Picture yourself on the Metra train heading south from Barrington into the city. There’s a lady reading the new James Patterson novel. A guy flipping through the Chicago Tribune. Another guy reading, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan.
The train pulls into Ogilvie and the three people grab their bags, head to the station. They make their way to three different office buildings downtown.
For all three of them, this morning is about to be jam-packed with emails and meetings. Conference calls and deadlines. A month from now, the James Patterson lady has a two-week vacation. The newspaper guy is about to become a granddad.
The guy reading Michael Pollan’s book? He’s about to purchase four Angus beef calves, 25 laying hens, and 25 broiler chickens to raise in his backyard.
Be Careful What You Read… You Might Become a Farmer
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” was a Christmas present Cliff received from his left-wing sister out in California. Cliff devoured the book in a week and especially connected with the middle section of the book where Pollan spends a week at Joel Salatin’s grass-based livestock farm in Virginia.
“I started doing some research on Salatin and discovered that he had written a number of books on livestock farming, including a book titled “You Can Farm,'” Cliff writes in his origin story blog. “At that time we were doing pretty well and had purchased a large house on almost 9 acres of open land in suburban Barrington Hills. However, in spring 2011, I started a new insurance job from my home office, which saved me 3 hours per day of time commuting. With a head full of ideas picked up from the You Can Farm book, I decided to use that time to start raising food for my family and friends on our acreage.”
You know when a neighbor comes by asks for a cup of sugar? Cliff’s version: Neighbors were placing orders for beef, eggs, and chicken – all from his backyard.
Cliff was enjoying the work and decided to make it a side business. He put together a simple website and his listing was up on Eatwild.com. The orders started multiplying fast and it became clear that his backyard operation wasn’t going to be nearly enough space. It was time for a bigger farm.
“We were lucky to find a 40-acre parcel of fenced land available to rent about 5 minutes from our house. And so I borrowed a neighbors trailer and we moved the growing beef herd and chicken production over to the new property that spring (we called it “The Ranch”), to make room for a few dairy cows on our backyard acreage.”
Whether it’s starting a farm or starting a tech company, I always picture the owner as the big idea guy. Like a Steve Jobs pacing around his bedroom, having the light bulb moment for the first iPhone. But in so many cases, the big new product idea comes from the customers themselves. This was the case for Cliff who, in March of 2012, started receiving numerous inquiries about raw milk from his website visitors.
“At the time I was not at all familiar with raw milk or the health benefits, but after the 30th or so email within a month, I decided it was time to start looking into this burgeoning raw milk movement.”
To me, that’s what’s so cool about this story, all the decisions Cliff was making were completely in the opposite direction of the national trends. Starting a dairy farm? In 2012? U.S. dairies have fallen from 678,000 in 1970 to fewer than 40,000 by 2018. And, of those 40,000, the trend is largely in favor of the bigger farms, not the small family operations. To put the output numbers in perspective, in 2001, dairy farms with fewer than 500 cattle produced two-thirds of the nation’s milk. By 2009, their share fell to 40 percent.
And it makes sense. It’s like any other competition in business, the deli down the street can’t compete, at least not financially, with the giant scale of a place like McDonald’s. We see it especially right now during COVID-19, the mom and pop restaurants are hurting and struggling to survive while the global fast-food chains are doing just fine. The big guys can weather the storm. The smaller shops, it’s gonna be a fight.
But what the small restaurant, the small shop, or the small farm can do better than the bigger operation is create a superior product. Sure, it might not scale. And there won’t be the same volume, but for that carton of eggs, that 1/2 gallon of milk, that five lbs of beef brisket, the small family farm has the opportunity for every customer to experience their food and say, “Wow, this is incredible!” They tell their friends, they post on Facebook, and the line gradually gets a little longer outside the farm store.
So Cliff drove up to Dodgeville, Wisconsin, toured a farm that had 10 purebred Guernsey cows available. He ordered milking equipment online and then purchased his first two Guernseys (named Custard and Sapphire). He put all the proper protocols in place and, just like that, he was in the raw milk business. Announced it on the website. Demand went up, supply went down. He went back to Wisconsin and bought two more cows (named Joy and Alice).
Two Gallons of Milk, Side by Side
Let’s compare two approaches to dairy farming: The common practices on big factory farms vs. the process at All Grass Farms.
At a factory farm, dairy cows live in tight dark quarters. When you have thousands of cows and the goal is to produce $3-4 gallons of milk, efficiency has to be the top priority. Because of this cramped arrangement, the cows don’t have room to spread out on the land and they spend a lot of time standing and sleeping on concrete surfaces (easier to hose down). As a result, factory farm cows often have sore joints and develop illnesses from these poor living conditions.
The cows’ diet is cheap and mediocre consisting of poor grains, soy, and other supplements vs. eating grass and living off the pasture. This process of going from pasture to grain isn’t natural and a lot of the cows become afflicted with a number of disorders. To prevent more serious and sometimes fatal reactions, “the animals are given chemical additives along with a constant, low-level dose of antibiotics. Some of these antibiotics are the same ones used in human medicine. When medications are overused in the feedlots, bacteria become resistant to them. When people become infected with these new, disease-resistant bacteria, there are fewer medications available to treat them.”
When the cows on a factory farm have a daughter, the two are separated within the first 24 hours. The calves receive synthetic milk alternatives so their mothers’ milk can still be sold. Here’s a deeper look at the process from an article on Sentient Media.
Mother cows have been known to scream for their young, attempt to break out of their pens, break down fences, and go to other extreme lengths in their desperation for reunification. They want to spend time with their offspring. In fact, cows often bond with their mothers for life, remaining in the same herd, when allowed to live naturally.
The extreme distress these cows demonstrate often lead them to refuse water and food. They get sick, become malnourished, and are impregnated again within three or four months. The cycle continues, with each new baby taken away from his or her mother.
Compare this to the process at All Grass Farms. Back in July, “The Moo Crew” welcomed six new calves to the herd, four of those being heifers, aka future milking cows. Here’s a picture of Orbit cleaning her newborn calf, Olive.
Look at the contrast here. This is an excerpt from their July Newsletter:
We allow the heifer calves to stay with their mamas until weaned, so they can nurse whenever hungry, and learn to graze and socialize with the herd from an early age.
The downside of keeping the calves with their mamas is they drink a lot of milk, but we just have to settle for sharing their production with the babies. There should be more milk available to sell in the store soon though as we bring more cows back into production.
Right now, they have between 30-35 dairy cows, milking around 20. The maximum they can milk is about 24. The cows roam around the farm receiving a natural diet. They head into the barn to be milked and the product goes all of 20 yards away to the farm store. It’s about as farm fresh as it gets.
When you compare these two approaches, to me it seems like pasteurized vs. non-pasteurized, homogenized vs. non-homogenized, the heating process, none of that is the biggest factor. The biggest factor is how the farm cares for their animals. It seems pretty simple, the farm who names their cows and offers them moo-ternity leaves, the farm who recognizes maximums and doesn’t push beyond it, and doesn’t cram cows into tight quarters, all of that will come through in the quality of the product, delivering healthier milk to their customers.
But what about the cost difference?
The last time I went to All Grass Farms, a 1/2 gallon of raw milk cost $6.50.
And that’s true for everything. The meat. The eggs. If you’re comparing cost, the grocery store will always win.
But it’s worth looking at the long-term healthcare costs too between low-cost food from factory farms vs. small family farms. For example, back in 1960, the average American family spent “17.5% of their disposable income on food, and total spending on healthcare was 5.0% of the US gross domestic product (GDP). Fast forward to 2017 data, the average American family spends just 9.6% of their disposable income on food, while our healthcare expenditures now consume 17.9% of GDP.”
To be fair, there are so many factors at play in those numbers above and I can’t paint one broad brushstroke, boiling it down to that old expression, “It’s better to pay the butcher than the doctor.” But when I look at everything as just a regular guy and not a scientist, it feels like for the last 30-40 years, the emphasis on speed and scale and low cost has resulted in lower quality food because it was coming from unhealthy animals. The response in recent years to move toward organic, grass-fed options, it really isn’t anything new. It’s a return to a past era in America when there were more small local farms supplying the nation’s food.
The downside: the price tags will be higher at checkout. It has to be, otherwise, there’s no way for the smaller shops to stay in business. But I think it’ll pay off in the end, both in the long-term healthcare impact and just the simple fact that it’s more enjoyable having a place like All Grass Farms in the neighborhood.
What if I want to start a family farm?
Cliff hears from people all the time who are interested in starting their own farm. So he offers volunteer and summer internships. Weekend help. Summer help. Douglas Callegario, the sourdough bread baker, started here. And now they’re thinking about setting up a farm-to-table restaurant on the site.
However, volunteers discover right away this is no easy job.
“A lot of people have a very romantic vision of a farm, ‘oh wouldn’t it be great to have some cows, chickens, eggs, they think about the good parts of that, but not the fact that’s a 365 days per year commitment,” Cliff said. “Never going to have a day off, never gonna have a vacation. You’re gonna have a dead animal at some point, you’re gonna have a sick animal at some point. All those issues have to be dealt with and a lot of people aren’t really prepared for that. So I always say, go experience it on a small level first. Or, like what we did, I started in my backyard with just 25 chickens see if I liked this, do I like doing this work. A lot of people jump into it really big and then they realize after a year this isn’t for them. So I’m always a big advocate of starting small and then, if you make a lot of mistakes, you’re gonna make mistakes, you learn from them, but if you have the desire and passion for it, you keep at it. But I would say maybe 5-10% of the people are going to stick with it more than a couple years.”
His volunteers are usually one-hit wonders.
“We’ve had so many volunteers. I make so many offers. ‘Be there at 6 am. Help us milk.’ They come one day and we never see them again. They’re like “Wow, this is hard work.”
He doesn’t sugarcoat the financial side either.
“You know it’s hard, not easy to make a living at it for sure, you really gotta be passionate about it,” Cliff said. “I tell people you gotta be willing to work through this for free at this for years before you make any money. It’s not like any other job. And the weather, doesn’t matter if there’s a snowstorm, polar vortex, we gotta work. We gotta take care of the animals. Gotta milk the cows. With livestock there’s no letting up, it’s every day.”
But if you hear all of that and there’s still this itch or you’re looking at email and thinking, “Man, I know it’s hard, but at least I’d be outside. I wouldn’t be staring at this screen.” If those thoughts keep coming back to the surface, it might be time to volunteer at a farm.
If so, Cliff will see you at 6 am.
Over the last several months, I’ve been using the Medium Rare blog in a different format, featuring local restaurants and businesses around Chicago. These can also drift into a little bit of philosophy and stories from my own life + a historical deep dive like this one a couple weeks ago on the history of milk. To catch up on some of the previous posts and read about great local spots, here they are below:
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 1)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard intermission)
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 2: The Family Behind Tango Sur)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard Finale)
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