Organic certification costs – Harvest Public Media radio story

Recently a reporter from Harvest Public Media visited our farm to talk about the costs & benefits of organic certification; a well-timed story given concerns over the effect of a stalled Farm Bill on the cost of certification, and the overall conversation we have every year about whether to re-certify. This is a very complicated topic that encompasses everything from giant international mega-farms to tiny local family operations, across a wide range of geographic and climatic settings, producing pretty much every kind of food one can think of, and in various regulatory environments. We thought the story came out quite well overall, and encourage readers to listen to/read it here.

There is one significant clarification we’d like to make, however: the quote from Sue Baird saying “USDA stats said an organic farm nets $20,000 more than the same size conventional farm” is a broad oversimplification and quite misleading in the context of the story; it may be accurate for large grain farms or other high-gross operations, but not for the kind of small, direct-market farms otherwise described in the piece. We didn’t appreciate the implication (though unintended by the reporter) that a $700 certification cost results in $20,000 of additional profit. That’s not even remotely the case. Also, just to clarify for our CSA members, the lettuce being fed to the animals was freeze-damaged or otherwise seconds-quality; you’re not being stiffed!

Pig feeding update; good newspaper article

The Columbia Missourian ran a very nice piece this morning on the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s decision that on-farm vegetables and whey constitute illegal garbage feeding. Please read it; the reporter did a good job of getting details, information, and statements from a number of sources while crafting an accurate and thorough depiction of the situation. We’re really pleased with it, especially since we didn’t seek it out (they contacted us wanting to do a story). The comment thread online is pretty interesting, too.

Just a few additional thoughts/clarifications I’d like to add:

1) Why did MDA effectively refuse to cooperate with the reporter? They did the same thing to a Harvest Public Media reporter earlier in the year, by refusing any interviews and not answering any questions, only issuing vague statements that don’t address the issue? If this is such a dangerous and problematic situation, wouldn’t you think they’d welcome some free media coverage to help spread the word not to do this? If they can afford to send two highly paid vets out here to spend an hour trying to explain this to us, wouldn’t a 15-minute phone interview be manageable and cost-effective?

2) I love how the statements from both MDA (“Animals raised for commercial sale and introduction into the food system would typically be fed rations including corn, oats, barley and soybean meal“) and the Missouri Pork Association (“Our rations (at the Missouri Pork Association) are given attention to detail…Balance is important for pigs to grow and perform and be healthy.”) are perfectly accurate and fair, yet betray the level to which industrial agriculture has moved beyond diversified, sustainable, natural animal management.

Commercial hogs are confined and raised solely on grain primarily because that’s what the Federal government subsidizes, such that it’s not cost-effective to feed anything else to consumers hooked on artificially cheap meat. “Scientifically balanced” hog rations are necessary because those hogs are kept locked in buildings with no access to soil, plants, or food other than what comes down the spout. Compare this to a few quotes from my 1943 copy of Feeds and Feeding, a massive (1,000+ pages) tome on animal husbandry:

“Because of this high quality of the protein in whey, well-grown pigs weighing over 100lb will make excellent gains on a ration of only whey and barley or wheat, without the addition of any other supplement”

“Few facts in swine feeding have been so clearly proved, both by scientific experiments and by the common experience of successful farmers, as the importance of good pasture for all classes of swine”

Remind me why pastured, naturally fed pork is considered the new-age, hippy-dippy way to raise meat while the lock-’em-up and shovel-the-corn school is considered “conventional”?

3) In a world increasingly worried about food prices, especially animal protein, you’d think it would be of interest to ag “professionals” to seek out cheaper, easier, and more practical ways to feed animals. Yet our system is so wedded to subsidized, inefficient grain that these guys are all but mocking us for wanting to feed nearly free on-farm-generated feed instead of industrially grown corn that is ever-more expensive even with massive government intervention. Our way is still grain-based, but at a lower level than an all-grain feedlot, which allows farms like ours to be more resource-efficient overall. Just think how many hogs could be partially raised on the rejected or out-of-date produce and dairy products that grocery stores throw out every month, and which have no realistic chance of being contaminated by raw meat scraps if set aside for local farmers.

4) MDA still doesn’t understand its own laws. The official statement, which cutely sidesteps the actual issue, states that “Animals produced for an individual’s personal consumption are not regulated by the Missouri Department of Agriculture…However, including meat scraps of any kind in feed is not acceptable.”

Not so. The law states that “No person, other than an individual who feeds to his own swine only the garbage obtained from his own household, shall feed garbage to swine”. Period. By this wording, it is entirely legally acceptable for someone at home to feed the nastiest raw meat scraps to their personal pig as long as they don’t sell it. MDA has no regulatory authority whatsoever to tell people what they can or can’t feed their personal pig; their statement even says so. So what do they think “unacceptable” means?

They’re also ignoring the transportation part: “No person shall sell or transport any swine which have been fed garbage”. I wonder how many of the “personal” FFA or 4-H hogs on display at the Boone County Fair this weekend had some table scraps or garden seconds tossed to them at some point? By the strict wording MDA is using, anyone who did that is now a criminal for taking their hog to the fair (or taking it to a private processor at the end of the season). Then there’s “No person shall knowingly purchase any swine which have been fed garbage”; again, I wonder how many hams traded at the fair are misdemeanors?

Dangerous vegetable-fed swine on the radio

The pig-feeding saga continues…(background here and here on the Missouri Department of Agriculture’s bizarre determination that fresh vegetables and whey, even those produced on-farm and fed to pigs on-farm, are garbage and thus cannot legally be fed to pigs intended for sale).
Harvest Public Media’s Jessica Naudziunas included our story in a new piece on weird ag laws; you can listen to the radio story here (we come in about halfway through the interesting 8-minute piece). MDA wouldn’t speak to her, but did release a written statement implicitly confirming the ruling we were given verbally (just in case anyone thought we were making this up). Even better, she has a somewhat bemused MU scientist confirming that fresh vegetables pose no health risk to swine whatsoever, that the primary disease in question is obsolete, and that “garbage” in this context should clearly refer to things like raw meat.

So if I can’t sell vegetable/whey-feed pigs, maybe I should just sell these T-shirts instead:

It’d probably be easier & more profitable to sell cheap, likely foreign-made T-shirts than locally-raised healthy pastured pork…
This design & wording are Copyright Chert Hollow Farm, LLC, 2011

Garlic in the News

We’re featured in today’s Columbia Tribune Food Section; check it out here if you’re not a local subscriber. Marcia Vanderlip, the food editor, attended our recent garlic tasting event and put together a very well-written and accurate piece on our garlic and the farm overall. I think it’s easily the best local media piece we’ve had.

For those who enjoyed the piece and found their way here, but aren’t already customers, we intend to have at least 11 varieties at this Saturday’s Columbia Farmers Market. If you like the idea of taste-testing garlic, we’re running an ongoing customer taste-test challenge in which you buy two or more heads of different varieties, take them home, and explore using them in different preparations to see if you can tease out differences. We have an official data sheet we send home with participants, and the results are tabulated and used to prepare our weekly garlic recommendations signboard at market. In return, you’ll be entered on an invitation list for an on-farm event later in the year and a chance to win some free garlic in a drawing.

We had also hoped to have a complete tabulation of tasting data so far, first in time for Marcia to use in this piece, then in time to post when the piece came out….no such luck. Just too busy. We’ll get to it sooner or later, but in the meantime enjoy the article, and come out to the Columbia Farmers Market to enjoy some interesting garlic.

And thanks again to Marcia for a great piece.

Columbia Business Times

We recently agreed to work with the Columbia Business Times on a business profile article, and spent two hours showing a writer and photographer around the farm while carrying on a detailed and thorough discussion of our methods, philosophy, business plan, and so on. The piece just appeared online; see what you think.

In short: we’re not impressed. It contains numerous errors and misrepresentations which we were not given the chance to review or correct (we moved here from Virginia, not Vermont; Organic certification is NOT a seal of product quality; that bed in the photo contains scattered overwintered onions, not our robust garlic plantings). One would think a business publication could be counted on to get the business name right. The farm is Chert Hollow Farm, LLC, not just Chert Hollow Farm (or Chert Hollow Farms, as the CBT main page shows). The article really carries no more detail or insight than can already be found on our website.

In addition, while they technically asked us to confirm quotes, they didn’t use any of the edits I asked for in those quotes. Over the course of a wide-ranging and busy 2-hour interview, a few things are going to come out oddly. I understand keeping exact quotes in a news article, but really, a business profile is not news, it’s an attempt to show a business in a positive light. Is it really so bad to let the subject gently massage their quotes to be more accurate to their context and meaning? The “Mayas and DuPont” quote is classic here; I have no idea where my mind came up with those specific names off the cuff, but the point is just as well made with “ancient peoples and chemical companies” and sounds less absurd. Furthermore, the photo captions and associated quotes were never fact checked with us, and the quote attributed to Joanna contains inaccuracies.

I know it’s advertising, but what’s the point when it doesn’t say what you want to say? I agreed to work with the CBT in the hopes of depicting the business side of this kind of farming, including marketing plans, regulations, subsidy policies, etc. No context is given to the statements about us, leaving them hanging and unexplained. I specifically told them I wasn’t interested in just another “people living off the land” story, but that’s what we got anyway.

Maybe it reads better to others. I know we hold very high standards and may be too harsh as critics, and for all I know the original piece was far longer and better before being butchered by an editor. But I don’t think the two hours were worth the result. Frankly, there’s far more information, detail, and context on our website. I could have written a 700-word business profile myself, done a better job, and gotten paid for it.

Time to tighten our media policy once again.

Food safety and local TV

Local TV station KOMU called yesterday, planning to do a story on the food safety bills now before Congress (for background, see my post on HR 875). A very nice reporter drove out to the farm around 5:30 pm to interview and take footage for the 10pm newscast. We had a good time; she was intelligent and asked good questions, listening to the answers and asking followups. There is so much to say about how screwy these top-down, one-size-fits-all attempts to “fix” food safety that I was having a hard time condensing my thoughts into sound bites that would work for TV, but did my best.

This is why I don’t like TV as a medium, though. All reporters have to filter the large amount of information they gather, but TV makes it especially hard to present context and reasoned argument. After all, she spent over 30 minutes here, but had less than a minute to cover the entire topic. This format works for house fires and lost dogs, but not for serious public policy issues. It would be nice if (a) stations gave their reporters more time to do real stories, and (b) the audience demand supported such things.

In any case, watch the piece here and judge for yourself. I think it’s well done given the constraints, but no one sound bite can possibly convey the deeper discussion we had during her visit. I do wish they had used another quote from me, as that one out of context just makes me sound like any other business person instinctively bemoaning regulation, with none of the background arguments for why this particular regulation really is impractical. I felt particularly strongly about the point that on a farm like ours, customers can come out and inspect the production process for themselves; the FDA can’t possibly match that kind of relationship. To give credit, she did mention that during the voiceover, but with a couple more minutes she could really have delved into the issue in a way that would inform the viewer. Not her fault, though; it’s the nature of the (badly misused) medium.

Media coverage

We’ve been mentioned a few times in the local media over the past week, so I thought I’d pass along the links for anyone interested who hadn’t seen the pieces.

We seem to draw a lot of interest from journalists, especially journalism students at MU. I think it’s partly because of our strong online presence; that generation uses computers for everything, and naturally hits Google first when looking for a farmer to interview. They see our detailed website and home in like a goat to grain. This is one reason I’ve been really happy with the new CFM website we launched this spring, which includes detailed vendor listings that allow customers, reporters, and others to easily find vendors of interest.

The regular interest from journalists is a mixed bag. On one hand, I’m always thrilled to see how many young, up-and-coming journalists are interested in sustainable/agricultural issues. On the other hand, we can’t possibly do interviews and pieces with all of them, and I don’t feel right doing so anyway because our personal operation is really only two years old and there are so many other interesting operations and people out there to talk to, though they may not have a pretty website. So I’ll often redirect them to someone else of interest. Their interest is always appreciated, though, and it gives me hope for the future that we are grooming future reporters and writers who take an interest in these issues.

On to our recent moments of fame. We began with a mention last Wednesday in the weekly food column by Marcia Vanderlip of the Columbia Tribune, reporting on our fresh edamame.

Following this, Vox Magazine came out with a nice, long piece on the local foods movement in Columbia and mid-Missouri. I really appreciated this piece because it took the time to look at the issue from many sides, offering some diverse perspectives and analaysis. Well done, folks.

Finally, last Saturday the Columbia Missourian ran a longer story about our approach to homestead farming, looking at how and several other folks in the area are seeking to integrate those two concepts into a workable life and business. The reporter on this piece, Kate Hill, was a real pleasure to work with, knowledgeable and conscientious, and we felt comfortable giving her more time and access than we usually would. As it turns out, the online version of the story still contains a few odd errors, but overall we felt that the piece nicely captured our fundamental goal of integrating sustainable simple living with a practical market farming business model.

Take a look at these pieces and give us your comments here or via email. I’d be curious what people thought, particularly, of the Missourian piece.