American farmer

I recently watched a movie produced by Robert Kenner called Food, Inc., a documentary about current American farming practices and where we are going wrong.  It features interviews with “foodies” such as Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin, who argue strongly against the current industrialized system for food production and propose a return to small, local food sources.  Barbara Kingsolver has also argued for this in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  The film and the book paint an idyllic scene of small farmers acting as true stewards of their land and animals and of farmers and customers building a beautiful relationship around something as basic as food.  However, it made me wonder if this type of food system is a reality.  Does it exist?  Does it work?  Is it sustainable?  Is it the best answer to how we feed ourselves?

I live in a rural county in the western mountains of North Carolina.  We are blessed with many small farmers, some of whom come from farming families that have been here for generations.  These farmers have allowed people like me to provide their families with affordable yet wholesome food – no small feat in these times.  After interviewing four of these community farmers, I feel confident that a bond can be redeveloped between farmers and customers and that local farmers can provide food for their communities.

What is your name?  The name of your farm?  Where is it located?

Brittany Whitmire.  BusyBee Farm, part of the Whitmire Century Family Farm in the Cherryfield community of Transylvania County, North Carolina, about halfway between Brevard and Rosman.

What do you produce?

Pastured beef and chicken, pesticide-free sweet corn, and local honey varietals.

What experience and/or education do you have in agriculture?

I am the fifth generation in my family to own and operate the land on which we live and work.  As a child, I worked closely with my father and grandfather, helping feed baby calves and, later, maintaining the health of a herd of dairy replacement heifers.  In high school and college, I was actively involved in the National FFA Organization [Future Farmers of America] and completed internships on farms in Germany and New Zealand.  My husband and partner, Andy VonCanon, currently teaches agricultural education at a local high school, and his educational background is in agricultural education and poultry science.

Did you grow up farming? How did you enter this occupation?

Yes.  As mentioned earlier, our family’s land is recognized by the N.C. Department of Agriculture as a Century Family Farm, meaning it has been consistently owned and operated by the same family for over 100 years.  My educational background is in economics, chemistry, and public administration; as farming and caring for creation is “in my blood”, I have been able to tie my interests in agriculture to my educational and professional pursuits.

How did you decide upon your product?

Traditionally in our area, cow/calf operations sell weaned calves on the hoof at stockyards or other sales, and they are trucked to the mid-west to be finished on feed lots.  However, when Andy and I were able to purchase some land adjacent to my father’s (which had been previously owned by my great-uncle, but the “worthless” mountain land had been sold about 40 years prior, and we were able to buy it back), we felt that it was important for us to do our part in minimizing our footprint as well as joining the increasing focus on local foods.  So, we started with keeping a few beehives, then added two brood cows, and helped my dad with his corn in the summer.  Each year, we have added a few more cows to the herd and have been able to sell natural beef to individuals, restaurants, and [local] retailers, like Poppies Market, for five years or so.  In 2009, we decided to add pastured chicken to our offering for several reasons: our customers were asking for red meat alternatives, it is increasingly difficult to find pasture land for rent to support a growing herd of cattle, and Andy is a poultry science guy who loves birds.

What are the greatest challenges facing your farm?

Competition with other producers who grow some of their own product, but who buy other goods for resale

Decreasing availability of land for grazing, forage crops, or grain crops due to development/urbanization and competition among producers

Continued access to markets with increasing regulatory actions

Customers still accustomed to cheap, convenient shopping and foods

What are the greatest benefits you receive from farming?

Joy of taking care of land that has been in my family for so many years – it’s part of my heritage in a way

The freedom to work with my hands, be outside, to watch the miracles of life happen before my eyes without my intervention

To experience the value of hard work and to learn that sometimes things happen that are totally beyond our control and, at those times, that we have to just be open to new possibilities instead of getting hung up on what didn’t happen or go our way

Working with my family (sometimes, that has its moments, though!)

Being able to look customers in the eye and assure them that I provide healthy food for them.

How are things different now than when you started? What new things have you learned?

My dad would certainly answer this question differently because he’s had longer to be in business, but a few things have changed over the course of my lifetime of farming.  First, farmers have always had to wear a lot of hats – mechanic, agronomist, vet, groomer, plumber, electrician, accountant, carpenter, etc.  However, in the last five years or so, it has become imperative that farmers also learn how to manage the marketing of their goods directly to consumers and retailers.  For example, it was much easier to haul a trailer-load of calves to the stockyard in Anderson and dump them off, drive home, and get a check in the mail the following week than it was to raise, process, maintain inventory, fill orders, deliver, and maintain a website for marketing beef.  The same holds true for other crops/products – farmers have become more closely tied with the marketing and distribution of their goods in recent years than they have been in the past.

I’ve learned that I can’t do everything that I want to do – and that’s a hard lesson at times!  Andy and I cannot compete with folks that have financial resources exponentially greater than ours; however, we can do the things on a scale that is manageable for us, and we can do those things to the best of our abilities.  We can draw upon the strengths of others to help our own efforts; an example of that is that we are cooperating with three CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture] this year by providing things to their customers that they can’t supply, including beef, chicken, and sweet corn.  We are excited about our partnerships with Richland Creek CSA, Morningside Farm CSA, and Gladheart Farms CSA this year.

What are your thoughts on America’s food supply? What are some problems? What are some good things we have going?

American farmers provide the safest food in the world.  They constitute less than two percent of the U.S. population, but they produce food for the globe.  American farmers are good people, hard-working, honest, and real.  The policies that govern much of the food production in America is another story – often convoluted, confusing, and controversial.

Much of the infrastructure for American agriculture is situated where it was, historically, the most well-suited.  For example, the greatest concentration of beef processing is located in the mid-west.  That makes sense when you look at the overall production picture for cattle.  Historically, the East Coast sold weaned calves and maintained herds of brood cows and western ranchers have done the same in less concentrated patterns.  The calves have converged in the center of the country where grain is abundant, and they have been placed in large feed lot operations to be “finished” out on grain until they are processed.

The majority of beef in the U.S. is fed, finished, and processed by a handful of companies.  For folks like me, who raise cattle on a small scale in western N.C., I have to search high and low to find an inspected slaughter/process facility that will 1) accept my independent animals, 2) label my beef with my farm’s information, and 3) provide quality packaging/processing for my product.  The closest USDA-Inspected facility with which I have been satisfied is a nearly 3-hour trailer drive away in Taylorsville, N.C.  Thankfully, my processor delivers my product to a drop-off point in Brevard for a small fee, but the distance away from the processor translates in an expense that I have to pass along to customers who buy my product.

In recent years, the interest in local foods has helped increase the demand for our goods to be directly marketed from the farm.   Despite the distance from our processor, we are thankful for a good working relationship with that business and appreciate him being there to provide a much needed service for small, independent meat animal producers like me.  We’re also thankful for a handful of loyal customers who have helped increase our customer base over the past few years – we have good customers, many of whom have become good friends as well.

What do you wish the general public knew about farming?

I suppose one of the things that I’d like for the general public to know about farming is that it is not what you see on the movies, some romantic notion of a two-story farmhouse with a neat yard and miles of white-board fencing surrounding pastures.  Our notion of what a farm is supposed to look like is often influenced by the pictures, images, and stories we read that are either novels or descriptions of country estates held by millionaires that, by owning farmland, reduce their tax liabilities because of the expenses incurred by investments in their farms.

This sounds harsh, I know, but here’s what I mean.  My family hasn’t made a mint from our farm; we’ve been able to pay the bills and make investments in the land, but it hasn’t resulted in lots of new tractors, big barns, or farm trucks!  We are asked frequently to host farm tours or visits from groups that want to learn more about agriculture in our area; I find myself comparing my farm to that image I mentioned earlier of a perfectly-groomed estate and hesitating to have visitors come and witness my wire fence-lines, or my muddy barnyard, or my weedy yard surrounding my fairly well-organized house.  Very recently, I have been convicted to practice my own preaching and host guests on the farm – for an introduction to a bona-fide, working farm that is nothing fancy, but is honest about what it does and how it works.

Another thing that I’d like the general public to know about farming is that you get what you pay for when you line up at the cash register.  Understandably, people want the most value for their dollar expenditures; however, cheap food doesn’t always translate into high value for the dollar.  The reason my beef, chicken, corn, and honey cost more than what you typically find at the grocery store is because 1) I am a small producer, 2) I have worked to ensure that my meats have been raised as naturally as possible, without growth hormones to artificially speed up muscle development or to tenderize the meat, 3) I have, in the case of our chicken, raised and processed each of those birds with my hands and removed every pin feather with a set of tweezers, 4) I have invested my time and energy in producing a product on which I am proud to place my name, and 5) by purchasing my farm goods, customers help ensure that farmers will continue to supply quality, safe, good foods in the future.

What advice would you give to the next generation of farmers?

You can’t be afraid of sweat, blood, or tears if you want to farm.  You also have to be prepared to balance the demands of the land with the needs of your family and yourself.  You should be ready to experience gratitude to the Provider and, on the flip side, to learn patience and perseverance through trials.  Find a mentor.  Find someone or some people who have strengths that complement yours – you will find it much easier to refrain from trying to be everything to everyone and to allow your strengths to grow alongside others’ influences.  Take pride in what you do and do what you can well – don’t fret about what you can’t do.

Read Part Two: Martin and the Mackeys

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