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What is Your Food Worth to You?

As a small livestock producer in the Midwest, it is difficult to find a market share in the sea of big agriculture. It is often confusing to hear folks state that they want local, healthy food, raised to the highest standard, but they can’t afford it. When the average consumer sees a sign that advertises eggs for $0.99 a dozen, and then they go to the farmers markets and see eggs for $5.00 and upwards, how do they reconcile the vast pricing difference? The simple answer is becoming knowledge about farming practices and requesting transparency from the people who grow your food. Growing good food, I mean really good food, costs money, and is a lot of hard work. So ask yourself the question, do you really want to know where your food comes from and whether or not it’s truly healthy, or does it even matter when you’re looking at price? Here’s why it matters…

Many farm practices that can enhance the nutritional profile of the foods you eat are not easy to accomplish on a large scale. Things like rotationally grazing sheep or cows takes more time than free-range, but is both better for the soil and better for the health of the animals. This practice of rotating is even more challenging for chickens and pigs, as you also have to rotate shelter, feed, and water sources. But it is a fact that animals raised on grass have healthier fatty acid profiles than those that are not, with better ratios of omega-3:6 and also have more vitamin E and beta-carotene. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to decrease the risk of cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases by lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol. Grass-fed animal fats contain higher proportions of omega-3 fatty acids. Meat bought from a grass-centric producer will contain 2 to 10 times more omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised food bought at the grocery store.

Practices for animal health are also about the overall well-being of the animals and their quality of life. These are the areas that get tricky for big scale agriculture, and not all small farms can afford to certify with Animal Welfare Approved, or Humanely Raised, and being Certified Organic does not always ensure best practice either. You can only truly know how your food is being grown/raised by having conversations with the farmer or going to see for yourself.

Animals have a big impact on the soils they are living on, both positively and negatively. This creates a need to move the animals to fresh areas frequently. This is called intensive rotational grazing. By moving the animals frequently, they receive the benefit of fresh grass, forbes, weeds, roots, and beneficial bugs. The soil receives the benefit of fertilization from the animals’ elimination. Both of these benefits create the need for frequent moves to keep the animals from eating the plants too low to the ground, and to keep the animals from picking up parasites from their own feces. This keeps the soil healthy and nutrient dense by keeping living organisms present and producing a healthy microbial balance. Fresh pasture offers hundreds of times more nutrients than a feedlot diet.

Feed is another big factor that influences the cost of your food. Pigs and chickens need supplemental feed, though ruminants such as sheep and cattle do not need supplemental feed and are actually healthier raised without without grains of any kind. By knowing your farmer, you can ask what their supplemental feeds are and why they have chosen these feeds. Most of us understand why we want non-genetically-modified food, most of us who buy Certified Organic know why it’s worth the extra cost, and those of us who are looking to optimize our own health are always on the lookout for both good and bad fat choices. Feed combinations can be very diverse with small grains, legumes, minerals, and added fats, or they may just be Big Ag corn and soy which are the most genetically-modified species being used throughout the United States. High levels of corn and soy will impact the amounts of omega-6 fatty acids in the feed profile as well. So if you really want the most nutrient-dense food, look for truly pastured meats: either 100% grass-fed or with a supplemental feed when appropriate, that has a better ratio of omega-3’s to omega-6’s. In experiments with grass-fed pigs, 100% grain-fed pigs had a lower omega 6:3 ratio of 13.8 compared to store bought pork which had a ratio of 29.4. A pig raised on 50% grain has an omega 6:3 ratio of 9.88. Grain free animals have the least amount of saturated fats and the highest Omega-3 fatty acids.

If you have decided that you are a person that really cares about how your meat is raised and who is raising it, then you would benefit from getting to know your farmer and supporting the small farms that cannot compete with the prices of factory food and large scale agriculture. And the bottom line is you must be willing to pay more at the coop,and the mainstream grocery store for well-raised, healthier food. You will see, feel and taste the difference, and spending more on your food choices means you will spend less on your healthcare bills. Find us here at driftlesshillsfarm.com

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Living the Dream

I am Betsy Boone my husband and our two small children have a small farm in Northeastern Iowa in the Driftless region of the Midwest. We raise 100% grass-fed sheep, rotationally-pastured heritage-breed pork, and rotationally-grazed, free-range chicken. We are working passionately everyday to raise the highest quality meat and live our ideals.

When we moved back to Iowa, my husband Andy’s state, we were filled with the hope and promise of finding good, affordable land that we could farm in order to raise the best possible food for our family and our community. We had big dreams of living a simple, nature-filled life, where we would find meaning by contributing well-raised, healthy meat to our community. Afterall, it was Iowa, right? It is where farming happens. Now, living here in the midst of big agriculture, it has been a struggle to learn farming and to figure out how to get a market share.

We have been faced by challenges that most small farmers struggle though or against. The first challenge was finding enough affordable land on which to grow an enterprise. We started out with five acres in southwest Iowa, which was hardly enough to have more than a homestead. In order to afford this, my husband had to work a full-time job while I stayed home with the kids, and we both did farming tasks as we could–often well into the night. It got even busier during the summer when we did the farmers market, and Andy continued working full-time as a manager of a vegetable CSA. By the second year, this so-called sustainable lifestyle we were trying to live was not feeling “sustainable” at all. We were tired and we were subsidising the business with off-farm income. We knew something had to change or we could no longer farm. In order to make enough money to support ourselves, we needed to grow, and in order to grow, we needed more land, something we could not afford.

About this time of worried and sometimes heated conversation about how to move forward with our farming venture, I came across a notice on the website of Practical Farmers of Iowa. There was a link about a farm that had been donated to the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT), and they were looking to find new farmers for a heritage farm in northeastern Iowa, about four hours away from us. Once again, hopes and dreams started to kindle in my heart as we considered the idea of moving our family and our farm to an established farm that offered more land, more home, and the equipment we would need to grow. Again, I took a chance and started the process of applying and rebuilding our business around the possibility of a new farm.

Last year, we were notified by SILT that we had been chosen by a committee to take over the Luzum Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, and that we could move onto the farm later that November. Months after the move, as I reflect on our journey, I am so overwhelmed with gratitude for the families that can see a future in farming sustainably even when they no longer have someone take over the family farm. These families and organizations like SILT give individuals and families like mine the tremendous opportunity to pour our passion into farming and the environment, even when we were not passed on this wealth of opportunity from our own families.

Now that we are here on Driftless Hills Farm, the new adventure and challenge has begun, and it is as if we have started over. This time we are leasing much more land than we had been,which has already been certified organic. We have the tools which we need to farm and potentially even grow our own feed for the pigs and chickens. So with all those limitations behind us we can now just focus on finding our community and finding our customers. Oddly enough, this is not as easy as it sounds. People are used to paying low prices for low quality meat and the education of healthy fats and meats is slow to gain ground. It is becoming more and more important to know how your meat is raised and what you are putting into your bodies. One can only truly know these things by knowing who their farmer is and exactly what their farming practices are. This includes knowing what the animals are being fed and how they are raised.

We have chosen to set ourselves apart from Big Ag and even other small farmers that are using conventional and confinement style practices. Surprisingly, this is still what the majority of pork farms are doing. Driftless Hills Farm is focused on raising the most nutrient-dense food using regenerative agriculture practices such as rotational grazing, cover cropping, and crop rotation. We are pasturing our animals as much as possible to increase the nutrient density of our food, always working to increase our omega-3 fatty acids and reduce our omega-6 fatty acids. By giving our sheep a 100% grass-fed diet, we can increase the levels of Conjugated Linoleic Acids (CLA) in our lamb as well. The most nutritious food we can raise while still doing best farming practices is our highest goal.

You can purchase our meat online or see where to find us at regional farmers markets or by joining our regional buying clubs. Check out our website at driftlesshillsfarm.com for pick up locations and to get information about shipping possibilities in the Midwest and Eastern states, and to subscribe to our mailing list which will keep you informed about what we’re up to.