Award-winning farmer big on new technology

By on March 1, 2012

By: CHRIS TORRES Special to the Record Express, Staff Writer

Having 12 poultry houses on just 80 acres of land, along with a horse farm, Dan Heller has had to come up with some pretty innovative ways of running his farm while keeping the environmental target off his back.

Whether it be recycling horse manure, making in-house compost windrows for his poultry litter or putting up solar panels, he’s tried to find the right balance of doing something good for the environment, while at the same time doing something good for his business.

He must be doing something right.

Heller’s operation, Flintrock Farms, just north of Lititz along East Brubaker Valley Road, was one of only six poultry producers selected to receive a national Family Farm Environmental Excellence Award through the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association.

He and his wife, Jen, received the award, along with a $1,000 check during the International Poultry Expo in Atlanta in late January.

"It was an honor to be chosen for the award. It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate and talk about some of the environmentally friendly things that are happening on farms," he said. "I was excited about it from the standpoint that it’s another way to highlight what’s good about agriculture."

The farm goes back to the 1940s, when Heller’s grandfather bought the property and started a dairy operation. The current farm is actually two separate properties, with one sitting atop a hill overlooking the other.

His father eventually took over the business, but ended the dairy in the mid-1980s and built the first two poultry houses in the early 1990s.

Since then, the farm has expanded several times and now includes 12 poultry houses with an overall capacity of 330,000 birds.

Heller raises five flocks of broiler chickens a year for Tyson Foods in New Holland, Pa.

Like many farmers, Heller sees expansion as an opportunity to spread out his costs and make more money to support his family.

"As with any business, you need to constantly assess what the opportunities are for the future, and there are certain advantages that come with growth and the economies of scale," he said. "If you’re in a mainstream farming environment, there are certain advantages you can have with multiple poultry houses versus one."

The first expansion occurred in 1996, right around the time Heller’s brother and another partner invested in the business, with the building of eight houses on what was the original home farm.

"Tyson was expanding, looking for people to raise birds. We wanted to put an operation here on the farm that would support our family and be able to work here full time," Heller said.

In the early 2000s, he saw an opportunity to expand into horse boarding after completing an extensive renovation of the original sandstone German bank barn, which was built in 1816.

A total of 12 stalls were built as well as an outdoor arena.

As horses started to become popular and more people sought the farm’s services – Franklin & Marshall now houses its equestrian horses there – Heller expanded the farm again, this time building another series of stalls, expanding capacity to 40 so people could train their horses or keep them there for occasional riding.

"We just got into it by default, looking for something to fit with our agricultural operation here," he said. "It’s a diversified operation. We wanted to have a diversified farming operation. It allows us to be involved in a couple of different things rather than put all of your eggs in one basket, no pun intended."

The business further expanded after Heller bought a farm in Maryland a few years later.

The latest expansion was in 2010, when two houses were built adjacent to the original two houses built by his father.

Through the years, Heller has made it a point to use the latest advances in technology to run the business more efficiently.

Being a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), he’s almost had to in order to house the 1.5 million birds he raises each year on just 80 acres.

The farm has an extensive stormwater management system, allowing water runoff to recharge the groundwater by channeling groundwater through a series of pipes that feed into a central retention pond where it eventually trickles underground. The upper farm has several ponds between each house to collect stormwater.

Much of the horse manure, which Heller said consists of 80 percent shavings, comes out of the stalls and is composted, where it is used again as poultry bedding.

He also uses an in-house windrow composting system, where a machine comes in after each flock and turns piles of poultry litter to get composting going.

Heller said the piles get as hot as 140 degrees Fahrenheit, killing any microorganisms that might be harmful to the birds and leaving behind a nice bedpack for a new flock.

"We’ve seen some good benefits. We feel like the chickens do better. They seem to perform better. We’ve been pleased with the results," he said.

The farm has also invested in solar panels. Two houses on the upper farm have solar panels installed on them – a 200-kilowatt system.

The farm doesn’t own the panels. Instead, it buys power from a local company that owns the panels, but at a reduced rate from what the local power company, PPL, charges.

Heller said the arrangement has saved 20 percent in energy costs to run the four houses on the upper farm and that he has the option of buying the panels in the future.

He’s also worked with Penn State on planting 1,000 hybrid willow trees, with plans of harvesting the wood shavings after three years to use on the farm.

"We believe there is a value in exploring some of these newer technologies, newer opportunities, to operate in an efficient manner, and many times there is a return for farm producers," he said.

The farm is also one of several in Lancaster County that wants to take advantage of recent government funding to promote poultry incineration projects throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Heller estimates that more than 90 percent of the litter produced on the farm goes to mushroom farms in Chester County.

"We’re trying to find a way to make the return on investment work. That’s the key, it has to be economically feasible," he said. "The technology is so new, we’re trying to put our finger on pricing."

Along with running the farm, Heller has tried to keep a pulse on some of the issues concerning Chesapeake Bay regulations and the impacts on Lancaster County farming.

He sits on the boards of directors for both the Lancaster County Ag Council and the Lancaster County Conservation District.

Heller hopes the government adopts a more commonsense approach regarding agricultural regulations, one that is based on sound science.

But he thinks farmers have a responsibility to reach out to people, as well.

"I think it’s important for ag to get out there and talk to the community and talk about the good things that are happening. Farmers aren’t always the best at that, but I think they are increasingly realizing the importance of talking about the good things that are happening on the farm," he said. "We want to be part of that solution, part of that positive image."

The Hellers have decided to contribute their $1,000 award to two worthy organizations.

"We believe in the work of the Lancaster County Conservation District and the Lancaster County Agriculture Council and are giving our award to these two organizations as a token of appreciation for what they do to promote agriculture production and good stewardship of our natural resources," Heller told the Record Express this week.

Also, Flintrock Stables will be hosting a horse show for colleges on March 11, and the community is invited to attend.

"We host the Franklin and Marshall team at Flintrock Stables and will be hosting a total of 10 colleges for the IHSA (Intercollegiate Horse Show Association) show on the 11th," Heller explained.

There will be about 100 riders competing in the show. More FLINTROCK, page A15

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