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NIGMS's Charland Finds Fulfillment on the Farm

By Jilliene Mitchell

Getting up at the crack of dawn to go to work is probably not the way most people want to begin their Saturdays. Saturday mornings often involve sleeping in, relaxing or simply kicking back and leafing through the newspaper with a cup of coffee.

For Stacy Charland, chief information officer at NIGMS, working on a Saturday morning is a routine practice. But her weekend job is quite different from her gig here at NIH, where she oversees a staff of 23 and ensures that NIGMS has the IT support essential for carrying out daily business activities. She's also a rare-breeds livestock conservationist.

Stacy Charland of NIGMS balances work life at NIH with farm life in Poolesville.

Swapping a business suit for a set of overalls, Charland currently raises 70 chickens, 19 sheep, 17 turkeys, 14 ducks, 3 geese, and 2 goats on her farm just outside of Poolesville, Md. Starting out with only a few baby chicks, she began her farm in her Bethesda townhouse before moving to her current 56-acre plot of land, which is a Maryland agricultural preservation area.

An animal lover since childhood, Charland says that some of her fondest memories are of the times she spent on her grandparents' farm in Florida — those memories are one of the reasons that she decided to become a farmer. She was also concerned about the quality of meats she consumed and the way animals are raised and treated on large farms, which is why she was once a vegetarian.

"Factory farming practices have kept our food cheap, but at what cost to our health and the quality of life for food-producing animals? One way to ensure the quality of the food I'm eating is to raise the food myself. We've been fortunate in finding a local source of organic feed — it costs more, but we strongly believe it is best for the long-term health of our animals and for us," Charland said.

She is also helping to keep rare livestock breeds alive. The ducks, turkeys, sheep and most of the chickens that she raises are breeds that were once common on American farms but have more recently been replaced by a limited set reared for mass production.

"Bred for fast growth and a lot of white meat, today's commercial turkeys have to be artificially inseminated to produce fertile eggs, so small farmers can't even raise their own turkey chicks — they must order them from hatcheries," Charland said. Unlike the modern-day turkey, her heritage turkeys are able to forage for part of their food and hatch their own eggs. They're almost impossible to find on today's farms.

Maintaining the farm is a joint effort between Charland and her husband. Since the two work long hours and have substantial commutes, caring for the animals can be challenging during the week. Typically, one of them handles the morning chores while the other takes care of the evening chores.

Farmer Charland in her element

Each set of chores takes about 30 minutes to complete. They include collecting eggs, letting the ducks and turkeys outside to range and locking them up in the evening, feeding and giving the animals water once or twice a day, and occasionally tending to sick or injured animals.

Several times a week, Charland and her husband wash, inspect and pack the chicken eggs into cartons. They later sell the eggs, and on occasion beef and lamb, to friends and neighbors.

Charland loves farming for a number of reasons. She says that it's a way for her to keep busy, a good source of exercise and it gives her the opportunity to spend more time outdoors. "Farming lets me indulge in my love of animals, but I also like the practical side of being somewhat self-sufficient. We have a never-ending supply of fresh eggs — trust me, they are nothing like store-bought," she said.

One of her favorite parts of farming takes place in the spring, when there is an explosion of new life. Although this time of year brings more work for her, she enjoys watching and caring for the young animals.

One of the negative aspects of farming for Charland occurs during the fall, when she must decide which animals to keep over the winter and which ones to sell or put in the freezer. "I hate that part, but it is a part of farming life, and I know that they have had a very good life," she said.

All in all, Charland wouldn't trade being a farmer for the world. "Farming is something that is constantly changing with the seasons, there is always something to do and I never have to worry about getting bored," she said. "After spending as many as 10 hours a day focused on technology, it is a wonderful change of pace to come home to the farm."

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