Ecological Farming: Whole Lives, Whole Animals

 

Written by your local ecological farmer’s daughter, Raya Carr...

Farming is more than a job, it’s a whole lifestyle. I believe sharing from our lives, what we do and how it works is key, because it gains the cross-pollination of ideas with our community. Our culture prioritizing holistic farming & eating will be integral in many kinds of positive change, from individuals gaining improved physical health to animals being treated respectfully to the turning of tables in a direction towards increased environmental sustainability. Farming is just one of many parts of this whole picture, but it’s the part of the puzzle I will focus on. We can talk about these changes happening together as a community and do the small steps each of us can to support these causes. That’s what keeps my hopes up when it’s hard times.

What I want to try and share is a sense of what it’s like to be a small, ethically focused livestock farmer.  It’s a lifetime sort of project. The idea that one could get very far as a farmer in a season or two is unrealistic and farmers’ have to tend to commit to their farming vision through thick and thin through many, many years of arduous work. Nothing about farming is quick. The beginning of it all isn’t quick and goes something like acquiring capital, to purchasing or leasing land, to learning how to setup your farming systems and bringing in your initial stock. But that’s just the beginning, before making all that actually work and run and learning from your mistakes and somehow figuring out how to be financially sustainable while keeping both your goals/values/ethics and your sanity intact. And then if and when you want to retire or get out of the farm you have the difficult and time consuming task of finding & training someone to pass on the torch to (no small matter) or getting rid of everything you have spent all those previous years attaining.  

In our particular family farm, head farmer Harry already had a business that kept him working long work weeks, and that is what afforded him the opportunity financially to get into farming initially. It was many, many years before the farm had any staff at all other than our family members though. For my farming parents starting out, all animal care was done before and after the already taxing job of running a small manufacturing business and raising us kids. We certainly got very involved in the farm chores from a young age, too.

This is a huge reality check to realize that not just our family, but many family farms do all the farming work on top of entire other jobs or businesses. It really does mean probably not being able to take days off very often (certainly not two a week) and very seldom going out of town or on vacation. Many farms like ours are at least not yet “cash cows” but are actually still soaking in investment money (i.e. we are actually all in all paying for the privilege to be able to raise food on the land, not putting away extra cash).

Over the years of growing up around this situation, I have asked myself so many times “why does it have to be this way? Why is farming so hard?” Maybe you have asked yourself this before, too. The conclusion I have come to is that farming is so hard because we are “pushing against stone” or “swimming upwards against the current” so to speak. The current and the stone we are up against is an extremely messed up food system that no one person can reverse by themselves. In the meantime, our struggle must be as a team and is somewhat gargantuan.

Harry and friend! (img courtesy of Sky Full of Bacon)

Harry and friend! (img courtesy of Sky Full of Bacon)

 

For starters, general expectations of food pricing and quality are way far in the direction of low prices and bad quality food. The industrial food system has taken such a hold over our diets and our minds that even us farmers doing this hard work often for free have trouble bringing themselves to charge what it costs to grow the food, let alone what it costs plus a decent profit margin. But even when we get up the courage to try to charge what we need to, we are met with some essential support from more knowledgeable consumers (you), but also often get complaints and attitude from people asking “are you out of your mind, this product only usually costs a fraction of what you’re asking in the store?!” One can’t take that kind of thing personally, but on a bad day, it’s hard to stomach the clueless attitude of many folks. It’s also often hard for chefs in restaurants to get their customers to pay the extra money for well sourced ingredients, they have to make it a big priority and also be intelligent about how they do it. There are so many food marketing buzzwords thrown into the mix of products at stores, markets, and in restaurants that people also get very confused about what’s what at times and so it’s easy to believe momentarily that something can be both cheap and holistically farmed.

That’s something we can all work together to do, we can talk about food pricing with friends, colleagues, and family, whoever it might be productive to talk to about. It can’t hurt to question everything as far as marketing & pricing goes and try to understand how farming works. Have we all considered lately how there are only a couple skirt steaks on an entire cow and that entire cow was a living, breathing creature for years before it was harvestable? Or what about the fact that a whole chicken was a living breathing creature that was cared for day after day for many weeks….? What about the responsibility of maintaining that animal’s life in a way that is good for the environment and nutritionally dense, in addition to being tasty? Twenty dollars starts to seem pretty cheap at that point. It just puts in perspective the “normal” commodity food pricing--that pricing is based on a system that treats living things like inanimate objects for exploitation.

That commodity system cares only about the business of profits and sales, and is a race to the bottom, a race to the cheapest pricing mixed with the best marketing. Conventional farms and food businesses do not in general even try to consider the long-term health and happiness of the consumer, or the animal, or the environment.

I want holistic, ethical farmers’ to start being able to charge enough for their products that they can pay for enough good staffing to have days off when they need, and for elderly farmers to have the savings to be able afford the farm help and rest they need especially later in life. I want ecological farmers that have just thrown their entire life energy into farming for decades to make more than minimum wage, or worse, under that,  after all those years working at it.

The responsibility of having lots of living things to nurture (farm animals for the livestock farm, or for the produce farmer, plants) and to care for responsibly is extremely rewarding, but also relentless. Despite whatever time it is, whatever day it is, whatever the weather is, or your health, can one walk away from a farm of half-watered animals or plants? They would die. It is arguably just as burdensome as it is satisfying to take responsibility for this situation. Every season has its challenges at Mint Creek. We go from the bustle and never ending work hours of summer, to the concentrated pressure of Thanksgiving turkey season, to the long hard winter of keeping the animals fed, watered, warm, and comfortable through intense weather while the livestock also start to give birth to all their newborn babies. But farmers keep doing it for many reasons, among them the hope of healthy, happier lives for all those benefiting from the farms’ production. And for do occasionally experience the ever idealized but hardly describable communion and synergy with mother nature and living things that may flood the mind with peace. If we seem a little crazy at the farmers’ market, it’s probably because we are!

 

Hi dear friends,

Don't forget that now is your last chance to secure tickets for this weekend's Farm Dinner with Chef Greg Biggers of Cafe des Architectes! It's going to be a beautiful evening with food, music, and of course all our farm animals! 

Farm Dinner Season begins!!!

Farm Dinner Season begins!!!

What to look forward to in this farm event in particular?

June is a beautiful & busy month on Mint Creek Farm. In June, we are not yet well into the intense heat of summer, with the shadows of Spring still lingering in the green & blooming pastures, blue skies, and baby animals growing up to be not so baby anymore running about. What could be a better way to get in touch with local, organic-pasture farming the summer than to visit and have head farmer Harry show you around the groups of livestock and pasture? Adults and kids alike get drawn in by the magic of a herd of sheep or cows softly grazing the fields. 

Chef Greg Biggers' cuisine is not to be missed and neither is Glad Rags' music. Both the food and the music will nuanced, delicious, creative, and fun! We are excited to have Chef Greg Biggers out for his second farm dinner at Mint Creek Farm (he came out last July, as well). We are very grateful to Greg and the restaurant he is chef at,Cafe Des Arctitectes at the Sofitel Hotel. This will now be Glad Rag's third year performing at a Mint Creek Farm dinner, and their band evolves into something more and more delightful and interesting each year! 

Special to June 24th is the optional, early-afternoon, pre farm tour yoga class taught by our very own CSA member Briana Kline, who is a certified yoga and pilates instructor base at her Chicago south loop studio: Roots of Integrity
 

EXECUTIVE CHEF GREG BIGGERS' MENU

Bibb Salad
Blue cheese, pomegranate vinaigrette, candied pecans
 
Heirloom Tomato
Whipped feta, compressed melon, grilled fennel
 
Turkey Ballantine
Black truffle, garlic jus
 
Braised Beef Ribs
Sour cream-cilantro crema, togarashi
 
Roasted Potatoes
Olive oil, dried tomatoes, rosemary
 
Poached Spring Onions
White wine, baby carrots, chimichurri

Vanilla Pound cake
Rum syrup, cherries, caramel
 

FARM DINNER MUSIC: 


"Glad Rags"

Glad Rags' Band Camp here. 

Their Band's Genre:
Randy Newman Dance Music, Psychedelic Cabaret Orchestra

Their Band Members:
Glad Matt - Keys, Synth, Vox
Bean - Percussion, Vox  
Maryann - Vox, Mouth Noises
Glad Pat - Banjo, Homemade sounds, Pakhawaj, Tabla, Bass
Matty - Alto saxophone, band member placement
plus an ever-changing assembly of cello / horns / more saxes / violin / noises

We hope to see you on the farm!  Don't forget to check out our full schedule of farm dinners, .

Gearing up for outdoor market season!

Hello Dearest Friends!

As spring comes well underway, things are very busy at the farm.  Head farmer Harry just went a few weeks without a day off and finally got one off this Monday. There has been many births of baby lambs & calves, many of our pigs (including the infamous Miss Scarlet) are pregnant, and the grass is growing fast in the spring flush. The laying chickens & ducks are excited about all the fresh pasture & bugs and the big, furry, guard dogs are grateful for the comfortable temperatures. We constantly have portable fencing to move the animals into fresh paddocks to eat up the perennial pasture plants. 

 

having fun walking with this sweet little newborn lamb after our Easter brunch event!

There's so much work to do on equipment and summer poultry & livestock housing, fencing, & shade-netting, and we are in the process training & hiring new farmhands and interns for the 2017 summer season (so if you know anyone well suited for this job, please send them our way).

On the sales & inventory fronts we are excited to start summer market season. Our farm has a bigger & better than ever organic-grassfed meat, egg, and (first ever) bone-broth product supply planned for you this season! But guess what? We don't have to wait long, as outdoor market season is almost here, just another week or two and it will be, and we almost are ready for it. 

In the meantime, Don't forget to visit Green City Market inside the Nature Museum today, April 29th, from 8am-1pm as it will be the last indoor market of the the season! We have eggs, lamb, goat, beef, pork, chicken, duck, & turkey available tomorrow in addition to our farm's pasture flower honey & frozen poultry bone broth. 

Outdoor markets' opening days at Green City Market (7am) & Evanston downtown market (7:30am) happen on May 6th, the following weekend. We will do 10 markets per week once the season is in full swing so be sure so be sure to check out our farmers' market tab, and mark your calendars!

See you soon!

Farmer Raya and the folks at Mint Creek Farm

January 2017 on the farm

In livestock news, our chicken egg production is way down right now because of lack of daylight hours (which the hens find just about as uninspiring as we do). Duck egg production from our laying ducks is completely at a stop until April or May. 
 

It's been a wet & mucky week at the farm this week with temperatures roller-coasteering from one extreme to another. This is really hard on all parties involved, from our staff, livestock, poultry and also for our tractors & vehicles. Multiple trucks have had to go in for repairs--bad news for farm expense! The wind was insane & it was picking up large objects around the farm (including the back window of our utility vehicle), yesterday. The smaller farm animals had to hunker down and walk slowly & heavily braced against ground to avoid being picked up by the wind. My hat blew off so many times I gave up on wearing it. 

We've continued caring for our new baby lambs and goats, but also had a baby calf born at the end of last week on one of those super frigid days! Our cattle are tough as the cowboys they once evolved among, though, and mind the weather least of all the farm animals. The calf was fine!


Birth has been happening, yes, but it's also been time to say goodbye to many of our meat poultries. Yesterday and today we've had to catch and harvest a combined few hundred stewing hens & turkeys for butchering into meat cuts, in addition to a small butcher load of four-legged livestock. This is always a somber task, but also what enables the farm to continue and our market & CSA community to eat well. 

Until next time,
Your Mint Creek Farmers

SOME THOUGHTS ON ORGANIC FARMING AND ITS FUTURE, THOUGHTS ON MINT CREEK FARM AND ITS FUTURE, THOUGHTS ON IROQUOIS VALLEY FARMS

CLAIRE MESENAN (IVF) INTERVIEWS RAYA CARR (MCF)

"...the organic movement is about keeping our community, ecosystems, and natural resources healthy. That’s such a beautiful and inspiring goal, I’m happy to devote my life to organic farming–hard work, low pay and all–to reach towards making our world healthier and more resilient!"

Why you feel organic/sustainable farming is important

Not all organic farming is sustainable but all sustainable farming is organic, broadly speaking. For our farms to be able to produce wholesome foods requires that they avoid hormones, GMOs, pesticides, and other chemicals. The rise of many health problems can be linked to the use of all these contaminating and corrupting elements on and in the foods as they are grown conventionally. I am proud to be a part of the organic movement, because counteracting unhealthy, destructive farming methods is what it’s all about. On top of that, the organic movement is about keeping our community, ecosystems, and natural resources healthy. That’s such a beautiful and inspiring goal, I’m happy to devote my life to organic farming–hard work, low pay and all–to reach towards making our world healthier and more resilient! Additionally, food and animals are such a big part of life, or what I think of life to its fullest, and organic farming culture is very food and animal-centric, which I love.

 

  • Perspective on the future of organic/sustainable agriculture

This is largely up to the people of our nation and our world collectively. It’s quite the fight to stand up to large and powerful corporations like Monsanto that want to make it very hard to avoid their corrupted food products and keep our land free of their GMOs. But other nations have done this, so why can’t the U.S.A.? I think this is largely about embracing and creating a culture that is more focussed on the holistic process of food being grown and served. This culture has shown itself in nations such as France, where meals may take three hours to finish, and no one complains. This culture shows itself more in almost every other country where people are paying a higher percentage of their income towards foods than in the U.S. However, it seems , at least from my little bubble of the universe, that people are demanding better, healthier food in mass, and that awareness about how to get this food and what goes into growing it is increasing. A study down at Walmart of all places in the last few years showed that 99% of people would eat organic if the could afford it.

 

  • What your role on the farm is

I am the sales manager at Mint Creek Farm. We are a small farm business so I am not a conventional sales manager, but wear many hats throughout the business. Basically I feel like having this role means that the buck stops with me when it comes to all issues sales/distribution/marketing. I also love to get down to the farm to help care for the animals and make sure to do this as much as I can.

 

  • What your vision for the farm/Mint Creek CSA program is

My vision of our family farm is informed by my dad, who been the mastermind and visionary at Mint Creek since the beginning, my brother who has been such a key player in taking the business forward, and our lovely community of staff and customers. I am inspired by the dual forces of ambition/high-mindedness and practical change coming together at the farm. I see us working hard on knitty gritty details of how to run a successful diversified livestock farm business while making sure that this means improving our local ecosystem, our farm animals’ well-being, and our community. The direction that all of these focal points come together around is growth. Our business model requires us to scale our farming to a point where we can afford to have the infrastructure and staff we need. The lands around us look on sadly gray and depleted by conventional farming, dead to most signs of nature, and just asking to be converted to organic, holistic perennial pasture farming! In contrast, nature blooms in abundance here at Mint Creek on our IL prairie pasture farm–from grass to legume to wild pheasant to domesticated livestock–and the demand for our farms’ organic-grassfed meats, eggs, and CSAs is stronger than ever.

 

This very same focal point of the farm’s growth is where Iroquois Valley Farms has come into play. Without IVF we wouldn’t be able to follow all these demands for growth and our longevity as a business might have looked doubtful right now.  I cannot stress enough how important IVF’s involvement, guidance, and financing support has to been to our family farm. Honestly, I don’t know if we would have survived another winter without the refinancing of our land that IVF offered. And this is all while there has been 3X more demand than supply of our products as we go to market! Financing can be very hard to get for the farmer focused on organic, holistic, diversified farming methods. It is incomprehensible to those that are conventionally minded and come from monoculture corn and beans farming backgrounds. Many banks we had spoken with before going with IVF were coming from that conventional background. You’d think working with nature instead of against it would be more common sense than it is these days in the U.S. farming world. Thank you IVF for seeing eye to eye with us on farmings’ future, and being rooted in holistic values. I love your mission statement and slogan about looking forward to seven generations from now and deciding what is wise from that perspective.