Our goal as farmers is to produce food in a way that is conscientious and ethical. As you read you will notice that rather than being laid out cleanly and systematically each value tends to circle back and pop up somewhere else, often multiple times. There is simply no easy, concise way to share what we believe in. This is our web of values:
“Sustainable” is currently a popular buzzword that has unfortunately been usurped to mean nearly anything, watering down its intended use. When we use the term “sustainable” to refer to our food and farming practices, we do so with three components in mind. To us, something is only sustainable if it meets the following three criteria:
Environmentally concerned – With a limited amount of natural resources from which to draw, we must farm in a way that minimizes the use of nonrenewable resources in favor of renewable ones. Further, we must farm in a way that preserves the resources we currently have available. The former is concerned, for example, with preparing and working the market garden with the fewest number of passes with the tractor, and marketing our food locally rather than exporting. The latter is concerned, for example, with eliminating soil erosion, preserving the natural bounty by not using broad-spectrum pesticides that also kill beneficial insects, and feeding ruminant animals on grass rather than imported grain.
Economically viable – A farm that does not make a profit is not a sustainable farm. It may be that a farmer can bankroll his or her farm from off-farm earnings, but in that case the farm itself is subsidized rather than sustainable. And for a farm to be truly economically viable it needs to be capable of producing a living wage for the farmer(s); it is not enough to merely pay for itself.
Socially responsible – A farmer will not stay on the farm long if he is constantly miserable. Yes, there are times when farming is long, grueling, tiresome work, but that is to be expected, and is the exception rather than the rule. To be sustainable, farming must be enjoyable, and farmers must have adequate living and working conditions. Is there any surprise, then, that confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs—such as broiler houses, hog barns, and cattle feedlots) tend not to be family farms? Why should the second generation stick around a place where the first generation can’t stand the work?
“Local,” too, is unfortunately becoming a buzzword usurped by industry to mean things it was never intended to mean. The supermarket chain Dillons, for example, has attempted to market cantaloupes grown in Colorado as “local” to southwest Missouri. As far as I can imagine, from Colorado to Missouri is not what anybody envisions when they look to buy local food. When we talk about “local,” we think in terms of community. Or, as a favorite writer of mine, Lynn Miller of Small Farmers Journal, recently editorialized, we are for food and farmers that are “nearby.” This implies close proximity not only physically, he argues, but mentally and emotionally as well. Real “local” food is from farmers who think the way you do, value the things you value, and live the way you live.
Good food should not be prohibitively expensive but reasonably priced. That is, it should be priced to adequately and appropriately compensate the farmer for his or her input costs and time. This does not, however, mean that good food should be cheap, that you should expect to find supermarket prices at the farmers market or produce stand. One reason for this is that local food tends not to work with the economies of scale that larger operations do — nor does it rely on underpaid (often immigrant) labor and peasant feudal farmers — so a small-scale farmer has to make more money per unit in order to survive, hence a higher price. Furthermore, industrial food has hidden costs that are unaccounted for in its pricing scheme, not least of which are environmental degradation, health complications, and the burden these things place on our descendents. So the higher price is often still reasonable, and may in fact be cheaper than the alternative. Organically-grown produce, for example, will contain considerably more nutrition than the same item conventionally-grown, so while the former is more expensive the consumer gets more out of it. “You get what you pay for” is as true of food as anything else.
That said, we aim to keep our prices as low as is reasonable, largely as a means to appeal to other young families on tight budgets. We’ve been (and, really, still are) in the spot where we wanted to buy and eat good food, to vote with our wallets, but with only so many dollars it can be difficult to do. And we are able to do this because we do what we can to keep our input costs down, to live frugally but enjoyably, to count our work as profit rather than expense, and to just generally opt out of the current American extractive economy.
As in all areas of life, diversity on a farm is an important consideration. Diversity makes for enjoyment, sustainability, and general health. On our farm this takes many forms: diversity of land, diversity of species, diversity of enterprise. Each is quite self-explanatory, but allow me to expound upon each one.
Our land is quite diverse in that it contains woodlot, open pasture, a wet-weather creek, and a large year-round pond, all on a relatively small 25 acres. This diversity in turn lends itself to diversity of species. We can, for example, graze cattle and sheep in the pasture, let hogs forage in the woods, raise geese and ducks around the pond, and use a portion of our open land to plant our orchard and establish our market garden. Going even further, there are different species of wild animals and plants that live in each area of our farm. And with all of this diversity of land and species comes a diversity of enterprise.
This diversity, then, works to our advantage to ensure the profitability of our farm. The diversity of enterprise means that if we have a crop failure of apples, for example, we can still sell watermelons, tomatoes, beef, chicken, and eggs, among others, whereas if our entire farm was in apples we would have no other income were we to lose that crop. This even works within a crop. By planting a variety of potatoes, we hedge our bets against a pest or disease that might attack one variety; were we to lose the Yukon Gold to disease we might still have a disease-resistant variety to harvest.
And this overall diversity aids in the enjoyment of our farm. Rather than doing the same thing day-in, day-out, we have a variety of tasks to fill our time, and though we may have successive days of the same job, each week and certainly each season is different.
The “Golden Age of Agriculture” is not too far past, and fortunately is recent enough for us to study to our benefit. While we rely on new technologies, such as electric fencing, 3:1 geared polywire reels, and recycled-rubber water troughs, among others, we are constantly referring back to farmers who have gone before, to attempt to re-learn what many American farmers have lost due to the mass exodus from the countryside. Many farming practices currently in vogue — such as planned crop rotations, raising hogs in the woodlot, and farm species diversification — were once standard practice for farms across the country, and there is much more yet to be learned and applied.
Our interest in historical farming manifests itself in our choice of livestock as well. Rather than opting for new hybrids or breeds recently imported, we choose to seek out those with a history of being raised in our area. This not only makes for animals that perform well on our farm, but has the added benefit of a nice story to go along with what we produce.