Understanding Farmers’ Choices


Farm Notes

A few short weeks ago, I was giving a farm tour to a group of college students and interns. It was a perfect fall day: The sky was a brilliant blue, the surrounding hills were dotted with yellows, oranges and reds, and the sun was still pleasantly warm on our shoulders. We visited the cheese plant, the hen house, the goats and sheep in the field, all the while talking about our farm’s various lines of business. The students asked questions along the way.

A chick in the hand...

A chick in the hand…

We eventually came to our pastured chickens, where several groups of meat birds happily scratched the earth and soaked up the fall sun in a large, fenced-in area. I described how we moved the paddock around the field on a regular basis, pointed out the homemade shelters my husband had designed, and invited the students to investigate the thick, rich sward of healthy grasses the chickens left behind them. I contrasted our methodology with that of industrial, commodity chicken producers. I told the group how much I enjoyed raising chickens in a way that encouraged a varied diet and lots of exercise and how happy our customers are with the flavor and quality.

I then surprised the students—and myself, a bit—by admitting that although I loved the way we were farming, I understood why large, industrial farms employ the methods they do. The students looked a little shocked—how could I, a small-scale family farmer “understand” the methods of large-scale commodity chicken farms? “Look around you,” I told them. “If I were to scale up to grow the tens of thousands of chickens housed in even one of the large producer’s barns, it would be impractical in our pasture system. That significantly limits our growth as a farm business. Plus, today may be a gorgeous day, but look at how exposed we are here to the elements. Scorching heat, freezing cold, rain, high winds—all are a constant battle. And we’ve been relatively lucky, but predators, too are something a large-scale poultry operation doesn’t have to worry about. Their chickens are housed in temperature-controlled barns, safe from the elements, with automated watering and feeding systems…yeah, I get that!”

I don’t know what sort of message the students took away with them that day. But for me, I had finally said aloud something that had eaten at me for some time. When my chickens fail to gain the weight required to keep our production on schedule, I understand other farmer’s choices. When cold night temperatures cause feed consumption to skyrocket, you bet I understand the need to control environment. When extreme summer temperatures result in heat exhaustion and deaths, I absolutely understand why someone may not want to farm the way we do. It’s not that I want to change the way we raise our animals per se; I just understand why other farmers may make the choices that they make. Their choices may not be my choices, but I respect them nonetheless.

It’s probably fair to say that other farmers will read this and understand much better than most. Whether small or large, conventional or organic, every farm has its own set of challenges—its unique soils and microclimates, financial situation, farmer skills, market outlets—the list goes on and on. Farmers are an opinionated bunch, yes, but they are hesitant to tell other farmers how to farm. What may work for me may not work for you.

Which is why I’m always duly impressed when I meet an individual “non-farmer” that has strong opinions on my or other farmers’ methods. I’ll give you a very specific example: A potential customer came to visit me at a farmer’s market and proceeded to ask all sorts of wonderful questions about our chickens. When I told her we bought our chicken feed, she became very agitated and told me I needed to grow the feed myself. I was dumbfounded. “I don’t know the first thing about growing corn,” I told her. Believe it or not, she actually screamed at me for being so irresponsible before she stomped away. Now, I might be tempted to write her off as completely nutty, but she came back the very next week to apologize and we ended up having a very nice conversation. I explained that, besides having to gain a whole new skill set (growing a specific crop), I’d need expensive, specialized equipment, land to grow sufficient quantities, a way to store the grain properly without losing quality or nutrition, and then an efficient way to grind or crack it so as to make it edible…not to mention the time to plant, cultivate, and harvest. The lady kindly admitted the issues were more complex than she had realized. How did she get so passionate about farming and form such strong opinions, I asked? She had read ONE BOOK on the subject. She had never farmed…not one day in her life.

That lady will never know it, but that interaction shook me to the core. It was personally upsetting and yet enlightening at the same time. I realized that while I want people to care passionately about their food, I also want them to appreciate the complexities of growing it. I want them to appreciate farmers, their talents and knowledge, and be willing to learn from them. The skillset and the challenges are far greater than most could ever imagine.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to sell direct to consumers and wish more farmers would (or could) do the same. Potential customers can quiz me on farming methodologies and philosophies to their hearts’ content. I genuinely enjoy these discussions and am in a privileged position to learn what is important to them. If my farming choices do not gel with their concept of how it should be done, they have every right to not buy our products. Every one of us should care deeply about our food and how it is raised. Unfortunately, there is a tremendous disconnect between consumers, our food, and the farmers—large and small—that grow it. More than anything, I wish people understood the challenges that farmers face…everywhere, every day.