Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Polyface Farm – Swoope, VA
Polyface Farms, featured in Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma, is among the best known alternative farms in the country. Comprising 550 acres in the scenic Shenendoah Valley, the farm was founded in 1961 by Joel Salatin, the eccentric farmer and public speaker considered by many the pioneer of chemical-free farming.
Joel, a self-described "Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer,” produces meat he calls “beyond organic,” referring to the methods he uses on his farm.
Though he raises animals for meat and eggs, Salatin sees himself as a “grass farmer,” since grass is the vital source of the nutrients his animals consume.
Polyface is mostly quiet in the winter, as the farm only raises animals that can eat grass outside. But we were able to stop by the general store and take advantage of the farm’s open door policy to walk around and meet the pigs and egg-laying chickens.
Jaemor Farms – Alto, GA
Jaemor Farms is different from the other farms I visited on my trip. Located in the foothills of the north Georgia countryside, Jaemor is a conventional agriculture operation with practices that have been passed down for six generations in the Echols family. With over 22,000 Instagram followers, the Echols have not only made Jaemor a thriving business and a source of feeding their community, they also figured out how to turn the farm into a tourist attraction. The Echols run a large general store full of homemade products, like pickled peaches, hot sauces, salsa, jams and my favorite, sauerkraut. They are famous for their Georgia peaches, and the family helps the community follow seasonality by posting a calendar on its website to let fans know which crops are available for picking each month.
Jaemor is a family farm, and after speaking with one of the sons, Judah, I was reminded of all of the risks farmers take to make their business work. We spoke about his father who opened the farm store after a new highway in the area allowed him to envision an opportunity for a year-round market. We talked about the weather extremes -- the years when the family lost their peach crops -- and how the support of the community helped them through. He talked about the family's ability to advertise and promote “Georgia Grown” on labels, which helped build agri-tourism. We also discussed how far removed consumers have become from their food. He noted that he has customers who expect peaches all year long. Judah enjoys bringing guests out to the farm for a corn maze or a U-pick strawberry day. He hopes they will gain a greater understanding of farming when they see firsthand what goes into planting and harvesting thousands of acres of crops every year, while dealing with unpredictable weather patterns and new pests and disease.
What goes unnoticed at a successful farm like Jaemor is land management practices that allow intensively farmed land to continue to be healthy over five generations. This is where the Echols’ sustainability practices come in. Even though few of the family’s customers are buying their fruits for these practices, taking care of the soil is the only way to ensure a business for the future.
Jaemor includes one of its founder’s quotes on its website, which sums up the Echol's philosophy:
“A sustainable farmer has an almost mystical love for the land. He or she must have a vision that sweeps across years and generations. We must realize that the decisions we make and the actions we take many times have an impact far beyond our own years. We must plan, build and plant, foregoing immediate gratification, for the ones who come after us.”
White Oak Pastures – Bluffton, GA
Our visit to White Oak Pastures had a great impact on me. Its slogan - Radically Traditional Farming - captures best what they are all about. Located in Bluffton, Georgia, White Oak Pastures is focused on raising grass-fed beef and using land management practices that work to regenerate rather than destroy land, a well-known negative consequence of commodity cattle-raising operations. Spending time at White Oak felt like stepping into a close-knit community. We stayed at one of the cabins on the property, which kept us connected to our surroundings. There was no cell service or WIFI.
White Oak’s general store and restaurant are the hub of the Bluffton community and a welcome source of employment. We took a tour with Jodi, one of the founding family members, who walked us through the farm’s leather workshop, egg processing operation, online order warehouse and the red meat abattoirs (a French word commonly used in place of slaughterhouse). This was an unusual tour as most of the slaughterhouses in this country are industrial operations that do not allow visitors to observe.
For context, it is important to note that 80% of the beef in the United States is processed by four large companies (Tysons, JBS, National Beef and Cargill). This means that small-scale processors like White Oak are rare due to increased regulation and bureaucracy that favor industrial-scale operations.
White Oak, on the other hand, wants consumers to see how they care for their animals and how by processing (from cow into meat) at a reasonable scale, they create no excess waste. The family strives to make use of every single part of the animal -- for candles, leather bags, rugs and pet toys. I had mixed feelings about observing a slaughter operation, but I strongly believe that if you are going to eat meat, being able to watch the sacrifice is key to making a connection with food. In terms of size, their facility processes 30-35 cattle a day, while an industrial facility processes 400 an hour. This is the difference between a sustainable operation and one that raises animals only to maximize output.
As Jodi reminded us before we left, consumers always have the power to vote with their dollar, but the greenwashing that big companies promote is a threat to businesses like theirs. Bigger companies can now create labels and marketing that give the impression that animals are being raised humanely and on pasture, when they are not. The best way to know what you’re getting is to get to know the people and company that produce the product - and become life-long customers.
Northside Planting – Franklin, LA
Finding this farm was a bit of a miracle. After reading an article from 2003 about sugarcane growers in Louisiana recognized for re-building soil health, I looked up the company name and reached one of the sons in the family who kindly invited me to come for a visit.
Upon our arrival, two brothers, Chad and Clint, who own the farm, greeted us warmly. We sat down in their office to try to understand the complicated business of growing sugarcane on a family farm and selling it into a complex marketplace.
We discussed sugar import bans and the necessity of government protection to prevent putting all sugarcane growers out of business. They explained that when food manufacturers use subsidized high-fructose corn syrup as a sugar substitute, there are health consequences. Cane sugar is broken down into fructose, which our bodies burn as energy, while high fructose corn syrup is stored in our bodies as fat. Chad explained how their grandfather formed a friendship with a Mennonite community that taught them how to pay attention to their soil, reducing their reliance on fertilizers. The brothers also highlighted the same problem that many farmers I spoke with faced – falling prices. Like other producers, they now have to farm more acres in order to make the same money.
Toward the end of our visit, we toured their collection of farm equipment, much of which they have customized themselves. And they sent us off with a 10 lb bucket of raw sugar, the good stuff before it gets bleached!
Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill and Farm - Elgin, TX
We stopped by Coyote Creek Farm on our way to Austin, where we finally got to see some cute animals. But this farm is more than just cute. Coyote Creek raises thousands of chickens using pasture grazing, a more humane and sustainable practice than the windowless and toxic industrial chicken houses, where most of the chicken we eat is raised. At Coyote Creek, the chickens are actually outside eating grass and running around.
To keep the soil healthy, the farmers move their chicken houses around every couple of days so the grass can replenish itself. That way, their manure can fertilize the soil, rather than build up and become unmanageable. Walking around with founding family member, Ron, we discussed the health benefits of pasture-raised eggs, which have higher Omega-3 levels and lower cholesterol. The farm's Instagram has photos of adorable animals, and you can buy their eggs in Whole Foods stores all across the Southwest region, as well as their organic animal feed online.
Chris Grotegut, Hereford, TX
Much to my surprise, I found Chris, a Texas farmer, through LinkedIn. I had read an article about soil health in which he was mentioned, reached out, and within hours, he got back to me and graciously offered to host us on Sunday afternoon in his home. After being greeted by baby lambs, we talked in his kitchen for two hours and had a complex conversation that at times was a bit dark. We discussed the crisis of how to feed a growing global population and how the density of cities, creating high demand for meat, has led to concentrated animal feedlots.
Chris explained why people still till their land (even though it can destroy the soil systems) by reminding us that cultural norms often influence behavior: “Think of Christmas trees or watering lawns during droughts.” The social pressure to maintain the previous generation's status quo has a strong influence. His 9-year-old son even chimed in that McDonald’s has an easier time implementing changes to its supply chain than, say, Apple as its menu is simpler. Impressive. I could write an entire post about what Chris and I discussed, but my biggest takeaways are: One, we are exporting more nutrients from our soil than we are getting back, and two, people are buying organic, not because it’s the right thing, but because it’s the cool thing - think about Tesla.
If you’re ever in West Texas, stop by and visit Chris. I found the drive to his home to be quite the scene: a sprawling landscape of massive cattle feedlots, giant wind turbines and pumping oil rigs.
Family Haven Farm, New Mexico
On the day we were meant to go to the Petrified Forest in Arizona, there was a snowstorm. So instead we headed toward Tucson and with a long day of driving ahead of us, I started checking Google to see if there might be a farm we could visit on the way. I was lucky enough to stumble upon Family Haven Farms, located between Albuqurque and Phoenix.
When I called the number on the website, a friendly voice greeted me. I proceeded to give my spiel about what I was doing and was invited to come by. After having some trouble finding the farm, as they are a small homesteading community in a remote location with no cell service, we eventually made it. Once we got there, we were welcomed into an oasis where co-owners Aurelio, and his partner Eva, are building a world that at first confused a city dweller such as myself. But after spending some time there, I was amazed and inspired. Aurelio grew up off the grid in Mexico, and Eva realized at a young age after a hurricane devastated her hometown in Florida, that people can’t always rely on the system for food. Shaped by these events, they are now growing food for themselves and their community. More important, they want to teach others how to live off the land and what growing food can look like when you take into consideration biological and ecological systems. Walking around their property, we were introduced to so many innovative techniques and concepts, such as their Terraceship (a greenhouse built from recycled materials, inspired by the documentary The Garbage Warrior). We also witnessed their innovative practice of composting with bioreactors and their system of producing the most food they can with the water available.
Sitting around the fire with their three dogs, drinking coffee and eating popcorn, we discussed how a farm can have the most impact. For Family Haven, it’s not just about feeding themselves and leaving society behind. It’s about leading by example. They’re on a mission to influence urban dwellers to have a closer connection to food, to grow what they can at home, live more sustainably and understand what it takes to be a steward of the land. I plan to stay connected to Family Haven for years to come. I look forward to bringing more people to visit and learning more from Aurelio and Eva in the future.
Driscoll's Berry Farm, Royal Oaks, CA
Driscoll's, a name you might recognize from your grocery store, is one of the most well-known brands in produce. The company controls about a third of the United States' berry market. Through a personal connection, I was able to visit one of Driscoll’s contract farms. Not only did I learn about how berries are grown on a large-scale, I also learned how Driscoll's supply chain works to get berries from the field in California to grocery store shelves across the country. The operation we visited grows strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, both organic and conventional. We spoke with the general manager about the symbiotic relationship between Driscoll's and the 25 contract farms they work with. As the brand, Driscoll's does all the genetics research, provides the seeds, and handles the logistics and marketing. The growers on the farms are responsible for delivering a near-perfect product and are held responsible for the quality and food safety.
He talked with us about issues surrounding high labor costs and the role of bees in pollinating every seed on every strawberry. He also talked about the need for consumers to think seasonally when buying produce and the importance of soil health for the longevity of the land. My time there showed me that even on a contract farm, farmers are able to bring their own tools and knowledge to the table, growing the best product they can while minimizing costs.
I walked away from our time together convinced that even behind the world’s biggest brands, there are individual farmers striving to take care of their land and deliver a memorable product.