With all the negative news in the world today, it can be difficult to keep our glasses half-full. Life can be so complicated, so chaotic that we are left feeling hopeless and helpless. I will admit, there are plenty of times where I feel like throwing my hands in the air – more often than not I actually do – and fretting.
Chris and I have been on this journey toward regenerative, sustainable farming for more than a few years. While we have physically been on the farm for only seven months, our hearts and heads have been on a farm for quite some time. As we educate ourselves, we are discovering both widespread, systemic problems in the corporate food system along with hurdles that small, family farms like ours are facing. With confusion and dilemmas throughout every facet of the food landscape, it would be easy (and understandable) if you felt like throwing your hands in the air and ignoring the whole system. But take heart, dear friends. I have had those moments, felt those feelings, and then had time to take a step back, take a breath, and take on these challenges one at a time.
Do you know what I think? I think there is a simple, single answer for the myriad predicaments found entwined in our food system. Small farms. Small farms are the solution to so many of the current problems in our food system. That’s the answer, my friends. Tell me a problem you see involving food, and my answer is: A small farm can fix that.
In light of the recent lettuce recall – amid yet another national E. Coli outbreak – is it possible to ever know, and completely trust the ultimate source of your proverbial salad? Packaging labels are inconclusive at best, and misleading at worst. Federal law simply requires that the nation of origin be stated on a food’s packaging. This is helpful if a recall originates in Argentina, less so if the tainted crop flew in from Arizona. And when we are not under a wide-spread food recall alert, the labels, graphics, and superlatives found on food packaging are astoundingly disingenuous and unhelpful. Unhelpful, that is, for discerning consumers, willing to search for actual truth and fact behind the unregulated and often dishonest claims such as “cage free” and “all natural.” But guess what? A small farm can fix that. Come visit the fields where your spinach, steaks, and sausage are raised. When customers buy from small, local farms, they have the ability to trace the journey that those calories took from the ground to their plates. No mysterious origins, no deceiving pictures on labels. You can see for yourself where – exactly – your food is from.
Another problem with the corrupted, conventional food system is control and supply chains. Did you know that for the most part, ten companies control all the food found in America’s grocery stores? That right. The thousands and thousands of boxed, bagged, and jarred products are the creations of less than a dozen companies. But what if you don’t eat very many packaged products? Do you stick to the meat and produce aisle? There, my friends, you find yourselves with far less than ten ultimate options. As of 2011 (and most likely more now), over 80% of the meat consumed in this country is controlled by four companies. Four. And yet, because of thousands of different middle-men and inputs, it is impossible to trace the origin of a conventionally produced piece of meat from a farm to your plate. What if there were a large scale, systemic problem at one of these massive corporations? Can you imagine the consequences if nearly a fourth of our nation’s meat was found to be contaminated at a single time? Imagining the sheer numbers of families that would unknowingly be in harm’s way is astounding. With all the power, influence, and control concentrated in less than five boardrooms, it is impossible to argue that consumers’ best interests are driving the decisions made by the corporate conglomerates. Don’t despair though! Remember, a small farm can fix that. Here, our boardroom doubles as our dining room, we have daily quality control meetings (and ear scratches) with the livestock. No decision is made without first reminding ourselves who we ultimately answer to: you. Members of our community, families like ours, trusting us to provide clean, healthy protein. We think first of our animals’ welfare and quality of life, while keeping our customers and their confidence in mind. Our inventory is limited to the 80 acres that you see here, and there are no mysterious supply chains to trace from start to finish. Small farmers across the country want you to come on out, visit our farms, and see where your food comes from. We have nothing to hide, and no sister or parent companies to hide behind.
Many, many news stories (and celebrities) have focused on the environmental evils of meat consumption. It uses too much water, the water that it doesn’t use, it pollutes, and what pollution isn’t trapped in the water then wafts into the atmosphere where it destroys our climate. While I hate to admit that I agree with such a stalwart anti-meat stance, I do, but only momentarily. It is true that conventionally produced protein uses and sullies a large amount of water and land. The input-laden system is completely dependent on fossil fuels, and animal welfare is not first, but often last in mind. That, though, is where I must part ways with the fair Leo, and vociferously, adamantly, proudly proclaim: A small farm can fix that. The meat is not the problem. HOW the meat is grown is the problem. As Diana Rodgers says, “It’s not the COW, it’s the HOW.” Meat, of all varieties, when grown on pasture, rotationally grazed, and actively managed, uses very little water, keeps pollution out of local waterways, and can actually REMOVE carbon from the atmosphere! Grass-only cattle and the other pasture dwellers that follow them through the fields improve the plant, soil, and water health on the farms that they inhabit. Even further, grazing livestock are able to co-habitate happily with many, many other wild animals. Animals that would otherwise be killed off in pursuit of the mono-crop cultivation so desperately needed to support vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. Can native birds, honeybees, salamanders, and rabbits live amidst the laser straight, mechanized rows of conventional soybeans? No. Will they thrive out here on our farm alongside the grazers? Absolutely. To suggest that a vegan or vegetarian diet is better for animals or the environment than one that includes grass-fed meat is preposterous. Remember, a small farm can fix that.
Yet another farming related conundrum making an appearance in the news lately is the fading of rural America, coupled with the rising age of our nation’s farmers. Over the past 40 years, the average age of farmers has risen to and remained well above 50. This could be attributed to many factors: rising land costs (it’s too expensive for young farmers to buy large quantities of land to start), financial insecurity (farmers are just scraping by, and therefore can’t save for retirement), or a lack of willing new farmers (when farming isn’t seen as a profitable way of life, why try it?). These bleak circumstances are leading to an aging, withering rural america. Small towns out here are no longer seen as vibrant, active communities. But, say it with me, friends. A small farm can fix that. Small scale farming, un-tethered to the notion that we must “get big or get out” is a magical, invigorating thing. If we properly manage our 80 acres (well under the average American farm size of 430+ acres), and we are farming regeneratively and at capacity, we will be able to provide enough nutrient-dense protein for our family and 100 others like it. Not only will we be contributing to our local economy on the supply side, but we are also looking to consume products and services provided by the other businesses in our area. We have no desire to drive an hour away for groceries or medical care – we would like to fill those needs in our hometown, and, we assume, others do as well. By managing this small farm as our livelihood – making a living wage on the farm – we are an example of what others could do on their own small farms. If young people saw the possibilities in regenerative, sustainable farming, they might see 40 or 80 acres – a small farm – as a viable option for their own family. No longer will future farmers be forced into a production model (bigger, faster, fatter, cheaper) that keeps them reliant on and subservient to big banks and their even bigger loans. A small farm can fix that. When young families begin to come back to the land, back on the farm, our rural communities can become the dynamic, creative, fruitful places they once were. As a regenerative, pasture based farm, we don’t need thousands – or even hundreds – of acres to keep our heads above water. A small farm can fix that.
It is abundantly clear, I hope, that I am a vehement champion of a small farms. So many of the things wrong with the current food system – many, many more than could ever be contained in one post – can be mended. We are not lost; nothing is irreparable. Indeed, a small farm can fix that. However, there is one thing that small farms cannot do. We can’t do what we do best – farm regeneratively, remove carbon from our atmosphere, improve rural communities, provide clean, nutrient-rich food – without help from you. We need your support, your patronage. When people buy from our small farms, and put their money (literally) where their mouth is, we can keep the doors open, keep farming, and keep working to bring clean, healthy food to your families. Whether it’s our small farm or another, seek out the local food producers in your area. We are out here, we are excited about what we can offer you, but we need your involvement. Next time you encounter a negative consequence of the commercial food system, make a choice, vote with your dollars, and tell the conventional, conglomerate businesses that we’ve had enough of their nonsense. A small farm can fix that.