Why I Farm, And How This Impacts How I Farm
I was lucky enough to grow up on a farm. It was a large industrialized farm in Southwest Missouri where we milked 200 Holstein dairy cows daily, raised over 400 head of beef cattle, and farmed a total of around 2,000 acres. My dad used all the latest production techniques to maximize productivity at the lowest possible cost, including using chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and specialized production. When my dad graduated from college, this was the ‘latest thinking’ in agricultural education, it was the ‘norm’ when I graduated from college 30 years ago, and this type of thinking continues to dominate today. Now, I’m not being critical – this has produced one of the most productive and lowest cost food systems in the world. Some of my best friends continue to practice this approach to agriculture and have been very successful at it.
This type of farming created the paradigm called Cochranes Treadmill, which basically says when a farmer replaces labor with mechanization (and specialization), they gain a competitive advantage and make more money. However, when the competing farmers adopt these same methods, the farmer loses his competitive advantage (because this assumes all production is a ‘commodity’ with the same value and only ‘cost and productivity’ matter) so he has to buy bigger equipment to gain more efficiency, which briefly gives him a competitive advantage, until other farmers adopt this new technology, and so on and so on. The basic tenant is that all agricultural products are ‘commodities’ and essentially the farmer is not able to gain additional value for differentiated (higher quality, antibiotic free, etc.) products. It also encourages specialization throughout the value chain. This has resulted in ‘chicken factories’ producing massive numbers of chickens in confined cages using specialized GMO feeds to maximize production, so they could be shipped to the conglomerate chicken factory and mass processed at the lowest possible cost. Then it is frozen and shipped in large quantities to ‘mega chains’ who efficiently distribute the product, again, at the lowest cost possible. If nothing else, this has created a hyper-efficient food production system.
I love farming. Working with the animals, seeing the results of my own hard labor in the new animals born on the farm, in the wool we shear, on our own farm table when we eat produce from the farm, and in the improvements I’ve made to the farm. Farming is an incredibly rewarding way of life. And while I, like many small farmers today, have a full-time career outside the farm, (because our farm is too small to be a full-time endeavor or at least produce full time income!), I love every minute I get to spend on the farm. It’s hard work, and not easy, but greatly rewarding. That’s why I farm.
But I don’t farm like my father. The path I’ve chosen focuses on holistic farming. It’s fundamentally different in that we raise multiple species on the same pasture (poultry, sheep, and cattle) using techniques that actually date back to pre-industrialized farming. I focus on constantly trying to improve the health of the soil, without using chemical fertilizers. I follow the models pioneered by Allan Savory of the Savory Institute and Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms which essentially focuses on multifaceted farms which deliver products directly from the farm to the consumers table. My goal is quality – not quantity. Producing the highest quality products (wool and fiber products, eggs, goats milk soap, and in the next year – pasture raised beef).
Now, I’m not where I want to be yet. We still have to subdivide our pastures further to get to a full high intensity, rotational pasture system. We are still building our dairy goat capacity. And we have a lot of work to do on our marketing to get to where we want to be. So, we have a long way to go. I am inspired by farms that do this very well like White Oak Pastures in Georgia. There is a huge gap between my small farm and their large, multifaceted operation. And I will probably never see our farm get to that level – but perhaps one of my children will pick up the charge – who knows. But it really doesn’t matter. It’s the journey towards this goal that I am really enjoying. It's a different way to farm, one focused on quality not quantity, and improving the land not just using it – and for this Gentleman farmer, it’s a great way to go. And please, don't misunderstand me. Some of my best friends are large scale, industrial farmers. And there is nothing wrong with that. These guys are some of the most efficient, productive farmers in the world that enable the USA to have one of the most affordable food supplies in the world. This just isn't how I want to approach farming.
This is one of the very best presentations I’ve seen on the benefits of raising sheep https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUMQVqtjUAQ
A great article supporting Allan Savory’s approach https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/aug/19/grazing-livestock-climate-change-george-monbiot-allan-savory
White Oak Pastures blog on their approach to farming
And as always, feel free to comment and write to us at Kentucky Meadows!