I spent the day in beautiful Lancaster, Pennsylvania on Tuesday. I picked up my mom and headed to the Central Market in downtown Lancaster, said to be the oldest farmer’s market in the country. I bought delicate buttercrunch lettuce in picture-perfect heads for $1.35 a piece and a big bag of just-picked-this-morning spinach for $2. I couldn’t resist a scone from the pastry lady and spent too long considering the beautiful locally grown herbs before choosing a pot of chives. As we walked around and took it all in, I have to say I expected more Amish and I expected it to be easier to know which venders used organic and sustainable methods. I studied the signs, but only one booth proclaimed “no chemical sprays” which really could mean anything. I chose to believe the gentle man bagging the lettuce was a kindred spirit. Farmer’s Markets are a great idea, but it was obvious that even in this storied market many of the products were not from around here.
Our next stop was Roots Auction and Market, held every Tuesday. This place was something to see. Parking was a challenge as it seemed everyone in Lancaster County was at Roots (pronounced “Ruots”, but I never figured out why). Roots is a MASSIVE combination of flea market, farmer’s market, and bazaar. I am certain you could have purchased just about anything you wanted there. We saw just about every species of fruit and vegetable, but also leather jackets, Tupperware, imitation beanie babies, Egyptian Cotton Sheet Sets, plastic flower bouquet for tombstones, knife sets, incense, perennials, live turkeys, and pickles by the pound. And then there was the flea market that stretched as far as the eye could see. We ventured in to it briefly, but were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer mass of junk and shock that so many people were shopping for junk on a beautiful Tuesday morning in Lancaster. Roots is something to see and if you are ever in Lancaster on a Tuesday, I highly recommend the experience. I did end up walking away with a big plastic jug of garlic pickles (crispy and delicious – the kids loved them), a bag of pretzel ‘balls” (just had to try them), raw milk cheese, strawberries (from Florida), and local asparagus. I asked many of the vendors where their produce came from but some of them seemed annoyed that I expected anything to be local. The nice Mennonite lady who told me she’d picked the asparagus herself and her strawberries came from Florida won my business.
After the chaos of Roots, it was a treat to arrive at Breakaway Farms in Manheim, just north of Lancaster. I discovered Breakaway Farms (http://www.breakawayfarms.net/) through http://www.gowild.com/. Gowild is a great place to start if you are interested in buying grass-fed meat and dairy products near you. I’d been e-mailing with Breakaway’s office manager for several weeks arranging this visit. She was very helpful and welcoming and encouraged me to come see the farm and meet Farmer Nate before I placed my order. When we arrived at the picturesque and remarkably tidy farm, we encountered two adorable children in barefeet (one dragging a tricycle and toting a fishing pole).
Nate met us and gave the tour. Breakaway Farms grows poultry, pork, beef, lamb, goats, and rabbits. Nate is a mechanical engineer by training and this was obvious to me (having grown up with engineers and married one) as he showed us the farm. I coveted his automatic watering system for his chickens (rigged up with hoses and the same plastic waterer I fill two times a day at home). He explained how the chickens were currently “grazing” the same area where the cows had been recently. His electric wire pens were completely moveable and relocated daily to take advantage of the previous tenants leavings,. Chickens do a great job breaking up cow pies and eating up the bugs that infest them, thus saving the farmer the trouble of picking up or spreading the manure which acts as fertilizer. Nothing beats nature for natural efficiency.
We watched the chickens for awhile and my mom remarked at how odd they looked –only partly covered with feathers and supported by enormous feet. Nate explained that chickens have been bred to be fast growing broiler birds and as such feathers are not really a necessity and are bred out of them. I’m guessing as they age they can balance their fast growing bulk on those enormous feet better than average chicken feet. Plus, everything I’ve read (and Nate confirmed) indicates chickens bred for meat can’t really even walk much by the time they are full-grown because they are designed to have unnaturally large breasts. (I know what you are thinking - seems the general population is partial to large breasts in chickens too). At this rate our poultry business will have completely feather free, obscenely large breasted birds ready to pop on the grill in just a few more generations.
Next we admired the beef cattle and Nate explained how they are moved from one field to the next periodically. We’re getting ready to do the same thing with our horses to prevent the pasture from being overgrazed. He proudly told us that these cows had been grass fed for several generations and he could trace the papa bull’s ancestry to England and further back than most people. We walked inside to see the pigs who had just moved in where the cows had been living previously. Their job was clear. They were to enjoy the muck. A job which clearly makes pigs very happy. They were busy happily rooting through the accumulated cow manure. Nate explained that what is left is piled up an allowed to compost and become “black gold” which will then be spread on the fields as super fertilizer.
Another area of the barn contained rabbits in eye level cages. I’m not a rabbit fan – not for eating and certainly not as pets – but I was amazed at the system they had going here. The rabbits manure fell down through the bottom of the wire cages and living under the cages was a flock of chickens to – you guessed it- consume the rabbit manure. Might seem disgusting, but in reality it is nature doing what it does best – recycling. Nate explained that if the chickens weren’t in here, the rabbit manure would be waist deep by now. He also informed me that lots of people disagree with me when it comes to rabbit meat – apparently there’s a great market for it.
After our tour, we purchased some grass fed meat products and nitrate free pork products. We talked with Nate about Breakaway’s buying clubs and his ideas of starting a home delivery business. A big part of Nate’s job is education. The general public doesn’t know enough about grass fed products. Grass fed products are much healthier for you (see my post Save the Planet – Eat Beef! On February 4, 2010), but more than that, they are better for the environment. Instead of raising their animals in feed lots and dumping the accumulated waste in such large amounts it poisons the land and water, Breakaway makes the most of their pasture by rotating the animals and allowing them to recycle and redistribute the waste, not only strengthening the land they graze on, but creating natural fertilizer for the farm land surrounding them.
This isn’t new. This is the way farms used to be run, before the concept of a factory farm even existed. This is the way farmers fertilized their fields before the toxic insecticides and chemical fertilizers rendered the ground sterile. But it takes more time to raise a grass-fed animal for market. And time for a farm is money. Although farmers like Nate save on the cost of traditional fertilizers, they spend more on organic feed, man-power, and the number of days it takes to bring an animal to market. Not to mention, they don’t have the marketing power the major meat producers control. I’m here to tell you that sustainably run farms are not making their fortune by charging you higher prices; they are simply trying to stay alive. I have yet to meet a farmer who is in this for the money.
If Earth Day means anything to you, I beg you to consider patronizing farmers like Nate. Farmers who care for the animals and the earth, and not just making a buck. They need our support. They need us to vote with our pocketbooks for more sustainable farming methods. This is a win-win-win situation. The farmers win when we enable them to make a living, the earth wins as we support farming methods that heal it, and we all win when we consume grass-fed, chemical free products that make us healthier.
Conscientious buying is not easy. I’ll be the first to admit it takes time. It also takes effort – you need to think before you buy. It might mean visiting more than one store, farm, or market to get the things your family needs. It might mean doing a little homework and asking a lot of questions. But it’s the right thing to do.
As I thought about Nate’s ideas for home delivery of homegrown vegetables, meats, and dairy, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I thought this is great – people always complain that eating this way is too hard and too inconvenient. So many times I hear from people, “I wish I had time to do what you do to feed your family.” And here is the answer – home delivery! But on the other hand, home delivery of organic produce, and grassfed meat and dairy products will be expensive. I’m not sure whether people are willing to put their money where their mouth is. But I hope they will. I hope Nate’s business becomes the standard for how we buy our food.
Note: If you are local and interested in forming a buying club here in Southern York County with me to purchase products from Breakaway Farms, let me know. If you’ve got questions or need help finding grass fed, sustainably grown food, I’d be happy to chat with you, too.