December 21, 2010

Field Notes: Farmers Gather as Winter Settles In

Julia DeBruicker

Julia DeBruicker

CLF-Lerner Fellow

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

450480-copy1On the front porch, boots stamp away snow, and then the farmer steps inside.  The glasses fog up.  Off comes the jacket, the cap, and out goes the hand in greeting.  After a season spent grazing cows and sheep and pasturing pigs, hens and turkeys, meat producers from around southern Indiana are coming together today to compare the results of this year’s work.

From up to three hours away people have driven through the dark of a 13-degree morning, attracted to the occasion to sit with one another, to talk.  For them the day provides fellowship, a growing acquaintance with other farmers who they know mostly by reputation and whose work they admire.  These farmers are bound together by the work of supplying the region with meat and poultry raised outside the usual concentrated, confined, industrial model of production.  Grazing and pasturing their herds and flocks outdoors, with approaches meant to be ecologically regenerative, this group of graziers constitutes my study group for the past year as I prepare a doctoral dissertation about their part of the marketplace for meat and poultry, its potential, and its implications for public health.  Today’s gathering I have organized to collect a final stream of data.

Bunched together like they are at one end of the production spectrum – under designations like natural, grass-fed, pastured and “beyond organic” – I would have expected more similarity among the study population than I have found.  Motivations, skills, proclivities differ greatly.  And yet, there are commonalities.

One we hear about today is weariness.  All of these people are entrepreneurs quickly ramping up businesses that demand of them a world of new skills.  Some in the group are new to farming from careers in engineering, social work, teaching, sales.  For them, farming itself is new.  Most people here today, though, are lifelong farmers who have decided to add to their plates the work of marketing, selling and distributing the food they know how to raise.

One farm, for instance, that sells cheese as well as pork and beef saw their duties proliferate as they adopted grass-fed production, cheese-making and direct marketing.  They refer to the “BC” and “AC” eras of their farm: Before Cheese and After CheeseBefore Cheese, the only relationships their work required them to have were with the feed mill and the milk truck.  That was pretty much it.  After Cheese has them interacting with hundreds of wholesale and retail customers: relationship-based marketing, they call it.  This farmer says that the constant pressure of the small business life, paired with the long hours, over time begin to “erode family time.”  Another farmer is off making deliveries four days a week while his wife and children basically run the farm – this so they can raise food ecologically and sell it to a clientele whose demand far outstrips supply.  Life balancing is an issue farmers here want to discuss.

The fatigue in the room makes clear the attraction of status quo commodity farming, which none of these farmers practice.  Commodity farming provides a buyer: no marketing is necessary and there are few relationships to maintain.  Commodity production segments the phases of production, and so it segments responsibility accordingly.  This divvying up of responsibility and, in a sense, risk, is an attractive feature for farmers.  This provides a certain reassurance, even as the act of producing just one crop exposes a farmer totally to the volatility of the commodity marketplace.

The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act is another quandary for today’s farmers because it can be expensive to raise meat.  Cows and pigs cost a lot.  Feed does, too, and so even a small-scale meat producer’s annual expenses can be high, and yet the food safety bill places a $500,000 cap on gross annual revenues in order to qualify for a small producer exception to the new legislation.  Even some of this group’s small, diverse ecological farms say their annual expenses leave them not much room between their baseline expenses and the $500,000 cap.   This is so for one 30-acre farm that raises pastured eggs, hens, turkeys, pigs and grass-fed beef: probably not who the food safety bill means to assign to the big producer category.

One participant suggests that the small producer exception be based on point of sale.  If the farmer sells direct-to-consumer, then the farm is exempt.  If the farmer sells to a distributor, then it isn’t.  This suggestion echoes Fred Kirschenmann’s point that the potential impact of a tainted food is what matters most for food safety.  The farmer here today says, “Let the free market work.  Let the consumers decide: ‘I trust my farmer more than I trust the FDA or USDA.'”  “People who don’t,” he says, “can eat food from China.”  The group grumbles that the real aim of the bill is to pave the way for increasing imports.

A final worry.  “When your spouse is your business partner,” says one farmer to a room full of recognition, “that’s fun,” she finishes, bringing laughter from everyone.  The group is reminded that the work of running a farm-business unfolds within the mystery contained in any marriage.  Not that we need reminding: divorces have ruptured three high-profile farms in this population, upending the operations run by major pioneers in this movement.  One farmer lives in an apartment in town as he awaits the fate of his former wife’s family’s land, which he farmed – thoughtfully, profitably, ecologically – for 35 years.  Another farmer spends twelve hours of every week in the cab of his pickup, driving long distances to visit his children, who moved out last fall with their mother.  The time this demands takes him away from his work, and plus he also stands to lose half his acreage.  Personal wounds of this nature very publicly disrupt the security of the regional food system these very farmers are working to achieve.

And yet, yhe day is dominated by tales of restoration.  Taking notes, I hear hopeful stories prevail above the fray of fatigue.  Farmers tell of land and waterways restored.  Some report the results of soil tests, others know by observation.  In some people’s soils, the amount of organic matter is twice what it was a year ago.  Cation exchange capacity – basically a measure of the soil’s mineral content, the higher the better – has also doubled for some.  Other features of the land are celebrated: water infiltration into the soil is much improved; runoff has decreased.  Farmers watched their soils and forages withstand the summer’s three-month drought, and rebound quickly (“green up”) when rare drops of rain did fall.  Forage density and forage diversity are higher.  Day by day, these farmers’ management practices are leading to results that, if adopted by more farmers and implemented across the landscape, would have positive effects for public health and the ecosystem.

They speak of booming businesses.  Their food is flavorful, attracting an ever-increasing number of customers who report improvements in their health.  These farmers are selling more food to more people.  They are securing contracts with institutions and devising new distribution schemes that better penetrate the regional food supply.  One person has already run the numbers, and sees that business is up 63% over last year.  Another just purchased 60 acres outright, with money saved from the business of selling pastured poultry and pork, no bank loan.  Profits per acre are up.  Some here today are meeting with the state legislature, to explain how finishing, processing, and selling meat and poultry in-state leads to much-increased revenues for the state.

Julia DeBruicker Valliant, MHS is completing a doctorate in public health.  For her thesis she is conducting an in-depth and place-based study about the market for eco-labeled meat in Indiana, where she also raises cows and turkeys on her family’s farm.  From 2007 to 2010 she served as a CLF Predoctoral Fellow.

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