Food Refugees

I spoke with a very nice older lady yesterday, located near Peoria (a couple of hours from here). She was inquiring about buying some of our pasture-raised chickens and turkeys, and wanted more details about how we raise them.

I explained that they are not certified organic.

She said she didn’t care.

I explained that they’re not certified organic because they eat conventionally raised feed.

What does that mean, she asked.

We feed our birds corn/oats/soy raised by local farmers using typical industrial agriculture methods, I explained.

“You mean,” she asked, “they sprayed it with pesticides and herbicides?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” I replied. I explained that we’re not capable of producing our own animal feeds on just five acres, and that there is no local source of organic feed.

She said she wasn’t interested, and that she’d keep looking. I was about to write her off as one of those “Organic is my religion, and I must maintain ritual purity” types, but then she went on to explain why she was so particular about the meat: her daughter has a chronic medical condition, and they’ve only been able to control it these last sixteen years by keeping strict controls over her diet. She’s so sensitive to additives, even the pesticides in the animal feed affect her.

I explained that I completely understood her situation; our kids have severe food allergies, which was a big reason why we began producing our own food. Our own children are fine with meat the way we raise it here, but they have all kinds of other sensitivities (particularly sprays on fruit and vegetables) that we must strictly eliminate.

We carried on a very nice conversation for about ten more minutes. I recommended a couple of other people she could try contacting, and she told me all about having grown up on a farm and the way she ate as a girl. She asked lots of questions about what we raise and how we raise it, and what our plans are for the future; she was genuinely interested, and really seemed to care. She hoped that someday we could acquire enough land to raise our own organic grain for the birds to eat. We discussed dairy goats, organic gardening, poultry-butchering, and a whole host of other farm topics. What amazed me is how far she was willing to drive to get the meat to stock her three freezers with, and the lengths she’d gone to in the past to obtain that meat.

And it occurred to me that our family, along with so many who contact us, are to some extent or another “food refugees.” Big Industrial Agriculture can’t supply what we or our families need, and we’re forced to either take matters into our own hands (by moving to the country and raising our own) or cultivate relationships with farmers…and then drive hours to obtain that special produce. I wish we could meet the needs of every single person who contacts us; as I’ve posted before, it’s particularly satisfying being able to deliver duck eggs to people who cannot eat any other kind of egg.

But there are so many highly particular needs, we’d go crazy trying to meet them all. And we can’t ship our produce; I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve inquired from the four corners of the country, hoping we could put a chicken in a box and FedEx it to them. Our solution is to produce food that meets the specific dietary needs of our family…and sell it to anyone who also needs that kind of food and is willing to get it from us in person. But we don’t do “special orders.” We simply can’t. And it’s illegal for us to ship meat anywhere.

And thinking about “food refugees,” another particular lady comes to mind. She must have meat raised without any grain at all, preferably 100% on grass. In theory, Canada Geese can be raised on grass without any supplemental grain — but Canadas don’t provide much meat, they’re illegal to raise without a wildlife permit, and they can fly away. I won’t touch them with a barge pole. And unless a person had a good supply of fish meal and alfalfa, I don’t know how you’d get enough protein into your broiler chickens, turkeys, or ducks to sustain them without grain. Ditto for laying hens.”Grass Only Lady” has contacted me a few times over the years, hoping I’ve somehow figured out a way to accomplish this feat…but each time I’ve had to tell that no, we still are giving our birds supplemental grain.

If you’re a food refugee, don’t give up. If you look hard enough, you can probably find a farmer who is producing something that will work for you. And if you can’t find that farmer…don’t be afraid to take the plunge and become your own Yeoman Farmer. It’s the best decision our family ever made.

Farming for the Future

There is a really outstanding video out about a movement of small-scale farmers in Southeast Ohio, called “Farming for the Future”. Beautiful visuals, and excellent commentary from the farmers themselves about why they’re doing this and what it all means. Very thought-provoking, and inspiring. You can watch the streaming video here.

These folks are actually making money at organic farming, and it appears to be their full-time occupation, which puts them several steps beyond us. Our own focus is still on producing wholesome food for our family; we only sell excess production to others. But we do know folks who are able to do this kind of thing more or less full time, and this video gives a great view of that.

Some of the farmers give eloquent descriptions of their philosophical motivations and objections to conventional (chemical-based) farming; one in particular describes the “warfare technology” most farmers employ—which I think is an apt characterization. The video also does an excellent job of showing the connection between these farmers and the community (particularly at the farmers market). One thing that’s missing, though, is a sense of family involvement and how this style of farming provides harmony not only with nature but with the proper ordering of family life. They do show some husbands and wives farming together, but children are conspicuously absent. But that’s a minor quibble.

Thanks to Athos for alerting me to the video.

Mulched!

I managed to get the rest of the goat stall shoveled out (actually “pitchforked out”) Saturday afternoon. And, dozens of loads of rotting hay and straw later, the vineyard is nearly completely mulched. Turned out there was exactly enough to thoroughly mulch every grape vine and every blackberry bramble, with some left over to do quite a bit of mulching between vines.

But am I ever sore! As I told my wife last night, I feel the way I used to when I’d spend all Saturday afternoon riding 100 miles on my bicycle. Funny, though, but it was an extremely satisfying kind of all-over soreness. The kind of soreness that says “I spent myself, pulled through, and finished off something big.” Admitedly, some of the mulch still needs to be spread a bit more. And the trellis is going to need some repairing. But none of that takes away from the sense of satisfaction and peace at having gotten over a big hurdle. And I had no trouble getting to sleep last night.

Meanwhile, the goats have all been reunited in the large stall that includes access to the outside, with lots of fresh straw. The two adults butted heads for awhile and struggled to establish dominance; they’ve been separated for several weeks now, so it was interesting to watch them fight it out. By bedtime, they seemed to have settled their issues. For their part, the goat kids are having a grand old time with all this space to run around in.

Is it Organic?

This is a question we’re frequently asked, and we must respond: “No, we are not certified organic. But we follow organic practices in the garden. We don’t use pesticides or herbicides.” And then we go on to explain how the livestock are raised and cared for.

I’ve come to understand that in many peoples’ minds, “organic” has become a shorthand term for a whole host of other issues. Today’s New York Times had an illustrative piece about how Whole Foods, though “organic,” has strayed from some of the values that originally attracted many of its customers. As one Whole Foods customer put it:

“Produce is no longer consistently good,” Ms. Coleman said. “I can no longer count on it. Because I feel I pay more there I really expect it to be as good as a farmer’s market but sometimes it’s mushy, sometimes it’s old and sometimes it’s good. I think I use organic as proxy for a bunch of other things, like locally grown and fresher, but I’m just beginning to find out I really need to go to farmers’ markets if I want these things. I only go to Whole Foods when I can’t find a product anywhere else.”

Our livestock do not eat certified organic feed. Such feed is nearly impossible to get around here, and we believe that buying locally-raised (albeit conventionally-farmed) grain through a local independent feed store that custom mixes it, is also something to value. We do not use any feed laced with antibiotics or growth hormones. Most of all, we believe that raising animals on pasture and free range adds much greater value than feeding certified organic feed to an animal kept in confinement.

“Your eggs taste so much better than the organic eggs from the store,” many customers have told us. “Even better than the ones marked ‘cage free’.” I explain that as we understand it, “organic” eggs have simply come from hens fed organic feed; there is no requirement for such hens to ever see the light of day. And, as I understand it, “cage free” simply means the hens run around inside a large building or shed. Again, there is no guarantee such chickens are seeing the light of day.

Even with this explanation, some customers will not buy our livestock or eggs; for such people, “organic” seems almost like a religion. That is unfortunate, but we have no trouble selling out all of our products to others. I just wish that such folks would think a bit more about whether “organic” is truly the highest value, or if “locally produced” and “free range” might be even more important.