In Defense of Meat

This article isn’t meant to convert vegetarians or vegans into paleo fanatics, but merely to help people take off their blinders and take a little more responsibility for the food they eat. And for the record, I bought an avocado AND an artichoke today that were both grown in California so I am by no means eating a perfect diet. I would guestimate that about 75% of my calories are local, but I am human, aka not perfect, after all.

A few weeks ago I attended a two-day soil workshop hosted by a pretty brilliant farmer down the road from me. In those two days I was transported back in time to Chemistry class, not my favorite. But this time, I was spellbound. Soil! What a complex and miraculous substance! We talked about physical structure, cation exchange, nutrient cycle, and plant health. As we were talking about nutrients and how to get them into the soil, my mind really began to turn.

Boron, for example. We learned about two ways to get Boron into the soil. One is through animal matter; manure, fish meal, feathers, etc. The other is through importing Boron from a mine in China where people haul Boron out of the mine with buckets slung over their weary shoulders. Which one of these is more ethical? Using a locally sourced product from animals that were raised in an ethical manner, or importing from thousands of miles away a product that is extracted by exploiting human beings? Truth is an interesting concept. What is truth to one person is fiction to another. Multiple people can see the same thing happen and all have different perspectives. All those different perspectives are truth to each of those people. Certain truths are part of the truth but if you dig deeper, you find a different truth.

Over the past few years of my journey into farming I have been a sponge for knowledge. I have admitted that the vegan diet I was eating led me to lose my hair, develop an eating disorder, and become deficient in many vitamins and minerals. In fact when I mentioned to an Ayurvedic healer recently that I had problems being vegan, she said, “Just by looking at your body type, I can tell you would have serious issues on a vegan diet.”  I have learned that raising beef using intensive grazing practices sequesters more carbon from the environment than it emits, and it also builds topsoil. I have learned that when managed properly, animals heal land instead of destroying it; something that vegetables alone can not do.

There are a few reasons that I became a Vegan. I learned how meat is raised industrially and I didn’t want to be a part of it. I loved animals and I thought eating a Vegan diet would mean that none of them had to die. I thought I would be healthier on a Vegan diet. I thought that eating a Vegan diet would be better for the environment. What I have learned since then, is that almost none of these things are an absolute truth. Sure, if you spin the details and take a very simplistic approach to facts, they can be constructed as true.

In eating a vegetable, nothing is dying in that moment, so in eating a vegetarian diet, nothing dies in the process of producing that food. Industrial raised meat is grown in a way that is unhealthy for the animal, resulting in an unhealthy product. So eating a vegetarian diet must be healthier for everyone. Confinement Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO’s, feed animals grains that have been mono cropped and grown hundreds or thousands of miles away. Too many animals are raised in very small spaces and require the trucking in of massive amounts of water. The earth cannot absorb the concentrated nutrients the animals are putting out and so huge manure lagoons have to be built. The combination of these things is destruction for the environment. This must mean that eating meat is bad for the environment. These facts combined with the cute videos of pigs having their backs scratched, and the abuses that industrial farm animals live through, is enough to make anyone want to become a vegan. But these facts are only half of the truth. Life is not that black and white and to eat a diet that is truly ethical and environmentally conscious, it required a lot more than buying vegan food products at Trader Joe’s or Wholefoods and calling it a day.

There is another truth. A truth that requires a deeper relationship with the food that you’re eating. A truth that requires you to know your farmer and know where your food is coming from. A truth that requires you to take part in the cycle of life rather than being a mere consumer of products from the grocery store. Eating industrially grown food in any capacity is destroying the environment. We as a society have taken the Great Plains from the Buffalo, from the wild horses, and from the countless other species to grow grains, vegetables, and meat. Countless areas in the world have been destroyed to pave the way for industrial food production. There are so many more variables to food production than just meat or plant.

A tomato from Trader Joe’s grown thousands of miles away that was grown on mono-cropped land using water from hundreds of miles away and being picked by someone who is probably not treated very well by their employer does not equal a tomato grown on a small diversified vegetable farm fertilized by manure from the dairy farm down the road and picked by a small team of valued members. And a pound of ground beef raised in a CAFO does not equal a pound of ground beef grown on a diversified livestock farm using intensive grazing methods that fertilized the fields as it went and ate and drank only what was available on that farm.

There is a huge and growing population of passionate farmers committed to growing ethically and environmentally responsible food. Year round CSA’s are popping up making it possible for people in Rhode Island and Maine to have access to vegetables year round. I’m not saying they have access to bell peppers or avocados year round, but what comes in season. It allows people to live more in sync with the cycles of the earth.

The truth isn’t always black and white. Sometimes the beef grown down the road is better for the environment than the garlic grown in China or the tomatoes grown in Mexico. Sometimes the vegan food you eat was picked by migrant workers who have horrible living conditions and no workers rights. People become vegan for all the right reasons. I should know because I was one. Unfortunately (or fortunately) eating in a way that truly supports the health of our Mother Earth and all of her living beings, including humans, involves taking a little more responsibility for the food you eat. It involves knowing where your food actually came from, how it was raised, and who raised it. Next time you go grocery shopping, ask yourself these questions.

Where did this come from?

How was it grown?

Who grew it and what quality of life did they have?

Does this grow near where I live?

What percentage of the selling price did the farmer receive for this?

If you can’t answer these questions, I’m sure there are some farmers within reach of where you live who would love to have you as a customer.

So God Made A Farmer.

IMG_5223God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ … I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets… It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners.

Somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life ‘doing what dad does.’” So God made a farmer.” 

-Paul Harvey

Yesterday Deep Roots Farm received the stamp of approval from RI Department of Health. That means this #farmHer is officially in business to sell our products directly off the farm, at farmer’s markets, through local CSA’s, and to restaurants and stores. The years leading up to this farm and the last seven months of work here have paid off. We are on our way!!

This winter was easily the hardest and most rewarding period of my life. It broke me emotionally, mentally, physically, and almost financially. But at the same time, every day I went to bed knowing that I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing with my life. That I was following the plan that the universe had written for me, that I almost didn’t even have a choice in the matter. That no matter how hard things got, I could never give up on this farm.

I spent half of a winter’s night outside sitting with a first-time heifer having trouble giving birth. I pep talked her, I sang to her, I spoke gentle words of love into her ears. In the morning I dragged her perfect dead little calf away from her and buried it in the frozen ground. I cried for the life lost, for the distraught mother, and for the financial loss this meant for me. A few weeks later I watched another calf race wobbly legged and awkward around the pasture, testing out his new legs and then running back to the security of his mom.

I built a fence with frozen fingers in a white out snow storm, because I was determined to get it done before winter hit. A few days later I got to see my little herd of cows kicking up their heels as they galloped joyously around the new field.

I got home from work at Flatbread many nights near midnight after a 15 hour work day, falling into bed exhausted, only to rise again early in the morning to do it all again. And though I dreaded getting out of bed, when my favorite cow walked up to me each morning and planted her head in my stomach for her back scratch, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. Every week I deposited my paychecks into my farm’s bank account, relying on the generosity and kindness of my family to feed and house me, so I could feed and house my animals.

This winter I learned to ask for and accept help, something that isn’t easy for anyone to do. The truth is, without the physical and financial help of my family, this farm venture wouldn’t be cruising full speed ahead like it is now. My Dad driving to the farm store in the middle of the first big snow storm so we can retro-fit the milking barn into a free-stall barn to put the cows inside. My brother showing up at sunset so we can catch chickens in the dark and put them in the eggmobile. My sister coming to help me paint the floor of our new store room. My Mom helping me build fences and take care of the animals. My Uncle visiting every weekend to do whatever needs to be done and calling me weekly for progress reports. My Stepfather picking up hundreds of pounds of fruits and veggies at the local grocery store to feed my pigs. My friend Allie, who miraculously decided she was going to show up each Tuesday to help me get things done. These acts of love and kindness are being written into the soul of this magical place. Everywhere I look I see something; a fence, a building, a renovated room, that has been built by my family and friends.

The hours I spent lugging buckets of water through mud, snow, rain, and sleet. The times I walked into the hardware store only to start crying when the owner asked me how I was doing. The worrying about money. The feelings of utter despair that I felt this winter. The longer I spend here on this farm, the more I know that this profession was never really a choice for me. Being a farmer was written in my cards long before I ever knew it. I will stewart this land while I am alive and hope that I bring up the next generation to love and respect farming as much as I do. Because nothing makes me happier than listening to a pig slurping the juice out of a watermelon. Nothing brings me more satisfaction than providing nourishing food to people that I love. And nothing fills me more to the brim with every possible emotion than walking the land of my ancestors, surrounded by happy animals, and knowing that I am preserving this story for one more generation.

Farming is an interesting profession. Disregarded and disrespected by so many. One of the hardest jobs out there; physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially. There aren’t many reasons to become a farmer except for love. Love for the land. Love for the animals. Love for the people who you are providing food to. Deep Roots Farm is a farm that has been built out of love. And I am filled to the brim with gratitude and joy that we are officially in business and ready to start spreading that love around. Will you help us?

Reflections on Polyface

I arrived to Polyface pretty much the perfect description of their ideal candidate: Bright eyed, bushy-tailed, self-starter, eager-beaver, situationally aware, go-get-‘em, teachable, positive, non-complaining, grateful, rejoicing, get’er done, dependable, faithful, perseverant, take-responsibility, clean-cut boy-girl appearance character.

The first few weeks were pure bliss. Coming from corporate America, I was moved to tears on a daily basis by the pure ecstasy of spending my days outdoors, working intimately with animals, and providing nourishing food to surrounding communities. Watching the cows flow into a new pasture, kicking up their heels in excitement as they went. Watching the sun rise over the mountains as I walked to work with my two sweet and joyful roommates. Moving broiler pens during soaking rainstorms and arriving home to breakfast a puddle. Singing “Unsteady” and laughing hysterically while trying to simultaneously stack a load of hay on a rocking and rolling hay wagon driven by my idol, Joel Salatin.

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In those weeks I also became aware that I was living in a very conservative Christian community, a new and different experience for me. As I could best be described as a feminist, tree-hugging, liberal, I felt like a fish out of water. Add that to my insecurity about my farming abilities and feeling inferior about certain things due to being female, and there were some pretty tough moments. When the guys jumped to do things that I was  already trying to do, I sometimes became snappy, knowing that I would never learn if i wasn’t given the opportunity to try. I kept my opinions about politics and feminism to myself and tried to stay out of any conversations related to those topics for fear of rocking the boat. I tried to find ways to relate to the people who were different than me and sometimes I failed. Sometimes I made jokes that were taken seriously and I offended people instead of making them laugh. And so, I tried again. I finally gathered the courage to apologize to those I had snapped at in the beginning. And they let me.

As the weeks and months passed by, I learned and learned. I learned how to butcher chickens and haul cattle. I learned how to drive a tractor better and back up a truck and trailer like a total boss. I learned how to build fences and chip wood. I learned that I love farming more than almost anything. But the things that will stick with me forever are the things I wasn’t expecting to learn. On a road trip right before Polyface I had asked a woman for advice on moving back to a small town. She told me that it’s easy to love people who are the same as you but it takes true character to love people who are different than you. I learned about that this summer. I lived and worked with people who I probably never would have met or became friends with in normal life and vice versa. But thrown into this intimate environment of farming and I learned that these people had much to offer to my life.

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I loved Joel’s ability to inspire a rock and his beautiful prayers before dinner each night. I loved Missy’s passion and deep love for her family. I loved how Daniel really wanted to teach us how to be great farmers. I loved how Eric and Leanna were two of the genuinely kindest and most wonderful people I have ever met. I loved how completely badass all the lady interns were and loved watching them grow into their badass-ity. I loved that almost everyone congratulated my little brother who has down syndrome on his recent graduation from high school when he visited the farm. I loved how willing everyone was to answer my questions about God and religion and to tell me stories to help me understand their perspectives on life. I loved that everyone let me stumble through trying to become a better person at Polyface and that they loved me back.

In the first few weeks after leaving Polyface, I have realized I learned what I went there to learn. Despite being terrified, sometimes to the point of being frozen, I have started to build my farm. I have trained my cows to single strand electric fence and started rotating them onto fresh pasture and built a brooder for my chicks. I have written a business plan and calculated margins. But I have also realized that maybe I went to Polyface for a reason bigger than farming. Maybe I went to Polyface for love. And I found it.

Reality Check

I have spent the last four years dreaming about becoming a farmer. When I finally quit my job a year and a half ago to pursue that dream, I knew it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail the summer of 2015 and told my plans for the farm to everyone I met. Those people shared my excitement and it grew and grew. When I was accepted for my dream internship at Polyface Farm for the summer of 2016, it felt like the universe was aligning.

I spent long, exhausting days working at Polyface, sometimes working up to 90 hours in one week. And I loved it. Coming from an office job where I spent my days in recycled air in a sea of gray cubicles, it felt like freedom. I could see the fruits (meats?) of my labor and I loved spending my time outdoors all day. The more people I told about my plans for my farm at home, the more inspired I felt about it every day. I couldn’t wait to move home and bring life and community back to the farm.

And then I moved home, and reality set in. Farming is hard enough when you have a team of fifteen people working together and hundreds of thousands of dollars of infrastructure to work with. I moved home with a long to-do list and realized that things were going to be different. First, living and working around family for the first time in ten years is straight up hard. There are moments when everyone is excited about moving the farm forward together and moments when everyone has different ideas and tensions run high. Doing things by yourself is hard and inefficient and projects seems incredibly unattainable at times. When I thought about moving home I always pictured myself having help from family with things. But the reality is, that the majority of the time, I’m by myself because everyone else has their own life going on. Projects on my to-do list kept moving to the next week because I didn’t think I could do them by myself. As deadlines approached, like 220 chicks arriving, and I had nowhere to put them, I began to become a hotbed of anxiety.

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Five inches of rain and flooded fields.

I then realized I was going to have to do things by myself. Every day I go through moments of feeling discouraged and hopeless that I will be able to complete my projects by myself. Building fences, building homes for my animals, calculating margins and writing business plans. Once the tears or anxiety are gone and I feel ready to move forward, I have to give myself a pep talk. One step at a time Katie. Good enough is good enough. It will not be perfect. This first year will be terrible and hard but it will be worth it. And then I pick myself up from wherever I’m sitting and move forward.  I shovel dirt and pound it in around fence posts one at a time, and slowly that whole scary field full of fence posts in holes that my Dad helped me dig becomes fence posts ready for insulators. The wire gates go up one by one and then I focus on insulators. And suddenly this fence is within my reach. Did it come out perfect? Surely not. But is it good enough to serve the purpose of keeping cows in? Yes!

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Happy cows in fresh pasture! 

And when I see the cows kicking up their heels as they run onto the fresh pasture, my day is made. This past month has been a month of adjustments. Adjusting to family. Adjusting to working by myself. Adjusting to moving back to a small town after ten years of being absent. The romantic visions I had of farming here have been moved to the back burner. But there are things, like the older farmer who wants to reduce his herd size and sells me some of his beloved cows for a song, and the countless friends, family, and strangers who have offered to volunteer their time to help me build the farm. The owner of the local hardware store who encourages me every time I go in there for anything, and the support and community of a small town who still remembers you after ten years being gone. This whole family farming thing is going to be much different than I thought. But with a little bit of grit and tenacity and some luck and patience thrown in, anything is possible.

Connection

The other day at Polyface I spent the majority of the day working with the cows.

In the morning I took part in the sorting. We were sorting out eight steers to be processed next week and 16 cow/calf pairs to move to a rental farm.

The sorting corral is made up of three different areas with gates in between and a holding pen. The idea is to separate the easy from the hard. What that means is that instead of trying to get eight steers separated from the herd, we separated the herd from them. I worked the gate and had to let the right cows through but not any of the wrong ones. It sounds simple but when there are 70 cows moving around and multiple ones coming toward you at the same time, it’s a little overwhelming to not know what you’re doing.

In the beginning I was nervous to make mistakes, hesitating, but as we went I had a few moments of getting it right. Moving to face the cow at the exact right moment and getting that reaction I was looking for. Communicating with the animal in that delicate dance is pure magic to me. The only thing I can compare it to is riding a well-trained horse. You’re sending subtle messages from every point of contact with the horse at the same time, and they are responding to all of them. The world around you blurs and all you can feel in that moment is you and the horse and the perfect connection. Those moments are rare and magical and the few I felt with the cows were incredible.

After the cows were sorted, we sent some back to pasture, the eight steers to a second paddock, and then loaded the calves and moms into two trailers. Calves in one, cows in another, so the calves wouldn’t get crushed in transport. Daniel asked me if I had driven a trailer before. I said yes. I didn’t say that I had only done it in a hayfield because I didn’t want someone else to be picked and I knew I could do it. Daniel went ahead of me in the bigger trailer with the cows, and I followed along behind with the calves. I felt the weight of the trailer and the calves and the fact that I was hauling cattle down the road by myself and I was so blissfully happy to be in that moment.

We got to Briarmoor, the rental farm, backed the two trailers into the field and released the moms and babies into the larger herd. They scrambled off the trailer and happily reunited with each other. This moment of joy and adorableness was interrupted when Daniel saw a calf looking decidedly dead a bit up the field. This calf had been having problems for days and it looked like the end had come. When we got to it to drag it onto the trailer, we realized it was still just barely alive. “We’re going to have to shoot it.” This I knew, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the Mom’s angst as we brought the calf to the trailer. She followed us closely, groaning and breathing deeply. After the calf was in the trailer, she bawled and sniffed the line under the fence where the calf had gone. We brought the calf to Gabe’s where it was quickly put out of misery with one quick shot. This brought me relief but I couldn’t shake the inextricable sadness of watching the mom lose her baby.

When we got back to Polyface I went with Jessica, apprentice, to another rental farm to move another herd of cows. I reflected on the immense joy I had experienced sorting and hauling cows, and then the stark difference in the loss of a young life and seeing and feeling the cow’s distress. It’s sad to see death happen in the wrong order but Mother Nature doesn’t always work out the way we want it to. Being a part of those moments gives us a greater appreciation for our life and the lives around us. Back at the farm I thought about that conversation as I observed the chickens clucking around, the baby pigs in a literal pig cuddle pile, the cows grazing contentedly, and the chorus of birds singing from their perches in trees. The sadness I had felt about the calf’s death turned into an immense gratitude at being there for that moment. Where there is life, there must be death, and a chance to be a part of the death can only make me appreciate the life so much more.

 

 

Food Consumer Responsibly

 

Where DOES your food come from?

Two years ago I considered myself an educated food consumer. I was aware of the atrocious practices of factory farms and factory processing facilities. I had read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, watched all the food documentaries, and Joel Salatin was my favorite celebrity. I shopped at Wholefoods and turned my nose down at others for their food choices that included Tyson chicken and conventionally farmed beef.

It took me about five days of farming at Polyface to realize my purchases at Wholefoods meant almost nothing. Those pastured, grass-fed, free range, and cage-free labels have more to do with marketing than the actual welfare of the animal. I have seen a USDA pastured chicken processing facility, where the vast majority of chickens sold in grocery stores are processed, which was frankly horrifying to me. (Yes, the acid baths are real.) I have observed other farms in the area that raise cows on pasture. Their animals are constantly loose and there is plastic and garbage littered about on their farm. Yet the animals are still technically grass fed, pastured, free-range, and any other fancy food label you could imagine. Without visiting or knowing of the exact farm your meat comes from, there is actually no way of knowing how it has been raised.

Heather, a former Polyface apprentice and current Polyface contract farmer, also gives Grass Stains tours to groups at Polyface Farm. This week she gave a tour to a group of conventional agriculture students and they really put her through the ringer with their questions. One woman asked how we market our broiler chickens, claiming they are not actually free range because they are in broiler pens that are moved every day. When Heather answered that we market them as pastured she was then asked how the consumer was supposed to know exactly what we meant by that. Heather said, “They can visit us.” And that is the difference between Polyface and large industrial farms and facilities with closed-door policies. Our doors are wide open. In fact we don’t even have doors! Our chickens are processed outside. Visitors come to the farm and watch it. Sometimes they even join in. Last week a family from Utah came and filmed the entire process and the father joined in on every single step.

One fellow intern, Joe, came from working in an industrial laying house. The company had regular eggs and eggs they marketed as free range. Joe told me the “free range”-laying laying hens had almost a worse life than the conventional ones. The chickens live in a windowless building with no bedding. They live straight in their own feces so if it gets wet enough they can literally have their feet burned. Their beaks are still cut off to prevent them from eating each other.

The point here is that consumers have to have some level of responsibility. The government and large companies are not telling the truth about the food we’re eating and if we want to know that our food is good and healthy we need to start putting a little more effort into it. Find a farm near you to buy food from. Build a relationship with your farmer and your food. It’s a decision you will likely not regret!