Sunday, February 13, 2011

Farmers for Local Animals and Grain

Yesterday I spoke with a farmer in Williamson County about the new agrarian organization - F.L.A.G., or Farmers for Local Animals and Grain - which nominally began with AWA awarding Ecotone one of its 2011 Good Husbandry Grants. Following this conversation I wanted to elaborate on the background to this idea, and the problems its initial ends and means were taken to address.

The idea for F.L.A.G. began in the summer of 2010, when Fletcher Gonzales and I went into together and bought a 1972 New Holland Mixer-Grinder 352 from a pair of brother-farmers up the road. Not only was this machine entirely mechanical (i.e., no hydraulics), but was in great condition and a great deal, and over the long term would save us $100 per ton of feed, which Windy Acres charges to mix and grind grains. Plus, with more control over the process we naturally have more control over the product, and so can add specific supplements as needed.

As we realized one of the main missing links in the local food economy surrounds the cultivation and availability of quality, local grains for the consumption of humans and other animals, we also began to think about how we might work with other farmers to build such infrastructure in a community-oriented way. The mixer-grinder was the first installment of this, and Ecotone is proud to offer "The Homesteader's Grind," which is a custom-mixed feed ration with organic, local grains from Windy Acres made especially for backyard and homesteading poultry enthusiasts on the Highland Rim.

But before Fletcher's Poultry became part of that dismal statistic looming over small-scale American agriculture - i.e., that 9 out of 10 new farmers fail in the first 3 years - Fletcher purchased several key pieces of equipment that have allowed at least 6 other local farmers and homesteaders to process their own chickens, ducks, and turkeys over the last year or so. Included in this are a professional grade scalder and a 25 foot long trailer, which is the foundation for the AWA Good Husbandry Grant's Mobile Processing Unit (MPU).
On January 8th, Brooke Gillon and I began work on the MPU by removing the old flooring and insulation that was connected to it. Tomorrow a neighbor and professional welder Jeff Collier is coming to pick up the trailer and complete the requisite work for its road worthiness. After this, Jonathan Smith, Hugh Hansen, Michael Allison, and I will complete the remaining welding work and install its central pieces. It also turns out that Eli Reiff - the Mennonite "Poultry Man" of Mifflenburg, PA, who also first taught me how to butcher a chicken - is fabricating a custom made evisceration table designed by Jonathan. We hope to have the unit completed by this year's TOGA Conference in late March, soon after which we will begin offering it on a rental basis to local farmers and homesteaders.
One way to think about F.L.A.G., then, is that it is oriented less toward "production" and more toward the "means of production." By making certain key pieces of agricultural infrastructure available to the entire agrarian community, that is, we could build a just local food economy and work against some of the pernicious influences of market economics that have come to dominate the sustainable food movement. Chief among these is the rigid and disheartening amount of enmity that currently predominates among middle Tennessee pastoralists at farmer's markets and beyond. Not only do many of the area animal farmers dislike one another personally, but several refuse on principle of competition to help other, newer farmers as to how and where to access important resources and information, much less allow them to visit their farms for the sake of education and cooperation.
The other significant problem, as I see it, is precisely this lack of transparency. Since I entered farming a few years ago, I have been astounded by the sheer plurality of terms and labels, the amount of vagueness and ambiguity accompanying their correlative practices, and the ways farmers obfuscate real differences that exist between operations and products under the banner of local, natural, and/or sustainable food. You can, for example, buy a share of raw milk from one of the largest such farms in the area without ever knowing that they sub-contract with other smaller dairies and package it under their singular name. Nor, for example, would you know that when you buy a chicken from another popular animal farm that they paid another farmer - much younger and smaller in operation - a mere pittance of the price to raise the bird for them, which is marketed as having originated on their farm. Finally, then, it should come as no surprise that the largest local, "all natural" egg farm in the region has 5,000 chickens on 5 acres and not a blade of grass in sight. And while their eggs are to be sure cheaper than ours, bear in mind we have 300 hens on 12 acres.
Now, of course, nothing about these practices are inherently bad. The problem, it seems to me, is the lack of transparency about their organization, and the overall lack of thought given to the ethics and politics involved with the labor relations that make them profitable. Put differently, if I'm going to buy raw milk for me and my family, I damn well want to know exactly where it's coming from and exactly who is doing the milking on a daily basis. To ensure these things, I'm willing to pay more for that product; in fact, it is in my direct interest to pay that person well so that they will do an extra-good job in preparing a deliciously sensitive beverage. The same goes for poultry and eggs, but I need not go there now. My point is simply that, like the questionable practices themselves, the regulatory exemptions by which these foodstuffs come to my table can be both a boon and a bomb for my family's gut. The difference between these outcomes does indeed make all the difference, and by shifting the emphasis away from the political economy of producer-consumer and toward a political ecology of farmer-eater, new forms of food politics and pedagogy can emerge organically from particular communities.
To begin to address some of these problems, F.L.A.G. would be a decentralized organization of farmers and eaters that works to build local food economies in just and community-oriented ways. Toward this end member farmers, in partnership with interested eaters, would visit each others' farms to exchange ideas and information, and ensure that the various pastoral practices match their respective marketing claims. To encourage simplicity in form, multiplicity in practice, and a robust sense of bioregional autarky, I envision no fees for membership, nor any centralized decision-making body; rather, this organizational structure aims to facilitate other farmers and eaters, in other locales, to initiate their own chapters and their own locally appropriate standards. Participation in the organization entitles farmers in good standing with one another to use the name and logo of F.L.A.G. on their products and marketing materials.
In another light, then, while the central agrarian aim of F.L.A.G. entails developing the infrastructure necessary to farm with local raised animals fed locally grown grain, one of its most important consequences will be educational. Not only would F.L.A.G. draw attention to problems facing local food economies, it would actually serve as a positive counterpoint to building in fact the communities we claim to want in speech. In these ways, educating eaters into the central issues surrounding the foods they eat, as well as enabling farmers to cooperate in new ways that solve old problems that benefit local people, are just two of the main ideas motivating an initial chapter of Farmers for Local Animals and Grain.

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