Do you have a farmer?
It gives me great joy to say “my farmer” and my joy multiplies as I find more and more wonderful places and wonderful people in Grand Rapids, MI to which to apply that label. I’ve got “my milk farm” and “my egg farm” and “my chicken farm” and “my beef farm” and some that fit many categories. The photo above is from one of the first times we went to pick up our raw milk at Angelus Farms. Sadly, with 6 kids, new calves, an expanding chicken flock and maple syrup, “my” milk farmers weren’t able to find the time to participate in the panel.
I’m so pleased to introduce you to two of “my farmers” today, where I’ve bought all kinds of delicious meats, the best eggs ever, and even artisan cheese. I hope you enjoy getting to know them (and get a little jealous of me for my food “land of abundance,” the opposite of a food desert), but most importantly, I want to inspire you to talk to your own farmer and understand how to evaluate the conversation.Just so you know, I copied all answers in full exactly the way each panelist wished to be heard (although I may have edited a few misspellings; my English major’s fingers couldn’t be stopped).
If you missed it, the first two featured farmers dished out on life in New York and Ohio yesterday.
UPDATE: My wrap-up and opinions of the entire series, including grass vs. grain, big vs. small, GMOs, and if I’ll make any changes in my shopping habits after interviewing a diverse array of farmers, is HERE.
|Karin: a local dairy and beef farmer, my personal choice of late for meat, because she raises grassfed animals organically (not certified) traditionally and sustainably (Find her @wbdairy and Woodbridge Farms “The Udder Farm Owners” – UFO)||Betsy: another local farmer whom I patronize, raising certified organic, grassfed dairy cattle, also beef, chickens and pork (Find her at Grassfields Cheese)|
Find contact information and more for both local farms at my Grand Rapids Local Real Food Resources Page.
When someone asks you how you farm, what’s your one sentence answer?
|We farm with organic methods but don’t carry the expensive label of being certified.||Organic farming with intensive rotational grazing is one of the tools God has given us to impact the lives around us.|
How did you get started farming? Why do you do it?
|I married the farmer. I love the farmer and I love the farm and the lifestyle it offers us. I also enjoy serving the community at the local farmer’s market. Its nice to see others benefit from what I have.||Grassfields is a 5th generation family farm in West Michigan. We started intensive grazing with our dairy cattle in 1991 and became certified organic in 2007. In 2002 we began selling our raw milk cheeses and grass fed/free-ranging meats and eggs in our farm store.|
This is where we discovered a passion for direct marketing; knowing the people who buy our foods . Building relationships with the people who consume our foods is very important to us, not only because we like knowing who is eating our foods, but also because we want to be a light in the community around us.
We believe that intensive grazing is a sustainable way of farming dairy cattle, pigs, chickens and beef. The animals are able to consume fresh growing grass, which makes the end products high in nutritional value, and the animals are fertilizing the soils in the most natural way. Rotational grazing just makes perfect sense to us.
In 2005 we started a cow share program, Green Pastures, where people can obtain fresh milk through purchasing a cow share, then paying us to board their cow. We started this program because there was an interest from our current customers and from the people in our community.
It is so rewarding to hear the feed back we receive from people who’s health has improved because they are eating the foods we produce on our farm. That is one of the reasons we farm. We do it for them.
What’s your educational background, including life experience with agriculture, that led you to where you are today?
|I have a business degree from Ferris State University. I did not grow up on a farm, so all I have learned has been from experience. I never pass up an opportunity to educate myself about agriculture if I can help it. I go to as many meetings as I can during the winter season.||I am a Physician Assistant by education and a farmer’s wife by marriage. Jesse, Luke and Jay, the owners (and brothers) of Grassfields, have gained most of their farming knowledge through experience, studying, and from other farmers. Jesse, who is the cheese maker, has also taken courses in cheese making.|
How many head of cattle do you care for? What breeds?
|We have about a 150 head of cattle from babies to adults. We cross breed. So there isn’t just one breed. We do this for a few reasons; the ease of calving, the ability to forage for their own food, the quality of the milk produced, and health benefits for the cattle. The list of breeds would be too numerous to mention.||We currently have 200 milking cows that are Holstein, Jersey and Normandy cross breeds.|
What products do you sell, and to whom? (i.e., large companies, individuals, co-ops, etc.)
|Our milk is sold to a Co-Op. (Michigan Milk Producers Association) For the most part, it stays local and goes to Country Fresh to be bottles and made into products that people buy at the grocery store.|
I sell grass fed beef and milk fed pork, duck eggs and chicken eggs at the Fulton Street Farmer’s Market in Grand Rapids. I’m there Fridays in the summer and Saturdays in the winter. (Katie note: seriously the best, orangest, most flavorful eggs ever. I’m getting spoiled on them. Do NOT buy eggs from Karin because I want them all!)
|Grassfields Cheeses are sold in about 80 different restaurants, stores, farmers markets and co-ops in Michigan. We also sell our cheeses to people around the country who order from our website.|
Our grass-fed meats are sold from our farm store. (Katie note: this includes chicken, beef, and pastured pork – the bacon sells out within weeks each fall!)
Our eggs are sold at several independent groceries, farmers markets and co-ops in West Michigan.
What is the best food for a dairy cow? For a beef cow?
|The best food for any cow is GRASS. That being said, dairy cows need more then that in the winter. We supplement them with grain and corn silage these are mixed with minerals. TMR (Total Mixed Ration) is important for dairy cows to produce quality milk and stay healthy.|
For our beef cows, we feed them all the grass(hay) they can eat in the winter and they get corn silage, about a grain shovel a day. All of our cattle have access to pasture during the growing season. Dairy cows are intensive grazed. They get a new paddock every 12 hours. The beef cattle have 20 + acres to graze in.
What do you feed your cattle, and why do you choose that feed?
|I think I answered this question in question#7. To keep them healthy and happy!||Grass, or stored hay in the winter, is the majority of our cows’ diet. They also eat some organic certified grains to help keep their condition healthy. A small amount of grain gives the cow some extra energy in her diet. We also give the cows supplemental minerals.|
How do you ensure your cattle stay healthy?
|Healthy cows start from the ground up. Soil should be healthy first. If the soil is healthy the plant will be healthy and give the cow that is foraging it the benefits of being healthy also.||Since we are milking them every day, we can inspect the health of each cow as she comes in the parlor. We watch for signs of infection and treat her if it is needed, with organic methods.|
Starting with a healthy diet and living environment, usually leads to good health in the cow. After we transitioned to completely organic farming we saw huge improvements in the cows’ health, even though we had already been doing intensive rotational grazing for 16 years.
What do you do when a cow falls ill?
|We are preventive first. If one does fall ill we use holistic methods as our second line of defense. If all else fails (which is rare) we call the Vet to help. We are not against antibiotics, they have served us well. I would rather use what is available to us then watch an animal suffer or die! This is good husbandry!||Treatment of a cow depends on the type of illness. We use organic methods like herbal tinctures and topicals if the cow becomes sick with mastitis.|
Since we are an organic dairy we don’t use antibiotics, unless we believe the cow can benefit from them and we are willing to sell the animal. She is no longer an organic dairy cow if antibiotics are used.
What’s your goal: more milk or higher quality milk, or some balance of the two? For beef cattle: faster growth, more fat, more lean, or what else?
|We would love higher quality milk. The higher the standards the better it is for the consumer. I love our beef animals. They are just right and I wouldn’t change how we are raising them unless it would be better for the animal.||Since we are making cheese and running a cowshare program one goal we have is high milk quality. (Note: a cowshare means that people buy a “share” of a cow to obtain raw milk each week. In Michigan it is illegal to sell raw milk, so we have to “own” the cow.) We are also shipping fluid milk to Horizon Organics as well, so volume is also nice.|
With our animals for retail meat sales, we believe that quality is very important. We never use growth hormones to help them grow faster. Since having a grass based diet leads to high Omega-3 fatty acids, we let the animals take their time growing.
What steps do you take to reach the milk production/quality goal above?
|CLEAN is very important to us. Clean barn, clean feed, clean udders, clean milk! We have several awards for this from the State and Federal Government.|
Do you think your operation is “sustainable”? Why or why not?
|Our operation is “sustainable”. We don’t have other jobs off the farm. The market doesn’t count as a job because it’s fun! The farm makes enough money to support itself and us.||Yes, we hope and believe that our farming operation is sustainable. We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is the most important thing in this life. He has given us the opportunity to farm and steward the land.|
We want to do the best we can to provide healthy food for the people in our community and be a blessing to them, and to bring glory to God in the process. We are so grateful to God for our farm and we give Him the praise for anything good that comes from it.
Can a cow give milk on grass alone?
|Yes it can and no it can’t! The cattle breed now have been so over bred to produce so much milk that it would have trouble sustaining that quantity without the extra supplements in TMR.|
The animal could do it but it would drop in production and strip its body of nutrient to produce the milk, making the animal sick in the long run.
Do you think what cows eat affects the quality of the milk/meat? Nutritionally? In what way?
|Yes the old saying “YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT”! Poor quality feed equals poor quality products. That is why we start with the soil first the better the feed the better the product.||Yes. With our animals for retail meat sales and our milk, we believe that quality is very important. We never use growth hormones to help them grow faster or produce more milk. Since having a grass based diet leads to high Omega-3 fatty acids in the milk and/or meat we let the animals take their time growing.|
Do you raise your own calves? If so, what do they eat?
|Yes, I love the babies! They start out like all babies should on momma’s milk. We make sure that they have liquid gold (aka colostrum) in their tummy’s within 2 hours of being born.|
They get milk for the next 2 months before we introduce hay to them. They are then given a calf feed that has grains,molasses and minerals mixed into it. They have access to water when they want it.
|In 2010 we sold all of our calves and we plan to do the same in 2011. Prior to that, the heifers drank milk from the cows, in keeping with the organic certification. Once they were a few weeks old we let them be outside in the pasture. They were weaned at 2 or 3 months of age|
What do you do on your farm to foster environmental stewardship?
|Last year we were Ottawa Conservation District Conservation Farmer of the Year 2010. We protect our water ways from contamination. We keep the soil healthy and give back what we take from it. We encourage others to do the same for the land as well.||Testing the soils is a good way to see how the land and environment are doing. Since the cows are fertilizing the land as they live in the pasture, there isn’t a lot of manipulating to do with the earth around us. We also test the water.|
Letting the different species of animals use the same land also increases the quality and health of the soils on our farm. (note from Katie: i.e., the chickens can follow the cows and peck at their manure piles to spread the fertilizer and eat the grubs, etc. A lovely ecosystem!)
Anything you want us to know about GMOs?
|GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. A lot of people don’t know what it actually stands for. Anytime we mess with God’s creation there will be consequences.|
What is your farm’s relationship with the government? (i.e., do you need and certifications? Do you receive any subsidies? Anything else you have to give them or get from them that the average citizen doesn’t?)
|We do not have a relationship with the government, we have relationship with the people that work for the government. We are certified as Grade A and have to have licenses to sell milk and meat.|
Yes, we get subsidies for milk and crops. I look at it this way if we are receiving subsidies then the prices aren’t where they should be to sustain the farm. We do not and never will count on the government for support in keeping our farm operating.
We have to tell USDA office where and what we plant and how much milk we produce. They have satellite photos of the farm with the acres on them and every year in the spring we have to go and see the ladies at the USDA office to tell them crop information. The ladies in the government office do a great job and are a wealth of information. This makes the “headache” a little easier.
|Since we are a Grade A dairy and certified by Global Organic Alliance, we are inspected by the MDA (Mich. Department of Agriculture), the county, USDA for our meats, the DEQ (dept. of environmental quality), GOA and probably others I can’t remember at the moment.|
What do you see as the future of farming/dairy farming in America? What concerns or hopes do you have for the future?
|I hope to see more small farms pop up in the future with the younger generations that want to know where their food is coming from. The future of farming is in SM and the transparency that it’s creating for the consumers as well as the farmers.|
Growing and producing things is in the human nature, so I don’t worry because there will always be people that have this want. Why not WANT to be a FARMER!
What did I miss? Here’s your soapbox:
|We truly love the people who support our farm and thank them and God for making our business what it is today, and what it will be in the future.|
I always want to hear more, don’t you? I know the answers to some of the follow up “tell me more” questions from these ladies, but I know they couldn’t write a novel for you all; farmers are busy people!
My biggest surprise has been to find that in Michigan, because of the cold winters, almost no one grows 100% exclusively grassfed cattle, but most farmers end up supplementing just a little bit of grain when the snow is thick. I was interested to hear Karin explain about the modern breeds and how they need the extra energy because of their breeding.
If you want more, a while back Kate of Modern Alternative Mama posted a neat interview with her local farmer about his transition from conventional (confinement) farming to a more traditional, natural, grass-based model.