Shae and I are less than 2 months into the world of farming and we’ve had our hearts broken.
As I mentioned, I started to advertise on the forum of the Weston A. Price Foundation- South Bay Chapter’s forum. The people have been amazing, and the part I’ve enjoyed most has been their intense curiosity and interest in their food. I’ve spent days answering question about our methods, our breeds, and our feed ration. I even got into a small debate with another pasture-based farm in the area over whether a conventional (non-organic) feed could be free of genetically modified organisms (GMO) like Monsanto corn or soy.
This is important to us because Joel back at Polyface has struck a wonderful balance between his political/nutritional priorities and affordability by using a conventional feed that is free of GMO ingredients. We were jumping around the house a few weeks back when after calling feed mill after feed mill, we found one that sold a conventional feed that was GMO free. It felt like we had really surmounted a big hurdle.
However, as a result of my debate on the forum, I wanted to produce the guarantee of not using GMO ingredients in writing from my feed mill. Shae called them and as I watched her face morph from nonchalance to confusion to anger, I began to worry. I learned after the call that the man she talked when we placed our first order had backtracked, and in just a few minutes “non-GMO” became more and more specific, and less and less significant. What they can guarantee is that the feed they sell us does not contain Monsanto Round-Up Ready corn. That’s all.
Now that’s not bad. In fact, once we calmed down we realized that as conventional feeds go, we have been incredibly fortunate to have found one without medications and artificial hormones. The feed even has a great heat-resistant pro-biotic and a very balanced range of vitamins and minerals. But the fact remained; we felt, and still feel, heartbroken.
The reality is that because we are raising omnivores, we rely on grain. In this country 80%-95% of the grain produced is GMO and the vast majority of the available scientific research makes feed producers think you are wacko for requesting that it not be in your feed. Further it’s becoming harder and harder to grow non-GMO crops. No matter how organic or careful you are, if your neighbor or even someone in the county is using GMO you are at risk. This is because genetically modified DNA contained in the plant’s pollen contaminates non-GMO crops by invading (rather than sexually combining with) non-GMO DNA. It’s a bad situation (Shae would like me to add that the beneficent companies that make GMO crops can also sue you for stealing their intellectual property if this happens…and it does).
As though to make matters worse, the cartel of organic feed producers appear to be exploiting this fact and sell their feed at very high prices. While I have been exploring other options, I have been shocked at A.) how expensive organic feed is B.) how unimpressive its list of ingredients are and C.) how poor the customer service is at the closest and most popular organic feed mill. At the price they ask (which is more than 50% above my current feed’s price), I would expect a ration that was darn near perfect. Instead it appears they want me to pay high-end prices for something mediocre.
So, what do we do?
Well, after a lot of late night discussions and lists on the whiteboards we will be sticking with the feed we have for now. Our goal is to produce a stellar product that our respective parents could have afforded to feed our families when Shae and I were growing up. As it stands we are hovering around the $15 per bird range, which was our initial goal, but even some Weston A. Price Foundation members who are truly educated and passionate about their food simply can’t afford that. That’s a tragedy. We are constantly looking for ways to lower our prices, and we’ve done our best to offer trades for labor or other services, but that’s not a particularly sustainable model for us if it gets to be too much bigger.
To us the way forward is clear. Our mission is still to provide new choices to customers so more people can buy and will buy this food. Right now there are at least two other small pasture-based chicken producers in the area who use a 100% organic feed. This means customers have the option to buy a wonderful and pasture-raised organic bird if they can afford it, but they are stuck with what they can find in the supermarket if they can’t. We see our role as bridging that gap. Raising birds out on the verdant and nutritious pasture without hormones or medications is downright awesome and it’s our top priority because it’s the crux of producing delicious, healthy, and humane meat. However, we’ve learned from this that our next priority is affordability, and as such we have to be willing to get our hearts broken sometimes.
Since all of you reading this are friends and family, I know you want to know how this has affected our business.
This has been such a blessing in disguise. We have the best customers in the world.
After immediately alerting all of our customers to the fact that our feed was no longer GMO-free, we haven’t had a single cancellation. Everyone who has responded to my email has been so understanding of the difficulty of balancing the priorities I mentioned above. Some have offered their suggestions, their advice, and in some cases even their gratitude for our honesty and efforts to do what we are doing.
One customer put it best, GMO crops and feed are worth fighting, but there are bigger fights for us to be in right now. The treatment of the animals, the health of the land, and people’s access to affordable, healthy, and nutritionally-dense food will have the largest effect on fixing our food system.