17 July 2007

Food Refugees

I spoke with a very nice older lady yesterday, located near Peoria (a couple of hours from here). She was inquiring about buying some of our pasture-raised chickens and turkeys, and wanted more details about how we raise them.

I explained that they are not certified organic.

She said she didn't care.

I explained that they're not certified organic because they eat conventionally raised feed.

What does that mean, she asked.

We feed our birds corn/oats/soy raised by local farmers using typical industrial agriculture methods, I explained.

"You mean," she asked, "they sprayed it with pesticides and herbicides?"

"Unfortunately, yes," I replied. I explained that we're not capable of producing our own animal feeds on just five acres, and that there is no local source of organic feed.

She said she wasn't interested, and that she'd keep looking. I was about to write her off as one of those "Organic is my religion, and I must maintain ritual purity" types, but then she went on to explain why she was so particular about the meat: her daughter has a chronic medical condition, and they've only been able to control it these last sixteen years by keeping strict controls over her diet. She's so sensitive to additives, even the pesticides in the animal feed affect her.

I explained that I completely understood her situation; our kids have severe food allergies, which was a big reason why we began producing our own food. Our own children are fine with meat the way we raise it here, but they have all kinds of other sensitivities (particularly sprays on fruit and vegetables) that we must strictly eliminate.

We carried on a very nice conversation for about ten more minutes. I recommended a couple of other people she could try contacting, and she told me all about having grown up on a farm and the way she ate as a girl. She asked lots of questions about what we raise and how we raise it, and what our plans are for the future; she was genuinely interested, and really seemed to care. She hoped that someday we could acquire enough land to raise our own organic grain for the birds to eat. We discussed dairy goats, organic gardening, poultry-butchering, and a whole host of other farm topics. What amazed me is how far she was willing to drive to get the meat to stock her three freezers with, and the lengths she'd gone to in the past to obtain that meat.

And it occurred to me that our family, along with so many who contact us, are to some extent or another "food refugees." Big Industrial Agriculture can't supply what we or our families need, and we're forced to either take matters into our own hands (by moving to the country and raising our own) or cultivate relationships with farmers...and then drive hours to obtain that special produce. I wish we could meet the needs of every single person who contacts us; as I've posted before, it's particularly satisfying being able to deliver duck eggs to people who cannot eat any other kind of egg.

But there are so many highly particular needs, we'd go crazy trying to meet them all. And we can't ship our produce; I've lost track of the number of people who've inquired from the four corners of the country, hoping we could put a chicken in a box and FedEx it to them. Our solution is to produce food that meets the specific dietary needs of our family...and sell it to anyone who also needs that kind of food and is willing to get it from us in person. But we don't do "special orders." We simply can't. And it's illegal for us to ship meat anywhere.

And thinking about "food refugees," another particular lady comes to mind. She must have meat raised without any grain at all, preferably 100% on grass. In theory, Canada Geese can be raised on grass without any supplemental grain --- but Canadas don't provide much meat, they're illegal to raise without a wildlife permit, and they can fly away. I won't touch them with a barge pole. And unless a person had a good supply of fish meal and alfalfa, I don't know how you'd get enough protein into your broiler chickens, turkeys, or ducks to sustain them without grain. Ditto for laying hens."Grass Only Lady" has contacted me a few times over the years, hoping I've somehow figured out a way to accomplish this feat...but each time I've had to tell that no, we still are giving our birds supplemental grain.

If you're a food refugee, don't give up. If you look hard enough, you can probably find a farmer who is producing something that will work for you. And if you can't find that farmer...don't be afraid to take the plunge and become your own Yeoman Farmer. It's the best decision our family ever made.

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