Hard Work: The Ultimate Secret Ingredient

10 years ago grass-fed would have likely been a word that passed quickly over the heads of 90% of consumers. Farm-to-Table, raw, vegan and free range just weren't in the vocabularies of most Americans. Flash forward to today and whether or not people choose/are able to eat food with those ingredients, that same 90% probably at least understands the significance of those words.

Flavor. Flavor is so important in the foods we eat. I had the privilege of eating some biodynamic beef last week and the flavor was unrivaled by almost any other beef I had ever eaten. Of course the beef was flavorful because of the taste but I think the fact that the farmers who raised it used biodynamic methods enhanced the experience. Biodynamic agriculture emphasizes the connection that all living organisms have with each other, everything from planting the grass a certain way to making sure cows are disposed of properly. What this essentially means is that farmers who raise livestock using biodynamic methods take great measures to bring you wholesome food with love and hard-work.

That's what Dan Barber, a chef in New York is talking about in this video clip. There is an added flavor to food when you can literally see the fruits of a farmer's labor. Eating a salad with farm raised tomatoes is tasty but it is especially tasty when you can see the field where the tomatoes are grown. This brings us back to a central theme of American Meat and the grass-based movement. Understanding where food comes from and knowing the labor it took to bring it there are fundamental in getting our nation to start thinking differently about food. Seeing animals or rows of produce during a meal conceptualizes and embodies the hard work of farmers and allows us to appreciate each bite of food that much more.

We as a nation are moving back to the way our grandparents used to eat, which is absolutely a move in the right direction.

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Why I'm Proud to Have Organized a Screening of American Meat

One UVA graduate student reflects on an exciting screening of American Meat, attended by hundreds of people, on her university campus, in Charlottesville, VA: "It was not demonizing; it was compassionate, and it gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the farmers throughout this country."

By Allison Spain

On December 3rd the UVa Food Collaborative was fortunate to host both a screening of American Meat and a lively panel discussion featuring Graham, Chris Ely from Applegate, and the Shenandoah Valley’s own Joel Salatin. As a graduate student in the Urban and Environmental Planning program and the Coordinator for the UVa Food Collaborative, it was such a pleasure organizing an event like this and working with the passionate team from American Meat. The screening was a big success – people began claiming seats in the theater two hours before the film, and the Chipotle crew worked incredibly hard to feed everyone. Given that Charlottesville was named the “locavore capital of the world” by Forbes magazine, it was a proud moment for us to be able to pack the theater with students, faculty, and community members.

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The Economics of Feeding America

If someone asked you what the median age of a farmer was, what would you say? 45, maybe 50? Well, it's about 60 and it's increasing every year.  Any sector where the median age within the industry is over 35 is an area in decline. Chipotle Mexican Grill has a median age of about 31, a thriving group of young people working hard and providing food to Americans.

For young people to successfully practice factory farming methods, they typically need large plots of land. In order for your average college graduate to acquire that much land, they would need to take out large loans from the government. With Joel's farming methods, however, you can use less land and produce more profit. The average gross profit per acre in Joel's county is $200-$300 per year, whereas on his farm it's around $4,000 per acre. The reason for this is because his land does not only house one type of animal, like many of the farms in his area. Joel is utilizing smaller plots of land and maximizing the profit that he can get per acre. This may seem very attractive for a young person thinking about getting into farming. Being able to acquire a small plot of land, livestock and equipment without having to take out massive loans can make the prospect of farming all the sweeter.

In order to make farming a more attractive job prospect for young people, first we need to make it feasible and we can start doing this decreasing the startup costs it requires. Some folks may not believe that Joel's methods can feed America, but he certainly makes a strong argument for at least giving it a try.

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A Working System

The hustle and bustle amongst students on most college campuses typically isn't conducive to taking time to sit down and enjoy a meal. Couple that with the fact that many colleges and universities heavily support fast food, and it makes getting a nutritious meal seem next to impossible.

That's what is so refreshing to see what Washington University in St. Louis and Bon Apetite Management Company are doing with local farm Rain Crow Ranch. Rain Crow Ranch is currently providing Washington University with 18,000 pounds of beef per year and is the exclusive supplier. Universities feeding students local and sustainable meals... Almost sounds too good to be true.

This goes back to two important issues one of which is touched on by John Griffiths, Executive Chef at Washington University in this video. We are loosing touch with where our food comes from. Sitting down to eat an average hamburger at most of the universities and colleges around the country is likely an impersonal experience. WashU seeks to change that with this current program. Students can take pride in knowing that their burgers come from a farm that watches over and takes meticulous care of its livestock. In reality, students could head down to Rain Crow and get to know the people who provide the food they eat, bringing them closer to their food and heightening their appreciation for it.

This brings up the second important issue which is that we often don't appreciate the food on our plates. We like to stress the importance of thanking farmers because of their hard work and dedication not only to their jobs but to feeding us as a country. Putting a face like Peter Whisnant, President of Rain Crow Ranch, with where our food comes from will reinforce the importance of acknowledging and thanking the farmers that work so hard to bring us food.

This program at WashU could and should be a model for other schools around the country. Feasibility may not always allow that but even if a handful of schools were to implement it, students would benefit, universities would benefit and most importantly farmers would benefit. 

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Management is Key

Big farms can be run really well and small farms can be run very poorly. The opposite is also true. The size of the farm itself is not what determines its success or failure. Management is extremely important and can often be the difference between a farm that respects its animals and workers.

Temple Grandin, professor at Colorado State University and world renowned animal scientist, delves into the issue of managing a farm correctly. At the end of the day, a farm is still a business and must be treated as such. Whether the farm is big or small it must be run properly and carefully, just like any other business. The employees must be treated correctly who in turn must treat the animals correctly. People often think that smaller farms, similar to that of Polyface work well because of their size. But often the success of the farm hinges heavily on the people running it. Joel is a born leader and expert farmer, that's what makes Polyface such a special place.

Temple talks about understaffing and overworking, a surefire way to cause any organization to go downhill. When you allow those practices on a farm lives can easily be put in jeopardy. 

Whether you are running a big or small operation, remember, treating people properly is always of paramount importance.

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Thanks Virginia

We woke up at 3:30 am Monday morning and drove South three hours to Galax, Virginia which is right on the border with North Carolina. 

 It was still dark, and the lights were on in the Richardson household, so we felt better because we knew we weren't waking anyone up. 

Shook hands with the 6ft 4in Dustin and his equally tall father, Greg, discussing the unique Hazzard County police cruiser in the front of the house, a surefire sign of hard core Dukes of Hazzard fans. 


Dukes of Hazzard replica cars after jump at tribute hosted by Dustin's father Greg this summer. (Photo A. Trimbach)

Greg went to work at a recycling center he owns, and Dustin started working on chores. Chores means feeding chickens, and getting water for chickens. He jumped on one of the many 4-wheelers on farm, a yellow one, and Andy and I jumped on, too. I spent most of my time trying to stay out of the shot, and to think about what questions to ask Dustin in the interview. 


A loner cow that decided not to eat when the hay got dropped off. (Photo A. Trimbach)

From chickens, we headed over to the larger tract of land with a bunch of cattle, slowly grazing in the morning's mist. Dustin took a newish John Deere tractor with a spear implement on the end and stabbed a circular hay bail, and carried it over to the cows. 

The overcast clouds meant that the light was especially even, making setting up the interview easy. 


Dustin during the interview (A. Trimbach)

Dustin talked with charisma about chasing his dreams, and how his faith in God and his love for farming has propelled him forward. 5 years ago, Dustin could not talk in public without being embarrassed- today he is the State President of Virginia FFA, and has spoken with confidence in front of a crowd of thousands. He's traveled the country listening, learning from other farmers, and is headed to Argentina in January- through FFA- to learn from farmers internationally. 

Dustin dreams big. He believes he will be able to make a good living farming, raising many different species on his farm. Chickens, goats, cows, and even fish. It sounds like he'll have a mix of conventional and grass-based systems. One of the visions is for a feedyard, so he can finish out more cattle on smaller acreage, yielding more money. On the grass-based side, it sounds like he wants to build egg-mobile type systems, where chickens follow cows and spread out manure, eating insects and feed, and laying bright orange farm fresh eggs. 


Dustin on the left, me on the 4 wheeler. (Photo A. Trimbach)

Dustin is a positive, charismatic successful young man, and we were lucky to spend a few hours with him. We said goodbyes and thanks, and headed back North and East. We took turns sleeping and editing, finished Daniel's portrait, and captured Dustin's footage. 

We drove East to Richmond and were humbled to find 150 students and community members show up for our screening- after school at Hermitage High School. It's amazing what a food movement, extra credit, and free burritos will do for turnout :)


CJ on the right, Lisa in the middle. (Photo A. Trimbach)

CJ, a local young grass-based farmer, spoke with charisma beyond his years. His family used to be conventional farmers, and he made a decision a few years ago to switch over from conventional production to grass-based systems. They sell directly to farmers, and folks in the Richmond area can find their food at Keenbell Farms. 

Lisa Dearden talked about her company ChicknEgg that does educational agricultural events- she set up tonight's screening with Rachel Wilborn- and she talked about her work on her family's farm. 

One of the students who started the Food Club- asked what she could do to change the food system if she didn't want to farm. Spending money at farmers market, and working in marketing or logistics for a farm can often be just as, or even more helpful for farmers, and for promoting local agriculture. 

Students line up for extra credit and free burrito cards at end of event. (Photo A. Trimbach)

There was a lot of enthusiasm, and a logjam afterwards to get the burrito coupons and the extra credit. 

We got in the car are driving North back to New York. The past week has been wonderful. We've spent such wonderful time with farmers, chefs, students and community members all passionate about food and agriculture. 

Thank you so much to all of the incredible people who helped us to make our Virginia screening series possible. We were inspired each day by the people we talked to, and documented stories from. We're excited to come back in the spring and continue telling the stories of the young farmers in this state who are leading their state and our nation, forward to a new and always evolving food system.

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Young Virginia Farmer: Daniel Salatin

Saturday, like most days this week, we were up well before dawn, double-checking gear and bags before heading out into the cold pre-morning highways. Shoot days there's always an extra spring in our step, because we'll be out on a farm, learning and documenting.


Sun comes up. (Photo A. Trimbach)

We drove the meandering half-paved roads out of Staunton out to Polyface as the color slowly eked into the sky. There's a calm this time of year, after the harvest and before the harsh realities of winter.

Daniel and the interns were buzzing about when we arrived, and we parked, set-up and got to it. The Salatin family is in the midst of trying out interns for next summer. Over 200 aspiring folks applied, from which 45 were asked to come to Polyface to try out. From the 45 tryouts, 8 will make the final cut, starting early next summer. 

We got Daniel miked up and filmed a bit as he told John- one of the year long apprentices- that he'd be going off to feed cows for a stretch, and assigned jobs for John to assign the tryouts. 


Cattle out on pasture. December 2012 at Polyface. (Photo A. Trimbach)

We jumped three on the ATV, and sped up the dirt road back to a barn where cows were in place for winter. They were eating hay, and generating manure, thus starting the first step in the agricultural invention otherwise known as the Pig-aerator. 

Daniel fed hay, and Andy filmed. 


An eye of a cow eating. (Photo A. Trimbach)


The barn where the cow is eating, and where Daniel fed hay. (Photo A. Trimbach)

Daniel drove back and grabbed three 5 gallon buckets that we flipped over and sat on. The interview began. Daniel has a soft-spoken charisma. He spoke about his life on the farm, about how he enjoys working with the interns because they breathe a fresh appreciation for the farm work, for the sunrise, for the sunset, for tasks like gathering eggs- which when oft-repeated- as any task can become mundane. 

Daniel Salatin during our interview in December 2012. (A. Trimbach)

He talked about the challenges of management, about how he's all about open communication, that when someone has a problem, they need to communicate it, or else he's just going to assume that things are okay. 

After the interview, we were invited to breakfast at Daniel and Sheri Salatin's house, an offer we gladly accepted. We were greeted by Sheri, and by about 6 young women trying out for next summer's internship. We shared a meal of granola and raw milk, and gluten-free cupcakes/muffins with Polyface eggs and chocolate chips. Soon the cupcakes were gone. The conversation was filled with laughter as Sheri told stories about how one person incorrectly pronounced Polyface. 

Happily full, we said goodbye and thanks and headed up the hills to film as Daniel, Joel and the tryouts cleared out pig glens. It was old-fashioned work that went something like this: Joel would find a dead or dying tree, cut it down, and then start cutting the log into smaller pieces. Daniel would drive the tractor right up to the edge of where the wood was cut, and the young folks would throw the wood into the trailer. 

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It was still night when we met with Mickey at the Sheetz near Chambersburg Pennsylvania. We shook hands and got right back into our cars to avoid being out in the cold, drizzling weather. 

 Mickey drove, followed by Chris, followed by our car. As we wound through the two-lane highways, the first tinge of light began to color the sky. 

We arrived at the farm of Laverne Long, a young turkey grower who raises animals that eventually become food for people. 


Laverne Long. Young Pennsylvania Farmer who raises organic turkeys for Applegate and others. (Photo A. Trimbach)

He is a quiet, humble fellow. Chris, Andy and I put on some blue jumpsuits and white hairnets, a bio security measure to help protect the turkeys from any influenza or other disease we may be carrying. The poults, I believe that's the term, were about 5 weeks, which is the age at which they come to a finishing barn. Chris and Laverne talked about various aspects of agriculture, from water systems, to feed systems to challenges of disease.


One of the turkey barns. (Photo A. Trimbach)

Andy filmed, and Mickey and I hung back, staying out of frame and occasionally discussing the screenings we've done in Virginia, and the workings of the Virginia Poultry Co-Op of which Mickey is a manager. 


Organically raised turkeys in the barn. (Photo A. Trimbach)

In the interview, Laverne talked about farming, about how each morning his alarm clock goes off at 5am, and he heads outside to feed the turkeys. He likes caring for the animals, and takes a measure of pride when he is in a grocery store and sees some turkey breast that may have been produced by the farm. He mentioned that he doesn't go to the grocery store much, as much of their family's food is raised by the family. Later Laverne, being a Mennonite, told us that he does not have a computer, or an e-mail address. 

We interviewed Chris in a very old and beautiful barn, the 20 ft. high doors rolling open to provide a soft light with hey behind. Chris talked about the knowledge gained from visiting the farmers who raise the animals that eventually become food produced by Applegate. It's pretty inspiring to see Chris take such an interest in listening to, and sharing knowledge with young farmers, as we travel the country. 

We said goodbyes, and thanks, and Chris, Andy and I drove out to a pizza place for a meal. We talked about the somewhat complicated process by which Laverne's turkeys make it into grocery stores, a conversation that indicated just how complicated and sophisticated the logistics of our nation's food system can be. It was truly a wonderful week with Chris, and we thanked him, and said goodbye, looking forward to visiting coming states together.

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A Special Birthday Gift

Thursday was Andy's birthday, and after Turner Ashby, we had some time before our evening screening at Shenandoah University. 

Chris suggested we head over to Polyface Farms, which sounded like an especially wonderful idea, considering that it was such a beautiful day, and we'd spent many hours of our previous days watching Polyface in the documentary. 

We pulled up and saw Joel approach in a bright yellow hard hat and Carhartt jacket. I mentioned that it was Andy's birthday and that the three of us wanted to walk around and take in the day at the farm. 


A pig in a hoop barn at Polyface. (Photo A. Trimbach)

Joel greeted us after we parked behind the sales building and generously began to give us a tour of the farm. We looked at some pigs in a hoop barn that had been built since my last visit, and Joel showed us a cool innovation that included putting long thin strips of concrete down the middle of the barn. In between the concrete, just soil. Then bedding on top of that. In the spring, when the pigs move out of the hoop barns, vegetables are planted in the dirt strips between the concrete, so the structure is productive year round. 


Daniel's rabbits, twenty years in the making. (Photo A. Trimbach)

From there Joel proudly showed us the rabbits that Daniel, his son, has been raising for over 20 years, selecting for healthy rabbits aggressively, and in the process raising a large, happy rabbit that eats almost entirely grass. The pride in his son's work was apparent in his tone and excitement by Daniel's creation. In one of the raken houses, Joel pulled out a baby rabbit, still blind, and put it in my hands. It was warm, and helpless. I almost dropped it, but then caught it as it fell. For someone too often with electronics in my hands, the warm body of a baby rabbit cupped in my hands was a reminder of something more sustaining.


A baby rabbit, with eyes unopened. (Photo A. Trimbach)


The egg laying hens, Bards- I think, head into hoop barns before winter. (Photo A. Trimbach)

After a brief hello to Daniel and the interns trying out for next summer, we went in and talked with Joel's wife Teresa as she prepared for lunch with some of the interns.  

There's an old GMC suburban that the Salatins recently purchased that acts as a tour vehicle/airport shuttle for the growing farm. Chris, Andy and I piled in, and Joel drove us up the dirt road, deeper and deeper into the hills. He was intent on showing us his new pig paddocks, which have been yielding and incredible amount of food for pigs. The food falls from the oak trees, acorns which pigs naturally burrow through the soil to eat in the autumn and early winter months. 


A pig's snout gets dirty after digging for acorns. (Photo A. Trimbach) 

It doesn't get any better than this, in my opinion Joel said as we walked down the hill. The pigs out in the forest, were calm, happy and just seemed to fit in the place where they were. 


Joel Salatin shows us the pig paddocks in December, 2012. (Photo A. Trimbach)


Pigs dig in acorns in one of the pig glens at Polyface. (Photo A. Trimbach)

The ride back we talked about our coming film, which is focused on young farmers and by coincidence, Joel is working on a book of the same topic. The excitement to begin the film and to read Joel's new book is growing exponentially these days in Virginia. One can feel a major shift taking place, an unspeakable power rooted in the land that promises to transform our nation's agriculture and put some of our nation's people to physical, purposeful, spiritual, healing work. Chris asked Joel if he had a favorite spot on the farm. He pulled the wheel of the Suburban tank and we shot up onto a grassy knoll that was higher than those around it. We looked out on the brown and almost purple woods, without leaves, as they prepared for winter. You can see Daniel's house from here, and see all a long way in all directions. It was a quiet, reflective place, especially as winter approaches. Chris pointed out a Gipsum root, which was a reminder of the remaining work to be done, and we laughed about some of the ways the weed had been used, and drove back down the road to the sales barn.

We said goodbye and thanks and headed North, with a screening at Shenandoah University a few hours away.

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Turner Ashby High School

We arrived at Turner Ashby High School as school was starting and walked in. We saw one of the corduroy blue and gold jackets of FFA on a student, and followed it into the Ag department where we found AgEd instructor Brian Crickenberger, and classrooms abuzz with the holiday spirit, as students were fashioning christmas wreaths from the branches of evergreens. 


The coolest jackets. (Photo A. Trimbach)

After the school bells rang, and students made announcements over the school-wide speakers, we introduced ourselves to the class and started screening the first third of the documentary for an intimate class of 25. These types of classroom screenings are often wonderful, because it allows us to stop the film and have individual conversations. 


Talking to the class at Turner Ashby. (Photo A. Trimbach)

We talked about the advantages and disadvantages of industrial and grass-based agriculture. Students talked about the advantage of how commodity methods allow for our culture to raise more food on less acreage, because there are so many more animals in a small square footage. They mentioned that in winter, these animals are warmer indoors, and happier. An advantage and disadvantage is that more food can be produced by fewer people, a reality that has led to less available jobs in rural communities, and often to the consolidation of high schools and abandoned, decaying main streets. It was also mentioned- with a chuckle- by one of the young male farmers that women don't much like the smell that results from being in one of the chicken or hog barns.


Chris talks to young farmers at Turner Ashby. (Photo A. Trimbach)

 We talked about how grass-based systems are very labor intensive, and that they don't work unless you have someone who's willing and capable to take on marketing directly to a nearby chef, or folks at a weekly farmers market. 

After much good conversation, we said goodbyes, and Brian was kind enough to give handsome FFA baseball hats to the three of us. 

We had little on the calendar for the rest of the day, and decided to take an unscheduled trip out to Polyface. 

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