Last night a woman who I like and respect quite a bit posted a rather lengthy Facebook status. Tammy and I met several years ago at the farmers market where I’m a vendor and she is a regular customer. Her status bothered me so much that it’s now 3:00 AM, about 5 hours after I read the post, and I’ve given up trying to sleep, gotten out of bed, and am at the computer in our farm office, trying to regurgitate the thoughts I’ve had since the initial read.
She’s a mom of two, and is making all of the food choices for her family. Her post centered around her feelings of being torn between “seemingly opposing sides” of the “local, heirloom, organic, grass-fed, humanely raised, sustainable, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, free-range” farmers and those who farm using conventional methods.
I’ve left the comfort of my warm bed to try to explain that, Tammy, you don’t have to choose a side.
The recent round of fear-based marketing, most prominently displayed by Chipotle’s new advertising campaign introduced this week, will have you believe that there is only one correct choice and that it must be the one with the most adjectives attached. I’m troubled by the increasing prevalence of emotionally charged fear mongering in food marketing and am especially bothered by how it’s affecting people like Tammy. It’s beyond annoying to me when one method of production is misrepresented and put down to make another look good. This tactic is being used not only by major food retailers like the burrito purveyor, but by farmers against one another. It is this particular practice that makes me saddest, as the rift is non-productive and dangerous. I would suggest that there is room for all types of production methods in today’s agriculture and that they can peacefully co-exist. The reality is that there are plenty of markets for farmers today. Consumers have a variety of desires and demands, from budget to niche related. We also can’t overlook the fact that we’re facing a very real global population explosion and it will take all farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, doing what they do best, to feed it.
A farmer makes the decision on what kind of crop to grow and how to grow it based on a multitude of factors, which include location, facilities, resources, market opportunities, availability of labor, personal preference, etc. I’ll give some examples beginning with my own farm. Here we have a herd of 60 beef cows. It’s that size because of the amount of land, and the quality of land, that we have available. The land where my cattle graze during the spring, summer and fall has been in my husband’s family since the 1840’s. Because of the soil type and terrain (gravel in some spots, too wet in others) it’s not really suitable for growing a crop but makes a great pasture. That reason, coupled with the fact that both my husband and I enjoy working with cattle, is the reason that we raise beef, and are the size that we are. If there was more of the same type of land available we might choose to increase our herd size, but would have to consider other factors such as the need to hire more help to care for the additional animals. Sixty cows is the size that works for us.
The decision about how to market our beef, which is directly to consumers, was made based on the fact that here in McHenry County we’re physically located in a fairly populous and prosperous area between two major population centers, Chicago and Rockford. Because of that proximity we can market our products direct, or choose to sell through traditional markets. I have friends who raise cattle in North Dakota. They’re in a remote rural area literally 100 miles from the nearest Starbucks and 80 miles from a McDonalds. Marketing direct to consumers is not an option for them simply because the population is not there to draw from, the market simply doesn’t exist for them. They also have about ten times the number of cows that I have. They are that size because they have more land and more labor available; there are actually 3 generations of their family working together. That’s the size that works for them. It’s not better or worse than what we’re doing here.
I choose to not use growth promotants in my beef. It’s because my customers tell me that they want it that way. As a consequence of that choice, my cattle grow a little slower than cattle from herds where they are used, so mine will require more feed. The cost of that feed is passed along to the consumer, thus my beef is more expensive than the more efficiently raised alternative. I’m very aware that there are people who can’t afford my beef. That’s OK and I’m happy that there is more affordable beef in large retail stores available to them since I believe that beef is a terrific source of necessary protein (not to mention iron and zinc), and it’s great tasting, too! I would never suggest that there’s anything wrong with the less expensive beef that is raised in a different manner. Growth promotants have been used for decades and are completely safe. I personally would not hesitate to buy beef from the grocery store if I did not have my own home-grown supply. Similarly, I do not have a problem feeding my own beef to my family or selling it to others even though it does not carry the “organic” certification. The bottom line is that I have found a market for my beef, while other farmers have a market for less expensive, efficiently-raised beef, and yet another group finds buyers who are willing to pay extra for the organic label. We find what works best for our own farms.
I also market my beef as “natural”. This term on a label means (by USDA definition) that it’s minimally processed with no artificial additives. There are no preservatives or food coloring in my beef. Again, I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with either of these, just going along with the preferences of my customers. In fact, the absence or presence of a growth promotant, a preservative, or food coloring has absolutely no effect on the nutritional value, taste, or safety of beef. And remember that all beef, regardless of the number of adjectives used to describe it, must always be handled and cooked properly. A person can become ill from improperly prepared food, whether it’s organic, sustainable, free-range or not. Getting back to the customer…I’m able to fit my production methods to the demands of my clientele. These days, they tell me that “local” and “natural” are important to them, they don’t have strong feelings one way or the other about “organic”. They do like know that the money they’re spending is staying in the county. They want to have a relationship with their farmer and know how and where their food is raised. I’m happy to comply. If things change and price, or something else, should become the priority, I will have to adapt my production methods accordingly.
I have neighbors who grow vegetables. Their farm is located on a state highway, perfect for a farm stand, given the amount of traffic in our suburban county. They can market a large amount of a wide variety of their vegetables directly to consumers right from home. I have other friends who also grow vegetables but their farm is off the beaten path, actually on a gravel road. A farm stand at home is not an option for them (they like their quiet location, and admit that they would not enjoy hosting the public at their home on a daily basis as others do), so they’ve chosen to load a truck several times a week during the growing season and sell at farmers markets, or sell to the wholesale market in Chicago. Another friend from the farmers market has a very small amount of acreage and grows heirloom (and other varieties of veggies that you don’t see everywhere) using organic methods. She chooses this because it’s what her customers want; the “organic” label is important to them and they are willing to pay for it. She’s able to comply because her small scale is manageable for her without much extra help. Her veggies do cost more due to the cost of organic certification and market expenses, but she’s found a niche for herself and gets a premium for her products. The neighbors with the farm stand have a large amount of land with fertile soil types. They choose to raise their veggies using conventional methods and fairly large equipment. They don’t believe there’s anything wrong with organic, but their choice is based on the fact that organic production requires more labor which is not readily available to them, and more importantly, their customers are happy with the variety, quality, and quantity of what they produce. It’s the size and method that works for them. Each has chosen what works best, not necessarily “a side”.
So for Tammy, and other consumers who are struggling with food choices amidst overwhelming labels, adjectives, and headline-grabbing, myth-based marketing campaigns, I say pick whatever works best for YOU. Don’t be mislead by fear-mongers and unjustified guilt. Ask questions of those who are actually growing the food, and discount the opinions of those who must tear down someone else’s choice to make theirs look most appealing. Buy what you want given your own budget and preferences. And remember that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing; there is no rule against buying conventional one day and organic the next. Whether you’re buying food for your family at a small farm stand, the local farmers market, Jewel, Trader Joe’s, Target, or Costco – with no adjectives or a list of adjectives as long as your arm – know that there’s a farmer at the other end who made choices too. There’s no wrong answer.
Okay, glad I’ve gotten that off my chest. The day is now beginning, time to start my day the same way farmers and ranchers all across the country do, regardless of the number of acres they own, animals in their care, or method of production they’ve chosen for their farm. We’re all getting up and checking our animals; making sure they’re comfortable and secure, that they have plenty of feed, water, and a dry place to rest. Our livestock comes first no matter the adjectives attached to the label. No choice there.