Updated: Mar 24, 2019
Let's be realistic... We live in a world where 7 percent of the population thinks that chocolate milk comes from brown cows.
But you're not one of those people.
You know all about food label misconceptions, you know about the health benefits of pasture raised meats, and you know all about the dangers for both your health and the health of the environment when it comes to factory farming.
You're ready to start purchasing your meats from a local farm. You go to farmer's markets. You've checked out some places online. You read my emails a couple of times per month.
You've decided you're ready to visit the farm in person, but you're not sure what to expect.
What questions do you ask? What do you even wear to a farm? What should be a red flag, and what is a regular part of farm life?
First, let's just drop the illustrative big red barn.
Let's drop the grand presumptions of large amounts of infrastructure at all.
Small pasture based farms focus on healing the land by rotating the livestock. This constant movement means that in order to provide large barns and fancy sorting pens for each space in the rotation, we would have to spend, like, a literal boat load of money.
Instead pasture based farmers create mobile chicken coops (called chicken tractors) and other portable buildings, so that they can quite literally be dragged all over the place as we need to move them. We utilize the landscape (aka, trees) to provide shade and shelter for our livestock, and only where those methods fail, do we put in expensive permanent infrastructure.
You will see infrastructure, but only where it's necessary to have permanent storage (such as for hay, tractor implements, feed sacks, the store, etc.), and in perimeter fencing or primary cross fences. Everything else is intentionally mobile.
Second, be cognizant of where you're going.
Some folks really get a kick out of this, but this is a farm. There is poop... There is mud... There is equipment - aka, a tractor and an array of attachments, our stock trailer, and a few other items...
Don't come here in sparkly heels. Please, just don't. And please understand that what might look like a heap of junk to you might be a crucial part of a future project to us. Or it might be a part to a really expensive piece of equipment.
But feel free to ask questions - What is this for? What's the vision behind having two old boat trailers just sitting there?
Next, it's important to understand that farms are constantly evolving.
We made a conscious decision to cash flow this life project. We are personally avid followers of the Dave Ramsey financial plan, and almost everything we own was purchased used on Craigslist or Facebook. Every single car. The tractor. The trailers. Even the livestock. We did not, nor will we in the future go out and take out a loan for a $100,000 tractor with an air conditioned cab (despite Hubster's argument that it would make him look "too legit to quit").
If you had seen this place 3 years ago, or even 1 year ago (a LOT happened last year), you'd be amazed at how different it looks. But the crooked barbed wire fence, just isn't on the top of my list of things to fix.
And healing the land, well, it doesn't go by our calendar or clock.
We are constantly faced with the dilemma, what can we raise, vs what can our land support TODAY. We could go out and buy 24 cows to raise for beef tomorrow, but we couldn't raise that many cattle in the current state of our land.
It was beat up when we got it. Fixing that through management will take years - maybe even a decade or two. If we're showing you around, we'll talk you through what the next step is for the pasture that we're currently letting the pigs take down to bare dirt, and why.
So what should you look for when visiting a local farm - and what questions should you ask?
First and foremost, you want to gauge whether your local farmer is passionate about what they're doing.
Ask the farmers what made them get into farming in the first place. Find out what makes them tick. Some folks get into for the nutrition. Some get into it for the animal welfare. Some get into it for both. If they tell you that it's because of the money or they focus their answer on "because so many people want to buy it" - thank them and leave.
Next, you want to gauge how knowledgeable your farmer seems to be.
Ask your farmers technical questions about their practices. How often they move the livestock. What kind of feeds they use. Etc.
Keep in mind that none of us know all the answers to every possible question. But you want a farmer that is serious about what they're doing, and that will openly admit that they don't know everything.
Next, now that you've acknowledged that we're all not perfect... and that's okay!... What are we doing to get better?
Some farmers might balk at reading this, but if you walked out here and asked me "what can you do better?" I'd start taking you through my "Hubster do" list.
To put my money where my mouth is:
We could raise more chickens and have a better rotation that went further away from the house if we had a better perimeter fence to keep them safer from coyotes. So - one of the things on Hubster's list is to work on clearing the perimeter trees so that we can replace the barbed wire with a woven wire fence.
We have noticed some standing water for long periods of time in places, which means we have a soil compaction problem. This makes it difficult for new grasses to take root, and we need to allocate more of our time to pasture rehab. I purchased a sub-soiler for the tractor (via Craigslist) a few weeks ago, and we're waiting for it to get dry enough to run it without getting the tractor stuck.
Finally, and most importantly... you want to be honest with your farmer, and yourself, about what you want to demand of your food producer.
There is more than one way to farm. And, some farmers might balk at this as well - there is more than one acceptable way to farm.
A farmer should have convictions and passion for what they're doing, but that may not always line up with what you want for yourself. I know several people that think I'm crazy for even enjoying grass fed beef on my own plate, much less raising and selling it to other people because those people prefer the taste of grain fed beef - and that's okay.
Be honest with your farmer about what you are looking for. Do you want non-GMO? Organic only? You're just interested in the humane standards? It is 100% okay to have open conversations about that.
One final note: One of my primary observations about small, local, farmers is that even if we don't see eye to eye on everything, we understand that we are not each other's competitor. It's all of us, together, working against the Tyson's and Cargill's and Smithfield's of the world.
If we don't offer what you're looking for, we will help you find someone that does. I would much rather you have what you want from another local farm than see you get in your car and drive off to Wal-Mart to purchase your meat. Other small farms, if they're legitimate about what they're preaching, will do the same.
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