Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Finding ourselves

We spent a day with some real farmers this weekend and I'm feeling like a fraud.  This is not an unfamiliar feeling for me - after all, I'm 39 and am still waiting to be an actual adult.  And now I'm clear that it will be a long time before I can claim to be doing anything other than playing at being a farmer.

This reality check was graciously provided by the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association by way of the NC Piedmont Farm Tour.  Brendan and I signed up to be part of the Beginning Farmers Livestock tour along with twenty other wide-eyed, aspiring farmers.  We piled onto a tour bus to visit three very different local farms.  Each was fascinating in its own way and provided three distinct points of view on organic farming.

Our first visit was to Cozi Farm, which is run by a former Capitol Hill journalist, Suzanne Nelson.  Cozi is an organic, polyculture farm.  A polyculture farm is one which grows a variety of crops and animals rather than focusing on one or two crops/animals.  This is essentially what Brendan and I are hoping to do, just on a larger scale.  Cozi is a commercial operation that raises hundreds of chickens each year as well as sheep, goats, turkeys, pigs and cattle.  They sell meat and eggs at farmers markets and to restaurants throughout the local area.  We plan to supply only our own restaurant and perhaps a few friends and family.  Suzanne is an absolute true believer in organic farming.

Her livestock are pastured daily and when they do eat feed, it is a locally milled organic feed.  She refuses to use treated wood in the fencing in order to avoid poisoning the earth in any way.  Suzanne was really interesting to talk to and Brendan and I are both hoping to get to know her.  I'm a bit unclear on whether the operation is profitable as of yet but it is clear that Cozi is dedicated to their practices for their sake alone and I get the impression that profitability is a secondary concern.

Our second visit was to Cohen Farm, run by Esta and Murray Cohen.  Murray began organic farming in NC in 1971 when no one even knew what made a farm organic.  He was the first organic farmer in Chatham Co. and provides organic hay to dairy farmers through a contract with Organic Valley.  He also raises chickens, pigs and cattle for meat.  The Cohens are dedicated to organic practices, but always with an eye on the bottom line.  Murray states that he has no interest in having his beef be certified organic because of the costs associated with certification.  He also prefers to produce organic hay to sell rather than raise more beef because the hay is more profitable.  He struck me as a pragmatist - doing the best he can by the land and animals while continuing to make a living off the land.

Finally, we visited Wells Branch, LLC, a farm which raises cattle and pigs for meat - a very large and well organized facility raising hundreds of heads of cattle on hundreds of acres of land.  Wells Branch cattle is completely grass fed and antibiotic free, processed and sold locally.  We were introduced to Charles Sydnor, a doctor turned rancher who, while firmly believing in the benefits of organic farming, has his watchful eye always on the financial side of things.  In cattle farming, he said, profitability is defined as the absence of expenses.  To him, having his cattle be entirely grass fed is common sense.  He owns the land, it should work for him and feed the animals.  The animals should work for him by grazing and fertilizing the land.  The more work the land and animals do, the less the farmer has to to, thereby reducing expenses and maximizing profit.

It was so gratifying to meet these farmers and see that there are clearly different ways to approach the same goal.  So, how will we approach our goal of farming our little homestead as sustainably as possible?  I'm not sure.  What our farm becomes will depend entirely on what we hope our restaurant will be.  I think it will be a lot of trial and error, a process of slowly eliminating the things that don't work for us.  It has been said that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly at first.  Here's to a few years of doing poorly.

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