It was already too late for my family farm when I threw out that challenge for you all to put your money where you mouth is and support a radical transformation of the food system (So You Say You Want A Food Revolution?). We decided back in August after a particularly stressful morning discussion on where we might be able to find land to purchase or rent in Califronia that we simply could not do this anymore. After six years of pushing a boulder uphill, trailblazing pastured production before it became so well known, farming without inherited money or family land, in one of the most expensive areas of the country, we are throwing in the farming towel to find a place more conducive to our dreams.
There are basically four reasons for ending our current farming business in California. Farming is a trickly business to make work seamlessly- if you don't have all the puzzle peices fitting together, it may make sense to go somewhere else or create a different model until those peices fit better. That's just good business and that is what we are doing. So here are the main challenges that we had in California and that almost all of our other livestock friends there encounter as well:
1. LAND ACCESS: We rent land in North Monterey County, California. Half the land we rent is in an active floodplain and is under water for half the year. The other half of land we rent is a steep, overgrazed, parched hillside with no water to help bring it back to life. For all 48 acres we rent, we pay about 10 times the going rate for pasture. The best grazing lands in this region are locked up by a handful of long-time cattle ranchers, the fertile bottomland locked up by capital-intensive berry farming, so we are left with the dregs. To top off the over-priced land, our leases are too short to build a long-term business, the landlords too inflexible, and ultimately, we are building no equity for all the effort we put into the land. What can you do to help solve the land problem for farmers? Make sure your city and county planners don't pave over any more good farmland in your county and don't let them rezone farmland for things like rural "ranchettes" and other developments that carve up viable farmland. If you or your family own farmland, consider offering a low-priced, long-term lease to a good farmer to help them build their business.
2. MEAT PROCESSING: This topic warrants a much longer post, but basically California has only a handful of USDA-inspected slaughter and butcher facilities. Because there are only a few, it is hard to even get an appointment to bring your animals in (one place we called had a 7 month waiting list!). Also, because these abattoirs don't have much competition, they don't have to provide high-quality customer service to ranchers. They can charge what they want, they can choose not to follow your detailed butchering instructions (for example, put nitrates in the hams that you asked for "nitrate-free", cut all the fat off your pork chops when you asked for 2 inches of fat on them, etc.). These abattoirs charge you by the carcass weight of your animal and then sometime they won't even give you the whole animal back that you paid for, such as taking the head, the organ meats, the feet, etc. So we work our butt off to raise this amazing animal and then the butchers often devalue your hard work. Having zero control over our processing is extremely frustrating and costly. To top it off, the rules for ranchers processing their own meat are different than those for small custom butcher shops. They can take their meat products to farmers markets without a USDA-inspection but we cannot (Corralitos Meat Market is an example of this). This is a double standard that most customers are oblivious too.
3. THE ECONOMY & CONSUMERS: We certainly have some amazing customers, some who have been with us since the beginning, others who have loaned us money, and many who put faith in us when purchasing an egg share. We get the occasional compliment like "your eggs changed my life" or "I feel comfortable eating meat again when it is from you". Yet we have other customers who want our products to be cheaper, for us to stop using organic feed, or for us to lower our standards in other ways. There are people who want us to use a soy-free feed, but yet are not willing to pay the added price that a non soy feed will cost (it takes longer to grow out an animal without soy and laying hens produce fewer eggs when not on soy). Many customers, in fact, will choose to get eggs from several states away from a farm they have never seen in order to get a soy-free egg or they will buy bacon or sausage that is sugar-free but happens to come from some nameless farmer in Iowa. Many people prioritize their personal dietary preferences du jour (I say "du jour" because these preferences change often over time) over supporting an actual local farmer or perhaps over humane animal care, environmental sustainability, etc. I encourage you all to look at the bigger picture and think about what values you want to support. Added to this, the bleak economy is encouraging many of our former customers to pinch pennies and discard their values for food that are organic, local, environmentally sustainable, etc. While I understand the need to be budget-minded (i.e. we haven't been out to a movie in over a year), I don't think people should skimp on the food they put into their bodies and the kind of planet they want to see. If we want local farmers to stay on the landscape, we must support them over the long term. When we shop around, try to save a few pennies, or preference our dietary fads over the realities of local livestock production, we are taking away that vital support that keeps local farmers around.
4. QUALITY OF LIFE: We both used to be avid mountain bikers, backpackers, rock climbers, all around adventure-lovers. Since starting a farm, we have had almost no time to do anything fun. Our daughter's only 'fun' time is when all three of us are washing and packing eggs to music at night. We live next to a highway because that was the only land we could find to rent that also had a house for us to live in. We farm in an area rife with criminal activity and had 300 of our laying hens stolen in the spring, but it is the only place we could find that would rent us land for animals. To top that off, we can't find any good employees that would enable us to work less than 80 hours a week and have some semblance of a life. So unlike the beautiful, joyous life that many romanticize for farmers, we don't have that. We need a better quality of life, somewhere we don't have to lock our doors at night, where we have friendly neighbors, good schools, and are not surrounded by the most chemical intensive agriculture in the country (maybe Vermont or Oregon?).
So we are off to live in an RV for the next year, volunteer on farms and ranches around the country that we admire and hope to learn from, write a little blog about our adventure as well as a book, and have some fun too. I hope you all will continue to care deeply about the health of your families, the care of animals that provide you food, and the viability of local, sustainable, family-farms.
-Rebecca & Jim
P.S. if you are a farmer or rancher that is somehow successfully balancing environmental, social, and economic sustainability, we would like to volunteer for 2-4 weeks with you. Please let us know if you would like our help!