Field Notes: Farmers Gather as Winter Settles In

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. Read More >