You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Agrarian Contrarian’ category.

(Title should get a bunch of hits.)

No, I can’t sell goat’s milk. It could not be more illegal if it were moonshine, unless I jump thru a bunch of regulatory hoops that I haven’t the patience for at age 63. (Yes, I can get moonshine. Kindly do not walk up to my Market stand and ask for it in tones audible for a hundred yards. Thanks)

In order to sell it legally, I would have to invest 6 figures in a state-of-the-art milking parlor, with impervious cinder-block walls, poured-concrete floor with drain, electric, running water, insect-proof screens and a few other mandatory doodads I’ve forgotten since I checked, back in ‘08. In order to come out on it (farmers never “make money.” We may “come out” on a transaction, investment or expense, or not. ) I’d have to milk 12 does, and do nothing else all day. Or use milking machines, taking about 200% of the satisfaction out of the process. (Percentage adjusted for aggravation. The few times I’ve tried to use a milking machine, I wound up taking it off and finishing by hand.)

Let’s skip the “raw” debate, which I consider settled (  7 months after that post, I’m alive and so are the family and friends who share my goats’ milk and cheese. I’m milking Hyacinth and Trillium. Hy’s milk is mild and noticeably smooth. Goat milk is “pre-homogenized” in having smaller fat particles than bovine milk, so even with a lower fat content it has a texture like cream. Trill’s is slightly – only slightly! – less mild, and her extra Togg breeding gives it more richness. The cream rises easier than it does on Hy’s.

Why am I taunting you? You should know, when there’s everything from bovine gonadotropic hormone to antibiotic-resistant bacteria to melamine in the Industrial-Food stream, why you are “protected” from a little old lady with two milk goats.

Think back to the 1930’s when local grocers would buy cream and butter from farm wives. Not all country ways were wise and wonderful, but anyone feeding her own family with dairy products had a pretty good handle on risks and precautions. Boiling cheese cloths, scalding out the milk pail, keeping the cows on good grazing and the milking byre mucked out, are measures no one needs government to dictate, when they’re growing food for a community that includes themselves. Did all farm wives always do all these things? Of course not. But the storekeeper remembered if the eggs last week were old, if cream hadn’t been strained, or butter tasted “off”. It was a simple matter: “Ms. Deller, so sorry, I just don’t need any more cream this week,” and to suggest a quiet word perhaps from a neighbor woman of sounder dairy practice.

What happened? Well, for one thing, a huge increase in urban populations, and in middlemen to supply them with edibles. As cities grew and zoning regulations banned in-town dairies, milk came by tank truck, anonymous to those who consumed it. Suppliers were prone to ‘stretching’ their profits by adulterating with chalk and water, the latter often contaminated. Milk from many farms was mingled, making it hard to trace the source of disease.

The simplest solution was to pasteurize all milk, and to regulate heavily the places where it was produced. Overkill? Read this story:

In 1958, my Dad, on behalf of his employer, the Van Dorn Iron Works of Cleveland Ohio, went on a trade mission to Poland, then of course part of the Soviet bloc. After a six-week absence, I vividly recall meeting him at the airport, and his asking Mom to stop at Lawsons for a carton of milk. His delegation had been warned not to drink milk while in Poland, because 80% of the dairy cattle were tubercular! As a well-read ten-year-old, I wondered how cows could catch tuberculosis, which I associated with delicate young women in weepy Victorian novels. I’ll never forget his answer:

“Nancy, when you take away a peasant’s cows and tell him they’re the property of The People, and he’s just being paid to take care of them, he will pocket the money you give him to buy hay, or sell the hay you give him, and feed the cows moldy straw, potato peels, wood shavings or whatever else is lying around free. And you never saw such a bunch of scrawny, pitiful, sickly cows in your life. You wouldn’t want to drink their milk!”

You may suppose that colored my lifelong attitude toward keeping animals in good flesh! But the question arises: how much of the health gains of the past century+ are owing to better sanitation practices and enlightened animal husbandry ? To say nothing of clean water supplies!?! In other words, how much could have been achieved even without universal pasteurization?

Pasteurizing does allow milk to keep longer. For urban populations with no dairy animals of their own, that has made possible a healthier and more complete diet. It’s questionable whether pasteurized milk has the full food value of fresh, but for city children, it’s better than say, juice boxes with HFCS.

I’m only saying that people who prefer milk fresh should have it.  Milking, drinking it warm from the animal, and producing a delicious and vital food from creatures in my care, has been a source of inspiration. Milk straight from the udder has a native microbe population that are clearly harmless to the animal’s young. But consider: they may even be protective, in that they displace external organisms that might be harmful. (The same effect occurs when milk is cultured to preserve it as cheese).

What many of us are doing now is a kind of control to the 20th-century approach: drinking milk as it comes from the animal, applying what we now know about disease prevention. Scald the pails, boil the cloths, allow the goats enough fresh green browse and clean water, air and sunlight, to keep them and their kids lively and healthy.

I would encourage any young person inclined toward farming to think of dairy goats. I’d also caution against buying as many animals as they could, to pay off that $150,000 milking room quicker. I would never want so large a flock that I couldn’t name each, and remember her ancestry and kidding history. And I’d remind them to walk out among the flock at least twice a day, for the simple pleasures of watching them browse, seeing the kids sample new plants, keeping an eye on their health, appetite, gloss and spirits.

They’ll find that as nourishing as the milk.

Milking morning and evening imposes a calming rhythm on the days.

  • Color and diversity!

    Fresh Bay Leaf, not a high-volume item, but a big attraction -when no one else had it!
    Specialties like this eggplant draw customers and distinguish even a small farm operation
  The March newsletter announcing my move to the Bellevue Farmers Market this season said, “Fifteen years is long enough to do anything.” But that was less a real reason than a faint consolation for the wrenching decision to leave so many colleagues, customers and friends.

          Yes, Findlay Market’s rents increased, drastically. But after fifteen years of rent increases [amounting to 2000%], my thoughts were more of what I could have done with that money to build my business, improve my products, and further heal my land.

          Those of us who began growing to sell in the early 90’s were definitely swimming against the current. Owing largely to our own efforts, that is no longer so. Along with nationwide awareness of the value of local food and increasingly (gratifyingly!) knowledgeable customers, came a proliferation of community Farmers Markets. We felt besieged by the many different Markets bidding for us to come there and sell.

              This paralleled rent increases at Findlay. Farmers with diverse, quality products began choosing markets with lower rents. These markets, swimming with the current, defined their vendor mix, with an emphasis on food. With higher rents, CFFM had to accept rent from any vendor who wished to set up. We heard, “Where’s the food? All I see is plants!” Those of us who (by breaking our necks all Winter) managed to have vegetables in early Spring, supplemented with our surplus plants, lost trade, as not only farmers but customers found other options.

         Without criticism of any individual, only of the policy itself, a single concrete example. Three years ago, a space in the Farm Shed was assigned to a vendor of houseplants. Farmer??? By a loose definition, but nothing to do with “fresh local food.”

         When the economy declined, sales of non-food plants, predictably, did too. That vendor, with limited garden space, diversified with herb plants. 3 or 4 of us had carried (and built a market for) herb plants for ten years or more. But now we were settling for a smaller share of the same, or dwindling demand.

     Amid multiple other examples, Findlay’s management consistently refused to consider adopting a vendor mix. Why not? To meet their high administrative costs, they can’t afford to turn away a vendor. Any vendor.

         We, the farmers, on our own initiative, built Spring, Fall and Winter markets. We sowed kale in August, radishes in November, set parsnips in September, garlic in October, heated high tunnels, covered bok choy, lettuce and spinach thru December and January and broke ground in February, to extend our seasons and our offerings.

         As our reward, rent for those months increased! In 2007, when we faced the first threefold hike in rent, “peak season” was June, July, August. Over the ensuing years, even when rent did not officially increase, “peak season” (the highest monthly rent) was extended to include September, then May, then April, then October. With this year’s rent increase came the news that November and December too are “peak season.” 

        Early Spring crops take up space and weigh light. (A recycled grape box, packed full, holds 3 lb of lettuce – maybe $18 in sales.) We scramble to fill a truck in April. Fall crops are risky and nowhere near as lucrative as those of High Summer. Out here in the dirt, the notion of a 9-month “peak season” is ludicrous.

       But Findlay’s management defines “peak” by when they can sell the most space. So, as a direct result of our commitment to a full season, we’ve been penalized not only with higher rent, but with increased competition. Growers whose Markets do not open until Summer are willing to pay Findlay’s rents until they do, and when they have peak produce, depart for cheaper rents elsewhere, then return to Findlay when those close, to profit from custom that they did not stay around to build.

         How not to build a Market: force established, committed sellers to perpetually diversify, take risks, seek new products, work harder, in full expectation that the only payoff will be others jumping on our bandwagon.

After 15 years, it’s going to be nice to swim with the current for a change! In a later post, I’ll talk about CFFM’s recent contention that “customer traffic” at Market has increased. Thanks for your kind attention!
* Quote from Findlay Market staff, 2007, announcing that we would be required to attend on Sundays.
The AM commute

Ever hear, “It’s such a grey, dreary day, let’s go for a drive in the country!”? Well, no wonder you like it – you only see it when the sky is blue! Plenty of people sighing for country life wouldn’t last a minute out here.* Take this quiz, and find out whether you’re ready for such a simple life.

1. The correct response to a dinner invitation is:

a. “Have your girl call my girl.”
b.  ” What can I bring?”
c. “Why thank you, that sounds lovely!”
d. “I’ll pencil it in.”

2. Place these in correct calendar order:

a. berry picking
b. wood cutting
c. gardening
d. Christmas
e. crappie fishing
f. deer hunting
g.  hay baling
h. canning

3. If you live in the country,

a. you don’t have a McDonalds
b. your people prefer your biscuits over McDonald’s
c. McDonalds is too far to drive on a regular basis
d. Krystal at the drive-thru remembers you take cream and sugar.
(NB this really happened to me)

4. If you wait for 2 cars before turning onto the highway, you think:

a. “Cripes! Where’s all the traffic coming from?”
b. “Great! I’ll be at work in time to finish up the Gribley proposal.”

5. Which of the following is a critical career skill?

a.       Drafting a concise cover letter
b.      Applying mascara in traffic
c.       Getting the string on a feedsack to unzip the right direction
d.       Networking

6.  “White Mule” is a brand of

a. work glove
b. chewing tobacco
c. cornbread mix
d. tractor starter fluid

7. In which crisis could you not cope?

a. Water pipes froze
b. what’s a ‘crisis’?
c. electric lines down
d.  livestock you didn’t know was bred going into delivery
e.  Out of firewood and heating oil
f. All of above on same day

8. Your housekeeping would be simplified greatly by development of:

a. Robotics
b. Safe, effective drain cleaner
c. Floor covering the color of cow shit
d.  Central vacuum system

9.  Which of the following terms is complimentary, and unrelated to the subject’s body type?

a.       Heavy set
b.       Big-boned
c.        Healthy
d.       Stout

10. “Quarter crack” refers to….

a.       A minimal quantity of a street drug
b.       A condition of the equine hoof
c.        Plumbers’ clothing style
d.       A cheap comment

11. A “Red Jacket” is a

a.       political affiliation
b.      stinging insect
c.       bad sunburn
d.      water pump

12. En route to the barn on a snowy day, you become aware of a thorn in your boot. You

a. stop immediately and remove it
b. wait till Spring when you have to take the boots off anyway
c. go back to the house and remove it
d. remove it in the barn when you’re done feeding

13. In the event of your demise, your wish is to be:

a.   embalmed and placed in a marble sarcophagus
b. cryonically preserved
c. composted
d. buried at sea

Answers: 1, b; 2, c-e-g-a-h-b-f-d; 3, d; 4, a; 5, c; 6, a; 7,f; 8, a; 9, d; 10, b; 11,d; 12, b; 13, c.

Your score:
0-4 – don’t sell the condo.
5-7 – just keep watching those “Waltons” and “Little House” reruns.
8-9 – might wanta look for a pair of good boots
10+ – you doing anything Sa’rday?

The PM Commute

© Shady Grove Farm, 2003

* Remember from back in the 80’s, “The Prairie Look”? Gingham, ruffles, flounces? The only people who could wear it were frail, willowy women who’d be useless on an actual prairie.

Years ago, some friends from a Cinti suburb used to bring their 3 daughters here to ride horseback, pick berries, garden and ask questions.One was How You Tell a Boy Horse from a Girl Horse. I will never forget Melissa (age 8)’s reaction to seeing a mare’s udder. “Back there where she poops? That doesn’t seem very sanitary!!” (You have to imagine the disapproving tone.)

Caring for baby goats and their mothers is enlightening. We give kids access to hay, starting when they can only nurse, because the microbes stimulate development of the rudimentary stomach which will digest their vegetation diet. Even at a day old, they mouth the dry stems curiously, as if wondering how that could possibly be food.

Jessica Snyder-Sachs’ Good Germs, Bad Germs is a fascinating account of the enormous (mostly benign) role microbes play in our lives. Recent studies take it further: from benign to actually therapeutic. Other studies note the increase in food allergies and immune sensitivities in our population, and speculate that early-childhood exposure to diverse microbes is needed for the immune system to develop correctly, and not wind up triggering reactions to otherwise benign substances. I do notice that during the Summers when I have all the fresh* goats’ milk I can drink, molds and pollen bother me a lot less.

Getting back to my young guest, her observation about the mare’s udder started a train of thought that is only now being debated in scientific literature. If the placement of udders in grazing mammals were not an adaptive arrangement (i.e. one that promotes survival of the species), surely they would all be extinct, or a different structure would have evolved, to “protect” the young from all those scary microbes.

In fact, as seems clear from reading Good Germs, Bad Germs, the kid (lamb, foal, calf etc), which is born with a sterile gut, must acquire from somewhere the microbes to digest even its dam’s milk, as well as plant material. Thoroughbred foals from high-value brood mares are notoriously prone to life-threatening digestive upsets (“scour,” meaning exactly what the name implies), and I’ve wondered whether the problem is a too-clean brood barn – or mare. Nobody on hand in a wild herd to disinfect the mares’ teats before putting the foal to nurse!

I say all that to say this: our answer to food-borne disease has been to basically train a flame-thrower against all germs. Now we have lactose intolerance and an epidemic host of other immune complications. The whole model needs re-thinking. And I’m going to keep drinking fresh* milk.

*I refuse to call it “raw,” which implies it needs to be cooked. The Basil I sell is not “raw.” An uncooked potato is “raw.” Leafy just-picked basil is “fresh” – ready to eat. (If you heat it to 140°, it won’t taste nearly as good ;-) So is milk.

“But they’ll say milk in the grocery stores is fresh.” No it’s not. If the milk I drink is “raw,” meaning “needing to be cooked in order to be consumed,” then commercial dairy milk is cooked. “Pasteurized” is not a technical term, just a historical reference.

Walmart Stores last week announced its intention to purchase a certain percentage of its produce locally. There’s more: they’re going to develop a sustainability index for labels, so the customer can choose more sustainably raised items. Wow! Is this great, or what?

How about “what.” Apart from my total, deep-rooted and far-flung cynicism about Walmart, (where I refuse to shop, and which I consider part of the Global Axis of Evil*) consider:

Walmart has enormous purchasing power, created by evil geneticists. No – bestowed upon it by consumers who care about nothing but low prices. To save a buck, they endure chaotic stocking, narrow brand selection, employees with pond-life IQ, and depressing acres of useless and poor-quality merchandise. This has made Walmart the US’s largest grocer. Scary.

Its purchasing power allows it virtually to dictate prices to its suppliers. So, Walmart is going to buy as many of its tomatoes or apples locally as it can ? and still offer them to the public at “Lowest prices…always!” ? How will that affect the local price when other local farmers take their plums, or zucchini to market? Will customers tell us, “Shoot, I can get ‘local’ zucchini at Walmart for $1.89/lb” ?

Cause you see, Walmart blithely and irrelevantly defines “local” as “within the same state.” Hunh? Since when? I know farmers in Northern Ohio who, every Spring, bust their tails to get the earliest sweet corn to Market. That means sowing in April, if they can, and if unsuccessful, all they lose is the time and seed. But if they escape frost and have sweet corn to market by June, they can sell 2 ears for a dollar, instead of four.

Now what happens when Wal-mart, by virtue of its buying power, brings truckloads of Southern Ohio (different growing zone) sweet corn to Northern Ohio in May, at 4/$1? And, okay, how much will it pay those Southern Ohio farmers, lured by the promise of Walmart volume for their output?

That raises a question the Eating Public knows little about: contract production. This is the mechanism by which large food suppliers assure themselves adequate quantities of perishable fruits and vegetables. Basically, they enter into “output contracts” whereby they agree in advance to purchase an entire crop at a fixed price, for a specified quality. The grower is relieved of uncertainty as well. It sounds like, and could be, a good deal for both.

One problem is that when the crop is ready for harvest, sellers are at the mercy of buyers. What else are they going to do with 3 tractor-trailer loads of harvested green beans? (Pithy Grant County comment: “…and you’ve done paid your Mexicans!…”) In 1998, Archer-Daniels-Midland (if you listen to NPR, yeah, that’s “ADM – Supermarket to the World”) paid $25 million in fines for bribing produce inspectors to low-grade contract produce. The grower, stuck with agribusiness quantities of perishable produce, would have no choice but to take the lower price. You think Walmart is above such tactics?

(And, you think an Organic Certification inspector is less corruptible than a produce grader? Ask yourself how such an inspector managed to overlook feedlots and a slaughterhouse uphill from vegetable plots, the year that Organic Agribusiness brought us “Organic Spinach That’s Not Safe to Eat.”)

The other unsettling aspect of contract production is that it raises the ugly prospect of local farmers scrambling to underbid each other for Walmart’s volume of business. What what happens to “organic and sustainable” then? …and if we’re talking meat suppliers, to the poor animals?

(Yes, farmers get caught up in the trap of “grow more and sell cheaper…” than the next guy. The brother of Kentucky’s literary icon Wendell Berry, State Senator John Berry, tells of a local guy who goes around with a truck selling watermelons. He buys them for a dollar and sells them for 50 cents. He keeps telling everybody, “if he could just get a big enough truck, he could make money on ‘em.”)

Ten or twelve years ago, as we watched the USDA and the Big Five who control 80% of our food supply latch onto “organic” a lot of us began using for preference “sustainable.” We’ve resisted standards for sustainability, which would benefit (and be susceptible of manipulation by) those giant middlemen. And now Walmart is going to take up (and presumably define for itself, as blithely and irrelevantly as it did “local’) “sustainable.”

Well, dammit, they can’t have “sustainable”!! That is not rhetorical defiance: I mean, they literally can’t. Because one (often overlooked) central tenet of sustainability is that a farming operation must make enough to sustain the farmer. By paying fair prices for produce from sustainable farming activities, you yourselves contribute to sustainability. And we love you for it.

But you can’t have that satisfaction, and Wal-mart-low prices too. Just because they slap a “sustainable” label on something, don’t think “Wow, I can shop at Walmart and still support my local farmers.” That’s not how it works.

*No, not that one. We have our own Global Axis of Evil: Walmart, Disney, ADM, Cargill, Conagra, Tractor Supply, Procter & Gamble, the IMF, and we’re accepting nominations for others

This column appeared originally in a June, 2001 edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader.


A glowing food safety report announces we’ve gene-mapped the E-coli 157 bacterium responsible for some 20 deaths in the past 5 years. This is a step toward eliminating the illness entirely, by means of  – a vaccine! What a relief!

Americans have been titillated by food scares ever since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Along with revolting practices in meatpacking, it exposed an arrogant business mentality convinced it knew what was best for the country. Agribusiness today cultivates the same know-it-all image, with its tame university researchers and feed-the-starving-world statistics. Well, it bears responsibility for the horror stories, as well. 

Worried about mad-cow disease? Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, develops in cattle fed on processed animal parts. The FDA has now banned use of these feeds. But why feed ground-up sheep brains to cows in the first place? To keep costs down, of course. So-called high-yield agriculture operates on such a narrow profit margin that even carcasses of animals which die before slaughter must be put to use.

Salmonella, not as scary as BSE, can still be lethal, and today’s large-scale poultry operations are a setup. To combat disease in confined flocks, chickens are fed antibiotics. Resistant bacteria evolve, requiring newer, naturally more expensive, antibiotics. Forced to economize, operations consolidate, meaning more cost-cutting, and ironically, greater food-safety risks. Cheap food requires cheap labor, and cheap labor cuts corners, for example, handwashing. You don’t want a factory farm across the road from your yuppie subdivision, but if you want $1.29# chicken and 89¢-dozen eggs, you’re keeping factory farms alive, along with your own food worries.

20 E-coli deaths are scary enough, but there are simpler solutions than gene-mapping. E-coli occurs naturally, and most often harmlessly, in cattle, and the deadly 157 strain did not emerge until it became routine to lace cattle feed with antibiotics. Pasture-fed cattle are not as subject to the risk as grain-fed. Cornell researchers have proposed that feeding hay for five days before slaughter would get rid of most of the E-coli.

But most cattle aren’t shipped straight from farm to slaughter. Apart from a few local operations, most go to feedlots, where the prime is put on their ribs with a concentrated grain diet. In typical agroeconomic irony, farmers are paid less(!) for fatter calves, because feedlots make their money putting weight on the animals. At their pennies-a-pound operating margins, they cannot afford to lose five days of grain feeding. Presumably they can afford to vaccinate cattle, but there’s no reason to assume that this won’t lead to more resistant E-coli.

That would be fine with bureacrats – they want a system they can keep regulating. The more problems arise – health, environmental, etc – the happier they are, because the broader their mission and the greater their job security. Pioneering sociologist Max Weber said any bureaucracy, within two years of its creation, will forsake its original purpose in favor of activities that perpetuate its own existence. The Department of Agriculture has been no exception to this maxim.</P

It’s said that if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Politicians deal in manipulated alarm and reassurance – oh, and spending money. So their problem isn’t really unhealthy, exploitive large-scale agriculture: it’s frightened voters. The solution doesn’t require an in-depth questioning of the assumptions of our farm program, just reassurance. Tell’em we’re spending a couple bil to establish a program to develop standards to ensure strict monitoring to enforce compliance, blah blah blah. 

On the other hand, if you’re well-informed and concerned about the impact of present-day farming methods, the solution is in your own hands. (Politicians hate that!) It is possible to buy chicken that’s free-ranged on a natural diet of greenery, insects and grain, and slaughtered one by one. Or beef from an integrated-operation farm that raises its own grain and hay, and has its cattle butchered locally.

Of course, it costs more. Organic pasture-fed beef costs an average of $4.50 a pound, free-range chicken $2.50, organic eggs between $2 and $4 a dozen. But At feedlot and factory-farm prices, you’re buying disease fear. At organic prices, consumers share only financial risk. Organic farmers are thus compensated for not using dead animals to feed live ones, or pumping their herds and flocks full of antibiotics. The choice: give money to politicians, pay bureacrat salaries and hear reassuring statistics (it’s always possible to produce reassuring statistics.) Or pay a farmer or local meat processor for beef or chicken raised in a natural and humane way, and slaughtered cleanly and safely. Which sounds like a better deal?