It's a FACT: MSU professors receive prestigious grant to improve animal welfare practices on family farm

  • Jun 27, 2019
  • Research, animal welfare, Food Animal Concerns Trust grant, Faculty
  • Homepage News, Alumni, Faculty & Staff, College of Natural Science, Statistics & Probability
Image of Frederi Viens and Carolyn Johnston at their farm in Laingsburg, Mich.
Frederi and Carolyn at their farm in Laingsburg, Mich., in front of their upgraded tractor for hay, with border collie Misty and one of their lambs, Elsa. Photo courtesy of Frederi Viens.

If anyone could find a positive correlation between farming and academia, it would be Frederi Viens, professor and chair of the Department of Statistics and Probability in the Michigan State University College of Natural Science (NatSci).

Viens and his wife Carolyn Johnston, assistant professor in MSU’s Department of History, moved from Indiana three years ago to begin their careers at MSU and a farm in Laingsburg, Mich.

“Sixty-five to 70 percent of all farmers in the United States have second and third jobs,” said Viens, who, along with his wife, own the 80-acre farm, Chinook’s Acres. “It’s hard to survive as a farmer without a steady source of income, so we fit the farm into our academic schedule.”

Basing their operation on the heartiness of heritage breeds, the watchfulness of livestock guardian dogs and the rhythms of perennial pasture made it possible for Viens and Johnston to balance the farmer/professor equation.

They gave up the equipment and time intensive corn and soybean crop rotation in favor of hay, which requires the most attention in the spring and summer, just when academic life slows. Their pastures support seven French Alpine dairy goats and a flock of more than 75 sheep that include 3 breeds: Shetlands for wool and fiber, English Dorsets and American Khatadins for meat.

“Our lambing season is from January to July, which is not at all traditional,” Viens said. “We don’t have time to organize enough pens for concentrated births, so we let the sheep and goats do their own thing and handle lambing over a longer time period.

“These are random variables that you can’t control, but over time, the average is less work,” Viens added.

Image of goats on Viens and Johnston's farm
French Alpine dairy goats and border collie, Misty, enjoy the pasture. Photo courtesy of Frederi Viens

To give their fledgling farm a boost, Johnston and Viens applied for the prestigious Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) grant. They were one of just 38 applicants across the United States to receive it in 2019 out of more than 300 applications.

Well-known in the field of small-scale food animal farming, FACT is a national non-profit based in Chicago that supports farmers with plans to improve farm animal welfare. Viens and Johnston will use the $2,500 grant to improve their pasture and install a much-needed watering system.

“As a history professor, Carolyn is trained to dig up documents and is a superb researcher, so if a grant exists to support our new venture, she will find it,” Viens said. “The success rate is small, so it was a long shot, but Carolyn told a story about our farm that the FACT community liked: our Great Pyrenees (a large breed of dog used as a livestock guardian dog) and our water problem.”

The couple’s two Great Pyrenees, Chinook and Simoun, have kept predation of the sheep and goats at zero over the past three years. Bred to be the color of the snow-blanketed Pyrenees, the dogs are also the same size and color as the flock, confusing coyotes and fox with mediocre eyesight.

Image of Chinook and Simoun, thoe Great Pyrenees
Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dogs Chinook and Simoun take a well-deserved break. The pair have kept predation of the farm's sheep and goats at zero over the past three years. Photo courtesy of Frederi Viens.

“I want to get my hands dirty, literally, when it comes to finding ways to increase productivity and use sustainable means of food production,” said Viens who has done statistical analysis at both the micro- and macro-economic levels of food production. “My research is motivated by a desire to understand sustainable agriculture, so I work with colleagues who know a lot about sustainable food systems.”

With a few years of experience under his belt, Viens has realized that agriculture is not a discrete variable and uses insights from his own farm endeavors when writing grants that help farmers in the U.S. and other countries.

“Now, when I’m in a room of 30 researchers all talking about cropping systems, it is no longer just lines on a spreadsheet or a theory on paper, but a living system that depends on location, animals and time,” Viens said. “I am definitely a better researcher since we began farming.”

Since arriving in Michigan, Viens has found fertile ground, both professionally and personally. He has collaborated with colleagues on writing papers and submitting grants supporting research related to agroecology and farmer practices; developed a new undergraduate course in actuarial science and quantitative risk analytics along at MSU with Keith Promislow, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics; recently became adjunct director of MSU’s Center for Statistical Training and Consulting; and began the farm he and his wife had dreamed of.

“Carolyn’s family farmed in rural southern Alberta, Canada, and it had always been on our minds to farm,” said Viens who pointed out the low probability of finding farmland in Indiana where they lived prior to joining MSU. “People who have nice farms keep them in the family, so you have to get lucky. We got lucky. We found what we were looking for immediately after moving to Michigan.”

“Farming is personal,” Viens added. “We hope to use our training as researchers to help the animals and the land, and vice versa.” 

 

Banner: Frederi Viens and his wife Carolyn Johnston, moved from Indiana three years ago to begin their careers at MSU and a farm in Laingsburg, Mich. This year, the couple was one of just 38 applicants across the United States to receive a prestigious Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) grant that supports farmers with plans to improve farm animal welfare. They will use the $2,500 grant to improve their pasture and install a much-needed watering system.