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The Small Farm Dilemma

Small farms have been a part of American History for about as long as America has been...well, America! And frankly, even before then. Small farms are as much a part of our history as the mayflower, the revolution, and the constitution. Although, not talked about quite as much. Most of us are at least relatively familiar with the history of farming in our country. At one point in time, almost everyone lived or worked on a farm. We provided our own food for our families and communities. Then, the Industrial Revolution happened and Americans began leaving the farm for work in the big city. Big Agriculture (commercial agriculture) stepped in to keep our country fed and here we are! Okay, that's a fast a loose history. We skipped over the depression and the beginning of farm subsidies and we haven't even touched on health and safety regulations. But that's the gist.

Small farms still dotted our country sides and have risen and fallen in success and popularity with the times. Many American's visit these farms maybe once a year to pick a pumpkin and enjoy hay rides. However, over the last few decades the trends point to a lot of farm land sold and converted. (Hello, subdivisions) Farmers retire with no one to take over the farm or sell to keep from bankruptcy. But we will get into the mono-crop traditional agricultural debt game in another post. It seems so...sad.

But that's not the end of the story! In recent years we have seen a new trend, the rural revival. The small farm dream. New Farmers are younger, less experienced, and trying out new (less) ground breaking ideas. (No till joke, anyone?) People are seeking out the farm life again, seeking a connection with the land and their foods. Seeking an alternative to the industrialized, commercialized food system that turned out to be less healthful, reliable, and safe than we were told it would be.

Regenerative agriculture, diversified farming, and direct to consumer farm systems have proven that small farms can provide healthful foods to their communities, while protecting the environment, and treating the animals with more respect. It's beautiful, effective, safe, and better for all of us.

Then what is this dilemma I am referring to? Small farms must operate in a system designed for big agriculture. They must navigate regulations that are imposed under the guise of protecting the consumer (I'm sure this was the original intention) but more accurately protect the interests of the oligopoly that is our farming and food industry. The big one we ( small farms) are battling right now is meat processing. Processing facilities have dwindled to tiny numbers, and 80 percent of the ones still in business are owned by 4 big companies. Meat processing regulations began to combat the unsanitary conditions that were making Americans sick. However, in recent years the consolidation of these meat processing facilities has not reduced contamination and illness but rather is the main source.

So let's talk about a little background information to help this all make sense. In our country meat products must be processed in a USDA certified facility in order to be sold. ( There are some exceptions with poultry and rabbit but we will talk about later) Unless, they are processed by a custom meat processor. This means the consumer purchased the meat in a half, whole, or quarter allotment while the animal was still living. Then it is processed as a "service" and can be given to the consumer to toss on the grill and enjoy. This has been deemed perfectly safe and legal for consumers. In order to custom process meat, the facility is required to pass the same sanitary conditions and food handling requirements as a USDA certified facility. The only difference? They don't pay the USDA regularly for perpetual onsite inspection. Starting a custom processing facility is much more affordable (hello, small farm friendly) BUT means the product can not be resold or parted out for sale in any way. The product must be purchased as a living animal and given back to the purchasing party labeled only with "not for sale."

Farmers and Ranchers attempt to get their livestock harvested at a small number of processing facilities that set the prices they see fit. These facilities may be hours from the farm, making the trip stressful on the livestock that is IF you can get on their schedule. For some insight, here in Idaho, we have worked with both of the processors in our area. That's right, there are only two for us to choose from for our particular products. One processing facility didn't treat our animals with the respect we expected and left us with packaged products with much to be desired. The other, is booked full all year, doesn't answer phone calls, and charges almost twice as much. Not to mention when they forgot to put us on the schedule and left us scrambling the day before our scheduled harvest.

With these requirements it seems that the USDA inspection process must offer the consumer some type of protection, right? Otherwise, there is no reason to enforce this particular regulation. Unfortunately, this isn't the case. Remember, when I mentioned that the consolidation of meat processing has become the main source of food born illness and contamination? The inspection process most often consists of the "poke and sniff" test. Inspectors poke a small hole in meat products and sniff it to check for obvious signs of contamination. Then they poke and sniff the next piece and so on. Anyone seeing the problem here? For contamination to be evident by smell it must be advanced. Additionally, the poking and prodding further contaminates additional meat products when contamination is not yet evident by smell.

So what's the big picture? Regulations on meat processing should protect the consumer from food born illness. We know that in small local facilities, like those performing custom processing, they do. However, in order to compete in the market, small farms are forced to comply with expensive regulations requiring USDA certified processing that doesn't further protect the consumer.

Small farms already can not compete with grocery store prices, where the industrialized food system has squeezed out the most inexpensive product at the highest possible profit margin. When you add expensive regulations, many small farms are forced to tap out.

You would think this would be enough to discourage the small farm movement that we are seeing making a comeback. It isn't. We know that high quality foods, produced ecologically and humanely, are incomparable to the food-stuffs that are sold on the main stream market. We know that these high quality foods can help our communities combat chronic illness, diabetes, inflammation, and even cancer. We know that the regenerative small farm process can improve our environment while feeding our communities rather than destroy it. And we know that small local farms and businesses create strong economies and more reliable food supply chains.

So small farmers continue to farm in the hopes that, with time, this rural revival will be strong enough to really make a difference in our communities and our country.

You can help by supporting the PRIME Act, The Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act check it out here and by supporting your local farmers.

For a life that is happier, healthier, and more delicious.

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