Thursday, November 12, 2009

Letting Your Chickens Run Loose

Kevin Shaar - from the Barista Del Mundo episode "The Wife Works In Town"

I just read an article that forecasts difficult times ahead for farmers and those of us who prefer thoughtfully produced food. Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia and featured prominently in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma relates difficulties he's faced with neighbors, suppliers and even the government regarding his decision to raise farm animals humanely, feed them natural food, and raise them naturally.

A critic of Salatin's, who refused to sell him sawdust, criticized him stating:
"You let your chickens run loose. You abuse your cows because you don't vaccinate them. You don't want your cows taking antibiotics. I hate everything you stand for."

Wow. My first reaction was to compare Salatin's experience with that of our local farmers, such as David Smith of Springfield Farm, whose desire to build a farm store on his farms' property has been met with tremendous resistance and outright hostility by his neighbors - mostly ex-suburbanites who moved to Rural Maryland seeking the idyllic "farm life" but who would rather live near places that look like a farm rather than a real, working farm.

The problem we face here is that while we have farmers such as Joel Salatin, David Smith, Edwin Shank (The Family Cow Farm) and many others in each locale, we collectively face the industrial agriculture behemoth that is Purdue, ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland - industrial corporations whose purpose is to provide as much food as possible at the lowest price and greatest profit margin. This has led to the confinement method of raising animals that most of our nation eats.

And, like any conglomerate, these corporations would prefer that all of us consume their products and not turn to small, local farmers like Smith, Salatin and Shank - who collectively, are a potential threat to their profitability.

Which makes it increasingly likely that these conglomerates will turn their machinery against us and begin spinning hype in the manner of the sawdust supplier above. That these natural methods of farming are actually "bad" for us and threaten our way of life.

A great example of the industrial agricultural machine and how it treats our American farmers was most apparent during our visit to Wisconsin in the Spring of 2008 when we visited Kevin Shaar and his family on their dairy farm. At the time, Kevin was 29 years old and had worked his farm for fifteen years. They owned a herd of mostly Holstein dairy cows (most milk production per day) with a few Jersey and Guernsey cows thrown in for good measure. Milk production is measured in pounds and for every 100 pounds Kevin and Mary produced the local dairy would pay them the commercial rate of seventeen dollars.

Span that out over a thousand pounds and they're being paid $170 per thousand pounds of milk, or $1,700 per ten thousand pounds of milk. Not too bad for a couple of days work, right?

Back then the price for a gallon of milk had doubled at the grocery store, Kevin's cost for feed had rocketed from $80 per bag to $200 per bag. His cost for fertilizer per ton had tripled, the cost of fuel hovered over five dollars per gallon and his price per one hundred pounds of milk had fallen from $20 to $17 per hundred pounds.

When I asked him if it was "sustainable", Kevin said that they needed to make over $20 per pound of milk in order to break even - meaning that for every pound of milk they delivered to the dairy, they were getting screwed and losing money. Perhaps a government can operate at a deficit, but real people cannot. Kevin's situation isn't an isolated one and is the classic example of how our industrial agricultural system has gone wrong.

It's ironic in the coffee business that so many of my colleagues give so much lip service to "the farmer" and getting the coffee farmer more yet so proudly champion the American industrial agricultural system that sticks our own American farmers in the neck.

The situation here underscores that we need to remain vigilant about our food supply and educate those around us about the benefits of natural farming practices. Letting chickens and cows roam on pasture and letting pigs forage is not a "bad" thing. It's what they were meant to do and that needs to be celebrated, not destroyed.