Michael Pollan wrote “An Open Letter to the Next Farmer in Chief” in October 2008 arguing that the next president would inevitably, although maybe unintentionally, find food policy high on his agenda. Food policy, Pollan wrote, will and must play a central role because it affects so many other national priorities: energy, health care, climate change, and even national security. Pollan advised the yet-to-be-elected president that one way to bring about the needed changes—local sustainable farming instead of subsidized agribusiness—would be to use the power of the White House as example. The president would be wise to choose a White House chef who was “committed to cooking simply from fresh local ingredients.” Pollan said:
Besides feeding you and your family exceptionally well, such a chef would demonstrate how it is possible even in Washington to eat locally for much of the year, and that good food needn’t be fussy or complicated but does depend on good farming.
Well, someone’s been reading the mail. This week the FreshFarm Market opened by the White House. Every Thursday afternoon through the end of October there will be 18 vendors just steps from the White House offering milk, cheese, flowers, meats, baked goods, and even yarn. As with all FreshFarm Markets, the vendors must produce what they are selling from the land that they farm and they must be local—no more than 150 miles from downtown Washington, D.C.
Our farm, Cedarbrook, is one of the vendors at the new market. Starting any new market is exciting, but this one is even more so. This market has a high profile, and it can help hasten the demise of the old model of conventional, subsidized industrialized food production by showcasing local, sustainable agriculture. Hopefully the market’s visibility will help create a new generation farmers. The challenges of operating a small sustainable farm are numerous, but a little creativity and perseverance will take them a long way. Here’s a primer to help them get started:
Choosing what to raise
Assume you want to begin farming—what will you raise and how will you know what the best breeds or varieties are? Do you want to grow crops that will produce seeds you can save and use year after year? Or animals that can frolic in the sun and birth their own young all by themselves?
Thankfully, there is an ever-growing independent online community where you can get information on sustainable agriculture. Better yet, if you can stand the bitter cold of State College, Pennsylvania in February, you can spend time with nearly 1000 other like-minded farmers at the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture annual conference. If you’re not from Pennsylvania, that’s okay. PASA has earned itself the much-deserved reputation as being the pre-eminent organization for sustainable farmers, and its membership has gone not just beyond Pennsylvania’s borders to neighboring states, but beyond the United States to international shores.
When we decided to start farming, my husband knew right from the start that he wanted to raise heritage breed pigs and chickens that would be naturally disease resistant, hardy, and tasty. He found all the online sources, joined PASA, and ultimately decided on which breeds to raise. Today, we have approximately 60 Tamworth pigs and 70 Dominique and Buff Orpington chickens on our 40 acres. I say “approximately” because the animals aren’t confined in houses or pens, so we never know quite how many are roaming around out there.
Harvesting what you raise
It’s all about timing for sustainable vegetable and flower farmers when it comes to harvesting issues. You need to harvest at just the right time so that the flavor or color is close to its peak, but not so close that your heirloom tomato or sunflower doesn’t survive even the relatively short ride to market.
The question for sustainable meat farmers isn’t so much when as where—where to get your animals slaughtered and butchered, or “processed.” Conventional farmers don’t have this worry. They are either selling their animals at auction for pennies on the pound or they raise them under contract for big industrial producers who take care of the processing. Even if they wanted to—and they don’t—small sustainable farmers do not have access to these industrial slaughterhouses.
In order to sell meat across state lines, the animals must be processed in a USDA inspected facility. So, when we needed to find a processor for our pigs, my husband wrote to the USDA requesting a list of certified processors in our region. The response he received was simply that the list couldn’t be provided because it was classified information. After much frustration and a Freedom of Information Act request, he finally got the list. Not surprisingly, there were only two or three processors within a 200-mile radius. Today, we work with a wonderful family run operation that is so busy we have to set slaughter dates six months in advance. They aren’t taking on any additional customers, so any new farmers in our area will have even fewer processing options than we did.
Marketing what you raise
You’ve produced this wonderful food, now how do you market it? That’s a question most conventional farmers don’t need to wrestle with too much either because they’ll sell it to a wholesaler who will in turn sell it to a processed “food” manufacturer or a retail operation like a supermarket. Whatever the route, it rarely if ever involves talking to the end consumer—the eater. There’s no need to explain why the feed has antibiotics or why pesticides were applied. It just doesn’t come up in conversation between a conventional farmer and the eater because there is no conversation.
Marketing for the sustainable farmer is all about finding and creating local customers who will go home and cook-up what you’ve grown (if they can wait that long). Frustration can reign if you end-up in a market that’s not producer only. You may find yourself competing with “farmers” who are buying their tomatoes from Florida in April when yours won’t be ready until July. Or you may have hens that start molting and stop laying just after you’d built up a cult-like following for your eggs. Those days can start to make conventional agriculture sound attractive, but never really and not for long.
Direct marketing gives you the highest profit margin and the opportunity to explain to people why you do what you do. And it allows you to hear how much they appreciate it. You get to explain that, while the pork chops from your local sustainably raised heirloom pigs costs more cash than the chops in the Styrofoam packaging at the grocery store, the styro-chops have huge hidden energy, health, environmental, and biodiversity costs. And nine times out of ten you’ll sell the chops, the customer will love them, and come back for more conversation and food. Nothing can make you feel better than to hear someone rave about the food you’ve put on their plate or to see a child raised on your food scampering through the market. When you get the e-mail from a market customer saying “thank you for doing what you do,” you’ll know that even on that bad day you knew that conventional agriculture was never really an option.
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It’s wonderful to see the first family use the power of the White House as as example. Michael Pollan did, however, get one thing wrong when he informed the president that it was possible “even in Washington to eat locally for much of the year.” In Washington you can eat locally all year round. So, when the market by the White House closes at the end of October, we expect food policy to continue moving up on the national agenda as evidenced by the occasional first family visit to the year round Dupont Circle market. I’ve got some chops in the freezer waiting for them.
Sheilah Goodman is co-founder of Cedarbrook Farms, a diversified organic farm located near Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Sheilah can be found every Thursday until the end of October 2009 at the Cedarbrook Farm stall at the FreshFarm Market near the White House.