A Look at Our Local Food Network
A few weeks back we had the pleasure of visiting with Roy and Julie at Blue Rooster Farm. They are a grass-based farm, devoted to ecologically friendly practices. Blue Rooster supplies meat and mushrooms to the CSA operated by Village Acres, a vegetable farm run by Roy’s extended family. Way back when we were first expanding our own knowledge about local, seasonal food we subscribed to their CSA for two summers and a winter. A CSA is a great way to get started: you pick up a box of veggies each week, and you get whatever the farm has managed to produce. (You pay for the year in advance, like a subscription, providing the farmers with seed-money. You also invest in their skills and share in the variability of the weather with them.) It teaches you to cook seasonally by necessity, and it introduces you to many kinds of produce you might not otherwise buy. I owe my love of parsnips and rutabagas to them! Our gardening and buying habits have drawn us closer to one of the area’s farmers markets, but the CSA culture in town is thriving – and it deserves to.
At the market, labels help consumers buy food based on broadly defined principles: organic, grass-fed, hormone free, etc. But quite frankly there is just no substitute for getting to know a farmer. Standards such as these, even though they signal good practices, define a minimum requirement for entering the premium food market. Industrial farming can produce products that fit such labels while still practicing high-density operations that run contrary to the principle of humane agriculture. Roy and Julie are smart, sensible people; they are also committed to farming in ways that allow the animals to take advantage of their genius as animals. They use dogs to move their flock of sheep, they select for good mothering skills in their livestock, and the ability of their animals to thrive in the local conditions of their farm (both heat and cold hardiness). They want animals who can take care of many of their own problems, rather than needing the farmer to step in and take over the work that self-respecting living creatures ought to be able to handle themselves (like the intricacies of reproduction). The farmer guides, but the animal does their part.
Michael Pollan has written about these issues, suggesting that in order to promote the best interests of animals people should view the question from a moral perspective guided by evolutionary principles. Rather than treating animals as individuals who may or may not have “rights,” he suggests that the best course of action is to allow a pig to be a Pig – to follow out the impulses that have led the species to its current point. Above all, this means taking the animal out of the mentality of industry, and recognizing the fact that farming is an environmental practice dependent on living things. Of course, eating is also an environmental practice, and it is a human conceit of truly gargantuan proportions to believe that human culture exists apart from the natural world. This disconnect has produced a lot of nonknowledge about the reality of our existence, and, as always, ignorance breeds suffering. Chickens burnt out in egg-producing operations, cows suffering from a bevy of problems related to the high acidification of their rumens because they are fed a diet of corn they did not evolve to eat, pigs living indoors in such dense populations that their health is fragile and their waste becomes a biohazard.
I particularly like this quote from The Omnivore’s Dilemma:
“There’s a schizoid quality to our relationship with animals today in which sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us ever pause to consider the life of the pig – an animal easily as intelligent as a dog – that becomes the Christmas ham. We tolerate this schizophrenia because the life of the pig has moved out of view: when’s the last time you saw a pig in person?” (306)
The last time I saw a pig was at Blue Rooster, and she was quite handsome.
In addition, Blue Rooster Farm manages their wooded acreage with a similarly naturalist-agrarian mentality. After Julie showed us their first trial run at mushroom cultivation, Roy described the history of the woods since it has come under their management. Neglect does not equal natural. Scrub trees would choke out those that once dominated the eastern woodland, since the natural cycles of fire are no longer determining the constitution of the woods. Recovery from a few hundred years’ worth of selective cutting needs the help of someone who can mimic the natural conditions that are no longer in play. Cutting “junky” trees so that others can thrive and spread seed is necessary if we want the woods to be anything like they used to be.
Things don’t always go according to plan. Roy told the story of how a storm took down several of the trees he wanted to be the backbone of his recovery effort. The woods as they might have been. But then, as we were heading back, he also shared that he liked to poke acorns in the ground during his trips to the woods and how (though he couldn’t be sure) he thought that this was helping to promote oak seedlings. The woods as they might yet be.
In addition to her farming, Julie is also putting in a lot of time getting the Village Acres “food shed” up and running. Well worth checking out if you are in their neck of the neighborhood.