Research & Education

Digging Up the Details on Farming

As healthcare practitioners we understand the importance of a diet based on whole unprocessed nutrient-dense foods. Along these lines we may recommend that patients visit farmers’ markets and on-farm stores in order to procure beef pork poultry eggs dairy vegetables and fruits that we believe to be of superior quality to much of what is available at large supermarkets.

And while patients understand that grass-fed beef and dairy eggs from pastured hens and organically grown produce that is freshly picked as opposed to being shipped from thousands of miles away is typically more nutritious than foods sold through conventional supply chains the greater cost of these foods can be quite a deterrent to them making these items the foundation of their diet. With locally raised grass-fed meat sometimes selling for three to four times the price of beef at the supermarket and eggs costing two to five dollars more per dozen the extra expense is an insurmountable obstacle for some family budgets. Even those with the financial resources to purchase these foods may wonder just why they are so much pricier than what’s on offer at the supermarket. 

The first point to be aware of is that small farmers are not necessarily recipients of the same generous federal government tax subsidies that favor large-scale producers of heavily subsidized monocrops such as corn wheat and soybeans. While some inputs to growing and raising nutritious food—such as sunlight and rain—are free of charge small farmers going the extra mile face added expenses for their animal feed particularly if their poultry and hog feed is certified organic and even higher if it is free of corn and/or soy. 

Farmers also have the expense of gasoline and vehicle maintenance as they rack up hundreds of miles driving to and from urban farmers’ markets sometimes multiple times a week. Additionally fuel and time are required to transport livestock to USDA-monitored slaughterhouses which might be some distance from the farm. (In most cases only chickens are permitted to be processed on-site at small farms.) 

There’s no paid time off for farmers and no vacation days. The animals don’t take days off which means farmers don’t either. Animals need to be fed watered and otherwise tended to daily. They need to be moved regularly to new pasture in order to provide them with fresh grass to happily consume as well as to allow the previously used parcels of land time to rebuild thanks to the fertilizing manure left behind.

Farming is backbreaking work. It is physically intellectually and emotionally demanding. It is an up-at-dawn go-all-day adventure in crossing things off to-do lists that never get any shorter no matter how many tasks are completed. Fences need to be moved electrical wires need to be maintained and heavy buckets of feed need to be transported. And even though most small-scale farmers go into farming because they love it passion can’t repair a broken tractor ease the loss of chick hatchlings that don’t survive their first few days or undo pest infestations or poor weather conditions that decimate crop yields all of which eats into profits. Dairy farms may have even greater expenses than other farms particularly if they offer products made from raw unpasteurized milk. The amount of equipment required just to meet the legal parameters of safe dairy farming is staggering. The cost of the sterilizing and sanitizing supplies alone would be enough to put many people off from even attempting to produce high-quality dairy products for their local customer base. The financial risks involved in small-scale farming are so great that a grass-based farmer once said—only half-joking—“How do you make a million dollars in farming? Start with two million.”

While we may have images of quaint red barns silhouetted against bright blue skies when we think of family farms let’s not forget that farmers have no fewer other expenses than anyone else. They have mortgages car payments kids to send to college—and of course farming brings with it no generous pension plan or 401(k) just for showing up to work the way many other jobs do. 

There are of course ways to save money on locally produced foods which may reduce the economic barrier some patients face in incorporating these into their diet. Joining a community supported agriculture (CSA) which can be described as a kind of weekly or monthly “subscription plan” to a local farm is one way to get a variety of foods on a regular basis sometimes at a lower price than buying them separately would cost. It gives true meaning to the old phrase “Will work for food!” Farmers can always use extra hands provided those hands aren’t afraid to get dirty and dig in to whatever tasks need to be accomplished. No experience? No problem! A solid work ethic and a willingness to learn is more valuable than previous farm experience. This is also a fantastic way for customers to experience firsthand what exactly it takes to produce this type of food and gain a true appreciation for why these foods cost what they do. After spending a day helping out with chicken processing they’ll never again wonder why truly free-range and pastured chickens can cost upwards of $5/pound compared to $2 or $3 for boneless skinless breasts at the store. A third way to make local farm-raised food more financially accessible—particularly animal foods—is to consider purchasing a whole hog or a quarter beef provided people have the freezer space to store it. If not people can pool resources with friends and family and split up an order into parcels that are more manageable for whatever cold storage they have available. Pound-for-pound buying in bulk confers significant savings.

All this being said it is absolutely understandable that not all patients will have the financial resources—nor the desire—to base the majority of their diet on local foods from small farms. And this is fine. Many different roads lead to optimal health and robust well-being can certainly be achieved through consuming foods purchased at the big box stores. Patients should not be made to feel that they are missing out if their economic reality is such that they are limited to what’s on sale at the supermarket. The key to better health is of course sticking with unrefined whole foods which are mostly prepared at home from fresh ingredients rather than packaged meals that come in bags and boxes with ingredient lists full of unintelligible additives. Vegetables quality proteins and natural fats should make up the bulk of the diet with fruit dairy and starchy items included per an individual’s unique tolerance and metabolic constitution. 

For more on this topic see Why I Can't Raise a $1 Cheeseburger by Forrest Pritchard a grass-based farmer in Virginia and author of the book Gaining Ground the story of how he revived his family’s once dying farm and transformed it into a successful business and a beloved source for local food in the Washington DC area.