National Lampoon’s battle cry of the 1980s, “Food Fight!”, has, lo these three or four decades down the road, morphed into “Food Fraught!”
Yes, a terrible pun and take off on John Belushi’s battle cry “Food Fight!” in Animal House. In our own country, and, in fact, throughout the world today there is a food fight going on: it concerns how food is produced, what food is consumed, human health, and animal welfare, and is literally fraught with a tangle of so many issues – of humane treatment of animals, of what that means, of carbon footprint and chemical input, and definitions of terms like natural and organic that one scarcely knows where to start.
But I probably don’t need to mention this to anyone reading this blog, and many of you may already read daily, as I do, food bloggers such as Marion Nestle, Barry Estabrook or Mark Bittman, who are concerned about the safety of our food supply and the treatment of the animals that feed us.
However, now that we are vendors at our local farmers market, I think it a good time to write about our production model and philosophy. That is to say, how we raise our animals and prepare them for the table, and where we stand on some of these questions.
First of all, we try to be as closed a system as possible (that is, we try to use minimal outside input), but, since we are still a young farm (under three years old), we are still on a climb to create that system. We currently use a mix of organic, local, and commercial feeds; when we use commercial feeds we try to use only local brands. In addition, we also use the vegetables and fruits we grow here on the farm to feed our animals, and we use the milk from our goats to make cheese and whey to feed our chickens and pigs.
We try to be as organic as possible, but for a number of reasons are not, and probably never will be certified. Expense is part of the reason for that – the cost of organic certification is high, and the regulations terribly stringent and intrusive, and I say this as one who frankly believes in a well-regulated market. We raise all of our fruits and vegetables organically though: we only use organic substances to control pests and plant diseases, and these sparingly, because we believe the three best things for controlling disease and pests on plants are manure, manure, and more manure. Plus compost!
In terms of feed, we also try to be as organic as possible on that score too, but also demand that the feed be local to reduce our carbon footprint. We will not use organic feeds produced outside of the state and country the same way we will not eat organic foods produced abroad because, first, we do not trust the enforcement of organic standards and practices elsewhere, and second, why would we send money outside of the community? It makes no sense to buy feed produced in Indiana (or, God forbid, China) for numerous reasons: Why do I want my money to go to support the economy in Indianapolis as opposed to McMinnville? How much energy and added costs will be spent hauling feed from the middle of the country to the west (where we have plenty anyway!)? And how are organic standards being enforced abroad? Given what I know of Italian culture and economics, for example (having spent a good amount of time in Italy), I would no sooner trust that a bottle of olive oil from Italy is genuinely organic than in the Man in the Moon. That might be unfair, but if you have read Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah you have some idea of how compromised the world agricultural system (heck, even the blue jeans you’re wearing) can be. And let’s not even get started on GMOs – safe to say, until we get more research in on them, we endeavor to use feeds that are as GMO free as possible, and of course, none of our organic feed or own stuff contains any GMOs.
Another reason not to be certified is that, frankly, we feel certification is an unfair tax on smaller producers, who already face an uphill climb just by the small nature of their operations and the economy of scales. That price would need to be passed on to the consumer. My impression is that most people who undertake small farming do so because they believe in the democratic nature of food – that healthy, nutritious food should be readily accessible to as many people as possible and that people should have a choice over what they consume. That is already a difficult thing to achieve, and passing the cost on to consumers would only make it worse.
So without further ado, here is a summary of how we feed and treat our various animals on the farm.
Let’s start with our layers. Our layers are fed on a mix of commercial feed and feed grown locally and organically by Susan Richmond at Bellemare Farm. Susan uses horses to grow sustainable organic heritage grains such as farro; she mixes her own feed for our layers whose diet is also supplemented seasonally with fruits from our orchards, vegetables from our garden, and cheese and whey from our own goats milk. In addition, our layers are given free access to grass where they can free range and scratch for bugs. Occasionally they are given a nice big scoop of compost from our bins so they can scratch for worms.
Susan’s barrels are mixed into batches of around 300 lbs. You can really see the fine seeds and grains that come in the mix, so both you and the animal know what is in it, as opposed to commercial feeds that are heavy in corn and soy.
Our layers have not had the foraging instinct bred out of them the way our broilers have, so our meat birds are given a high protein commercial (but local) feed the first three weeks of their life, then are put onto a local, organic feed (also produced at Bellemare Farm), although the feed has a higher protein content (20% for broilers as opposed to 14-16% for layers). We keep them out on grass, of which there is plenty for them to eat in the spring and fall. They actually need to be taught, however, to eat grass; layers recognize grass as food instinctually, broilers do not. So, in order to teach them, we need to add grass clippings to their feed when chicks so they know to forage for it as adults. They are given plenty of fruit in the summer which they will eat, but unfortunately, unlike layers, they do not tend to recognize cheese as food, so their diet tends to be limited to their feed, grass, and fruit. They are allowed to be on pasture, but, due to predation and for the animal’s safety, need to be kept in chicken tractors, large wire boxes with no bottoms and a shade top which allows them to be on pasture but also keeps them safe from predatory birds and coyotes which abound in our area. We put no more than 25 in our 4 x 8 tractors and 50 in our 8 x 8: they are moved twice a day so that they are on fresh grass constantly, with free access to food and water. There are times when our supply of organic feed dries up. In that case they are put temporarily on a local commercial feed, but for the most part they are fed organically. We do not medicate our birds unless sick, but being out on pasture we experience a minimal of health problems; no chemical inputs whatsoever go into our pasture, just chicken manure, which makes for a very lush and vigorous pasture in the spring.
A close up of the broiler feed Susan mixes. It consists of peas, hard red wheat, oats, flax seed, camellia meal, lime, and some fish or kelp meal for added minerals. Layer feed also contains rye and triticale (a type of hybrid wheat and rye).
Susan grows all of her grains the old fashioned way, with draft horses to draw the attachments and to fertilize her fields. If we had someone in the picture for scale you would find that these horses formidable in size indeed. It bears little mention from the photo, but Susan’s farm in Willamina is set in a very picturesque and beautiful valley just on the edge of the coast range.
Horse drawn attachments are the order of the day! You don’t see many of these around, because Susan is one of the few women in the country to grow heritage grains organically and sustainably using, literally, horse power.
Our duck layers (Kakhi Campbells are the breed), are given free range in our fruit orchard, no holds bared. They eat a minimal of high protein commercial feed, which really serves as just a supplement to the worms, bugs, and grass they eat in our garden. They also get the thinnings of leafy greens from our garden. From November until April they are given free run of our large vegetable garden where they dig through the mud and grass for slugs and their eggs, so act as pest patrol.
Our goats are given a local blend of dairy ration (developed by a local specialist on goat care, Dr. Laura Acton), alfalfa hay, orchard grass, and pasture. We try to balance these so that they obtain proper nutrition and at the same time produce good flavorful milk that produces a terroire as important to their milk as it is to Pinot Noir. We use their milk to feed our chickens, pigs, and ourselves. We are happy to sell their milk direct from the farm – we ourselves use it to make ricotta, feta, chevre, and will experiment this year with aged cheese. The ricotta makes an awesome cheesecake, and the feta and chevre are super versatile, and great for fritattas, salads, pizzas, custards, omlettes, and lots of other great stuff. We also produce excellent goat meat great for roasting, meatballs, cassaroles, or the grill.
We are currently experimenting with developing pasture-raised hogs for subscription, and are starting with raising crosses of Tamworths and Large Blacks, and Old Spots and Large Blacks. They are kept on pasture so root in our land for roots and grass; they are given local, organic feed when available, commercial feed, and are given goats milk every morning and evening (1/2 a gallon per pig). In addition they are given acorns from our oak stands and fruits and veggies from our gardens and orchards. They get to till our pasture and create mud wallows where they can loll in the mud to their hearts content, the way pigs ought. They are thoroughly spoiled, and occasionally given beer and massage. All of this makes for the best pork you will ever eat, bar none.
So the take-away from all of this – the short version, as it were – is that we source our feed almost exclusively on a local level, we try to use organic, non-GMO feed, also sourced locally, and we use our own organic fruits and veggies. Only occasionally do we have recourse to commercial feed, and then, with rare exceptions, it’s sourced locally. All of our animals are pastured and on grass, and as much as possible we try to let the animal be the animal it was intended to be, so our hens scratch, our broilers forage, our pigs root, our goats graze, and our ducks snurfle the dirt. Except for the necessary deworming and booster shots required for health and humane treatment, none of our animals are medicated unless sick. Clean, delicious food, healthy people, and a healthy planet are inseparable. Our philosophy can perhaps best be summed up by Carlo Petrini, the founder of the slow food movement in Italy, who stated “A gastronomer who is not an environmentalist is stupid. Whereas an environmentalist who is not a gastronomer is just sad.” As always too, we invite our customers to come and look for themselves at how our animals are not merely raised but, we hope, pampered.