Nutrition Notes

Digging Up the Details on Farming

As a health-conscious consumer, you’ve no doubt heard about the benefits of consuming grass-fed meats, pastured poultry and eggs, and fresh vegetables and fruits from local sources, rather than produce that’s been shipped to the store from thousands of miles away. Maybe you’ve visited a farmers’ market or a nearby on-farm store to see what this kind of food is all about. If so, you might have had a bit of sticker shock upon seeing that the meat, eggs, dairy, and produce cost significantly more than what you’re accustomed to paying at the supermarket. The jump in price might be too big an obstacle for your family’s budget to overcome, or, even if these foods are within your means, you might still ask yourself, why are these foods so much more expensive?

There are good reasons as to why locally raised grass-fed meat sells for three to four times the price of beef at the supermarket, and eggs cost upwards of two to five dollars more per dozen. Entire books have been written about the environmental issues alone, not to mention the macroeconomics of large, industrial-scale farming versus small, sustainable livestock and produce farms. And all of that factors into things, but the bottom line is, farming is hard work!

The first point to be aware of is that small farmers are not necessarily recipients of the same generous federal government tax subsidies that favor large-scale producers of heavily subsidized monocrops, such as corn, wheat, and soybeans. While some inputs to growing and raising nutritious food—such as sunlight and rain—are free of charge, small farmers going the extra mile face added expenses for their animal feed, particularly if their poultry and hog feed is certified organic, and even higher if it is free of corn and/or soy.

Farmers also have the expense of gasoline and vehicle maintenance as they rack up hundreds of miles driving to and from urban farmers’ markets, sometimes multiple times a week. Additionally, fuel and time are required to transport livestock to USDA-monitored slaughterhouses, which might be some distance from the farm. (In most cases, only chickens are permitted to be processed on-site at small farms.)

There’s no paid time off for farmers, and no vacation days. The animals don’t take days off, which means farmers don’t, either. Animals need to be fed, watered, and otherwise tended to daily. They need to be moved regularly to new pasture, in order to provide them with fresh grass to happily consume, as well as to allow the previously used parcels of land time to rebuild and renew, thanks to the fertilizing manure left behind.

Farming is backbreaking work. It is physically, intellectually, and emotionally demanding. It is an up-at-dawn, go-all-day adventure in crossing things off to-do lists that never seem to get any shorter, no matter how many tasks are completed. And even though most small-scale farmers go into farming because they love it, passion can’t pay to repair a broken tractor, ease the loss of chick hatchlings that don’t survive their first few days, or undo bad weather or pest infestations that decimate crop yields, all of which eats into profits. Dairy farms may have even greater expenses than other farms, particularly if they offer products made from raw, unpasteurized milk. The amount of equipment required just to meet the legal parameters of safe dairy farming is staggering. The cost of the cleaning solutions alone would be enough to put many people off from even attempting to produce high-quality dairy products for their local customer base. The financial risks involved in small-scale farming are so great that a grass-based farmer once said—only half-joking—“How do you make a million dollars in farming? Start with two million.”

While we may have images of quaint red barns silhouetted against bright blue skies when we think of family farms, let’s not forget that farmers have no fewer other expenses than anyone else. They have mortgages, car payments, kids to send to college—and, of course, farming brings with it no generous pension plan or 401(k) just for showing up to work, the way many other jobs do.

There are, of course, ways to save money on locally produced foods, which may lower the economic obstacles to making these foods a more prominent part of your diet.  Joining a community supported agriculture (CSA), which can be described as a kind of weekly or monthly “subscription plan” to a local farm, is one way to get a variety of foods on a regular basis, sometimes at a lower price than buying them separately would cost. Another interesting route is to ask if a local farm has a “workshare” option, in which you can exchange labor for farm food. It gives true meaning to the old phrase, “Will work for food!” Farmers can always use extra hands, provided those hands aren’t afraid to get dirty and dig in to whatever tasks need to be accomplished. No experience? No problem! A good work ethic and a willingness to learn is more valuable than previous farm experience. This is also a fantastic way for you to experience firsthand what, exactly, it takes to produce this type of food, and gain a true appreciation for why these foods cost what they do. After spending a day helping out with chicken processing, you’ll never wonder again why fresh chickens can cost upwards of $5/pound, compared to $2 or $3 for boneless, skinless breasts at the store. A third way to make local farm-raised food more financially accessible—particularly animal foods—is to consider purchasing a whole hog, or a quarter beef, provided you have the freezer space to store it. If not, consider pooling resources with friends and family to split up an order into parcels that are more manageable for whatever size cold storage you have available.

All of this being said, it is absolutely understandable that you may not have the financial resources—nor the desire—to base the majority of your diet on local foods from small farms. And this is fine. Many different roads lead to optimal health, and you can certainly achieve robust well-being through consuming foods purchased at big box stores. You are not “missing out” if your economic reality limits you to what’s on sale at the supermarket. The key to better health is sticking with unrefined, whole foods, which are mostly prepared at home from fresh ingredients, rather than packaged meals that come in bags and boxes with ingredient lists full of unintelligible additives. Vegetables, quality proteins and natural fats should make up the bulk of a healthy diet, with fruit, dairy, and starchy items added based on your individual tolerance and metabolic constitution.

For more on this topic, see Why I Can't Raise a $1 Cheeseburger, by Forrest Pritchard, a grass-based farmer in Virginia, and author of the book, Gaining Ground, the story of how he revived his family’s once dying farm and transformed it into a successful business and a beloved source for local food in the Washington, DC area.