One of the most common questions I get in my inbox is a variation of this:
“I live in ____________. Can you recommend a farm that sells organic/sustainable/humane/natural/affordable ________ ?”
I wish I had the time, knowledge, and resources to provide a personally tailored answer to each of these emails! But, sadly, Kentucky is a huge state, sustainable farming is a high turnover business, and I am hesitant to recommend a farm that I haven’t visited personally and felt a deep sense of connection to the farmers and their values. Not to mention, the definition of sustainable can vary widely from person to person. Choosing a farmer to build a working relationship with is a very personal decision that affects your health, the local economy, and the future of your children. For this reason, I want to encourage each of my readers to take their time in selecting a farm that is the right fit for their family. It’s a relationship that could last a lifetime, so choose wisely where you invest your food dollars.
Resources for Finding a Farm
Depending on what you are looking to buy, it may be easy to locate a farm in your area producing what you need. Some items, however, like raw milk or honey, may be harder to locate. Particularly when legal issues are a concern, as with raw milk, farmers may not openly advertise availability of their product. Here are some recommendations on where to start your search for a good Kentucky farm:
There are many great websites with farm listings. Be sure to call or email the farmer as the information listed may be out of date.
- LocalHarvest.org: A great website with many many listings of farms, CSAs, restaurants, etc. for not just Kentucky, but the entire country. Easily searchable by item desired or location.
- Kentucky Proud: A broad database of Kentucky-produced products.
- The Campaign for Real Milk: Includes a listing of farmers brave enough to post that they sell raw milk via herd shares.
- KY Beekeeping Associations: I suppose beekeepers have kept bees so long that they resemble them a bit with their stellar organization skills and networking. If you are looking for local honey, your best bet is to call up your nearest beekeeping association and beg them for the names of some beekeepers who are selling. Most likely, they will know who has what and for how much.
While Google is a treasure trove of farm information, some times you just can’t beat the information available right in your home town. The trick is knowing the right folks to ask!
- The Extension Office: If you still haven’t been in touch with your local extension office, call them today! They should be in the know about everything going on in your county agriculturally. They will know about the crazy guy with a few hundred mushroom logs in his backyard, or the person who is refusing to use antibiotics on their chickens. Use their knowledge. UK Ag includes the list of county extension agents to make it easy to find yours.
- The Farmer’s Market: While not all farmers may be selling at your local market, many of them will be. They may also be willing to recommend other farmers in the area. (Hint: before you visit your farmer’s market, check their bylaws or call ahead to find out what percentage of the produce must be produced by the farmer. It may be counterproductive to buy watermelons trucked in from out of state when you think you are buying locally produced food. When in doubt, ask.) KY Proud maintains a list of farmer’s markets in Kentucky.
- Bulletin boards: It’s possible that a nearby farmer is advertising their services somewhere in town if you look in the right places. Feed stores, Tractor Supply, health food stores… many of these places have small bulletin boards in the back or near the cash register. Check for farm business cards or flyers there!
Selecting a Farm That Fits Your Values
Okay, you’ve gotten together a list of farms in your area. It was easier to do than you expected, and you are pleasantly surprised to find that there are quite a few producers around that will benefit from your new choice to shop locally. Now, how do you choose? What’s the best way to approach a farmer about sustainability and the choices they make when raising your food?
Farming is a tough business. Farming organically or nontraditionally is even tougher. It makes me sad that in many cases, an us vs. them mentality has developed between farms and consumers who want something outside of the mainstream. This has been perpetuated by zealous environmentalists who have declared everything a factory farm/evil agribusiness if it isn’t organic, as well as some traditional farmers, who have taken the stance that organic is impossible, unnecessary, and just plain silly. It’s my hope that we can find a common ground somewhere between the two groups. I do want natural food that is produced in a way that adds health to the soil, air, and water supply without destroying it. But I don’t want to write any farm that isn’t organic off as an evil mega-corporation that doesn’t deserve my money. Here are some issues to keep in mind and questions to ask yourself (and your farmer) when selecting your farm:
- Expect to pay higher prices. It is downright insulting to say to a farmer, “Well, I can buy this cheaper at WalMart.” They don’t need you to remind them of this fact. If you are simply looking for the cheapest food money can buy, then you shouldn’t be talking to your local farmer. Farming is ridiculously hard work with a shockingly small return for said hard work. You will pay more, but you can expect higher quality in return. You can adapt your budget by buying less junk, and eating less meat. (Better to have great, local meat a few nights a week than cheap meat 7 days a week!)
- Understand the complexities of running a farm. Unless you’ve been a farmer, you can’t understand the inner workings of one. It’s easy to say, “I want organic certification! I want animals that are never in a cage! I want no antibiotics ever!” Keep in mind that it takes a lot of time and money to get certified to sell organic foods. Understand that cage-free is a drastic change of mindset from what many farmers have done in the past. Perhaps part of their land is being used organically and part isn’t. Maybe they don’t offer routine vaccinations but do treat sick animals? When you speak with a farmer, respect that they are doing what they have been trained to do, and perhaps not necessarily what you think may be best for the environment and people. Simply by speaking with a farmer, you can very quickly feel out what their values are. Be gracious, even if you choose to take your business elsewhere. To be clear, I am not making excuses for farmers who abuse the land or their animals. I just think the best way to promote change is not through alienating those who do not see eye-to-eye with our own views.
- Know what your values are, and what you are willing to compromise on. In a dream world, you wouldn’t have to compromise on anything! But if you are committed to shopping locally, you may have to find a farm that is close to what you want or transitioning that way. Whatever you do, do not attack a farmer who doesn’t have it all together yet in the sustainable department. As more customers respectfully ask for what they want, more farmers will move that direction! But badgering, playing know-it-all, or just generally being rude, is not going to help build the bridge between organic consumers and the farmers who want to feed them! There are certain things that are very, very important to me, such as how the cows are treated by the farmer who sells me raw milk (because I want happy cows who make healthy milk). However, when I buy honey, I know that it is virtually impossible to find an organic honey producer within 20 miles of my home. But I would rather have local than organic in that case.
- See the farm. I can’t express the importance of this enough. One of the problems with shopping at the grocery is that you have no idea where you food is coming from, how it is being grown, etc. So if you are going to shop local, be sure it is at a farm where you are allowed on the premises! See the field. Speak with the farmer. Pet the animals. It’s easy to hide behind “biosecurity” but don’t let that fool you. Find a farm that will let you in. Keep in mind that farmers are very busy, and certain times of year are worse than others. Perhaps they have group tour days or need you to make an appointment weeks in advance. That’s okay. Just be sure that you get to see what you are buying. Remember, you are making an investment in the future, and the health of your family. You wouldn’t buy a car without seeing it; don’t buy your food sight unseen, either.
- Consider working on the farm. Many farms, particularly CSA’s, have farm work days where customers can come in and work on the farm. This is a great way to get to know your farmer as well as like-minded folks who are buying from the same place. It will give you a new appreciation for where your food comes from. Added bonus: I guarantee you’ll end up getting a really good night’s sleep after a long day of farm work!