The Pot at the End of Rainbow
It’s funny that almost 3 years ago when I started this blog, my first post was about butter. And here I am on my soap box
again still. Most of my rants never leave the farm, or my head and probably rightfully so. With the new year and resolutions and admonishments about how to live, what to buy, what not to eat, etc, etc. I’m going to add my two cents.
What got me going on this particular bent was butter at my doctor’s house. I was there for an appointment, and since we are friends, we ended up in the kitchen. Her husband came in and started to make his lunch, as he was pulling sandwich ingredients out of the fridge I casually glanced at what he was fixing to eat. One of those ingredients was Kerrygold butter. It’s not as if butter like this is any secret to me, it is widely available – for a price – in fact you can just order it from Amazon for the low, low price of $5.99 for an eight ounce package. Or Costco, Trader Joe’s or most likely any high-end grocery store.
doctor, is actually is not one of those people who preaches green, buy local, or any of that so I respect her position of being able to afford something I cannot. It isn’t that I couldn’t afford it, if I pinched pennies somewhere else. But I feel like saying to hell with the Irish farmers. I know harsh words. But, really can’t you guys just sell your butter to your own. Surely there can’t be so much grass, and so many cattle in Ireland that you really can ship this product year after year to many countries. You want to talk about peak oil, water and too much energy use, this and other imports are a huge part of the problem. Own up to it. When you buy like this I don’t think it is fair to preach being green, and self- reliant and import butter from another country. We have lots of struggling farmers here in the US, dairy and otherwise.
By now, I am sure you’re saying, “yeah Matron what’s in your fridge that doesn’t belong there?” I’m not saying I am perfect in my buying habits by any means, but we make an effort look at our purchases the same way we do look at the permaculture zones to determine usage. Our zone 5 wild areas where we never tread or tread very lightly could represent spices for cooking from a faraway place, whereas beef or eggs we use in larger quantities would parallel our zone 1 on the farm. Or even more simply, if we can grow it, or make it without going to extremes in energy usage we do, and if we can’t and we still think we need to make a purchase from somewhere else, we do. Icelandic kelp sold by Thorvin comes to mind in my barn pantry. How I justify the difference is that Icelandic kelp does not grow here in Oregon. But good grass-fed butter does, and can. It used to be widely available. Now it is not, and that is sad.
I live near the very fertile Willamette Valley, the verdant destination that spawned the Oregon Trail, an exodus that wrought many hardships for those seeking the pot at the end of the rainbow. The pioneers came and settled, dairy farms became plentiful, and until the ’60’s many cows were still on grass, and then things started to morph into the dairy industry as we now know it. Many dairy farms are in crisis right now, as are many other types of farms. But unless you have owned livestock, and really understand about the daily care and feeding you don’t really understand what it is like. Most farmers would go without before they let their stock go hungry. And once you’re in up to the hubs it’s hard to get out.
So what do hungry cows and downhearted farmers have to do with elitist foodies? A lot I think. I sit on the fence on issues like this because I am a consumer, food snob and a farmer. Talk about the urban/rural divide. I see both sides, because not only do we raise as much of our own food as we can, we sell to others and sold to high-end restaurants for many years. As I illustrated in my Christmas Dinner post, it takes a year or years to get that butter or roast or egg to the table. I am not advocating everyone get a milk cow for sure, because that answer is too simplistic. What we need is a marriage of consumers and producers, a bonding that cuts out the Wal-mart and Costco middleman mentality. This would have to, of course, be an arranged marriage, because marrying for love in this case would not be a good idea. For instance, you as consumer may be in love with the idea of newly minted farmers with stars in their eyes, and a Joel Salatin type on their speed-dial, and it’s much more fun and hip to buy from a newbie because after all you’re a newbie at vetting farmers too. You’re in this together. Just like a roller-coaster ride at the amusement park. Lots of high points and low points and not much even keel in between. But, if I had a wish for the new year it would read a little differently for that arranged marriage.
I had forgotten about a book I had read a couple of years ago, Outliers, The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. And then Allan Nation mentioned it in a column awhile back, more specifically talking about the fact that if anyone spends 10,000 hours doing something, they will be very good at it. What I am getting at is that while yes, it is wonderful to bolster the newbies because they are new and exciting, it may be in our best interest to use that initiative to help a farmer who already has his or her 10,000 hours in with dairy, but is locked in the vortex of commercial dairying in present day times. Help them step away from that hopeless feeling. How to do that? I can envision a system like the Chefs Collaborative or The Hub, where people who want something connect with the people who can supply it. But the outreach part is missing. Activists take note, the people participating in ideas like the The Hub and Chef’s Collaborative don’t have the hopeless feeling, they opted out a long time ago. It’s the other farmers and good farms that may be on the brink and need a lifeline. Not many of us quit something that is working OK to chase a dream. Sometimes we don’t even dare to dream – the fear of failure is too great. We always call it “getting pulled back in the bucket by our fellow crabs.” Meaning that for us to farm differently in this small town, we have to seek different counsel than our old cohorts who hang out every day at the aforementioned Creep Feeder. You become ostracized and always questioned. At first it’s hard, but as you keep trudging down the different fork in the road, you hear more positives (from satisfied customers) than negatives (from “friends”) and it becomes easier. But, you have to be somewhat of a renegade to break out on your own. To some it isn’t worth it. Because in reality you have to make new friends, friends who aren’t toxic. And really isn’t that an oxymoron, friends that are toxic?
Besides all that, farmers don’t’ automatically come with the knack to market themselves, many (me included) like the reclusive life. Many a day passes here that I am content to keep company with only my dogs and cows. I am a loner. And I am not alone in that. A chef we sold to was always trying to convince us to sell him a pig a week. From his perspective he was trying to be helpful, promising to buy a market hog each week from us, and he would break it down, no cutting, wrapping etc. It sounds good from his end, a guarantee to us that he would buy our product – but to us the idea was not even close to happening. The idea of having a pig each week of the year that was close to market weight, was a husbandry nightmare in our setup. Not counting the logistics of taking a pig to an inspected slaughterhouse each week and then picking it up and delivering it the next day. First, he needed to be paired with the pig farmer we bought our weaner pigs from. He had his 10,000 pig hours in many years ago, and was somewhat of an innovator, who tired of growing grain to sell to the elevator at their price, only to buy it back from the elevator at their price to feed his pigs. He already was what the chef was looking for, a good pig farmer, who while not organic, ran a clean pig operation and didn’t feed garbage to his porcine friends. The problem, the farmer did not want to leave his farm to sell to a fancy restaurant, it would be too uncomfortable for him to schmooze the chef and deal with downtown delivery. He was doing OK direct marketing to others. Why change, and why risk being made fun of by your peers.
I have to tell you as a producer, that the biggest hurdle of stepping outside the accepted stockyard sale barn type operation is that you have to produce a product and then sell it. It’s hard to sell ahead of time when you haven’t even produced the first egg or steak. Then if you don’t sell it, you’re stuck with it. The sale barn or dairy co-op is a safe method of disposing of your production. You aren’t sticking your neck out and getting burned. You haul in the stock, and get a check within a day or two. But unless you have 100’s of cattle having calves, you don’t make very much. Same with milk. As the feed prices climb, and milk check stays the same, you are forced to produce more milk just make ends meet. And the kicker, if you are still hanging out with people who are doing the same, the peer pressure is great to keep complying and stay in the hopeless state of mind. Misery does love company.
So where to start? Bigger than the local guy flying under the radar with a raw milk share program with cull dairy cows, and smaller than Tillamook Creamery. You can’t just go out with a shopping list of “must haves” like, only organic, only pasture, only A2/A2, only doe-eyed Jersey cows, and milkmaids wearing wooden shoes and dutch bonnets. That isn’t reality. I can picture a buying club for nutrient dense food contacting a small town creamery with a plan to have a line of butter that is pastured only, in addition to the other products they offer. The key is a small local facility. And a premium paid for good pasture management. The proof is in the color of the butter, if the cow is eating grass as a good portion of her diet her resulting milk and cream will show the enhanced yellow color synonymous with grass-fed cows. There has to be a two-way street though, the toiling dairy worker has to be paid more for a premium seasonal product, and the consumer has to quit buying butter from across the globe and support the local farmer and his cows in a seasonal way. You can’t have one without the other.
Vote with your dollars in your location, I can’t be convinced that butter shipped from Ireland is better than butter made right here in the Willamette Valley. I buy Rose Valley Creamery Butter, it’s not Della’s but it is from Oregon.