by Daniel Meyer
Every Friday I sell pork in the Union Square greenmarket (Manhattan) for Flying Pigs Farm. Flying Pigs, as I have come to learn over the past two years, is an extraordinary farm. Their meat, pasture raised, rare heritage breed pigs, seems second to none, but strangely enough, the pork isn’t nearly the best thing that comes out of their farm. The owners of Flying Pigs, Mike Yezzi and Jen Small, are working tirelessly to prevent the loss of productive farmland to development in their native Washington County, in the whole of New York State, and beyond. The American Farmland Trust, Jen’s employer, notes that a farm is lost to development in New York every three days. Mike and Jen know how urgent their project is, and they are dead set on getting others to realize the same.
To that end they began holding “Farm Camp” up at their farm in Shushan, NY last fall. Farm Camp was a chance, explains its website, to “expose the NYC food professional to a broad range of agriculture issues that affect not just how and what we eat but also the future of our food system and rural landscape.” The four two-day sessions were incredibly successful according to campers and organizers alike, so much so that they quickly sought to secure funding for another session in the spring. The fifth installment of Farm Camp concluded on Monday; this time I was fortunate enough to attend.
Farm Camp has neither the time nor the intention to teach its campers how to be farmers, but it does let them experience a tiny slice of what it’s like to work on a farm. We collected eggs and walked through the pastures in the morning, boxed chickens in preparation for transport at night, and slaughtered them (one per person) at the processing facility the next day. Killing a chicken (perhaps the subject of a future post) was impactful enough to sustain the whole weekend, but there was more.
The crux of Farm Camp, at least as I saw it, was the opportunity to meet farmers, visit their farms, and begin to understand the personal motivations and external forces that inform their practices. Over the course of two days we visited a conventional dairy farm, milk processing and bottling facility, goat dairy specializing in cheese, maple farm, USDA slaughterhouse, and a pastured poultry farm with on-site processing (where we slaughtered the chickens). Additionally, Mike and Jen brought in a handful of speakers: dairy and vegetable farmers, agricultural stewards and educators, and the New York director of American Farmland Trust.
What began to crystallize as the weekend progressed was that when it comes to farming and agriculture in our regional food systems, nothing is as black and white as it may seem. I talk with a lot of customers in the greenmarket who somehow know intuitively that organic farms and the people who run them are inherently good, while conventional farms, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), and farmers tied to agribusiness are inherently bad. If I learned anything at Farm Camp it was that the story just isn’t that simple.
We toured a small, family-run conventional dairy that technically qualifies as a CAFO, yet there was no trace of suffering on the part of the cows or malice on the part of the farmers. We heard from a husband and wife whose dairy farm is contracted to sell all of its milk to Agri-Mark, (sounds ominous, no?) a New England collective that provides all of the milk for Cabot Creamery and McCadam Cheese. They spoke wistfully of one day being able to bottle and sell their own milk, but the financial risk involved in breaking away from their contract (which is already perilously subject to fluctuating milk and cheese prices) is too much. Even Mike and Jen, whose farm seems perfect, have not sought organic certification and at the moment do not wish to. They reserve the right to administer antibiotics to sick pigs (which is not allowed under organic “law”), and besides, the cost of certification could easily require them to double the price of the pork they sell in the greenmarkets. This, I can say from experience, is not something that the customer is prepared to tolerate.
The stories and personalities behind each individual farm were a pleasure and privilege to get to know, but the ways in which they are all interconnected and interdependent begin to explain why some regional food systems are in so much danger. Every three days, when a farm is lost to development in New York, a hole is created in the “farming market:” one less farm needs hay, tractors, or livestock. As the farms begin to disappear, so too do the people who sell the hay, the tractors, the livestock; if there isn’t enough demand for their product, they are forced to move out. When the suppliers leave the region, the farms still in operation become vulnerable. If driving all the way across the state just to get hay isn’t financially viable, then those farms will disappear as well. Needless to say, if the farms are disappearing, so is the food.
Having met the farmers, learned their ambitions and limitations, and seen their beautiful farms, we all left Farm Camp with the understanding that every three days something pretty extraordinary is being lost. Evidently, Mike and Jen had done their jobs.