Posts Tagged ‘Organic Valley’
There’s a lot I love about the Midwest, but mostly it’s the people. And summer. Despite the worst drought on record raging through much of the lower and mid-region corn belts, you wouldn’t notice it at first glance in and around the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul
Out here in support of the Twin Cities Public Television debut of Food Forward, all I can see is lush green grass surrounding smaller suburbs and rural enclaves as I make my way down the Mississippi river valley and over to La Farge, Wisconsin, headquarters for our founding sponsor, Organic Valley.
After meeting up with the team in the main offices, we head through Amish country and over to Spring Green, WI for a picnic dinner and to see Shakespeare’s Richard III. Afterwards, I’m invited to stay at ‘The Kettle’ for a restful night of sleep below a bright and shiny milky way, deep in the back woods of rural Wisconsin and I’m reminded of how lucky and thankful I am to have these opportunities.
Back to civilization and its straight to the St. Paul farmers market in search of food rebels. Amidst a sudden mid-summer downpour we amble through the aisles and met up with several local pioneers, including Mary Falk of Love Tree farmstead selling her artisan sheep milk cheeses and Dean Schwake of Big Woods Bison, offering low fat, high protein meat.
Then it was across the street to meet with Lenny Russo of Heartland Restaurant and Farm Direct Market. Lenny is a true visionary focused on supporting small-scale and local family farms. We spent a good day of filming with Lenny and look forward to sharing more about his operation soon.
Finally, I watched the airing of Food Forward yesterday at legendary local hot spot, The 1029 Bar in Northeastern Minneapolis.
At this popular Sunday sports bar, we were able to coerce our lovely waitress into switching two monitors from the British Open to our episode on urban agriculture, sans sound. Sure, I’ve seen it literally hundreds of times now, but to watch it far from home, with just the crisp high definition picture, amidst an amazing display of really good food from the Smack Shack with none other than local host Doug Utter, was a real treat. Even though they are nationally known for their lobster rolls, it was the roasted leg of lamb sandwich with harissa, saffron aioli and fennel seed slaw that I’ll remember and will come back for again. Out of site, really.
Our trip to California Cloverleaf Farms just outside of Turlock, Calif. felt like our first journey into the heart of Big Ag country. Cruising around the Bay Area and Northern California for the past four weeks was great. but somehow I felt
all the small family farms were the exception to the rule. And the rule is large, high production farms and ranches that dominate California’s Central Valley. When people talk about industrial agriculture and all its attendant problems (use of petroleum based pesticides and fertilizers, crowded conditions for livestock, dependency of antibiotics, monocrops, animal waste) this is where it all happens.
The road to meet Ward and Rosie Burroughs at their California Cloverleaf Farms, a 3,000-acre ranch and dairy that supplies milk to Organic Valley, was a tour through the dark side of American food production. We passed grim, windowless warehouses where thousands of factory farmed chickens live their short, miserable lives. It’s hard not compare them to concentration camps. They certainly look the part. Stark “biohazard” signs warned people to stay out. Next came the sinus stinging stench and blight of confinement dairy operations, cows kept in tight, mud and manure-caked quarters without so much as a blade of grass. This is where the vast majority of milk cows spend their short lives (about three years before the intensive milking takes its toll).
As I reached the end of the road and entered the Burroughs’ ranch with the Sierra in the background I felt myself relaxing as the high volume industrial farms gave way to green fields of rolling pasture and hundreds of cows doing what they were made to do: eat grass. Make no mistake. This is a big farm and in the Bay Area there’s a notion that only small farms can do right by the land and animals. But the Burroughs’ diversified farm will disabuse you of that idea right away.
With some prodding from their kids, Ward and Rosie Burroughs set the family farm on the road to sustainability and transitioned the farm to a grass-based, organic operation. Ward had been a conventional dairy farmer, feeding his cattle in a confined operation, calving year round and using whatever chemical products that were at hand. But he saw another way forward and figured out how to make it work. Pasture-based dairy ranching was once the norm in the United States, but over the past 50 years it has been replaced by chemical dependent, confinement operations where the animals see very little precious grass. Ward looked to New Zealand for advice because there’s a thriving grass-based agriculture scene there. Out here in the Central Valley, they are the oddballs bucking the industrial agriculture system.
“We had to stick our necks our and do it all on our own,” says Rosie. “It was really scary.”
The shift to pasture-based cattle ranching has produced a shift in their thinking as well.
“Our focus isn’t on milk production,” says Rosie. “It’s on grass. We don’t say we’re dairymen. We’re grass farmers.”