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A few weeks ago, we talked about the reasons we don’t have Organic certification. The number one reason was that we sell directly to customers that we look in the eye and encourage them to come to the farm, inspect us, and “certify” us themselves. We believe that all farms should operate this way, being certified by dozens, hundreds, or maybe even a couple thousand customers every single year.

But then we got to thinking: how would a customer know what to inspect? How would a customer know whether or not we’re applying practices that heal the land, allow animals to express their nature, and restore the connection between food producers and consumers? We’re here to help! Here are 7 inspections you can conduct to make sure the farm you buy from is on the up and up.

1. Does the farm allow drop-in inspections?

If a farm has a no-visits policy, or one that makes it extremely difficult to visit, then that’s a huge red flag. You must, MUST(!), have easy access to visit your farm.

Visiting the farm should not turn into The Hunger Games.

Visiting the farm should not turn into The Hunger Games.

While it isn’t possible for most small-holder farms to have a 24/7 visitation policy, there should be regular visiting hours where the public can come in and check things out. You should be free to roam about the farm, even alone, and check out the animals, the planting fields, greenhouses, beehives, and anything else that’s around. It’s a good sign if the farm encourages you not just to visit, but to participate: we always need help moving animals, turning compost, weeding, planting, butchering, etc. A farm that lets you spend time with your hands in their production has nothing to hide.

Be very wary of farms that make excuses as to why visits are impossible. Some might cite theft. Theft of live animals is just silly; no one’s sneaking back to their car with a live pig or hen, and no one drives all the way to a farm just to steal a tomato. If a farm cites “bio-security” as the reason you can’t see the animals, then find yourself another farm. This is a near-sure giveaway that the farm is practicing confinement husbandry and is just one missed round of medication away from losing a few thousand animals. If the farm’s attitude is “we don’t have time for visitors,” then the farm needs to find another attitude or find some other customers, like U.S. Foods or ConAgra.

Inspecton Item #1: Does the farm have regular visiting hours with unrestricted access to the operations? Bonus points: Can I help out on the farm? Does the farm sincerely make time for me?

2. Does the farm practice bio-mimicry?

Ecological farming is rooted in managing animals and plants in a way that replicates the roles of their wild counterparts in nature. This practice is known colloquially as bio-mimicry. So how do you know if your farm practices it?

First, don’t necessarily dock the farm if they don’t know what “bio-mimicry” is; lots of farmers are doing it without realizing there’s a term for it. What you’ll want to look for is evidence of things like  rotational grazing, polyculture, composting, and cover cropping:

Rotational Grazing:

Rotational grazing is the practice of confining animals to a small space in the pasture for a short amount of time, then moving them on to new pasture, usually every day. This system mimics the behavior of wild herbivores who pack tightly to defend against predators, and move to new pastures after their dung, urine, and trampling have rendered the grass unusable. Pastures are then left to rest for long periods of time, their health ultimately enhanced by the animal impact. Unlike the term bio-mimicry, your farmer should know what rotational grazing is (though they may refer to it as “mob grazing”). Evidence of rotational grazing in cattle, dairy, sheep, and pig herds would be relatively large numbers of animals in a small paddock, sectioned off from the rest of the pasture by just one or two strands of electric wire. The grass on one side of the paddock should be clearly trampled and bitten, while grass on the other side should be lush and fairly tall. For poultry, you’ll want to look for pens that are easily moved, or a more fixed pen with movable runs made out of electric poultry netting.

This is what you're looking for. Note lightweight fencing, and height difference in grass.

This is what you’re looking for. Note lightweight fencing, and height difference in grass.

Polyculture:

Conventional farms typically produce just one thing: commodity crops (e.g. corn, soybeans, wheat), beef, dairy, pork, or poultry. An ecological farm, on the other hand, will out of necessity run multiple lines of production. At Sylvanaqua Farms our production is centered on pastured poultry, but we have a number of operations that support it. Pigs mow the grass ahead of the poultry pens, hens clean up behind the pigs, both hens and pigs spend time in hoophouses (during winter and nursing, respectively) to help fertilize greenhouse beds, and honeybees pollinate our crops and pastures. Each enterprise is necessary: Without the pastured poultry, we’d have to apply synthetic nitrogen to pastures. Without the pigs, we’d have to mow the grass ourselves with fossil fuels and our forests would be unproductive. Without the hens, the pastures would take too long to recover. Without the crops, the honeybees would have to range far from our farm. And without the honeybees, our crop pollination rates would be too low to offer surplus produce to the public.

You’ll also want to take a close look at the farm’s planting fields and greenhouses. You should notice lots of different things growing; if the farm is just a tomato plantation for example, that’s a red flag. Multiple crops are necessary to keep soil nutrients in balance, control pests and diseases, and maximize production per acre without resorting to GMO.

Yes.

Yes.

Composting:

Compost is the lifeblood of an ecological farm. It’s the primary amendment applied to keep crop and pasture soil healthy, allowing us to say “no” to synthetic NPK fertilizers. Ask your farmer about their composting operation, and ask to see it. They should be happy to oblige; eco-farmers are nuts about their compost and love to show it off. When inspecting compost, look for it to be deep, warm in the interior, and emitting only the faintest smell (and that only if animal products are added to it). Also, there should be lots of it (or, if it’s been used recently for top dressing, there should be ROOM for lots of it). A farm can never, ever have too much compost.

Cover Cropping:

Bare soil should be hard to find on a farm. If a field doesn’t have grass or a crop on it, then it should almost certainly be planted in an annual cover crop of some sort to maintain the soil structure, prevent capping and erosion, and draw nutrients to the surface. Popular cover crops include ryegrass, alfalfa, barley, buckwheat, and clover, among many others. Some farmers will even use edible covers like kale and mustard, which are more effective than annuals as green manures tilled back into the soil to amend it ahead of a production crop. Ask your farmer which fields are fallow, what they use to cover them during rest periods, and then go check those fields out for yourself.

Inspection Item #2: Look for evidence of rotational grazing, polyculture, composting, and cover crops!

3. What is the policy on shipping?

If your farm ships food to the furthest reaches of the country, it’s not an ecological farm. The whole point of ecological farming is to reduce (or invert) the environmental footprint of agriculture. Packing products onto an airplane or train to send it across the country – usually so they can be eaten in a place where they’re out of season – is anathema to our way of doing things. A farm that sells to national food hubs or distributors is on thin ice as well. Once products are sold to these entities, they enter a river of indistinguishable commodities that could wash up anywhere in the world.

Farms dedicated to the local model generally do not ship at all (unless they deliver themselves), instead executing their sales on-farm, via farmers’ market or CSA, through buyers’ clubs, in restaurants, or from local food hubs (e.g. Relay Foods).

Inspection Item #3: Beware the farm that ships via USPS, FedEx, or anything that isn’t the farm’s own delivery truck.

4. Does the farm practice seasonality?

Eating food out of season is one of the big ways that we, as food consumers, have distanced ourselves from the land. And the effects are harmful: the market for eating all kinds of food all year long are causing foods to be shipped longer distances, incentivizing farmers to consume disproportionate natural resources to grow out of season, and encouraging genetic modification, among other ills.

Your farm’s production should be in line with the seasons, which of course vary from region to region. In Virginia this means the following:

  • Nearly all animals should bear their offspring in the Spring
  • Leafy and green veggies are available in Spring (e.g. kale, spinach, asparagus, mustard, lettuce, cabbage, etc). Sweet, small immature and semi-mature soft fruits and “veggie fruits” (e.g. tomatoes, eggplant, beans, sweet corn, summer squash, peaches, etc.) are available in summer. Large, mature, hard fruits and veggies (e.g. pumpkins & winter squash, flint corn, apples, etc.) are available in Fall. And for winter, many of the early season Spring crops become available again.
  • Poultry production should run from about mid-March to mid-October.
  • Egg production should taper off, and even nearly cease, in Winter.
  • Large animal slaughter (beef, bison, pork, etc.) should occur in the fall, usually October – November

This, of course, is only a sampling. A simpler general guideline is to be wary of any farm (again, thinking about the mid-Atlantic) doing hardcore production in the winter. A yuletide visit to a farm should reveal a fairly dormant operation; animals being held in sheds and hoophouses for overwintering, egg-laying poultry being overwintered without artificial lighting to stimulate egg production, and the planting fields should more than likely be blanketed by frost-resistant cover crops.

Inspection Item #4: Production should come to a near-halt in Winter. Learn the seasonality of popular fruits and veggies, and watch carefully for farms that produce items well out of season.

5. What is the farm’s relationship with grain?

The use of grain is a touchy subject within environmental and agricultural circles. Most grain doesn’t go to human consumption; rather, it is turned into bio-fuels and animal feed. A very valid criticism of livestock management is the dependence on grain and the effects it has on everything from human health to the “corn system” underwritten by taxpayers and a deteriorating environment. Let’s address the facts of the issue.

First, feeding grain to animals is not a recent development, nor is it inherently unhealthy. The recent development is the AMOUNT of grain being fed to animals. There was a time in America when the average farmer produced a multitude of crops in line with market demands, and among those crops were grains like corn. In the event of a bumper crop that exceeded market demand, excess grain could be fed to livestock. This was a perfect arrangement: the timing of the grain harvest dovetails nicely with the timing of livestock finishing, and surplus grain that couldn’t be sold for human consumption could be diverted to a luxury item – corn fed beef – that sold for a premium.

Or enjoy Sylvanaqua's "Aztec Label" beef, which grazes in fields of chocolate. $10,000/lb.

Or enjoy Sylvanaqua’s “Aztec Label” beef, which grazes in fields of chocolate. $10,000/lb.

Then came the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Farm Bill. With these well-intentioned programs came commodity subsidies, and the side effect that farmers were encouraged to ignore consumer markets. From this well springs our now-perennial grain surplus, which is so enormous that only 20% of the corn harvest goes directly to human consumption, with fuels and feed evenly splitting the remaining 80%. Whereas grain was once far too expensive to be economical as a primary animal feed, it has now become so cheap that grass-fed animals are now the luxury item.

So what’s a consumer to do? First, don’t hold it against your farm if they use grain. Instead focus on how they use grain and whether or not they’re making efforts to return it to its natural role as a supplement:

  • Determine if their feed grain comes from a sustainable source; if it’s not organic, it should at least be local and non-GMO. Give the farm extra points if they raise their own small plots of corn and soybeans to direct to animal feed. The idea here is to make sure that the corn being used to feed the animals isn’t harming the environment.
  • Ask about the farm’s foraging program. The farm should a.) be doing everything it can to promote the development of perennial/self-perpetuating forages, and b.) ensuring animals maximize utilization of forages to reduce dependence on grain.
  • Ask the farmer if they have hard targets for reducing grain consumption. Sylvanaqua’s poultry operation, for example, has an 80/20 ratio of feed to forage. We’re aiming to reduce this ratio to 50/50 or better within the next five years by a.) introducing and improving heritage breeds that are more aggressive foragers and more protein dependent, b.) raising sources of protein ourselves – particularly compost worms, mealworms, and black soldier flies – that compliment our other enterprises, and c.) growing our own grain from local-hardy heirloom sources that are more nutrient-dense.

Inspection Item #4: Determine what efforts the farm is making to return grain to its role as a supplement rather than a primary feed, and determine how serious the farm is about those efforts.

A little over a week ago, our first set of 80 Red Labels (our term for our Cornish Cross meat birds) went to pasture after three weeks in the brooder. This set of birds is a test set, designed to help us smooth out the learning curve as we move to full production next year. We did well in the brooder, losing only 3 of 83 completely unmedicated chicks of a breed notorious for keeling over and dying by the bucket-full. I figure it’ll be good karma to share some of the lessons we learned along the way for successfully getting chicks through the brooder phase.

1. They show up, unceremoniously, in the mail

If you’re considering buying birds from a hatchery, you’re probably aware that they come through the mail. But I’d calibrated my expectations quite differently than the reality. For whatever reason, I’d expected the birds to be transported by a special livestock carrier that would drive gently, have a heated truck, maybe put them in boxes that isolate them from one another, give them access to a little feed in case their yolk sacs ran out, and deliver them right to our brooder.

Basically this. I was expecting this.

Basically this. I was expecting this.

Obviously that’s not what happened. They day before the chicks were to arrive, I found out from a family friend that they’re shipped via USPS, and you have to pick them up right from the post office. It’s a good thing I learned this, as I otherwise would have been sitting around the house waiting in vain for a mail truck while by birds slowly starved to death in a box.

And speaking of boxes, that’s exactly what they arrive in. Our chicks were shipped, from Iowa, in perforated cardboard boxes divided into cells that held four chicks each. Our Rhode Island Red chicks were shipped 12 to a cell, and I’m convinced that’s the reason nearly 10% of them died in the first 24 hours. In any case, they aren’t shipped with “just in case” feed, and they’re certainly not treated to heated trucks or a particularly gentle driver.

Ordering birds via hatchery is a certifiable crap shoot that could be made much more humane with the presence of more local hatcheries serving commercial outfits… but they don’t exist here in Virginia anymore. The hatcheries that remain here specialize almost exclusively in small batches of rare or heritage egg-laying birds designed for homesteaders and hobbyists.

2. They need more room than you’ll think, and so do you

If you look around for advice on brooder space, most people claim that you don’t need very much. Even Joel Salatin’s books on pastured poultry suggested that you need less than 1/4 sqft per chick, and it was precisely this measurement I used to design our first brooder house, which measured in at 50 sqft in order to brood 200 birds.

Absolutely not.

We put in just 83 birds, and by the end of the first week we were scrambling to keep up with their manure levels. Our chicks were saved only by the 12 inches of bedding we put in the brooder, which we resorted to turning each and every day until that became impossible (the litter was too soiled). The carbon-nitrogen ratio went haywire – we couldn’t smell ammonia, but we could smell the birds just outside the brooder – so we started adding new bedding every day. Doing this let us keep pace with the manure for most of the next two weeks, but by the time we were putting the guys to pasture we were losing the battle.

Chicks aren't exactly wrong about having this attitude toward their brooder.

Chicks aren’t exactly wrong about having this attitude toward their brooder.

The last of the broilers went to pasture the same day our hen chicks arrived. By this point the bedding was close to 18 inches deep, so we had to remove some of it. Near the bottom, the smell of ammonia was clear; there simply wasn’t enough carbon to absorb all the waste. Thankfully the bedding had been deep enough to keep it from affecting the chicks.

The final problem with this mid-sized brooder was the toll it took on my back. The brooder wasn’t small enough to just sit over and work with, nor was it big enough for me to walk into. This means servicing the brooder (watering, turning bedding, adding bedding, moving chicks out, filling feeders, adjusting lamps) required constant bending. In three short weeks it took a noticeable toll on my back, especially toward the end of the meat birds’ time in the brooder when I had to go out there twice a day for 15 – 30 minutes.

Needless to say, our new brooder (now under construction) is a.) much larger, with a 2sqft per bird average footprint, and b.) is tall enough for me to walk around in. The original brooder will go to my mother in law to raise a handful of rare breed laying hens. If you’re a commercial outfit, go ahead and create a larger brooder. It’ll save your back, and it’ll probably save your birds.

3. You don’t need vaccinations, hormones, or weird growth formulas

If you’ve never bought chickens before, prepare to be bombarded with offers of extra purchases at the end of the process. Most hatcheries will “STRONGLY RECOMMEND” vaccinations for Marek’s disease and Coccidiosis, as well as growth packs, gels, and other weird supplements. I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting this at all, and the vaccinations part especially scared the socks off me. Marek’s disease and Cocci can absolutely ravage flocks, and chicken-rearing forums are full of horror stories about sick birds turning into zombies and infecting everyone else.

Don't look at its eyes!

Don’t look at its eyes!

Even scarier, birds vaccinated for Marek’s and Cocci can still be labeled organic, giving the impression that your birds are all but guaranteed to die without being treated.

I had to swallow hard, remember that I’d committed to 100% drug-free birds, and skip the vaccinations. And so far, I’m very glad I did. No diseases have yet ravaged our meat or egg flocks, and it really does seem that proper nutrition plus ample sunshine, ventilation, and decomposition are doing their part to keep pathogens under control.

With that said, I will recommend purchasing a vitamin pack. They cost next to nothing and will ensure your birds don’t wind up with nutritional deficiencies that could facilitate a disease outbreak.

4. They don’t need chick starter

“Chicken people” love going on and on about specialized feed for each stage of a chicken’s life. The argument boils down to just how much protein a bird needs when it’s starting out in life. I’ve heard people argue for percentages as high as 28% and as low as 18%. Hobbyists and homesteaders are particularly prone to overmanaging their flocks. With just a few birds to take care of, it’s easy for them to succumb to tweaking the fat and protein content every single week and otherwise obsessing over minor details of the feed ration.

Both of these animals would happily eat their own or each others poop.

Both of these animals would happily eat their own or each others poop.

 

For us, it turned out that the physical demands of a commercial flock prohibit overmanagement. With just 80+ broilers, we had our hands full staying ahead of manure, keeping the birds fed and watered, and staving off stress and death during a punishing September heat wave. Next year at our full production capacity (400 – 500 birds of varying ages and breeds), obsessing over 1 or 2% of protein in the ration would drive us insane. This is why our broilers are on an 18% protein ration from hatch to slaughter. The layers, too, spend their first 16 weeks on the broiler ration before they’re switched to a mix of laying mash and oyster shell, which they eat until the day they become stewers.

Believe it or not, it works. Our Cornish X’s are gaining beautifully and the Rhode Island Reds are growing like weeds on the broiler ration. So when you get your own flock, remember not to overcomplicate things. If you’re raising a hobby flock and looking for a way to enhance their performance, then start a worm and bug farm in a compost pile, and try seeing how much of your bagged feed you can replace with non-grain forage. This will net you much greater results and enjoyment than selecting a new feed bag.

5. They die

Invariably, no matter what you do, some of your chicks just aren’t going to make it. This is especially true if you’re dealing with larger numbers of birds. Some will sprout from the hatchery that would have never hatched in nature, so they’re doomed to begin with. Others will succumb to transport stress, or mishandling at the hatchery or post office, or some other neglect that causes peeps to die on the first day. You can reduce these risks by buying from the closest hatchery possible and camping out at the Post Office to make sure the birds don’t wind up sitting out on a loading dock.

Delivered by Ace Ventura.

Delivered by Ace Ventura.

During the first few days, some peeps will just up and die. They weren’t diseased, they weren’t mismanaged… they just didn’t make it. This is nature’s way of culling the flock. Your temptation will be to freak out and send the dead peep to a lab for a bunch of expensive testing; don’t. Your desire will be to pump your next birds full of drugs and vaccines; don’t. Accept the fact that when you don’t turn your birds into drug addicts, a few just don’t make it. That’s why we call ourselves natural farmers; sad as it may be, culling is a very necessary component of nature.

The birds’ first few days are volatile and unpredictable. Our meat birds arrived in great shape and we only lost two in the first week, losing just one more in week three. None were lost to transport stress. Our hens, on the other hand, arrived in terrible shape. Out of the 145+ total, four were DOA and another four were gone by the end of the day. When it was all said and done, we lost 14 birds to transport stress within the first 72 hours, and another 2 to unexplained sudden death the next day.

Our birds’ strength and durability took a quantum leap after the first week. This was true of both our meat and egg birds. They became much more hardy to temperature fluctuations and minor errors in husbandry. Were it not for the manure/carbon issue stemming from the brooder being too small, the birds would have been able to take care of themselves with hardly any input from us besides feed and water.

*          *          *

Despite a few deaths, a sore back, and some near misses, it’s been a lot of fun learning to rear chickens. Our advice: get them from somewhere close, skip the medications, err on the side of a bigger brooder, and be prepared for a few not to make it.

Like many books and articles before us, we’ve stated that the environmental and health effects of conventional agriculture have hidden costs. We argue that these hidden costs ultimately make supermarket fare just as expensive, if not more so, than naturally-grown food. But like those other books and articles, we’ve failed to get specific… so now we’ve remedied that with actual facts and figures!

Below are three ways that cheap food is snatching OVER $25 A WEEK(!) out of your wallet without you even knowing it.

1. The Farm Bill

This year’s Farm Bill was a very touchy subject, as congress took an unprecedented step in sectioning off the nutrition part of the legislation from the farm-assistance part of the legislation. I don’t say this to draw lines in the sand*, rather I say it to say this: because of the politics involved, it’s very difficult to get the bottom of exactly what the devil the farm bill is. Here’s the basics:

  • It costs about $19.5 billion per year (with the nutrition programs removed)
  • It consists of many parts, but the key parts directing your tax dollars to keep your “cheap” foods cheap are the Commodities Program and the Crop Insurance Program. Together, these programs  eat up about $13 billion per year of the total $19.5 billion annual Farm Bill budget .

The Commodities and Crop Insurance programs are a big part of the reason that corn is in virtually every food item in the supermarket. If a drought destroys the corn crop, the crop insurance program subsidizes farmers to recover their losses. If there’s a bumper crop of corn, the commodities program makes sure the farmer is paid above the catastrophically low market price regardless of the massive oversupply. This creates a win-win situation for producing corn (if you don’t mind becoming a slave to the Farm Bill)) that’s completely divorced from free-market economics.

Remind you of anyone?

Remind you of anyone?

Corn, and the products derived from corn (this includes your $1/lb chicken and $3/lb beef, by the way), are omnipresent because corn is cheap. Corn is cheap, but only because $13 billion per year in taxpayer dollars are keeping it that way. Now, let’s do some math to see how much this is costing you, individually.

According to the U.S. Census, there are about 197,138,017 people of what I would call “working, tax paying age” between 18 – 65. Dividing that $13 billion tax bill by 197+ million people?

The Total Yearly Hidden Cost of Your Cheap Food: $66

*Hint: Natural farmers think the Farm Bill solves America’s farming problems like rooting for the New York Jets cures cancer.

2. Utility Increases, Fees, and Taxes

Here we’re specifically talking about water. You may not have even noticed, but it’s likely that your water bills have doubled or even tripled in the past decade or so, racing well ahead of inflation. According to a USA Today analysis, 29 of 100 surveyed localities saw their water bills AT LEAST double in that time period. The article cites five factors contributing to the increases, two of which are related to environmental issues involving conventional agriculture:

  • Increases in the costs of treating water
  • Compliance with Federal clean water mandates

To review, conventional agriculture throws an enormous amount of pollution into watersheds. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, agriculture is the single largest source of nutrient and sediment pollution entering the Bay.

Oh yeah, and you with the OCD-perfect lawn.

Oh yeah, and you with the OCD-perfect lawn.

So how might this be affecting you? Let’s take a city like Atlanta, where prices have tripled to $600/year. $400 of that annual total is attributable to the rise in your bill. 2 of the 5 factors driving up water costs are related to agro-environmental issues, so let’s be conservative and say that just one-fifth of the increases are related to them. That puts us at $80/year for utility increases. But we’re not done.

Many states, including Maryland and Virginia, are imposing stormwater fees. These fees – often called “rain taxes” by opponents – are for environmental cleanup in the Chesapeake Bay (particularly in Maryland); cleanup that’s necessary principally because of stormwater runoff from conventional agriculture: nitrogen runoff from poultry confinement houses, runoff from chemical fertilizers, runoff from manure lagoons in feedlots, etc.

Guess where the poop goes. Oh God, please guess.

Guess where the poop goes. Oh God, please guess.

In Maryland and Virginia, these fees will run between $70 – $100 a year. And Maryland residents can tack on another $60 per year for the so-called “flush tax” that, in part, goes toward planting fields in cover crops to improve the health of the Bay… which needs cleaning up because of conventional agriculture. So let’s take the lower end of the stormwater fee ($70) and add that to just a third of the flush tax ($20), since the flush tax also pays for sewer systems.

So your utility taxes/increases related to your cheap food: $80 + $70 + $20 = $170. Adding this to your $66 contribution to the Farm Bill…

The Total Yearly Hidden Cost of Your Cheap Food: $236

Now brace yourself, because this is where it gets real.

3. Treatment and Management of Chronic Health Conditions

There’s no disputing that chronic health conditions are on a terrifying rise, far outpacing the increase in population. The CDC says that 75% of healthcare dollars are spent treating chronic illnesses. Many, if not most, of these instances of disease are triggered either directly or indirectly by diet, and the “cheap” corn churned out by conventional agriculture is the key ingredient in that diet.

Science is just beginning to grasp the extent to which the river of corn from conventional agriculture is affecting our health. Sugars (which are what corn and corn-derived products morph into once digested) are now linked to heart failure, obesity, liver toxicity, cancer production, and a host of other terrifying health risks. This makes sense, considering that the nation’s various misguided dietary wars on saturated fat, red meat, and calories have done nothing to blunt the rise of obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease, or any other chronic illness.

Run.

Run.

The bottom line is, if you’re eating cheap food, you’re almost certainly eating corn. If you’re eating corn, then you have conventional agriculture to thank. And you can thank them both for the ballooning costs of both health insurance and programs like Medicare and Medicaid; all costs that hit you right in the wallet. It’s admittedly difficult to arrive at a dollar figure here to determine exactly how much cheap food is costing you, individually, in health costs, but let’s try anyway:

The average annual cost of family health insurance premiums edged past $16,000 a year in 2013. So let’s be conservative and a.) keep that amount rounded down to $16K, and b.) divide it by four to approximate an individual’s cost at $4K/year. Now let’s use the CDC claim that 75% of healthcare dollars are directed toward chronic illness; this lets us derive that $3K of your annual insurance premium (75% of $4K) is being directed toward the treatment of someone’s chronic illness (remember, your premiums don’t just pay for you). Then to figure out how much of that $3K to allocate to illness related to America’s sacred corn, we’ll use the 35.7% of adults regarded as obese. 35.7% of $3K brings us to $1,071 per year. Note that this is lower than the CDC claim that the medical costs for the obese are $1,429/year higher than those of normal weight.

You got served.

You got served.

Using this most conservative of estimates, then, your “cheap” food is being subsidized by $1,071 per year in health insurance costs being directed toward treatment of chronic illness CAUSED SPECIFICALLY BY THAT CHEAP FOOD. And yes, this is a conservative estimate: it’s doesn’t include your contributions to Medicare or Medicaid, or health costs from food borne illnesses stemming from feedlot practices, or the to-be-determined health effects of GMO, or people dying/nearly-dying in conventional poultry slaughterhouses.

So to sum up, adding to the $236 you’re paying for the Farm Bill, utilities, and environmental cleanup:

The Total Yearly Hidden Cost of Your Cheap Food: $1,307

Hence does your weekly trip to the grocery store cost about $25 more than you thought it did. Given that our estimates are conservative, especially in light of our exclusion of Mediare/Medicaid contributions, it’s probably even higher. That’s good a reason as any to convince yourself and your friends to get out of the supermarket, and help change the way America feeds itself.

“Are you organic” is probably the most common question we get about our farm. The term “organic” has become quite loaded, instantly associated with sustainable crops, hand-picked produce, humanely-treated animals, and all that agriculture is supposed to be. Our farm easily meets the criteria for organic certification, so why don’t we just get it already?

1. It’s expensive.

Here’s something to help you sleep at night: the federal government subsidizes (with your tax dollars) farms that destroy soil, apply pesticides, genetically modify crops, brutalize animals, and poison your body. But they require organic farmers to pay in order to market their products as USDA Organic. So one big reason that Sylvanaqua and other natural farms don’t certify organic: Spite.

We've found a better use for the money.  (Photo courtesy of theoatmeal.com)

We’ve found a better use for the money. (Photo courtesy of theoatmeal.com)

Organic certification isn’t actually carried out by the USDA. It’s performed by an army of “certified certifiers” recruited by the government. These companies charge, on the low end, $700 per year to certify small farms and yes, you have to re-certify every single year. The initial certification will take somewhere in the neighborhood of three or four months, with inspectors visiting, calling incessantly, and generally turning your life into a giant pain in the butt. All this so you can market your sustainable, healthy products in the most ironic way possible.

Your healthy sustainable food: certified by the same body that's literally paying people to develop corn that causes cancer in absolutely everything.

Your healthy sustainable food: certified by the same body that’s literally paying people to develop corn that causes cancer in absolutely everything.

We easily meet standards for 100% Organic or Organic certification (more on this distinction shortly). We understand that $700/year isn’t all the money in the world. It’s less than $60 a month. We could easily afford it. But like we said before… spite.

2. It’s confusing.

Organic labeling isn’t straightforward at all. USDA certified food can be labeled  as “100% Organic”, “Organic”, “Made with Organic Ingredients”, and “Ingredient Panel Only.” This is what happens when people outsource responsibility for their well-being to the Federal government.

The designations reflect the amount of organic ingredients present in the food:

  • If it’s made with 100% organic ingredients, it gets the 100% designation and can use the USDA Certified label.
  • If it’s made with 95 – 99% organic ingredients, it gets the regular Organic designation and can use the USDA Certified logo.
  • If it’s made with 70 – 94% organic ingredients, it get the “Made with Organic Ingredients” designation and may not use the USDA Certified logo.
  • If it’s made with 1 – 69% organic ingredients, “organic” can only be used on the ingredients label.

How they determine the percentage of ingredients? I have no idea. Maybe it’s weight. Maybe it’s volume. Maybe it’s the ratio of midi-chlorians to corn. I have no idea; the point is, it’s misleading. People don’t think of “organic” as just a list of ingredients; they think of it as the wholesome product of a small family farm stewarded by a smiling guy with a straw hat who feeds the chickens ice water when it gets too hot outside (like we do). The result: someone buys a 100% organic chicken thinking that 100% covers humane treatment and an animal that spent its 8 weeks in pasture and sunlight. But in reality…

3. Factory farms are taking advantage of it.

The big factory farms are well aware of the buying public’s blind trust in the organic label. And make no mistake, they are taking that trust by the neck and wringing every bit of profit they can out of it, spirit-of-the-label be damned.

This image is as appropriate as it is inappropriate.

This image is as appropriate as it is inappropriate.

The realm of organic meat and eggs is where the big producers are selling their omitted-truths most aggressively, using terms like “free-range”, “cage-free”, and “pasture raised” in ways that are outrageously disingenuous. “Free-range” means that birds “have access” to the outdoors, though they are managed in a way that ensures they never go outside. “Cage-free” means the birds aren’t in cages, but doesn’t mean they aren’t still packed eyeball-to-eyeball in a confinement house. Neither designation spares animals from debeaking and other depredations on their bodies and instincts. And “pasture-raised” means that, at some point, the animal was on pasture. Whether or not it was finished in a feedlot or confinement house… good luck finding out.

This is a cage-free operation in Virginia. Seriously.

This is a cage-free operation in Virginia. Seriously.

Let’s also not forget that the leadership ranks of the USDA – the people developing and enforcing these regulations – are peppered with former executives from big-agriculture firms like Monsanto, Cargill, and ConAgra. This is the reason it’s possible for large companies to tweak their industrial operations ever so slightly to meet organic requirements (e.g. installing a small door on a confinement house to provide “outdoor access” for free-range hens), and make up for the small expense with the larger margins drawn by organic food. It’s also the reason that convenient little exceptions exist for the benefit of the big boys – like the exception for Marek’s and Coccidiosis vaccinations in chickens.

In sum, another big reason Sylvanaqua doesn’t do the organic label is that it’s been polluted and co-opted by people who profit from everything that is wrong with agriculture.

4. It’s a (crappy) substitute for knowing your farmer

The expense, the confusion, and the misappropriation of the organic label are all very good reasons we don’t use it, but there’s one reason that stands head and shoulders above all these: We don’t need it.

At its core, the USDA Certified Organic label is nothing more than a poor substitute for trust. We’ve become wary of GMO, factory farms, pesticides, and soil mining, so we’ve entrusted the government to create a covenant between Us the Consumer and Agriculture the Producer that protects us from these things. That’s right! We’re trusting the same government that’s led by former executives of and attorneys for the very companies we’re seeking protection from…

sitting_bull_trust_government_wrapped_canvas-rc4c61a5e0e354cdbaf64de47653a55f8_wt8_8byvr_512At Sylvanaqua, we don’t hide behind government certifications. We establish trust by:

  • Selling food only to people we’ve looked in the eye
  • Offering incentives to folks who come and buy their food right on the farm
  • Encouraging people to visit the farm, inspect our methods themselves, and spend some time with their hands in the soil and on our animals

When people have met us, seen us rotate our animals on pasture, helped us unleash ladybugs and hens on a bug-infested crop bed, turned compost with us, or watched Chris put down tobacco and send up smoke when a chick dies… they don’t need the stinkin’ organic label. There is no substitute for the trust that comes from knowing exactly where your food comes from.