Wednesday, December 13, 2017

So What Food System Will You Support?

By Farmer Richard

Towards the beginning of this CSA season, we were faced with the buyout of Whole Foods Market by Amazon.  Given we grow a significant amount of produce for Whole Foods Market, this buyout weighed heavy on our minds and left us wondering how this business decision may trickle down and directly impact our farm.  It also left us wondering what may happen to our food system in general as we as a society adapt to the changes in the market place.  We truly believe our future and the future of society is in the hands of the consumers.  Over the course of the season we have tried to report on a variety of  topics to impress upon our readers about how our food purchasing choices affect our health, our community, our downstream communities and more.  Our choices will sculpt our future food system and are based on and related to more than just the basic price of an item.  So what are the issues?

One of the most important issues that plays into the bigger picture view we are seeking is our health.  Choosing to eat more organic vegetables grown locally and in their season is one of the best ways to maximize the nutrition you get from your food as produce received directly from the farm typically is more fresh and thereby has retained more nutrients.  Vegetables grown in nutrient dense soils are especially high in antioxidants and other nutrients.  Just as you would seek out an experienced surgeon with lots of experience to perform a surgery, so it is with finding an experienced farmer to grow your vegetables!  For those who choose to include meat in their diets, choosing to eat only meat produced locally from pastured animals and grass-fed beef may be the healthiest choice.  Eating local and in season is also beneficial for community health.  When food is grown locally, there is an opportunity for any “extras” to go to a local food pantry, thereby opening up access to fresh, nutritious produce in communities that may otherwise have limited access or be unable to afford purchasing fresh food.  This year we donated over 30,000 pounds of fresh vegetables to our local food pantry that picks up weekly at our farm during the growing season. 

More and more people are choosing organic for health reasons including to minimize pesticide residues and to raise healthy children!  We applaud your choice.  But organic is available everywhere now.  Not just the co-ops and farmers markets, but almost every grocery chain including Wal-Mart.  Even convenience stores, ie in our area Kiwk Trip, now carry some organic products.  But is all organic the same?  Unfortunately, the answer is No!

Rooster keeping an eye on his hens!
Muscovy Duck with ducklings.
When I started as an organic farmer in 1973, there were very, very few organic customers.  Now something like 65% say they buy organic at least sometimes.  Organic now represents 10% of food purchases and some 10 billion dollars, enough of an impact on the market to attract the “big business” players.  That is good and yet a huge complicated “bad.”  Money, greed and politics all come into play in what once was our small scale arena of trust and integrity.  Now we have big business, “green washing,” “white wash and hog wash” politics and fraud infiltrating into the organic market place too!  Take eggs as an example.  We have a small flock of chickens in a mobile coop that are totally free range.  They scratch and forage in the pastures and are really healthy and happy birds.  Their eggs are fantastic!  Their yolks are not just yellow, but rich golden in color with the same rich flavor.  Our hens will raise new chicks in the spring to sustain our flock and continually be replacing birds that pass away from old age and the occasional bird that falls victim to predation.  Same with our flock of ducks.  They raise their own replacements, they live on the creek, they fly and only come home at dark to eat a little organic grain and then retire to their safe house that we secure them in for nighttime safety from predators.  We could expand our chicken flock to 400-500 birds housed in a mobile coop the size of a school bus and move them to new pasture every few days and produce those eggs with golden rich yolks, but we are not looking for a new business and with the labor involved, we would need to get $5-$6 per dozen for those wonderfully tasty and nutritious eggs.  How many of you would sign on to that?

So we went to our neighbors who raise organic eggs for a major co-op.  They have 2 chicken barns that hold 10,000 chickens in each and look very much like an industrial egg factory, but with some important distinctions.  They have no cages for laying hens and they give their birds 2.5 sq ft of space inside and provide a nice outdoor yard with shade and dirt to scratch.  Their egg yolks have a little color, but nothing like a totally free range bird.  They need to get $4.00/dozen eggs to survive.  They are lamenting that their co-op has lost market share because the new organic rules for pasture and outside access has again been delayed by large scale factory farm lobbyists who are also producing organic eggs.  While our neighbor is already in compliance with the new organic rules, the factory farm lobbyists want to stick with their 1.5 sq ft of space and little or no meaningful outdoor access.  Those eggs sell for $3.00/dozen at many, many supermarkets. 

So there is my example.  Beware of the sales promos that show young girls in a dress carrying fresh flowers with happy chickens or cows and a red barn in the background!  It is marketing PR, pure and simple and a certain amount of “hogwash.”  On the bright side, at least they are eating organic feed and not being fed antibiotics and/or hormones.  Organic is now “big business” and it is a difficult task for you the consumer to sort out the truth from the hogwash or chicken wash or green wash!

The same is true for vegetables, most of the big players now also do organic including Grimmway, the largest producer of vegetables in the world.  And frankly, they do have the resources to do a pretty good job!  We can’t forget about the home delivery meals and CSA style “look-a-likes” that claim to be helping support local farmers, but substitute cheaper conventional to help their bottom line with less than transparent disclosure.  Read the recent NY Times article about the local farmers left with crops in the field when the delivery service with their sophisticated software to offer “your choice” for “your box” suddenly goes into bankruptcy.  We experienced the same with Door to Door Organics, a home delivery company in Chicago that we grew for previously.

So what about the original, traditional CSA model where consumers, eaters, pledge/commit to support a farm and farmer for better or worse!?  That is the model that is suffering and experiencing decline across the nation.  Why is this? 

It requires a “two way street” and a little give and take between farmer and eater.  The farmer pledges to do their best job, given their experience or inexperience to provide a season of produce or meat, or eggs, etc for the supporting eater.  The CSA member agrees to learn to “eat out of the box” and eat seasonally.  The catch is that a real CSA commitment requires a very experienced farmer team who can grow a very wide variety of crops throughout the season in order to provide a balanced full box for a long season, 30 weeks in our case.  We refer to it as “graduate level” growing, not for beginners, and we are confident that we do the best job of any!  But the two way street?

Harvest Party at Harmony Valley Farm
We read and understand the requests to customize boxes, let us order just what we want.  We looked at the sophisticated software for individual boxes, the crew time to pack those boxes, and the chance of pickup mistakes that we are expected to remedy and those costs are huge!  We can do special orders to help you meet your needs, but for now we are pinning our hopes on our solid, members who have been able to make the transition to seasonal eating.  We hope these successful members will help us find those increasingly rare families that do cook and want to learn about new vegetables.  This is a necessary part of a successful CSA experience. In other words, rather than us transitioning to a personalized delivery service, we need to find those that will make the transition to seasonal eating.

I hesitate to say this, but here it is!  It is not just about “me,” “what I want now,” easy order, delivered to my door, now!  This may be the present climate and there are a world of companies preparing to meet that “me, now” mentality, but we are pinning our survival on a more traditional Community Supported Agriculture, where it is a two-way street of learning, new foods, etc.  Kids can come to the farm, even only once to experience picking all the strawberries they can eat or picking their own pumpkins.  We have seen, and many of you have experienced, the transformation that can come from that experience that changes lives forever.  That is our core, that is our wish.  In this day and age of “me first” please help us continue a historic connection to food and land, our land, your farm, we your farmers.
Farmer Richard and Chef Andrea


3 comments:

crloeb said...

Amen!

Deep thanks for another season of extraordinary produce. We’re already looking forward to next year. We love you guys!

Cathy & David

Elizabeth Poch said...

We love Harmony Valley! Top notch produce and customer service!!

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