Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Organic Goat Farming in Montana

"First, seventy-two labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us."
Thus begins the Buddhist meal verses - the ones that are repeated before each meal, like saying grace. "We should know how it comes to us" is growing in popularity in this country - as in the "Buy Local" movement, in the "Slow Food" movement, and in the USDA's program "Know Your Farmer, Know your Food". More and more of us have become interested in knowing where our food comes from, which is part of the reason why farmer's markets are becoming more and more popular in cities across America. We want to meet the people who are involved in growing our food - to put a face and a name to our veggies. Perhaps this deeper connection to our food gives us a deeper connection to our own bodies than we have when buying food in a Styrofoam tray, wrapped in plastic in the supermarket.

This connection became even more apparent to me on my recent trip through Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. In my last post, I talked about potatoes. I cannot think of anything more grounding than the deeply inhaled scent of a warehouse filled with earthy potatoes. You cannot help but smile when you feel practically every pore open to absorb whatever molecules of potato might float by on the air. And our host and guide through that cavernous building could not have been nicer or more open to our questions.

From Idaho we went to Montana, and it was just outside of Bozeman that we were treated to another unforgettable connection with food and the people who produce it. I had been given a brochure for the Amaltheia Organic Dairy in Belgrade, Montana, owned and operated by Sue and Mel Brown. I emailed them before we left and got a response from Sue, telling me to call her husband and he'd be happy to give us a tour of their farm when we got there. With the help of our cell phone and two sets of eyes carefully watching for road signs and numbers on the mailboxes, we managed to pass it and turn around only once. There are no signs - just goats in several enclosed areas set far back from the road. We drove up and passed a young man shoveling hay by the fence with dozens and dozens of goat heads poking through, eagerly devouring the fresh meal.Mel Brown is as laid back a man as your likely to meet, with an easy smile and a dry sense of humor. As we stood in the shade of a tree with a goat gently nibbling on the strings at the bottom of my cargo pants, Mel talked to us about animal husbandry and the food industry in this country. Originally from England, he spent time in Guatemala and did the first embryo transplants in cattle. (As a result of that work, women who want to get pregnant and need to have an embryo transplanted can have that done - it's the same technology.) From there he came to this country and worked at first with cattle before he and his wife started Amaltheia back in 2000.

When Mel told us that there were four corporations which produce most of the food in this country, even I was surprised.

When I got home I heard an interview with Tom Vilseck, our Secretary of Agriculture, confirming what Mel had said - that approximately 70% of the food in this country is produced by less than 4% of the farmers. Basically, our food comes from ADM (Archer Daniels Midland), Cargill, IBP (Iowa Beef Producers) and Tyson. That's a huge amount of money controlled by a very select few. The consequences of that are so far reaching that it would take a book - or many of them - to sort it all out. (As a kind of aside, Jenn, our very own Leftover Queen selected me to win her giveaway of the book "Stuffed", by Hank Cardello. If you want to read about at least some of the consequences of giant agribusiness controlling our food, I suggest you read it.)

So how do people like Mel and Sue make it in this country? How do individuals go up against the giants? The short answer is "It ain't easy". But the good news is that the old adage about timing being everything is what makes Mel and Sue's business shine like the north star. Because the tide is definitely flowing in their direction. People are beginning to wake up to the consequences of our current methods of food production. Yes, we can produce a tremendous amount of food at an amazingly low price. That is, if you only count the price at the cash register. But over the years it has become more and more apparent that our food production techniques are making us sick.Sometimes it's obvious, as when there's a recall of beef due to the presence of e. coli. Mel addressed the issue of e. coli and said that it could be controlled easily if the cows were allowed to grass feed - especially at the end. That would change their ruminant and eliminate the bacteria, but it would cost more to do it that way. As things are done now, the cows are corn fed - or overfed - and as a result they have to be slaughtered sooner rather than later or else their organs would all break down. (I'm sorry - I'm really not trying to make that steak look less appealing! But I AM trying to make a case for grass-fed beef.)To paraphrase something Mel said, farmer's don't know how to farm anymore. Unless they can spray everything, they don't know how to produce. And this is precisely why people like Mel and Sue are in the right place at the right time. Because people are literally hungry for food that is produced organically, ethically and sustainably. The goat's milk cheese produced by Almatheia made with vegetable rennet, not only rivals anything produced conventionally that you can find in the supermarkets, but it also satisfies that hunger to keep your dollars flowing in the direction of that which is sane and sensible, good for you and good for our earth.

But wait - there's more! A byproduct of making goat's milk cheese is the whey. What does an organic farmer do with all that whey? In Amaltheia's case, they use it to feed pigs. So they are raising pigs on an organic diet. We didn't get to taste any pork products while we were there - I don't think the pigs are ready yet - but they looked as happy as pigs in......... Well, let's just say they looked happy.And then there's the matter of manure. Lots of goats + lots of pigs = lots of manure. So what do you do with it? Why, compost it, of course. And use it in your garden to produce an enormous crop of vegetables. (And of course whatever vegetable matter is left over at the end of the season will be feed for hungry animals.) And when there's still huge piles of it left after you've used all you need? Why you offer it to neighboring farms so that they can benefit as well. And then, of course, it becomes obvious that chickens would be a good next step. There's room. There are pens. And as someone who has actually raised chickens myself, I know the difference between an organic egg which was laid within the last week where you have to smash it against the pan in order to break the shell, vs. those anemic looking thin-shelled things available in the grocery stores. No contest.

We left after several hours (and some luscious samples - thank you, Mel!) and headed east across Montana. We were driving through cattle country, and I gazed out the window at all those cows grazing peacefully on the hillsides. They were all still healthy because they were doing what cows do naturally - eating grass.

We all have a choice in what we eat, and I don't know anyone who is perfect 100% of the time. We eat healthy foods and we eat junk food, just as we exercise and then "fall off the wagon". My personal commitment to my own health includes eating organic foods as often as possible. I don't stress over it when I go out or eat at a friend's house, but when I go to buy fruits and veggies, you'll find me in front of the organic section. Same thing with chicken and eggs. I make those choices because I know how to stretch my food dollars. The organic chicken I purchased recently was initially roasted and fed 2 people. The leftovers went into making Tom Kha soup and curried chicken salad with coconut, almonds and cranberries. And I still had a leg and thigh left for lunch today, with green beans, almonds and shitaki mushrooms.

What do you do to stretch your food dollar? How important is it to you to eat organic food?

I also want to urge you to visit Amaltheia's website: Amaltheia Dairy. You'll find a beautiful selection of cheeses available for purchase.p.s.: This just in from Sue: Monsanto just bought the largest wheat seed company in Montana. So the number of players in the food industry just got smaller.


Penny said...

Glad you are spreading the word about agribusiness. We all need to support our local farmers and buy as much locally as possible.

Unknown said...

Penny - I completely agree, and thanks for chiming in on this one. Hopefully we can also support organic farming as well. There's so much research supporting it's economic viability.

Terry at Blue Kitchen said...

What a wonderful, thoughtful post, Toni. Alarming too--I had no idea how much agriculture is controlled by so few. The manure question alone points up the difference between old school farming and factory farms. On traditional farms, the animal waste feeds the vegetable crops. On single-crop factory farms, animal waste stays waste and creates disposal and pollution problems, while vegetable crops require artificial fertilizers, with all the problems they create.

Unknown said...

Amazing, isn't it, Terry? I didn't realize how few players there were in agriculture, either, and it's frightening.

And yes, it's preposterous that we throw away manure and use chemical fertilizer.

Thistlemoon said...

This is a great post, Toni. It is written so well. I am on board with buying local, and getting more in touch and connected with the food I eat. Which is why I am going to be starting up my own small scale goat and sheep farm, and making cheese. I am so going to check out their website! Thanks!
I am currently reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and she also talks a lot about agribusiness. You would probably enjoy that.

Unknown said...

Jenn - It's amazing that you should mention that book - you're the second person in about a week to tell me to read it.

Definitely contact them! And if you find yourself anywhere near Bozeman, you should absolutely look them up. You'll learn more than you ever realized there was to learn. And such very, very nice people!!!