Back to basics and onward to the new agriculture
When we opened a cafe almost four years ago, it had a simple premise: real food belongs to real people. We still believe that. The economic reality of putting the kind of food that we eat at our own table on a table to share, and paying those serving it a living wage, in a rural county, was every bit as challenging as we imagined. We opted to close rather than compromise on our food or our labor values. Neither opening, nor closing, was a decision that we regret. We loved serving food that we believed in to our friends and neighbors — especially our fellow farmers, who appreciated the depth of care and mountains of logistical and regulatory obstacles that had to be navigated to provide it.
The decision to close the brick-and-mortar retail farm store on Hwy 87 was a simpler one: we determined that utilizing the space for the duration of our cafe lease as a farm store still stretched us too thin, and it didn’t allow us to do what we most desired: welcome you to the farm, to partake in its beauty, and to share in its joys. Sometimes doing what is right and what makes sense requires us to give up some things, including a retail space and a commercial kitchen. It’s a bit awkward in the transition, but it’ll be worth it. Connecting people to their food so that all may prosper is our highest calling. We can’t do that honestly at any place other than the farm itself.
Closing rather than compromise was the same premise, actually, that almost prevented me from farming commercially seven years before, when I brought my first two pigs to the processing plant, walked them into “the box” and watched them die in fear because the plant didn’t follow the procedures that were on the wall and for which they had third-party certifications. The horror I saw for the six sheep (not mine) that followed them is forever etched in my mind. I thought to myself, I don’t need a USDA stamp that badly that I’m willing to compromise who I am to these animals — I had nursed Mr. & Mrs. Pig back to health as piglets with hourly drenches of yogurt after they had fallen behind at another farm. Dying, like living, is an art to be done well.
A meat-handler’s license was required only if I wanted to sell to the public. I had been homesteading and was happy to go back to it again. I was willing to trade scale for ethics, so that animals could die in peace, never knowing what was coming to, often with their head in their favorite snacks as I told them, “Thank you for your lives — the ground you walked on will be forever altered for your having lived. Go in peace, back into the peace from which you came.”
But callings have a way of calling you, whether you agree to the fine print, or not. I was able to find two plants that handled the slaughter portion of the processing with the respect with which I had raised the animals. (We use those two plants to this day, driving an extra distance. That said, God willing and the creek don’t rise, we will be able to have the animals die on the farm under USDA inspection within the next couple of years. No animal should have to leave home in a trailer to give it all.)
When I started using managed grazing to feed my first cow, Greeley, I realized that agriculture could be a regenerative act. Freely, this revelation of beauty and truth was given to me, and freely I wanted to share it. It’s not enough for me to eat well and for my backyard to be bountiful. Malnutrition — and its corollary, obesity, the same problem just with an abundance of calories — anywhere is a threat to nourishment everywhere.
Yet, how does one market food without parallel in a marketplace that values sameness? Where is the sweet spot so that the people raising the food can also afford to purchase it? These are big questions.
I’ve spent more than a decade trying to answer them. We haven’t totally cracked the nut yet, but we are getting closer.
How do we reach people in a distracted, glossy, convenience-obsessed culture? How do we meet people where they are, when many don’t even know that the predominant food culture is actually killing them slowly?
The cafe’s premise was that we could cook it for them. Never cooked a pork shank at home? No problem! You can still enjoy eating it, or so the idea went. We closed the cafe right before Covid-19. What already had made itself manifest to me from a marketing perspective, the pandemic has laid bare: people can only afford to choose one “luxury”: food without comprise or “food” someone prepares for you. Convenience almost always wins. Many can now choose neither. There’s precious little overlap, and we salute those food business who are doing it well.
Living in the tension between three things we were unwilling to compromise about — how food was raised, how food was prepared, and how people are paid — was not sustainable for us as a farm, which was and will always be, our first love. We were trying to both farm and cook without compromise. Doing one alone is difficult enough.
What is rejuvenating is checking our very pregnant Jersey, Tulip 715, before the sun came up the other morning (every day we think that baby is going to be here!), after prayerfully and tearfully saying goodbye to four fat, healthy Red Devons, long before sunup, that had arrived a couple of years ago needing some TLC. They wouldn’t have all survived the feedlot, where they were otherwise headed. (We had to treat a few of them for minor issues that wouldn’t have been minor in that environment.) They shined up and shined on and left the soil better than they found it. They will go on to nourish people, a worthy calling.
The highest honor you could give them, from my perspective, is to buy their meat by the quarter or eighth, cook it for your family, your neighbors and someone in need, and then bring the bones back to our compost pile (1568 Haw Ranch Rd., find the white “compost here” sign near the big pile by the barn), and complete the cycle for the soil. Seeing the bones from Left Bank Butchery and the scraps from the Saxapahaw General Store on our compost piles always makes my soul smile. This is how I want to relate to my community.
Want to know a little secret? Part of the reason I wanted to own a cafe is so that I could own the waste stream… true story. What happens at restaurants is that same thing that happens in most homes: organic material, meant to nourish the very earth that sacrificially produced it, by hands and bodies that bleed and sweat and toiled for it, is instead thrown into a landfill to putrefy and create a liability for everyone (air pollution) where an opportunity once beckoned (creating top soil that sustains all of us).
We are what we do with what we throw away. There is no “away.” If we are willing, what we consume and what we discard can all be done reverently, and in the Great Economy of our Creator it is all increased in the giving. Compost applied to the land continues to capture carbon from the atmosphere many years after application, and in an exponential way. That’s grace. Let’s start participating in that economy, together.
Thank you for coming along for the ride. In the meantime, stay tuned. A new agriculture is emerging, and it’s going to be wild and delicious and nourishing and reverent. We will see you on the farm.