Michael and Casey Lance run a small family farm named Calee’s Coop here on the more-rural side of our rural county of Transylvania, North Carolina. At the tailgate market, on a Saturday morning, “homey” touches such as a tablecloth patterned with chickens and a painted and shellacked pumpkin grace the table, but the thing that touches at the heartstrings are the framed snapshots of Michael’s daughter, Calee.
Soon after the usual greetings are finished, Michael mentions, with obvious pride, that Calee recently won a 4-H competition for her presentation about raising chickens and is now headed to Raleigh, North Carolina, to compete at the next level. He is pleased with the thought of Calee earning a job with the agricultural knowledge she is being raised with, and would be happy for her to find work with the government or some such agency.
What do you produce?
Calee’s Coop, as the name implies, started off producing eggs and has now grown to offer sausage as well.
What experience and/or education do you have in agriculture?
Michael Lance is entirely self-taught when it comes to agriculture. He jokingly described himself as a “city boy” who grew up in downtown Rosman (a local town with a population of a whopping 499). He originally worked in construction and started farming as a hobby, in order to feed his family.
How did you decide upon your product?
Michael started giving eggs to family and friends and then people started wanting to buy them and from there, the business of farming grew. Demand determines what products are offered.
What are the greatest challenges facing your farm?
As it is for nearly all of us, money is the greatest challenge facing the Lances. Everything costs so much to start up and keep growing… from buying feed, hogs, and chickens each year.
What are the greatest benefits you receive from farming?
Michael says farming is very hard work but he enjoys it so much that, even when he’s working, it’s relaxing because he’s doing what he truly wants to do.
How are things different now than when you started? What new things have you learned?
He’s been surprised at how much the business has grown and how it’s not a hobby anymore. He’s learned a lot in twelve years because everything was new in the beginning. But he’s always willing to ask questions of people who have been farming longer than he.
What are your thoughts on America’s food supply? What are some problems? What are some good things we have going?
His thinking is that Americans don’t grow or produce enough of our food naturally. One benefit we have is that we can do whatever we want in this country if we just work together.
What do you wish the general public knew about farming?
Michael points out that it is very hard work and that there is no such thing as an eight-hour day, or weekends, or even vacations; that farmers work for the public because they love what they do.
What advice would you give to the next generation of farmers?
Michael states he has seen a lot of people try to farm but if their hearts aren’t 100 percent into it, they shouldn’t even try because they will never make it in the farming business.
***End of Lance Interview***
Last Thoughts on American Farming…
Our system of food production is facing some major obstacles. As our population grows and as our country becomes more “urbanized”, we need to take a long look at these obstacles and have some serious discussion about how we’re going to feed ourselves. Here are some of the big issues we’re facing:
The horrific oil spill in the Gulf should have all of us rethinking our oil consumption (if you weren’t already concerned to begin with). What many Americans don’t realize is that oil consumption for agricultural use is running a close second to our oil consumption for vehicular use. According to Cornell University’s David Pimentel, we North Americans use an average of ten calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food energy. Obviously, the huge farm machines run on oil: tractors, combines, harvesters, irrigation, sprayers, tillers, balers, and other equipment. In addition, “inputs” such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides use oil and natural gas as their starting materials, and in their manufacturing. Oil is also necessary in every step of food production, from actual transportation to processing steps such as drying, milling, cutting, sorting, baking, as well as packaging, warehousing and refrigeration. According to Steven Hopp, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, each food item in a typical American meal has traveled 1500 miles. If a family consumed one meal per week of local ingredients, we would save over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week.
Genetic engineering refers to the insertion of specific genes from an organism into an entirely different plant or animal. It is now estimated that 70% of processed foods in American supermarkets now contain genetically modified ingredients with soybeans representing 63% of all GE crops. The motivation for creating these GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides. In reality, GMOs often require greater amounts of pesticides because the pests grow resistant to the pesticides, requiring greater and greater amounts of input. This, in turn, creates more pollution, covers the food and soil with more waste, and exposes the farm workers to greater amounts of toxins.
The world of genetic engineering gets even scarier when dealing with the animal world. Taiwanese scientists have inserted jellyfish genes into pigs in order to make them glow in the dark. Why? I couldn’t say. Chinese scientists are looking to produce goats with milk that contains spider silk in order to produce a new type of material that is stronger than steel.
Aside from the just plain freakishness of these ideas, genetic engineering creates more problems than it will potentially solve. First of all, no one has a clear idea what the long term consequences of this science are – it’s too new. Agencies don’t know how to regulate such agriculture. Patent offices don’t even know how to patent such organisms.
Secondly, many genetically modified organisms are not approved, yet, for consumption. Yet there are cases where these organisms have been released onto the market. In 2003, scientists at the University of Illinois were conducting an experiment that involved inserting cow genes into female pigs in order to increase their milk production. They also inserted a synthetic gene to make milk digestion easier for the piglets. The experimental pigs were supposed to be destroyed, as instructed by the FDA. However, 386 offspring of the experimental pigs were sold to livestock brokers, who sold them to slaughterhouses. They were processed and sent to grocery stores as pork chops, sausage, and bacon (www.sustainabletable.org). And even food that is approved does not require a label. Consumers aren’t even given the choice about whether or not to consume GMOs – agricultural lobbyist fought hard against any labeling and won.
There is a further concern that GMOs will begin producing, and mutating, in the wild and we will be unable to stop them or to “clean up the mess”. Already Japan and Ireland have banned American imports of rice because they have discovered that experimental and unapproved GE rice has contaminated their conventional rice (www.sustainabletable.org).
Some other concerns are allergies, gene mutation, loss of nutrition, and the affect on small farmers. In regards to allergies, there is concern that if someone is allergic to the organism that offered the spliced gene, he or she could have a reaction to the GMO. For instance, if a gene from a nut is inserted into a pig, a person with a nut allergy would feel safe eating pork and yet suffer from anaphylactic shock. The worry with gene mutation is that it is unknown how stable GMOs ultimately are – can they create further mutations, including mutations in the DNA of the people who consume them? In addition, are GMOs as nutritionally sound as their traditional counterparts? And finally, GMOs push smaller farmers out of the agriculture business. In order to compete, farmers are nearly forced to buy genetically engineered seeds or animals which in turn require buying specific fertilizers, pesticides, feed, and more seeds from the agricultural corporations. And this happens year after year, with the farmer falling into greater and greater debt and being more “under the thumb” of the corporation.
Another problem our food system is facing is that most of our meat is raised through factory farming, or the use of CAFO’s – Concentrated (or Confined) Animal Feeding Operations. As the name implies, huge amounts of animals are confined within small feed lots, some for their entire lives. This leads to a host of problems such as unhealthy meat, animal cruelty, massive amounts of pollution, and the growth of farm corporations at the detriment of the small farmers.
On a cattle lot, there can be as many as 100,000 animals that will be fed an unnatural diet of corn, liquefied fat, protein supplements, synthetic growth hormones, and lots and lots of antibiotics. Poultry are typically crowded by the thousands into huge, factory-like warehouses where they can barely move. Each chicken is given less than half a square foot of space, while turkeys are each given less than three square feet.
How does this style of production affect the quality of meat? We believe we’re getting good deals on meat in the supermarket, but there are certainly many hidden costs. If we focus on the example of beef, we see cows that are given an unnatural diet. Yes, cows naturally consume some grains while in the pasture, but no where do they eat massive amounts of corn – their bodies are just not designed for this consumption. So their muscles develop too much saturated fat and the ratio of omega 3s and omega 6s is off-kilter. But there are even greater problems. Because the feedlots are so unsanitary and the lifestyle so unnatural (no clean water, no room to move, knee-deep manure, an unhealthy diet), the cows must be given constant high doses of antibiotics. Most of the antibiotics sold in America end up in the feedlot (onlygrassfed.com). In order to speed up the fattening of the cows before they die of illness, cows are also given high levels of estrogen. Both the antibiotics and the estrogen are stored in the fat and consumed by you. Finally, there is a great risk of bacterial contamination from feedlot cows. Since the cows are standing in manure all day, every day, it is impossible to remove all of the fecal matter and so it is easy for this matter to mingle with the meat when the cow is being processed.
Obviously, this way of farming involves cruelty to the animals. Most people picture cows happily grazing in the fields and chickens pecking contentedly around the barnyard – and this picture is accurate if you’re thinking of a homestead or a small farm – but this is certainly not the case for feedlot animals. Instead, life is short and brutish. Chickens are debeaked and crammed together in concrete buildings without light or ventilation. They grow so quickly that their skeletons cannot keep up and they can no longer walk. Cows are often “downed” and are left where they lie without receiving food, water, or care. And you can imagine the “processing” of these animals.
In addition, there is the problem of pollution brought about by factory farming. In the pasture, manure falls where it will and actually replenishes the soil. The cow is actually part of a self-sustaining cycle. The factory farm disrupts this cycle and creates the problem of industrial waste. Run-off contaminates the water with manure, pathogens, antibiotics, and chemicals. Manure waste can emit hundreds of gases, including hydrogen sulfide, which can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, and ammonia, an irritant that, at high levels, can cause death. In fact, agricultural operations are the single largest source of toxic ammonia air pollution in the United States. The air around factory farms also becomes contaminated with suspended dust particles, which have been linked to asthma, bronchitis, and other serious health concerns (onlygrassfed.com).
And yet again, this style of farming pushes out the small farmer. They cannot offer meat at such cheap prices. But really, what is the true cost of that meat you buy at the supermarket?
Here’s One Solution:
Shop locally and sustainably. Homesteaders are generally already ahead of the game because they produce as much of their own food and products as they can. So smile upon that garden you’re caring for, give the chickens some extra scraps, and go pat that dairy cow.
For products you can’t produce at home, look for a local source (“locavores” try for a 100 mile radius but even 200 miles is better than 2,000). Instead of some German beer, considering buying from the local micro-brewery (who said this had to be all about deprivation)? Instead of buying California strawberries, why not make a cobbler from some local blackberries picked in a lazy summer afternoon?
Personally, we can’t produce beef on our land, but we have been blessed with many local farmers that offer pasture-raised beef, free of antibiotics. Since I buy in bulk and stock my freezer once a year, the price per pound is half the price of a pound of organic ground beef at the local grocery store. And I love driving by the very farm I buy my meat from and running into the farmers when I’m running errands in our small town.
Why is it important to buy local? Buying this way cuts down on the oil consumption necessary for the production of your food because local food obviously doesn’t travel as far, it usually doesn’t need as many pesticides and preservatives because it doesn’t have to travel, and it doesn’t usually need as much packaging. Buying local cuts down on genetically engineered food because small farmers with a reliable customer base don’t need to rely on big corporations – they can grow “regular animals” that might take longer to reach their butchering weight and they can grow “regular plants” with seeds that can be saved year after year. In addition, buying locally allows us to step away from factory-farming because, again, small farmers with support can raise animals in the “good old-fashioned way”.
Also, buying locally keeps money flowing through the local economy. A wheat farmer can expect to receive about six cents of each dollar spent on a loaf of bread – approximately the cost of the wrapping. In contrast, farmer’s markets allow farmers to earn 80 to 90 cents of each dollar spent by the customer. I like that the money I spend buying chickens from Brittany Whitmire helps her to keep the farmland that’s been in her family for hundreds of years. And I like that the money I spend on Michael Lance’s sausage helps him pay for things his young daughter might need. In turn, these very “real” people are providing my young family with wholesome food and a sense of a “food community”.