May 28 2014

Knowing Your (Grocery Store) Farmer

My husband recently rushed home from picking up a box of pasta at our local grocery store, eager to relay a conversation he’d overheard before forgetting its details. On his way across the produce department, he’d seen an employee slicing “fresh” peaches for samples. A customer who had stopped to try a juicy slice looked a bit surprised, remarking that the peach “tastes surprisingly good, considering it’s not in season.” The employee appeared shocked by the comment, replying “It is in season: it’s from California.” The customer casually responded that most items are always in season in California; she meant that the peach wasn’t yet in season locally, to which the even-more-confused employee answered that California IS local to Portland, Oregon; after all, California is within a 300 mile radius of the city. “Just like Washington," the employee stated, nodding to congratulate herself on her excellent rhetorical point.

The seasonality or “local-ness” of this particular piece of Califonia stone fruit is beyond the point; rather, this conversation highlights the vast information gap that separates consumers and even employees from the sources and definitions of food products at grocery stores, even stores that pride themselves on their “sustainability”. Words and labels like local and seasonal can only carry a discussion on food origins so far. Can a one-word label explain what farm grew that local-to-California peach? Did the farm spray for pests? What kind of spray? It it a first generation farmer? What else do they grow? The grocery store employee got off easily: what if that peach-snacker had started peppering her with those questions?

We shop at farmers’ markets or join CSAs because we want to nourish ourselves in ways that extend beyond caloric intake. By shopping this way, we pin a myriad of hopes on the food in our basket or tote: along with purchasing just-picked produce, we might have the opportunity to chat with the people who grew the food, support practices that improve the soil and ecosystem, reduce food miles, and connect with a bigger story and community.

Is it possible to shop for food in a similar way at your local grocery store? While the grocery store system is designed to be inherently wasteful, full of overflowing bins and shelves to symbolize excess, certain “boutique” stores across the country, from Whole Foods, to New Seasons, to Wegmans, pepper their ads, billboards, and flyers with photos of their purveyors and products that are organic, natural, and line-caught, all in an effort to have shoppers feel those same connections that they might have at their CSA pick-up. This focus on local connections has extended even to megastores like Fred Meyer, which recently promoted itself with a “Good stuff from local guys” campaign featuring images of area farmers. But these words, so carefully chosen in their advertising copy, can quickly become skewed without a direct connection to the grower, especially when food is distributed through layers of middlemen and labeled with ill-regulated terms and definitions. Despite the (occasionally genuine) efforts by grocery stores, a wide crevasse remains between shopping at a farmers market and wheeling your cart up and down a grocery store’s aisles.

Somewhere in the clamor of small farm advocates, anti-food corporation non-profits, and that dreadful “feeding the world” phrase, there’s a missing piece: the small-to-mid-sized farm that grows with the same beliefs and practices as your beloved CSA, but that supplies food with a greater reach than a farmers’ market or a fifty person CSA can ever hope to access.

Ideally, a dynamic, resilient food system would contain an intricate network of small farms brimming over with accessible and affordable farmers’ markets and food shares. But for the times when getting to the Saturday morning or Thursday afternoon market isn’t feasible, it frequently feels that a consumer has to throw her hands up in the air and reach for that Cal-Organic spinach, or an “it’s local somewhere” peach. Our food choices, and the subsequent discussions, miss the middle ground, that shade of gray that should color any conversation, whether political or social. As discerning customers, our food options shouldn’t be farmers’ market greens on one side and industrial romaine lettuce on the other. We shouldn’t feel trapped by our choices, or guilty for not rearranging our schedule to catch a weekday afternoon market. While the face-to-face contact that the farmers’ market provides is vital, it’s time to expect these larger grocers to stock traceable, believable food from farms – not industries – that practice in the same ways our local farmer does, just on a larger scale. Farms like these do exist, but they face an uphill battle.

On a steamy mid-May day, I drove out to Sheridan, Oregon, bypassing many beloved Dundee area wineries to visit an egg farm. Nine-month-old Ruby Hill Farm is home to 3,000 layer hens, a small herd of bleating, happy goats, and some seriously large and content Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs. Owners Kelly Henderson and Joshua Simonson have just started to deliver their traceable, responsibly raised eggs to all of the Portland area New Seasons. At peak production, Ruby Hill expects to supply New Seasons with 1200 dozen eggs a week, a quantity that they hope will be impossible for consumers to ignore when they scan the egg carton choices in the stores’ coolers. The couple initially struggled to find land to rent that could accommodate 3000 birds, eventually renting their 26 acres from a Portland-based lawyer via the Friends of Family Farmers’ iFarm site. After leaving their Montavilla home in September, toddler in tow, the couple immediately transformed from New Seasons’ employees to farmers, ordering layers and feed, building large mobile coops, and quickly learning that the best laid plans don’t mean much when one’s rented land is in a flood zone.

Kelly and Joshua, charming, opinionated, and very tired, find themselves in unchartered territory. While the couple adamantly believes in organic, chemical-free food, they’ve entered a market where words don’t mean as much as they should, and where agricultural networks – from marketing, to egg cartons, to egg washing equipment – are set up for larger industrial players, or for vegetable farmers who keep chickens on the side.

The Agriculture in the Middle project defines mid-sized farms as farm operations that “operate in the space between the vertically integrated commodity markets and the direct markets.” Fred Kirschenmann, a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and a farmer himself, notes that while smaller farms can make choices that benefit social and ecological communities, they’ll never manage significant amounts of land. And farmers connected to larger entities (farmers that grow for a large subsidiary) usually don’t have the authority to make independent decisions, but rather must act according to what the larger business dictates.

A mid-sized farm, because of its size and reach, has the potential to effect change in a way that a smaller farm can’t. In 2011, Tom Philpott asked, “If higher commodity prices won’t ‘level the playing field’ between industrial and sustainable food, what will? How can we convince more people to think outside of the Big Box, and to flee the Golden Arches?” He concluded that clean, fair food will never play a prominent role in Americans’ diets until more of it is produced and efficiently distributed. One answer to nudging this fair, clean food into a more prominent role? Mid-sized farms.

Ruby Hill, at the cusp of full production, is the perfect case study for this concept.

After meeting cute at New Seasons and raising eleven backyard birds and a newborn baby in Montavilla, Joshua and Kelly were ready for a career change, specifically one that made a difference in their local foodshed. While working at New Seasons, the couple had indavertently stumbled upon a viable direction for a potential farm: the grocery store couldn’t keep eggs in stock, especially the cartons labeled organic or pastured.

The beauty of Kelly and Joshua’s Sheridan farm becomes readily apparent after you hike up the gravel road to the top of the property, passing the wooded oak grove full of large, happy pigs, eagerly eating anything in their presence (though somehow sparing a stuck-in-the-mud chicken standing nervously nearby). Near the top of the road, I turned left and rounded the corner to quite a sight: 3,000 birds scattered around four bright blue mobile coops, darting in and out of the wheeled structures, racing each other across the grass, squawking and clucking. Free-range, indeed. If the birds cared to notice, their vista on top of the hill provides them with gorgeous views of rolling hills (even if some of the attractive color in the distance comes from fields that have been heavily treated with Round-Up).

Joshua and Kelly elected to raise sex-link birds (cross-bred chickens) because of their promised high production. The blur of moving chickens I walked among included Rhode Island Reds, California Whites, and Ameraucanas. Joshua and Kelly might eventually phase out these cross-bred chickens in favor of heritage birds, with Joshua explaining that while these sex-links are probably great producers in the right conditions, those conditions aren’t necessarily free-range and pastured.

The Ruby Hill layers are fed a blend of hand-milled organic grain that the couple sources from a nearby organic grain farm. The chickens supplement this GMO-free, corn-free, soy-free diet with grasses, worms, and whatever else they find appetizing while digging through the dirt. For farmers at such an early stage in their careers, Joshua and Kelly speak with sure and uncompromising beliefs about pasture, feed, and chemicals. It’s this belief system that allows them to push forward with tired excitement after a nine month period that’s already presented them with unexpected challenges: their Great Pyrenees guard dogs snacking on their chickens (those dogs are no longer part of the farm family); the chickens taking two months longer than predicted to start laying eggs; mobile coops getting stuck in the mud. And both famers have had to come to terms with how harsh chickens can be to each other: an exposed back side after laying can be an open invitation to attack.

Joshua and Kelly are in some ways odd-birds in their families. Kelly emphatically told me that they are the only ones in their respective families that believe in organic agriculture, with Joshua adding (while laughing) that his family doesn’t like his “highfalutin ideas”. After a lifetime of itinerancy, never staying longer than six months in a place until he and Kelly had their daughter, Joshua now finds himself 15 miles from where he grew up. A self-aware man, he wryly acknowledges that he’s transformed into his father, down to specific hand gestures, but with one key distinction – how he practices agriculture.

Joshua grew up on a 2000 acre conventional grass and vegetable seed farm, spending his childhood watching chemical companies sell different concoctions (or as Joshua bluntly called them, “poisons”) to his father. He never thought much about conventional versus organic agricultural until he left Oregon for LA and tasted an organic orange for the first time. As he recounts, “I thought ‘Oh my gosh, this is TREMENDOUS.’ And so I started buying only organic food. I thought I should pay the extra money for it, because I was actually going to eat it, versus a red delicious apple [of unknown origin]. It was like: this tastes better.” After LA, Joshua moved back home and started to canoe a creek he used to swim in when he was a child. Instead of paddling among a diverse array of animals and in clean water, Joshua found himself canoeing in water with a “sheen of gross stuff on top of it” – run-off from the fields. There were no visible signs of life and he “started making some connections.”

Long before marrying Joshua, Kelly had made similar connections in her own relationship to food, first as a staunch 11 year old vegetarian in her hometown of 200 residents outside of White Salmon, WA. Joshua’s interest in organic agricultural was a result of an unappetizing confluence of river sludge and citrus; Kelly’s came, in part, from her grandparents. “All of my grandparents cooked everything from scratch and lived to be really old without health problems,” she remembered. Kelly eventually attended culinary school, furthering her knowledge of food’s cultural heritage and agricultural origins.

In his new manual, Rebuilding the Foodshed, Philip Ackerman-Leist writes that one lesser known casualty of mid-sized farm disappearance is a loss of infrastructure, especially the companies that provide agricultural supplies and services to those mid-sized farms: feed stores, vets, cold storage facilities, and financial instruments. Joshua and Kelly are neighbored by giant industrial farms, and a network doesn’t currently exist to support a farm of their size. They were unable to find any stipends or grants for their mid-sized farm; in fact, they were “laughed at” by many financial institutions, who scoffed at the idea of raising that many birds outside. They eventually took on a loan from the nonprofit Craft 3, but their belief-driven and market-aware career change has led them to max out their credit cards and use all the money from the sale of their Montavilla home to make Ruby Hill a viable business.

Some mid-sized farms, to alleviate common problems like access to capital and higher transaction costs, have turned to “values-based food supply chains”; essentially, alliances between farms and supply chain partners that agree to distribute differentiated food and share the rewards equitably. Better known examples of this include Washington based Shepherd’s Grain, and Red Tomato in the Northeast. In the future, when Ruby Hill isn’t a mere nine months old and each day isn’t full of new or unpredictable events, Joshua and Kelly plan to offer fledgling likeminded farmers opportunities to learn and even sell under the Ruby Hill label.

But in the present, Ruby Hill has no mid-sized egg farm brethren with similar values. Instead of creating a farm where supporting infrastructure already exists, loans are accessible, and there are models they can mimic, Kelly and Joshua spend too much of their time on the phone talking with people who can’t help them secure egg crates or locate an egg washer. (Joshua recounted a phone call where his questions irritated the recipient so much that the guy on the other end held the phone away from his head, loudly proclaiming “I’m not dealing with this guy! Someone else – hey Patrick take the phone.”). Kelly succinctly remarked, “We’re too large for a lot of people to accommodate, and we’re too small for others.” It’s not all gloomy, though; resources have come from a closer network: Joshua’s nearby family. Despite their differences in agricultural scale and product, his parents have proved to be an indispensable support network, loaning trucks, equipment, and help in the form of eggwashing and crate-labeling.

In our modern dialogue of food transparency and behind-the-scenes political maneuvers, I’ve grown accustomed to thinking that larger farm operations aren’t to be trusted. I’ll admit that when I first learned that Ruby Hill had 3,000 birds, I balked at the number. Because I can’t think of many readily accessible examples of sustainable, responsible larger farms, I’ve developed a knee-jerk reaction that lumps mid-sized and industrial farms together. After all, mid-sized farms don’t have a plethora of writers touting their amazing food, they don’t have grocery stores loudly specializing in their products, and they don’t have distributors and infrastructure dedicated to supporting them. At a grocery store, the only way for a consumer to make wise, thought-out decisions about a handful of okra or a bottle of milk is through truth in advertising and the accompanying labels designed to reassure a consumer about the cooperative or farm’s practices. A value-based food supply chain is one avenue for like-minded farms to access more customers, but it’s not an option that every mid-sized farm should feel forced to take: some farms want to retain their individual identity and story.

So when a farm is faceless at the grocery store, desperately employing the same phrases as everyone else – local, organic, pastured – what’s to set them apart? Despite what it may look like on a package or box, many of these labels are unregulated and unenforced, essentially meaningless.

A recent study by the Animal Welfare Institute entitled “Label Confusion: How ‘Humane’ and ‘Sustainable’ Claims on Meat Packages Deceive Customers” found that while consumers are more aware of how animals are raised and the negative impact agriculture can have on the environment, many of the labels that they’ve grown to trust – like “humanely raised” or “sustainably farmed” – are backed by no supporting evidence. In fact, it’s this newfound consumer awareness and interest in food sourcing that encourages companies to exploit and mis-use these words, all in the name of profit. The USDA, responsible for evaluating claims on poultry, egg, and meat products, should be protecting consumers against fraudulent food labels, but instead of visiting farms and independently evaluating a farm’s claim of pastured or humane, the USDA approves claims based on information supplied by the producers. Sometimes this information is as little as a sentence or two, with no other documentation. AWI cautions that “when consumers visit grocery stores to purchase meat and poultry products and see ‘humanely raised’ or ‘sustainably farmed’ labels, they can’t know the individual producer’s — or USDA’s — interpretation of the claim.”

After finding that 80% of the label claims they investigated were backed by no supporting evidence, AWI concluded that the current label approval process does more than trick consumers: it harms farmers who accurately use these claims to describe their practices. Ruby Hill finds themselves in the middle of this lackadaisical regulatory environment. Consider the term “pastured". Such a word implies that animals were raised outdoors on open fields of grass, foraging and digging around. There’s an entire philosophy that surrounds pastured meat and eggs, with farmers motivated by more than a photograph of a happy chicken that they can put on their website or carton of higher priced eggs. On pasture, animals convert energy from the sun into their diet of bugs and grass, which is then translated into food dense in Omega 3s, antioxidants, and Vitamin E. Animals on pasture fertilize the soil while sequestering nitrogen: a well-run system eliminates the excessive use of chemicals and pharmaceuticals found in industrial systems – which pollute the water, air, and soil and breed antibiotic resistant viruses – and the concentrated ammonia and methane dispensed from concentrated animal operations.

Since terms like pastured, soy-free, and GMO-free are not regulated or certified, there is no way to ensure that any such claim is accurate, from Ruby Hill’s eggs to the egg cartons sitting next to theirs at the grocery store. And terms like cage-free and free-range, labels that imply chickens living life to the fullest, require the bare minimum: a cage-free environment can still be in an overcrowded warehouse; a free-range bird’s “free range” may be a bare patch of dirt outside the warehouse.

Ruby Hill’s eggs are all of the things that sustainable labels evoke, and the farmers behind the eggs adamantly believe in fair practices. Ruby Hill’s website has all of the buzz words consumers have grown accustomed to, but in this case, those overused words are actually true. I asked Kelly and Joshua how they plan to distinguish themselves in a market where their competitors make inaccurate claims and undercut their prices. Kelly and Joshua hope their transparency will create loyal customers, sharing that any consumer has an open invitation to visit the farm.

This open invitation to Ruby Hill says it all: words and labels are inherently meaningless when you can’t see the mid-sized farms (to say nothing of the much larger scale farms and industries) supplying your local grocery store. At this stage of modern food awareness, we’ve heard the same words enough to evoke an eye-roll and perhaps even a yawn: I want pastured, free-range, organic, hand gathered eggs. But, the carton next to this one has almost identical copy and is a dollar cheaper. Who do I trust? Does it even matter? I’m sure the chickens are fine: after all, there’s a photo on the carton of a few hens clucking around outside. Ruby Hill offers a chance to know your grocery store farmer and to see the meaning behind the words and product photography.

Fred Kirschenmann writes that, “ironically it is...the mid-sized farms that have a comparative advantage [over both the smaller and industrial operations] in producing unique, highly differentiated products. Their smaller size enables them to remain flexible and innovative enough to respond to highly differentiated markets." He goes on to write that “farms are simply micro-ecosystems within macro-ecosystems”, imagining a future world where a number of small and mid-sized family farmers are linked together via marketing, foodsheds, and locally-owned processing facilities, and provided to the consumer with enough information for that buyer to understand the entire story of the product.

Joshua may hail from a traditional, highly specialized, chemical-heavy farm, but the couple is eschewing those systems to create something of scale that they believe in, savvily seeing the market need, but not willing to cut corners. A resilient, truthful food system must transcend our current condition of food grown in isolated monocrops, of separation between farmers’ markets and grocery stores, and of the continued bastardization of labels. Instead, a resilient food economy must translate into food grown in an integrated system that provides options for all, from the market-goer, to the time-strapped working family, to those who only know a few of the buzz words: words that actually mean something and aren’t just a marketing ploy. It’s time for infrastructure, interest, and words to rise up and meet Ruby Hill halfway, so that our food system supports a farm like theirs, instead of making them compete against farms that look the same on paper, leaving consumers helpless and frustrated.

Ruby Hill Farm is an encouraging example of the potential our food economy has to accommodate mid-sized farms. But in order for Ruby Hill to succeed, Joshua and Kelly must be able to connect with their customers in the same way that a farmer at a market can, and they must have the regulatory and infrastructural support to not be out-priced by another mid-sized farm that might advertise similar practices without actually deploying them. But while we wait for the glacial progress of this system’s development, Kelly and Joshua will happily have you out to visit their layers, goats, and pigs. Especially if you help collect a basket or two of eggs.