Thursday, August 16, 2018

REALISTIC PATHS TO INCREASING LOCAL-ORGANIC OPTIONS

[We wrote this a couple years ago but forgot to post it here to our blog until now]

  Last year we wrote about seven reasons to support local-organic grain farming.  In response to what we wrote there one of our customers asked us why we had said that local-organic grain for human consumption mainly needs to precede local-organic grain production for animal feed and why we wouldn't get very far at all the other way around.  Here, more or less, is our answer to that question, which we hope will be of interest to some of you as well, particularly if you've ever lamented the very substantial compromises to local-organic methods practically always involved with pork and poultry, even from local farmers that grow other things organically.  (Cattle are sometimes an exception because they can be raised entirely on grass, which swine and poultry can't be.  Sheep and goats raised for market practically always fall far short of local-organic practice, even though they can be raised entirely on grass and browse.)  We hope our response will deepen your understanding of the hurdles to a more complete local-organic food system and motivate you to help overcome those hurdles, particularly by buying local-organic grains to eat.  These issues are complex, especially if you're a consumer trying to decide what to eat without the benefit of knowing and trusting any farmer well enough to let your consumer choices follow his lead.  The easy solution is just to content oneself with some "non-GMO" or "pastured" window-dressing on farming which isn't really the least bit local or organic at all (or just to abandon local and organic pretenses altogether), but if you want more than just superficial organic window-dressing on your pork or poultry..., here's our attempt to explain why the grains you eat yourself will have to come first.
  Perhaps the most important reason we don't see any realistic path to local-organic pork or poultry that doesn't begin with local-organic grain for human consumption is that farmers would have to convince customers to care about it and pay for that local-organic feed, and we really can't see consumers caring about (or even understanding the production facts of) the grain they eat indirectly as animal products if they haven't yet even changed the grain they put directly on their own plates.  And the same would be true for the farmer that would grow the grain.  Presumably before any farmer would try to sell the value of local-organic feed grain to his customers, he'd have to be convinced of the value of it himself, but think about the kind of farmer that would grow his own feed grain without herbicides, etc.: what would motivate him to hand hoe those rows of corn instead of using herbicides (not that corn is a complete feed anyway; the high protein component of any complete feed would very likely be even more challenging)?  If he valued local-organic food and farming, would he feed that hard-won, homegrown grain to his animals while he kept on buying his own grain from the supermarket (or other retailer selling grain from the same sources as the supermarket)?  Quite simply, people are going to come first and then farm animals.
  But to explore the details beyond that basic point, consider that even if a local farmer could grow a particular grain efficiently enough to compete with commodity-organic prices, he wouldn't be able to maintain that efficiency on a scale as small as the local-organic market potential, and even if he could grow it price-competitively on a scale appropriate to local markets, there's no single grain crop that can efficiently serve as a complete animal feed, and there would be very substantial added costs to processing grains for feed (normally including extracting oil and using the leftover oil seed meal for animal feed), so the unavoidable reality is that local-organic grain means taking on additional costs that would make it impossible to compete even with commodity-organic feed, let alone the cheapest conventional feed on the market.  And yet, the vast majority of consumers that buy organically grown vegetables at local markets, if they also buy pork or poultry/eggs at those markets, buy from farmers feeding conventional (not even commodity-organic, let alone local-organic) -- if their feed is non-GMO, and it mostly isn't even non-GMO, it's mostly just feed made from 100% conventional ingredients for which genetically modified options just aren't on the market yet -- which goes to show how great the cost pressures are and how little it takes to displace local-organic practices in the marketplace.  If a farmer believes in local-organic agriculture, there are things he can do for himself, things that were commonly done by most farmers until not that long ago, to raise local-organic pork or poultry, but getting customers to understand those things, appreciate the differences, and trust the farmer to do things that don't make sense to agriculturally illiterate consumers (or very minimally literate and easily misled, even by selective facts that are completely true) is the huge hurdle, especially if customers are mainly price (and convenience) shopping based on just an assortment of a few of the buzz words ("pastured," "hormone-free," "non-GMO," etc.) that farmers can offer without growing any of the feed their animals eat (or even so much as having a clue where the feed was grown.)  ("Pasture" can potentially play a significant role in the feed of swine or poultry, but most often its feed value is completely insignificant.)
  And the cost differences between local-organic and conventional grain are compounded by using grain for feed.  If our farm sells grain for human consumption for around $2/lb (or a little more for milled/processed grain products) we might be about double the price of conventional (non-organic) counterparts at the supermarket but fairly competitive with USDA-organic supermarket prices (largely by being able to cut out all the processors and distributors and retailers that commodity farmers have to support.)  But unlike supermarket options, at $2/lb most of our cost is in actually growing the grain.  There would certainly be some savings to not having to keep our grain food grade and being able to use it in bulk for animal feed, but on a small (direct market) scale we'd still have to put our cost of growing grain as animal feed at or above $1/lb (compared to about 50c/lb for commodity organic whole corn we could purchase by the ton), and if you compare that to conventional grain prices (less than 10c/lb), that's over 10 times the price (and, again, that's without considering the likely more challenging high protein part of a complete feed.)  Put simply, local-organic grain products for human consumption can compete much better on price with their counterparts than any animal products raised on local-organic grain can compete with their counterparts.  So there's a whole lot of pressure there to keep feed costs down, and before farmers (and consumers) bear those greater costs for the sake of what they're only going to indirectly eat (animal feed), we can't imagine they wouldn't first pay the smaller costs for what they would eat directly (as food).
  But one excellent way to minimize the costs of animal feed would be to utilize the byproducts of growing (and milling) local-organic grain for (human) food.  There are lots of ways this can come up.  When we run our wheat through our seed cleaner to get out weed seeds like rye grass and small bits of chaff, etc., probably 5% or more of our wheat (smaller and broken kernels) gets sifted out along with the rye grass and chaff.  With our corn significantly more grain gets culled as animal feed.  We definitely err on the side of culling hard, but even in a good year we're probably culling close to 25% as animal feed.  In 2014, when crows pecked into the ends of the ears letting rain into the shuck we wound up with a whole planting that just went to animal feed.  There are also opportunities to fence animals in to self-harvest crops that have lodged or otherwise failed.  Mostly piggybacking the grain needs of pork or poultry onto grain crops grown primarily for direct human consumption can go a long way to making local-organic pork and poultry relatively economical.
  But we don't mean to over-emphasize the need for feed grain in a local-organic context, especially not grain grown intentionally for animal feed, because small diversified farms can utilize a lot of other different surpluses, byproducts , forages, etc. in feeding poultry and swine and really minimize the need for grain, even completely do without at times, but we think grain will inevitably be the feed that fills in the gaps between all those other feeds and forages.  But those other feeds and forages are going to quickly become impractical and uneconomical as farms scale up and specialize.  For example, it's one thing to feed lettuce to the geese that's wilted or is starting to bolt, but it's entirely uneconomical to coordinate with and drive to a produce farm to get lettuce to feed to geese.  Similarly, it's a whole lot easier to feed one's own cull watermelons or pumpkins to the hogs than it is to get a farmer to get another farmer to coordinate any collection (especially anytime besides just the week after Halloween, and such pumpkins wouldn't come from organic farms anyways) and get them to the farm where the hogs are.  In other words, the less specialized a farmer is, the more alternative options (besides grain) he's likely to find practical for feeding swine or poultry. 
  But these ways of making local-organic animal products (like pork and poultry) more economical aren't going to happen when customers shop superficially item by item and farmers position themselves to serve that kind of market.  Buying USDA organic flour that was grown in and around Kansas and pork that was raised locally on corn grown in Ohio and soybean meal from an oil processing plant in Indiana from soybeans grown in five different states (none of which is North Carolina) and buying pumpkins from one non-organic North Carolina farm and apples from another non-organic farm and buying sweet potatoes from one local-organic farm and USDA-organic tomatoes in December from Mexico... leaves none of those farms with an assortment of surpluses to economically feed a good, mixed diet to some pigs, nor does it leave those surpluses with the kind of farmers that would be interested in small sideline production anyways, and so the only options for pork (or chicken) that customers find anywhere on the market are options raised on commodity corn-soy (or similar) type mixes, certainly nothing like a diet of apples and acorns and pumpkins and heirloom corn and cheesemaking whey, etc.  That's not because those options couldn't be economical, only that they can't be economical unless farms are more diversified.  But the only realistic way for farms to really diversify is if they can find a way to sell a wide assortment of products (tree fruits, garden crops, grains, dry beans, lumber, nuts, dairy, etc.), without having to compete superficially (mostly just on price) item by item, which is a sure way to force farms to specialize in order to survive.  So that's the answer we see to local-organic pork and poultry (and eggs), and we see local-organic grains for human consumption as an essential and hugely important piece of that puzzle.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Wheat harvest



We were glad for a good wheat harvest this year.  We grow an heirloom soft wheat called Red May and a modern hard wheat called NuEast.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Homegrown oatmeal

We're excited to be eating our own oatmeal these days.  The first step in getting a bowl of oats is to run the oats through a roller.
The oats are a hull less oat which means they thresh free of the hull like wheat but unlike most oats.  There are still some hulls though.  To get rid of them we add water.  The hulls float and the oats sink.  We skim the hulls off then start cooking.

These really are the best oats we've eaten.  It may have a little to do with how much work we put into getting them to the table, but it is probably also that they are fresh rolled.  They are sweet enough they really don't need honey.


Monday, January 22, 2018

Popcorn cornbread

Have you ever had popcorn cornbread? We made our first batch the other day and really enjoyed it. We had a bunch of old popcorn from years ago that wasn't popping good anymore. So we simply ground the corn kernels (not popped) though our mill. We sifted out the coarser pieces for popcorn grits and made cornbread with the meal.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Our soap box

One winter project is to make soap.  The batch here is Cream and Honey Soap.  We use tallow we render, often from our own beef cattle, cream and milk from our Jersey cows and honey from our bees.  Now that's some homegrown cleaning power!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Chayotes





  We're excited to be growing a new crop on the farm: chayotes.  This vegetable of Mexican origin can be eaten raw or cooked.  It is very similar in use to yellow summer squash, though it should be steamed to soften before adding to stir-fries.  Chayotes grow on aggressive vines, so a strong trellis is needed.  We had one growing along a grape trellis and another we had grow up an apricot tree.  Chayotes are one of just a few perennial vegetables, meaning it will come back next year if the roots are well mulched through winter.