Editor’s Note: “Burning Questions” takes an in-depth look at the hot-button issues facing today’s farmers. The ideas expressed here are not the opinions of Hobby Farms, but of individual farmers and food advocates rooted in the local-food movement. If you have thoughts or opinions about what is expressed here, please contribute them in the comments below. We want to hear from you, too!
A little over two years ago, my wife and I sold our retail business and suburban home, packed our belongings into a moving truck and drove to our home state of Kentucky to become farmers. The main question we fielded from our friends and family then is the same one we now answer each week at the farmers market from curious customers: Why?
The answer feels overly simplistic, and it’s not without a tinge of embarrassment that I deliver my standard response: We wanted to do something good.
But while I understand the thought of a suburban couple—one that still maintains a closet of “town clothes” for those invaluable city visits, reminders of the life they abandoned—navigating one-lane back roads to a country plot of land where they work to make their mark on a flailing agricultural system sounds trite, naïve, et cetera, I still can’t dismiss the nagging belief that our choice was a good one. Beyond the plethora of books, magazine articles and websites declaring small family farms the One True Solution to problems many see in commodity farming and industrial agriculture, we also have those inquisitive market customers thanking us each week for growing food they want to serve their families.
Our little farm—and it’s little, just a hair over 12 acres on a wooded, Kentucky ridge—produces what we’ve come to term “responsible proteins” in the form of eggs, chicken and pork. We feel good about the way we raise our animals, with each and every creature enjoying a life of sunshine, edible bugs and grass. We even hand-mix our own feeds with ingredients from local growers to ensure no antibiotics, steroids or hormones find their way into our meats. For people who’ve sought awareness of how conventional, grocery-store meat is raised (and this information is widely available), our farm’s meat is good—an important page in their book of informed eating. At the end of a hard day, however, when the animals are fed and bedded down and we’ve scrubbed the last wrinkle of dirt from our hands, that word—good—really nags at us.
Because how good, really, is good enough? I look at our pigs—a happy litter of Berkshire piglets, conceived and birthed on-farm by their parents George and Wen—frolicking in pastures of fresh grass, ducking into the woods to forage for acorns, and I feel good. I’ve never even seen a gestation crate, let alone owned one. But then comes the inevitable day when the verdant pasture turns to sloppy mud and the woodlot reveals a sick and struggling hardwood, victim of a hog’s insatiable appetite for feeder roots—is this ecological bruise an acceptable trade-off for a market freezer of humane, sustainable, local meat? Do our 12 acres matter in the grand scale of planetary health? And is our meat itself good enough? Sure, our pigs grow up eating good (I’ll even say great) feed, but our non-GMO corn and local soy isn’t organic. Is that still good? Our flocks of pastured layer chickens and broilers eat these ingredients, too—is that good enough, or should we buy the pre-packaged, organic chicken feed shipped in from out of state?
Nothing would make me happier than raising animals on lush fields of chemical-free peas and oats, rotating our beloved creatures to fresh pastures daily to ensure our land and animals thrive in a perfectly maintained ecosystem. But I don’t have two years to get my pigs to market, and our 12 acres could never hope to sustain a rotation-heavy hog and chicken pasturing system. And if the model for agricultural reform lies in a dense population of small-acre family farms, can we really even wish for this perfection in a pork chop? Can we decide that good enough is good?
In the end, I have to believe that buying meat from a farmer willing to wrestle with these questions is “Good.” Because of course meat raised by growers actively seeking alternatives to conventional methods is inherently better for consumers in search of just this. If your farmers—like our customers’ farmers—exhibit a gnawing desire to do better than “good enough,” to find that grail-like path that nurtures the land and the animals and still steers the farm’s financial records into the black, then I have to believe that you’ve found the good in good enough.
About the Author: Rodney Wilson is a co-owner at Goldfinch Farm, a small, family-run farm in Franklin County, Kentucky, specializing in pastured pork, chicken and eggs. A career freelance writer, Rodney contributes to a variety of magazines and is currently putting the finishing touches on his debut novel. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.