On Food, by the Hardscrabble Farmer

A real farmer explains how real food is made. From the Hardscrabble Farmer at theburningplatform.com:

Before you read the rest of this piece I encourage you to read the links below.




“When you are faced with food that has been sterilized, fumigated, hydrogenated, hydrolyzed, homogenized, colored, bleached, puffed, exploded, defatted, degermed, texturized, or if you don’t know what has been done to it, the safest rule is not to eat it.” Helen Nearing

Every morning after coffee, seven days a week I drive into the neighboring towns to make my run for food wastes. My wife refers to it as the slop run, but more than three quarters of what we pick up comes in the form of unopened or completely untouched food that until the previous evening had been on the supermarket shelf priced for consumers; produce, baked goods, and prepared foods. On a good day in the Summer we fill the back of a pickup truck with anywhere between 600 and 1,000 pounds of cabbages and muffins, fresh tomatoes and cherries, herbs packaged in plastic clam shells and tubs of potato salad.

We stop at three restaurants, a resort and a chain grocery store. Each business has it’s own reasons and plans for their waste management and we have been able to fit into their model seamlessly. We enter through the service entrance politely and efficiently, say our good-mornings and get to work. In the restaurants we leave heavy duty 40 gallon Brute containers on a rolling base with a lid. Kept near the food prep areas and another next to the dishwasher sous chefs and waitresses deposit the potato skins and uneaten pasta, watermelon rinds and coffee grounds, half eaten sandwiches and eggshells from everything they prepare and everything that their customers cannot finish.

The restaurants will, on a good night, produce a hundred and fifty pounds of carbon based surplus that we take back to the farm to feed our hogs and poultry. The resort produces three times as much and the supermarket ten times as much or more. For the businesses we service they save on the cost of waste handling and in the warmer months the prospect of keeping rotting food from accumulating in a dumpster for several days under the hot Sun, attracting flies and filling the air with the smells of decomposition before being hauled off to a landfill where it is buried, along with electronics, broken glass, plastics and odds and ends that will never degrade.

We provide the containers and the labor required to handle the leftovers and in return we wash and sanitize the totes, act respectfully and with gratitude while we are collecting the haul and return virtually every bit of carbon based waste to the environment, either as sustenance for our livestock, or as compost.

I enjoy these morning runs and if I travel alone, the Border Collie rides along in the passenger seat to keep me company. Sometimes one of my children will ride along and give me a hand, or my oldest Son will do the run for me if I am busy on another project, but we never miss a single day. We repeat this process in the evening before bedtime traveling to the local deli and the bakery for much smaller, but equally calorie laden haul. For our side of the return we are able to feed all of our livestock without having to purchase commercial feeds that are both expensive and often contain herbicides, pesticides and GMO based grains as their major components.

In the first few years we farmed we did what everyone else did and bought the pelletized feeds for each breed and species; layer feed, grower feed, chick feed and hog feed. Visually there wasn’t any difference between these bagged products that I could discern and after a while the thought of our animals having to live off of a steady diet of the same thing day after day began to bother me, not only for the ever increasing cost, but for the uniformity of it.

I hadn’t really thought about how much RoundUp was used in the production of these feeds or just how much of those contaminants passed through to us when we sat down to eat a pork chop or a chicken breast, but the longer we kept at it, the more clear it became that we were simply pushing our fresh, local, organic priorities back one step to a mass produced, corporate agriculture model where we raised our own animals, but ate whatever their bodies had metabolized. When we made this change to our feeding program it became apparent almost immediately just how close we were in our assessment of what was taking place. Now our pigs were eating twice to three times the volume of feed they’d been consuming before, but weren’t becoming fat at anywhere near the same rate as they had with commercial feeds.

In fact they began to look quite healthy, lean hogs as they refer to them in the Big Ag jargon. They seemed both healthier and more alert and they came to relish their diet in a way they never did before. We also noticed, almost by accident that the chickens had taken up with the hogs, not only for protection, but for the variety of scraps the pigs left behind after each feeding. We stopped buying grain for the chickens and allowed them to forage on their own through whatever was available on the farm, from the endless pecking at insects and grasses, to the gleaning they took to after each hog pen had been fed out.

Now whenever the tractor is running the flocks come after it in a swarm and follow us from the back of the pickup where we offload to the different feeding spots. Eventually it got to the point that when we offered them a tray of commercial feed we kept on hand during the brooding period where the girls remain close to the nesting boxes, they’d leave it untouched and so we have quit using it altogether.

I enjoy the run in the morning the way some people who live in the city relish their morning jog. I get to see the beauty of my surrounding area off the farm, I get all the social interaction I could ever want from the chefs and the stock boys, the produce manager and the receiving clerks, the restaurant owner and the GM of the supermarket, and they all, in turn, appreciate my service to their organization.

We are friendly and efficient, we arrive at approximately the same time every day, fitting it into their schedule, they save on their waste costs, they know that what they give us is appreciated- and we always drop off some kind of treat after a slaughter; slabs of bacon for the lady doing the prep for $8 an hour, a dozen eggs for the kid at the bakery who has to show up at 4am, a dozen foil wrapped pork tacos for the waiters at the resort at the end of the breakfast shift.

In short we serve a multitude of purposes that improves virtually every aspect of our business models. Our pork- and for those of you who have sampled it know- is exceptionally delicious rather than bland and uniform. The hams we cure for six months to a year in order to make a prosciutto are uniquely flavored and filled with a depth you cannot find outside of a $900 imported Parma. The bacon we smoke on the farm is always sweet and multicolored, layers of ruby red meat interlaced with ribbons of glistening orange fat.

The sausages, both the fresh links and the aged soppresattas are richly flavored and unctuous, every bite. The owners and operators of these businesses know that they are doing something for the environment by keeping tons and tons of wastes from going into a landfill, as well as helping to keep their own operations more hygienic and uncluttered for no cost and they understand that they are helping to keep a family farm alive when all across the country they are failing at a rate unseen in any other industry or profession.

Our animals benefit from a varied diet and they relish the variety and abundance of these feedings in a way that no commercially available product could ever satisfy them. They produce larger and healthier litters, they wean earlier and with greater success, and they live longer lives and in the end provide us with a far superior pork, poultry and egg production than any commercial operation could hope to deliver. The amount of carbon we sequester, both by the production of manure and the waste we remove from the landfill system is incalculable, but it clearly beats the current model of sequestering manure in fetid lagoons that run the risk of contaminating water tables in dry weather and fouling watersheds in the event of flooding. We simply return our to rich, healthy soils.

I am sure that to the average American consumer I am somewhere above the homeless beggar and just below the landscaper both economically and in appearance. Our truck is neither new, nor is our daily uniform of Carhart style work pants, farm T-shirt and hiking boots striking in appearance, but we are happy in our chores and proud of what we do. I treasure the relationships we’ve built with the people in these related businesses and the friendships that have come from our efforts as well as opportunity to improve our local environment and everything that depends upon it.

I can see the rewards every time we sit down to a meal together, taste it in every both of food, not only the meat and eggs, but the fruits and vegetables that grow in the living soils we’ve produced since we started farming this way. I am nothing like the neo-Puritans who scold everyone on what they should and should not be eating and tell us what is good for the environment and what is bad without ever having once produced so much as a single calorie of their Ivory Tower diet. We practice what we preach, but we try not to preach, but rather demonstrate through our daily actions what is really required if you champion the environment and claim to want to improve the conditions of life on Earth.

It seems clear to me where we are headed if we continue to allow ourselves to be manipulated and hectored into adopting diets based on lab produced meat substitutes or vegan diets that slowly eat away at the human body for want of balance and nutrition. I remember an America where obesity was so rare that you had to pay money to see a fat lady in a sideshow and where children were never fat, but glowed with health and an abundance of youthful energy. My own children have benefited from our choice to radically alter our lifestyle ten years ago and I can see it in my own body and my wife’s. I know what soil is and how crucial, if not essential manures are in the structure of tilth and a balanced environment that depends on death and decomposition as much as it does on life and regeneration.

We live in a very dangerous phase of human history, where everything that has ever been done successfully over millennia has been disparaged and ridiculed in order to placate the vociferous demands of the ignorant and uninformed simply because they make the most noise and enjoy the compliant reinforcement of a narrative built around power and wealth and the stripping away of freedoms Americans have enjoyed for centuries. I understand that not everyone is up for life as a sustenance farmer or homesteader, but all of us can make better choices, not only about what we eat and where our hard earned consumer dollars go when we must spend them on feeding ourselves and our families.

We can support those small producers that make the effort every day to improve the Earth rather than to strip mine it for every dollar that can be pulled out of it regardless of the long term costs and consequences. We can start to think about all the ways we create the kinds of waste that cannot be mitigated or buried in the ground when it could instead be returned to the environment beneficially, productively.

I encourage anyone who thinks that such a move is beyond their scope or capacity by reminding them that we knew nothing about how to produce our food beyond growing a tomato plant of picking some apples in the fall and rather than studying or dreaming, we simply did it and allowed Nature to show us how to do it better. We are in many ways hardwired to produce, to live in tune with the world we inhabit, to relate to animals in a way we could only dream of and to make those relationships beneficial to ourselves as well as the flocks and herds that live under our care and husbandry.

I encourage all of you, in the words of Helen Nearing, to do what you can, where you are, and to be kind.


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