Beyond Organic

Last weekend was an intense educational experience for our family. We spent the weekend in western Pennsylvania visiting the sustainable “beyond organic” farm of an old law school friend.
The paths of lawyers and farmers usually only cross at an upscale, yuppie farmers market. Fortunately for us, we were blessed to have known our farmer friend before he became a farmer’s market supplier.

Farmer Dave was an old law school classmate of Mr. Red. Despite a stellar first year performance, Dave decided that law school wasn’t for him. Instead, Dave and his beautiful wife Mandy took a big risk - a risk many of us crunchy folks talk about taking, but few ever actually take. Dave and Mandy packed their bags, moved in with Mandy’s parents, and started working towards owning their own sustainable farm.

In the Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan spends some time on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. At one point, Salatin lets Pollan know that part of the problem with modern farming is that all the A students have left the farms for higher paying prestigious jobs. Salatin laments that most of today’s farmers are C students. In his book, Pollan clearly illustrates that good, local, sustainable farming takes brains. And like Salatin, Farmer Dave has the brains.

So what happens when an A student goes back to the land for a living?

We arrived on Saturday afternoon to Dave’s home atop a scenic hill in the country. Dave built the house himself. It is designed to be tremendously energy efficient, and includes a row of windows on the south side of the house. These windows provide heat for their well-insulated home. Inside these windows Dave grows herbs and other plants.

In the field, Dave grows a variety of crops. But Dave focuses the bulk of his energy on raising organic chickens and turkeys. The chickens we saw were beautiful little creatures. My daughter Gianna went right into the chicken pen and picked up a chicken.

Dave moves the pens daily so that the chicken poop can fertilize different parts of the field for his crops. Dave also raises some egg-laying chickens. The turkeys are kept in a larger, fenced area but, like the chicken pens, Dave regularly moves the fencing. During our tour of the turkey pen we first met “our turkey.”

Before the visit, Dave joked that instead of just buying our Thanksgiving Turkey from him, Mr. Red should butcher our turkey. Mr. Red nervously agreed. Dave then took us and our Thanksgiving turkey (and five other turkeys) over to his butchering station (shown below).

It’s a clever open-air station very similar to the Polyface arrangement described in Omnivore’s Dilemma. I won’t describe it in detail, but it’s a very respectful and simple butchering process. Mr. Red made the fatal cut to the throat and I helped with the gutting. I’ve written before about organic living and the importance of being “close” to our food. This was a whole new level of closeness.

It was a really incredible experience to take such responsibility for one’s meat-eating. Mr. Red described it as a “spiritual experience.” We even blessed the bird. And bless him we should. He is a wonderful creature, made by God and worthy of respect. It’s wonderful to see a farmer whose work incorporates those values.

The butchering and cleanup took the rest of the daylight. The next day, we briefly visited the farm of Mandy’s parents (Farmer Dave’s in-laws). The kids fed their pigs, pet their beautiful horses, and jumped in the back of a pickup truck to watch the farm dog chase around a large herd of cattle. What more could a kid ask for?

Dave and his family are doing a great thing. Their farming not only uses the land, but nourishes it. The problems of factory farming may seem overwhelming, but to a little plot of land atop a hill in Western PA, Farmer Dave is making a difference.

So the next time your local, beyond organic farmer wants an extra dollar per pound for his meat, remember Farmer Dave, and remember that your extra dollar is going to support something more than just a tasty chicken.

16 comments:

Red,
Thanks for taking the time to bang out this entry so that we can all live vicariously through you. I totally salute Dave and Mandy. I hope they have lots of babies in order to raise them amidst such a healthy lifestyle and set of priorities. Is that your Thanksgiving turkey in the last picture?

November 18, 2008 at 6:42 AM  

Great post, Red. I really appreciate thinking more about the food that my family eats, the food that is actually going into our bodies and either nourishing or damaging us!

November 18, 2008 at 8:34 AM  

yup, that's our 17 pound Thanksgiving turkey. For Mr. Red's sake, I picked a peaceful turkey ;-)

November 18, 2008 at 8:40 AM  

I feel so sorry for it! This is definitely one animal-lover, carnivore's dilemma. :(

November 18, 2008 at 11:19 AM  

I have been reading your site for months and enjoy seeing a new post in my RSS reader. However, I was offended by this post and I think you should be more charitable in characterizing America's farmers. My father and father-in-law and practically everyone I grew up with are family farmers. They are not stupid people. I realize you didn't use that word, but you might as well have done so by saying that none of the bright students return to the farm. I was raised on a homestead meaning that our farm has been in our family over 100 years. It was passed down from father to son for generations. Each of these men worked tirelessly to care for the land while making enough of a living to support their growing Catholic families. Traditional family values are built in to everything that a farmer does. These are good people. Now that organic farming has become popular, it seems the easiest thing to do is blame "conventional" farmers for every ill in food production and assume they are either ignorant or worse, corrupt and uncaring about the food they produce or the environment they live in. The truth is that farmers are hard-working, faithful people who sacrifice a great deal financially to produce our food. You see before the organic grower was asking for an extra dollar for their product, the family farmer was asking for help from his consumers, only to be denied. While I respect organic farmers' rights to sell their products and make a living, I wonder if they ever think of the family farmers who went before them. It seems they only look back in disgust.

November 18, 2008 at 2:13 PM  

Jenny,

No offense intended. The comment you mentioned was from a book, the Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I don't know enough farmers to make a judgment on their intelligence.

I was only attempting to give Farmer Dave a big compliment. There are not many suburban born young men, who are successful students, who would chose to give up their law career to become an organic farmer. I commend your intelligent family members for their service to their family farm.

Unfortunately, I think we have to agree to disagree on the environmental aspects of conventional farming. I've written before about how I don't believe the answer lies in the organic label (which is why the post was titled "Beyond Organic"), but I also do NOT believe the answer lies in conventional farming techniques. While there are many good people running conventional farms, I think the entire system is very flawed, which has a very negative impact on the environment and our health.

November 18, 2008 at 3:21 PM  

I don't think conventional family farms are the problem at all. The newer "factory" farming techniques do have the potential for more enviromental and food supply problems.

As a I also grew up on a 100+ year old family farm, I understand your point of view, Jenny. It can be a little galling to have folks who really do not know that much about farming preach about respecting the land and livestock to those who are closer to the land than they will ever be.

November 18, 2008 at 8:10 PM  

I would be really interested to know what people who grew up farming and those who organically farm now think about the way the federal govt. has gotten involved with farming- i.e. the Farm Bill. It is a huge, I hate to say it, welfare program for farming. I am not trying to insult anyone, I just honestly think any debate about the future of farming in America needs to consider what the feds have or have not done. Some argue that it is important for the federal govt to subsidize this whole idea of the family farm, the agrarian way of life. Others disagree. Thoughts?

November 18, 2008 at 8:42 PM  

Jenny – Chill out.

Maria – I can speak personally to the evils of factory farms. That’s how I got my name. As for your critique of Red, it’s an ad hominem. You attack the person (Red) rather than her position. Instead of thumbing your nose at Red’s lack of farming experience, how about you actually engage her arguments?

Red – Great post. Keep ‘em coming. Farmer Dave is the man! Fight the power!

Farmer Dave – If you’re out there, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the Farm Bill.

November 18, 2008 at 9:07 PM  

Well, I will start by saying, I did not grow up on a farm. I was a suburb raised girl, who then went to live in a city. Then I met a guy who grew up on a farm married him, and moved into rural America. Since being here I have spent much time getting to know the local "family farms" around us, and even frequent some of them for our food. I have spent many more hours studying and researching "farming techniques" and how they affect our food supply, the quality of the product and the damage or help to the soil.
With that being said, I don't think it is fair to classify all "family farms" as evil doers, but I can say that Factory farms aren't the only ones with distastful practices. The small, the truely small family farm doesn't exist as it once did. In our area we see more of the "morph" farms. The farms that once were the small family farm who have gone and purchased up most of the other small farms around them to become a rather huge farm...but not as large as a factory farm. The farming practices that I have personally witnessed in these "morph" farms (which would still be classified as a family farm for most americans and for the purposes of the farm bill) are just as bad as the "factory" farms. They have little to no regard for the chemicals that they are spraying on the crop, the practice of crop rotation, or even the idea of naturally renewing the soil with compost instead of with nitrogen fertilizers.
As for the small "family" farm. I have seen some that are awesome. While not "organic", they are knowledgable in their farming practices, wise in their pest control, and concerned with soil restoration...but I have also seen the industrial mentality on the small family farm...
Needless to say. I don't think we can classify all family farms into one category good or bad.

What is the lesson in all of this..and why am I taking up all this space for my post? It comes back to knowing where your food comes from. What it ate, where it lived, the quality of the soil, the rotation of the crop, the seed for the crop, the type of pest control used, and the type of "food" used. If you cannot answer these questions about your food, you cannot make claims one way or the other that it is "better," or "worth" the money.
As a consumer, whether you live in the city or the country, we all should know about the food we are eating. We all know about the car we are going to buy, and we aren't car manufacturers. Point being that you don't have to be a farmer to know about the farming industry and practices you can just be a consumer.
The massive organic industry puts out crap just like the conventional world does. Just like the food industry, the bottom line for any "farm" is money...
You as the consumer have the power to make a statement and to become educated on what you are eating. You determine who makes the money in the food world, and you decide who you don't want your hard earned dollar to go to.

You get to collect all the research, studies, information available to you and make your decision.
I think those people who have taken their food supply seriously and have chosen to go the organic route and sustainabilty route shouldn't be chaistied or told how "silly" they are, they should be commended for making an educated and well thought through decision. Likewise a farmer who chooses to farm in that way gives up a lot for the belief they are doing something worthwhile.
Conventional or orangic farmers are just that farmers. Instead of plowing each other over, they should respect one another and face the face that everyone could stand to learn something...

On a side note, the claim that conventional farming is the same now as it always has been isn't even close to accurate. I don't recall them using GMO seeds way back when, nor did they use petro-chemical pesticides, fungicides etc. Nor were the soils so nutrient deficient from the over use of nitrogen fertilizers that crops grown in it come out with no vitamin C. A potato farmer 30 years ago was growing a potato, a potato that they could reuse the seed for and a potato the way God gave it to us. A conventional potato now isn't necessarily "God given" Most conventional pots are GMO. The seeds cannot be saved and reused due to the fact that they are "owned" by the seed manufacturer. That's right many of the conventional crops are the property of "mansanto," "pioneer" and other such companies. We have the lovely FDA to thank for the allowance of a patentent on "living" things and for their determination that the American public doesn't have a right to know what products are GMOed and which aren't. The life of a farmer isn't easy...and either is the life of a consumer in this country.

November 18, 2008 at 9:55 PM  

Madcow: If you read what I said, I agree with you that factory farms pose serious problems. I know this from experience as well. I grew up on a parcel of my grandparents' small farm. When they passed away and we sold the bulk of the farm, we specifically put animal limits into the contract to prevent the creation of a factory farm.

The intent of my comment was not to attack Red or take on her arguments (I don't think the post had a serious "arguement in it; it was more of a story, which I generally enjoyed). I just understood Jenny's feelings after reading the post. I am sure Red did not mean to degrade the intelligence of farmers. We very well may have been too sensative. However, considering how mass media and cultural elites treat rural Americans as backwards, bitter, bigoted hillbillies who cling to their guns and religion, you may understand why we can be a bit thin-skinned these days.

November 19, 2008 at 8:48 AM  

Maria,

Thanks for your post. I may be hyper-sensitive myself with the whole conventional farming issue, which I think is understandable given the whole mad cow thing I've got going on.

I applaud your family's opposition to factory farming, and I denouce the snobbery of the cultural elites. But I must admit that the elites are right about some things. And on the issue of food safety and the environment, I think the Right could learn a few things.

Conciliatorily,
Mad Cow

November 19, 2008 at 11:03 AM  

Ellie or Red--We have a similar "beyond organic" heritage turkey from a local farm that we are picking up in a few days. Do you know if you cook them the same way as a conventional turkey? We have to be careful not to overcook our organic, grass-fed beef or it gets tough...

November 19, 2008 at 10:03 PM  

Tex,

I have no idea (maybe brine (sp?) the turkey? We are planning to fry it, if it will fit, but I do think the meat might be more dry than a store bought turkey.

November 20, 2008 at 12:04 AM  

Having gotten our funky heirloom turkey from a local guy for a few years now I can help Texas Mommy.

Cook like usual, but they DO tend to have less fat so make sure you really keep it hydrated (lots of good grease going in & regular basting), we sometimes put a cheesecloth soaked in butter over the top to keep it moist.

Oh & I don't truss mine I find that the dark & light cook at different times then and dryness can occur.

Even if your meat is a bit dry though (ours was the first year), it didn't matter the flavor is unbelievable, and just make extra gravy!

November 20, 2008 at 11:57 AM  

From out experience...the lower the oven temperature for cooking the better. I also do the cheese cloth with an ample supply of butter inside and outside of the bird.

We don't truss ours either for similar reasons...

November 20, 2008 at 4:29 PM  

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