Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Make a Farmer a Friend

My friends and family will absolutely confirm that I did NOT grow up a farm girl. I wasn't in 4-H as a kid, and I wasn't a member of FFA (Future Farmers of America) in high school. Yeah. I rode a horse now and then. But the closest I ever got to raising food was growing okra and tomatoes in my suburban backyard in Georgia.

Since growing up, I've been a high school English teacher in Georgia, lived and worked in the People's Republic of China, been a mom, and been blessed by a highly successful career at Microsoft in Redmond, WA. I've lived in a lot of places and done a lot of things. But during the first 46 years of my life, I never got close enough to touch a cow, never slopped pigs, never watched a lamb born, and never artificially inseminated ANYTHING. I thought those first 46 years were pretty exciting (anyone who successfully maneuvers an adolescent into adulthood knows what excitement is), but to be perfectly honest, they were NOTHING compared to the years since I became a cowgirl at age 46.

I am now 50 and have survived an incredibly steep learning curve (I have the thighs to prove it). I've had to master many lessons in the art and science of being a rancher, livestock manager, and business owner. I can build fences, milk cows, change irrigation pipe, drive a tractor, artificially inseminate cows, buck hay, pull a calf, command a cow dog, and cut cows on my cutting horse right alongside an experienced cowboy. I've also learned tough lessons about life and death. And I still have many lessons to go.

Babies keep me very busy.

Most people think the hardest part of being a rancher is doing all that physical labor. Every day is full of chores. There are no vacations or holidays from work. There are no sick days that we can take off. Cows have to be milked, animals have to be fed and watered, hay has to be cut, chickens have to be butchered, and the list goes on.

But really, the most challenging part of our job isn't on that list. It's selling our products to customers. Coming in contact with customers (we live in a very remote location), communicating the value of our products to customers, meeting customer demands and expectations, and finally selling meat all involve exhausting, frustrating, and, yes, rewarding hard work.

I'm now an insider in the world of agricultural products, and I've learned first-hand how hard it is to be a successful, small farmer/rancher. It's easy for me to see why so few people want this job. But it's also easy for me to see why this job is so important. Not just for me and my personal health and well-being. But for every person.

We live in a time when most of our food is raised or produced in factories. Pigs and chickens are raised in buildings and never see the light of day. Milk cows spend their lives standing on concrete and never walk on grass (much less eat it). Beef cows are crammed in feedlots and fattened on grain. All these animals live such unnatural lives that they have to be fed antibiotics in order to keep them alive long enough to produce the product that goes to the grocery store. We eat things out of packages that our grandparents made at home, like butter. We eat totally artificial things and call them 'food', like Twinkies, margarine, and Cool Whip.

But there is hope that one day we'll return to our earth-bound roots. Thank goodness there are more and more people who are actually looking for real food raised on a real farm by real farmers and ranchers. I'm now one of those ranchers.
Just finished sorting cows before branding.

I rub shoulders with other farmers who are passionate about, and dedicated to, growing food. All of us are faced with the challenges of competing with grocery stores, convenience, and flashy marketing. We're simple people doing a tough job to produce a basic product. We do our best to take care of the land we use, the animals and plants we grow, and the people we serve. But none of us can be successful without lots of other folks who are just as passionate about actually eating real food.

If all of us want better food, a better environment, and a better world, then we all need to do our part to support the small farmers and ranchers in our areas. I encourage you to make a New Year's resolution for 2013. Make a commitment to your own health and the health of your local farming community by committing to do business with at least one local farmer this year.

To help you understand the level of commitment that's required, I'll share my insider's tips based on my personal experiences of the last few years. I hope they inspire you to adopt and patronize a local farmer.

1. Be kind. Be interested. Be respectful.

Find a local farmers market and become friends with the vendors. Remember that most of the folks who grow and raise food are most comfortable with their hands in the earth or their feet planted in manure. They aren't necessarily great conversationalists and they aren't necessarily comfortable around lots of strangers. So, it's up to you not to be shy.

Introduce yourself, ask about their farm or ranch. Tell them what your favorite foods are. Ask them about what they grow and how they grow it. Ask them to show you some of their favorites and share their favorite recipes or cooking techniques.

If you can, visit the farm or ranch. I don't know one farmer who isn't proud of what he does and doesn't want to share his stories and his food.

But whatever you do, don't introduce yourself by saying, "You know, I could get this food cheaper at Walmart." The truth is, no, you can't. And if you think you can, you're not as smart as my pig, Petunia. And if you buy your food at Walmart, Petunia eats a lot healthier food than you do.

2. Be patient.

Plants grow when it's warm and animals are born at certain times of the year. Whether it's convenient for you or not, the truth is that all food is seasonal. I happen to live in the Pacific Northwest where raspberries are ready in June, Hermiston watermelons are ripe in July, and my favorite apples get sweet and crunchy in October. An apple in July, a watermelon in December, and raspberries in February come from far, far away. So far away that I know nothing about the farm or person where they came from. And if I know nothing about the farm or person where my food comes from, then I know nothing about the food itself. I'd rather not eat it, thank you.

Be patient with your farmer. A lot of roles are packed into one person. The individual selling vegetables at the farmers market is probably the weeder, accountant, marketing director, deliveryman, and farm manager. He has a lot to do. And he's trying to serve a lot of different people who have very diverse demands.

Be responsive to supply and demand. Remember that if you just drop by every few months for a few carrots or a bag of potatoes, it'll be hard for a farmer to remember you. If you're a regular customer who buys a consistent supply, your farmer can actually make changes to ensure that your needs are consistently met. We grow lamb today because our consistent beef customers asked for it. They have been more than patient while we spend years building a flock of sheep large enough to support the year-round demand. In the meantime, when we say, "Reserve lamb now!" our regular customers know that what we really mean is "NOW!" And when the year's lambs are sold out, they patiently wait for the next batch to be ready. And we'll make sure the next batch is bigger because we're confident our customers are waiting. Eventually, we'll have lamb available every month thanks to our patient customers.
Our hogs are sold long before they're butchered.

3. Be flexible.

Most small farmers don't have a storefront with regular hours that's open year-round. And, unfortunately, most farmers won't be as convenient for you as the local drugstore. If you've ever been down-wind from a chicken farm or a dairy, you know why folks don't like farms in their neighborhoods. If product labels that show cows and red barns were scratch-and-sniff labels and accurately scented, the smell would not increase sales. I know this because I raise pigs, cows, chickens, and sheep. Everyone who gives me a hug knows it, too.

And although you might be wearing headsets in both ears connected to your phone, e-mail and Facebook all at once, the average small farmer isn't so wired or wireless. They usually don't take credit cards for technical and financial reasons. They might not even use e-mail. High-tech to us is an electric chicken plucker.

So be flexible with time, location and product availability. Make an effort to learn how to communicate and stay in touch. Be the first party to reach out. Drive the extra distance that it takes to pick up produce from the farm or the farmers market. And don't expect raspberries in February.
Some people would say we live in the middle of nowhere. We call it Paradise.

4. Be fair and honest.

A farmer can't pay his bills if he gives his product away. Don't be a cheapskate. Pay what the asking price is. I can guarantee that you're getting more value than you're paying for. And don't wait until the last 10 minutes of the farmers market and ask for a huge price break. It takes our friend, Jose Martinez, the same amount of time and money to grow that food whether you buy it in the first 10 minutes of the market or the last 10 minutes.

I don't know a farmer or rancher who isn't compassionate and generous. When folks tell us they're on a tight budget, we help them pick sale cuts that meet their needs. We can certainly suggest recipes and cuts that will feed a crowd at a reasonable cost. I've even been known to pull older meat from our personal freezer and sell it at reduced price to someone who was struggling financially. We try very hard to make good food accessible to everyone, regardless of budget.

When you're face to face with a farmer selling carrots for $4/bunch or burger at $5/pound, imagine yourself sitting behind a lemonade stand. How much lemonade would you have to sell to pay your bills?

5. Be real.
Farmers don't live in Disneyland. On the farm, crops fail and die, animals die, equipment breaks, people get hurt, and sometimes we even get a little testy. We aren't perfect, our products aren't perfect, the places we live aren't perfect. Those things only exist in advertising. Small farmers don't have the time and money to do much advertising.
Ross wrangles cows AND repairs tractors. Even in freezing temps.

That means the apples may have a few blemishes, the potatoes might be a little bumpy, and the steak isn't cut exactly 2 3/8 inches thick.

If you want perfect, don't talk to me. That'll just make me cranky. Remember, a calf just kicked me in the face today because I was dragging him into a warm barn when he was too hypothermic to walk. That doesn't happen at Disneyranch. Talk to me about what comes from a real ranch and how I can share it with you. If you want perfect, there are plenty of perfect products advertised in glossy photos and sold on glitzy web sites. Go buy those things. But I warn you. Perfect looking food is probably not good for you. There's a reason it looks perfect. It was probably manufactured in an industrial environment using lots of industrial chemicals.

6. Be a teacher, a student and an advocate.

Be an example to your children, neighbors, and friends. Eat real food that you prepare yourself. If you're as busy as I am and you prepare your own food, you'll learn how to cook simple, quick meals. You know what? They taste great! Everyone knows how wonderful a home-grown tomato tastes. That's because you're eating something only minutes off the vine and warm from the sun. You can enjoy the same experience with all your foods by getting them direct from a farmer. Carrots, onions, potatoes, beans and endless other fruits and veggies taste remarkable when picked ripe and not treated with chemicals to keep them from sprouting or rotting.

Take your kids and friends to a u-pick farm and pick raspberries. Better yet, pick strawberries. You'll find out how backbreaking that work is. Trust me. The more your back hurts, the better the berries taste. You'll also eat a few bugs in the process. But even your kids won't notice. Just make sure that when you smile at your spouse, you don't have a leaf hopper stuck between your front teeth.

Advocate for a better food lifestyle. Encourage the people you care for to eat better. Be bold! Be brave! Get rid of your pantry. It's a place for boxes and cans. Farmers don't grow boxes and cans. Eat whatever you want to eat. But make it yourself from real food ingredients.

7. Be committed. To yourself and your farmer.

Don't be a fair-weather customer. Whatever the season, whatever the product, buy SOMETHING. When you see your favorite farmer packing up at the end of the farmers market, buy his last bag of apples or last cucumber. Buy - Buy - Buy.

Spread the word and help others get connected with the farmers that you know. Share your recipe for roasted turnips.

And if I don't have exactly what you're looking for, surely something can substitute. How about an arm roast instead of a shoulder roast? I'm sure that one of the 5 kinds of apples that Jose picked and brought to the market will work for you even if it's not the name you're familiar with. You know what? You might even like it better.

8. Be appreciative.

It takes a lot of work and heartache to produce food. The steak that you ate in less than 30 minutes took 3 years to grow. The box of strawberries your kids are snacking on were hand-picked. The chicken dish you're enjoying tonight tastes so good because you didn't cut its throat, scald the body in hot water to loosen its feathers, pluck it, cut out the vent to reach inside and pull out the entrails, and chop off its head. There's a reason people buy food. It's a lot of trouble to grow it. And I haven't yet met the person who actually enjoys butchering chickens.

Say "Thank you" repeatedly. Sometimes, just hearing an expression of gratitude is all that keeps a farmer going. I know.
One down. Ninety nine to go.

9. Be a squirrel.

Learn how to can and preserve seasonal delights and put them away to enjoy during the cold, winter months. You'll have delicious eats on dark days and you'll appreciate your food and the seasonality of it a lot more. You'll have healthy 'canned' foods without the can, preservatives, dyes, and other additives that we should all avoid.

Render lard, make meat jerky, put up pickles and preserves, can peaches and pears. I put up all these things along with about 100 lbs of tomatoes every year. Those tomatoes make chili, spaghetti sauce, barbecue ribs and other wonders. The best thing is that when I open a jar, I know exactly what's in it. Because if I didn't put it in it, it's not in it. I don't have to read labels.

10. Give feedback.

Every farmer is limited by size, climate, workforce, time, etc. Try to understand your farmer's limits and provide feedback with those limits in mind. Tell your farmer what you like and what you'd like to see more of. Tell him if something he does really doesn't work for you. But remember. Farmers have to make the best choices about how to meet and deliver to a lot of customers - not just you. Help them get connected and help them improve their products for you AND your neighbors, friends, and community.

What do you get when you take the time to patronize a local farmer?

You'll change your life for the better. You'll find health, happiness, and satisfaction as you become more connected to the earth and enjoy real food that's charmed from the soil. You'll feel enriched and empowered as you alter the course of your local food system and put food back in the care of farmers instead of industries. You'll be blessed as your friends and family follow your lead to a healthier lifestyle. You'll make a good friend.

Happy New Year!