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!