From eggs to Emus

by Barbara Garrison

On a lush 45 acres of rolling green grass covered with soft yellow buttercups and doe-eyed emus, Viola Pollari Palo, AS ’44, and Carolyn Palo, AG ’79, are working to preserve their way of life.

They are farmers, always have been and always will be, the mother and daughter team says.

Viola, who is 82, owns a farm on Dixie Line Road in Newark, Del., where she has lived for almost 60 years. On it, she raises Shiitake mushrooms and emus, a swift running, flightless Australian bird related to but smaller than the ostrich. Carolyn owns a 13-acre hay farm on Smith Way. The two properties make up Pine Hill Farms which has its roots in the farm Viola’s family started 10 years after they emigrated from Finland in the 1920s.

Even though Carolyn lives in her own house on Smith Way, she spends much of her time with Viola tending the emus and Shiitake mushrooms with the help of Katie, a border collie; Dutchie, an 11-year old mixed-breed dog; Barry and Sweetheart, two goats who follow them everywhere as they do their chores; and Edison, a 30-year-old horse who Carolyn has owned since his birth.

“Farming is something we do because we love it,” Carolyn says. She says she and her mother are determined to hold onto their land and their ability to make a living in agriculture for as long as they can.

Viola nods her head in agreement. “The way I’ve always lived has led to this life. I don’t want to give it up. My aim is to live out my life on this farm,” she says.

Holding onto their way of life could become more difficult because both farms are in an area that is quickly turning tree-covered landscapes into housing developments.

In fact, Carolyn’s property, which she bought from her grandmother’s estate, is now at the edge of a new townhouse complex whose streets are named after Pollari family members. High-priced houses and developments have been edging closer and closer to Viola’s farm.

Carolyn says she thinks it’s a national trend, and research seems to agree. According to a Texas A&M University publication, in the early 1900s, there were 7 million small farms in the U.S. As of 2004, there were only 2 million.

When the Pollari family arrived in Newark in the 1930s, most of the land in the county was devoted to agriculture. Today, only about 26 percent is used for raising crops or livestock.

Viola’s family started their chicken farm on the 13 acres Carolyn now owns. Over time, the Pollaris bought 200 acres of land in the Newark area that included the Dixie Line Road farm and Smith Way.
Viola met her husband, Tauno Palo, in 1944 after she graduated from UD (then the Women’s College of Delaware) with a degree in chemistry. They were attending a function for Finns, an ethnic heritage they shared. Tauno, like Viola’s parents, emigrated from Finland.

They were married in 1949. He did auto body repair, but when her parents gave them the 50 acres on Dixie Line Road, he and Viola became egg farmers. Eventually, they had five coops and 5,000 to 8,000 chickens. They built their own house in three sections as their family expanded to include Carolyn, Shirley and Roy.

But, large corporate farms made it exceedingly more difficult for Tauno and Viola to compete, and in the early 1980s, after more than 30 years, they got out of the egg-farming business.

Viola went back to work for Hercules in its patent and agreements department, occasionally acting as an interpreter of Finnish.

Carolyn, who graduated from UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources with a degree in animal science, worked in sales for industrial product companies. The farms were used for boarding horses.
But, in the 1990s with real estate development encroaching, they began to fear that they might lose their property’s designation as agricultural land, so they decided they had to find a cash crop, one with which Viola, now in her 60s, could be involved.

It was Viola who came up with the idea of raising emus and mushrooms after reading articles about them.
Carolyn did not look favorably on her mother’s suggestions. “My mom would have these great ideas that I’d ignore. So, she’d go to my friends, and they’d support her. Sooner or later, I’d realize that my mother is very smart and I should always listen to what she says.”

They started with mushrooms in 1991. Viola had read an article about a woman in Bethany Beach, Del., who was using chicken coops to raise Shiitake mushrooms that grow on logs from a variety of trees. Since the Palos still had coops on the farm, they contacted the woman about whom the article was written and bought what they needed to get started.

They cut oak, cherry and gum trees in February and March. In April, they inoculate the trees with a Shiitake mycelium by drilling holes in the circumfrence of the logs and then inserting wooden dowels covered in Shiitake mycelium. The Shiitake mycelium uses nutrients in the wood to feed itself. The logs are then immersed in cold water for 24 hours to stimulate growth. When the mycelium has gathered enough wood nutrients, it produces the mushroom. Carolyn says each log can produce about a pound of mushrooms, but that amount diminishes over time and after about two years, they are used for firewood.

Viola and Carolyn say they can’t raise enough mushrooms to meet demand, so they rarely get to eat what they grow. Not so, with the emus.

They began raising the birds in 1996. They have four breeder pairs who can lay between 35 and 50 peacock-blue eggs per year. When the hatchlings are a year and a half, they are butchered for their meat and the oils from their fat. The oil is used in a number of products such as shampoo and conditioner, moisturizer, face cream, lip balm and pain reliever.

Carolyn markets and distributes the mushroom and emu products to stores and individuals in the area. The quality hay they raise is sold to horse farmers, who come to Pine Hill and pick it up.

Both Carolyn and Viola credit UD’s Cooperative Extension Service for providing them with the information and instruction necessary to succeed. “The extension service was immensely helpful,” Carolyn says. “They came out and looked over our property, and I was able to take courses to learn how to do it all.”

In 1999, the farm was doing well enough that Carolyn was able to quit her job selling industrial products and devote herself full time to farming.

While Carolyn, family and friends do most of the farming, Viola still has her chores.

As she makes her way around the coops and pastures feeding and watering the emus, checking all the feeders, rolling the eggs during hatching season and keeping an eye on the newborns, she rests on one of Carolyn’s hockey sticks.

Carolyn has played ice hockey for 30 years. She is a member of The Phoenix, a team in a women’s league that has players ages 12 to 54.

Viola and Carolyn say they live modest and healthy lives. They eat and use what they raise, including emu meat and products and vegetables. “My mother and I believe in healthy food. We seldom eat fast food or junk food and cook at home most of the time. Emu meat is the mainstay of our diet,” Carolyn says.

She makes sure her mother maintains a level of physical activity high enough to keep her fit. The chores are one way, but Viola also goes to the Newark Senior Center and takes a Jazzercise class.

The women say they are very close to their family who all live within 20 minutes of one another. Viola talks to each of her children almost every day.

Carolyn says she is determined that by doing all of these things, her mother will remain healthy for a long time.

“I’m happy everyday. I have a great life. If I have anything to do with it, she’ll live here [on the farm] for another 20 years at least,” Carolyn says.