terrain of the farm means that multi-species grazing represents the best utilization for the land: “Effective pasture management is important for building the natural fertility of the soil, allows us to manage weeds and desired forage without reliance on herbicides, and enables us to control parasites and disease in the animals without resorting to routine veterinary treatments.”
Choosing the right livestock breeds for the farm is an important aspect of animal husbandry at Emancipation Acres. Erica and Joel raise several dual-purpose chicken breeds, prized for their good laying ability and good meat, including Silkie, Barred Rock, Cuckoo Maran, White Rock, Delaware and Naked Neck, as well as New Hampshire Red and Buckeye roosters. “By choosing dual-purpose breeds,” Erica explains, “we have a plan for both sexes of chicks. The females are kept for egg laying, while males are used for meat.”
“In addition to focusing on dual-purpose chicken breeds, we also select breeds with smaller combs and wattles to better withstand the cold, a calm temperament that shows less aggression towards each other and humans, broodiness and good mothering ability,” Joel explains. “Broodiness is a hen’s natural instinct to sit on her eggs and to incubate them and protect them until they hatch. Broodiness is being bred out of many modern industrial chicken breeds, because broody chickens don’t lay eggs and industrial farmers don’t want unproductive hens. As a result, those breeds have poorer mothering abilities. At Emancipation Acres, we want our hens to hatch and raise their replacement egg layers and meat birds naturally, as we find the chicks have a higher survival rate, grow faster and are able to learn and engage in normal behaviors more quickly.”
Erica and Joel take the same care in selecting their sheep and ducks. They raise Shetland sheep, a wool and meat breed originally from the Isles of Shetland off the north coast of Scotland. “They are a small breed, famous for their thriftiness and mild flavored meat,” Erica explains. “Shetland’s are also well-known for their winter hardiness, parasite and disease resistance, and superb mothering ability, and their wool is prized by hand-spinners for its softness and durability.” In 2015, a prize ram from Emancipation Acres’ Certified AWA flock won yearling ram class, champion ram and reserve champion, and took second place in Best Fleece on the Hoof at the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival. Erica and Joel also raise Silver Appleyard and Saxony ducks—rare breeds that the American Livestock Conservancy has identified as critical—to help make these breeds more available in their region.
“The most important part of our husbandry practices is doing well by the animals,” says Erica. “That’s the deal we have with them. We provide food, water, shelter and protection from predators. In return, the animals give us eggs, meat, fiber and feathers.” Erica and Joel’s emphasis on pasture-based management and high welfare practices made Emancipation Acres a great fit for the AWA program. “We were blessed to find a farm certification that put emphasis on the management approaches that we found to be so important,” says Joel. “We hope that AWA certification will help us grow our customer base so that more people can become more familiar with AWA and its mission. Although we would like to expand, we will always remain a small family-owned farm. In time, we hope to make our products available in farmers’ markets, grocery stores and restaurants. We would like to increase awareness and demand for the AWA label.”
Certified AWA wool, lamb, chicken meat, eggs and duck from Emancipation Acres is available seasonally at the Stoughton Community Farmers’ Market and by appointment direct from the farm. For more information, visit www.emancipationacres.com or follow Emancipation Acres on Facebook.