Today’s post comes from McHenry County Farm Bureau president and farmer Michele Aavang. Michele raises beef cattle on her farm just north of Woodstock, Ill., where cattle graze on pasture land that has been in the family since the 1840s. To find out more about Michele and her family, head to her Facebook page, Willow Lea Stock Farm.
Recently a woman who I like and respect quite a bit posted a rather lengthy Facebook status. Tammy and I met several years ago at the farmers’ market where I’m a vendor and she is a regular customer. She’s a mom of two and is making all of the food choices for her family.
Her post centered around her feelings of being torn between “seemingly opposing sides” of the “local, heirloom, organic, grass-fed, humanely raised, sustainable, non-GMO, antibiotic-free, free-range” farmers and those who farm using conventional methods.
Tammy, you don’t have to choose a side. The recent round of fear-based marketing, most prominently displayed by Chipotle’s new advertising campaign, will have you believe that there is only one correct choice and that it must be the one with the most adjectives attached.
It’s beyond annoying to me when one method of production is misrepresented and put down to make another look good. This tactic is being used not only by major food retailers like the burrito purveyor, but by farmers against one another.
I would suggest that there is room for all types of production methods in today’s agriculture and that they can peacefully coexist. The reality is there are plenty of markets for farmers today.
Consumers have a variety of desires and demands, from budget to niche related. We also can’t overlook the fact that we’re facing a very real global population explosion. It will take all farmers, large and small, organic and conventional, doing what they do best, to feed it.
A farmer makes the decision on what kind of crop to grow and how to grow it based on a multitude of factors, which include location, facilities, resources, market opportunities, availability of labor, personal preference, etc.
Here we have a herd of 60 beef cows. It’s that size because of the amount of land and the quality of land we have available.
The decision about how to market our beef, which is directly to consumers, was made based on the fact that we’re physically located in a fairly populous and prosperous area between two major population centers, Chicago and Rockford.
I have friends who raise cattle in North Dakota in a remote rural area literally 100 miles from the nearest Starbucks and 80 miles from a McDonald’s. Marketing direct to consumers is not an option for them.
They also have about 10 times the number of cows I have because they have more land and more labor available. It’s not better or worse than what we’re doing here.
I choose not to use growth promotants in my beef because my customers tell me they want it that way. My cattle grow a little slower and require more feed. The cost of that feed is passed along to the consumer.
I’m very aware there are people who can’t afford my beef. That’s OK and I’m happy there is more affordable beef in large retail stores available to them. I would never suggest that there’s anything wrong with the less expensive beef raised in a different manner.
The bottom line is that I have found a market for my beef, while other farmers have a market for less expensive, efficiently-raised beef. Yet another group finds buyers who are willing to pay extra for the organic label. We find what works best for our own farms.
I also market my beef as “natural.” I’m able to fit my production methods to the demands of my clientele. They tell me that “local” and “natural” are important to them; they don’t have strong feelings about “organic.”
They do like to know the money they’re spending is staying in the county. They want to have a relationship with their farmer and to know how and where their food is raised. I’m happy to comply.
If things change and price or something else should become the priority, I will have to adapt my production methods accordingly.
To consumers who are struggling with food choices, I say pick whatever works best for YOU. Buy what you want given your own budget and preferences.
I start my day the same way farmers and ranchers all across the country do. Getting up and checking our animals, making sure they’re comfortable and secure with plenty of feed, water and a dry place to rest.
Our livestock comes first no matter the adjectives attached to the label. No choice there.
Michele’s article was originally printed in the March 24 edition of FarmWeek.