Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cheese and price and accessibility and cost: Natures Harmony farm

[Special note:  Tim over at Natures Harmony bans folks that disagree with him on any of a number of topics.  Don't email me about this any more.   So while I'd usually post this comment over there, I'm posting it here so that any discussion won't be axed by Tim.  He writes stuff that appears to invite discussion and then bans everyone who cares enough to discuss it.  Which seems odd, but it's his blog.  And I'm not going to go into his new catchphrase:  "Americas Most Sustainable farm!".  Puuulleeeaase!]

In a recent blog entry, Tim at Natures Harmony asked the question of his readers which I'll paraphrase here: 

Would you rather buy cheese at $28 a pound if the cows are grass fed only, or cheese at $15/lb if they were fed both grass and grain. 
I'll note that if Tim does feed hay and grain that his operation will be, in my opinion, identical to this one that I wrote about in an earlier article, at least as far as the diet of the animals are concerned.  Well, maybe not.  I saw no evidence of grains being fed -- just grass. 

This is the slippery slope that's led us to where we are with modern agriculture.  You see, you don't really have to ask this question of the average American consumer.  We've already, as a society, made our choice.  We have chosen the largest quantity of the cheapest food possible. 

So while he's posing this question as if he's doing a favor for his customers, what he's really doing is what quite a few farmers have to wrestle with:  I'd like to make more money, and to do that I can either raise my prices or increase my output.   There's a number of things he could do to increase milk output other than feeding grain, but he's exploring that one right now. 

I am in no way making a judgement about what he feeds his animals, or the reasons he does so.  In an earlier  discussion on his blog (in the comments section), I explained why I seek out surplus food for my pigs and other livestock.  I do it to keep my produced pork  available to the average consumer.  I have no interest in producing a product that only wealthy people can enjoy.  Everyone should have access to good quality food without having to spend every last cent.    I ran across this same basic math myself, and made a choice.  Now I'm curious what choice Tim will make.



Anonymous said...

On your Special Note - FINALLY! Thank you for pointing out that Nature's Harmony seems only to post comments along the lines of, "Wow - you guys do such good work!", while editing out anything that might actually question why a couple of greenhorns think they have the right to tell people how to farm. I find it ludicrous that they - over the course of what, three years? - have figured out how to be more sustainable than any other farm in this country???! I know many farmers who have been farming for many, many years, who run much more sustainable farms (and without such deep pockets, to boot)... My husband (who has been farming for oh, about 35 years now ) reads their blog, and it makes me crazy. Every day I tell him his time would be better spent reading a blog written by a real farmer with years of experience to back up any claims made. Of course, 99.9% of real farmers don't have the "apprentices" to allow them the copious amounts of computer time needed to run a blog, and lack the massive egos required to tell others how they should be running their own farms. I just want to say to Nature's Harmony: Keep doing what you're doing for 20 or 30 years, then get back to me. By then, you might have the first clue about farming.

Thanks for an opportunity to vent! As you note, any such comments would never make it beyond the Editor at Nature's Harmony...

Across The Creek Farm said...

I don't think that NHF and the dairy linked above are anything alike. I've been following Tim & Liz a while, and they've always been honest and quite gracious in being open with others and answering my questions.

My understanding is that their dairy is pretty much entirely grass fueled. Check their milk yields - you don't get that from grain. I think they made the choice in their last podcast to stay with grass fed.

I have not seen their farm yet, but I hope to soon.

The cheese pricing question they asked seemed to be based more to their clientele. In the end, that's who I worry about as well. They've talked recently how their getting to a point where they can actually lower their costs, even though there's more demand than they can meet.

Bruce King said...

anon: I heard from a number of people that they'd been banned from Tims blog or forums, and then got banned myself. Their podcast is a much more controlled environment than a forum or a blog, it's a broadcast only, not really a discussion. So while they're interested in maintaining the illusion that they're open for comment, in my opinion and personal experience, they're not.

Bruce King said...

I drew a parallel between NHF and that anonymous dairy on the basis of what they are feeding their animals. There may be husbandry aspects that are different (NHF cows might actually get to graze on grass instead of having it delivered to them as in the pictures of that other dairy) but the bottom line for me is that the feed regimen is pretty similar, at least from what I can tell. I sent Tim a link to this post and he's free to talk about his practices. As with any discussion here I'll publish what he writes.

Anonymous said...

I have read NH off and on for a while, and it just seems like a accident waiting to happen. Per their convictions they don't feed minerals, and modern day Jerseys (and other livestock) need minerals unless you have very well improved pastures. The Stockman Grassfarmer has a columnist who writes about true, grassfed seasonal dairying and it is hard. The articles are truthful about the pitfalls and the steep learning curve even this for experienced dairy/cheesemaking family. Jordan Rubin of "The Makers Diet" fame is trying to start a grassfed Jersey dairy and he acknowledges as well he culled most of the 1700 Jerseys he bought because they could not thrive and produce on grass/hay alone.

It's great work if you can get it, but I think a truly sustainable farm cannot be bought, no matter how deep your pockets are.

goldforestfarms.blogspot.ca said...

Hey Bruce...great post as usual. Right now I am dealing with something similar as far as pricing goes. Where we are we have a high population of consumers and therefore high land values. Over in Saskatchewan they have next to zero consumers and land is 'dirt' cheap. The farmers in sk have vast expanses of crops and no market so they make every attempt to undercut the locals here in Alberta. Free enterprise is great, but this is why farms in N. America are under such threat...they are not profitable because we're too stupid to stop competing with each other. Europeans have made their choice for food. They spend much more of their salaries on really good quality stuff. We spend our salaries on 4x4 trucks and quads and boats and $400 jeans. I do not feel sorry at all for charging a premium for my products because I want to earn a living doing what I do. I don't buy into the idea that only rich people can afford premium priced food...smart people buy premium food! Do us all a favour and stop worrying about keeping your prices low Bruce...worry about making sure your farm is too valuable to shut down! Cheers. John

Melissa said...

Ruminants in the wild free range over thousands of acres and have access to a huge variety of plants allowing the animals to be self medicating. Imo, if we cannot duplicate that, then we must provide the nutrients to the animal that we are preventing their access to due to fencing. Imo, if one fences an animal in limiting it's access to what ever it may need, and then expects the animal to be healthy and long lived, is living in fantasy land. To me it just seems easier (less culling and less vet bills) and more fair to the animals the make sure they get the minerals they need.

Rich said...

From what I understand about grass-fed dairying, a properly managed grass-fed dairy produces a higher quality milk with slightly lower input costs due to factors like lower feed costs and improved animal health. Total milk production might drop, but the higher butterfat levels "compensate" for the drop After all, cheese is made from the fat and better fat makes better cheese.

Even though milk production might drop, grass-fed milk with a higher butterfat percentage should produce a higher quality cheese product at a cost comparable to a cheese produced with conventional milk.

So, beyond the principles of supply and demand and marketing gimmicks, why would the selling price of a grass-fed cheese need to be almost twice as high as cheese made from milk from cows that are supplemented with grain?

Across The Creek Farm said...

Bruce - I feed our goats a couple of handfuls of alfalfa pellets/grain a day. This is so I can check them. The rest of the time they're out there grazing on brush. Technically, I feed them supplemental feeds, but in all actuality, they live off of the land. Saying I feed grain and forages like a feedlot and then comparing my operation to a feedlot seems a like a pretty far stretch. Same as comparing NHF.

Melissa -Animals without fences make the coyotes, cougars, and other predators very happy. Cattle on the open range have problems with predators. No fences also make for bad neighbors when your neighbors dogs kill your stock or your goats wipe out your neighbor's petunias. The actual fantasy land is ruminants lazily munching clover in the wild with nothing but wide open spaces Reality is populations controlled by predators, disease, and starvation.

Rich - Cheese from grass based dairies is more expensive because you get less milk/cow b/c of less caloric intake. It takes time for a cow to break down cellulose in the rumen & there are so only many hours in the day. Grain is calorie dense, grass is not. The milk produced will be mostly the same composition in terms of percentage. You just get less of it b/c a given volume of milk requires a given volume of calories for production. That could probably be better stated, but you get the idea. I will admit that I'm not a dairy or even cowman. I do work with both dairy and sheep/goat specialists and my wife nursed our children. Put a nursing woman on an all salad diet and then put her on a steak & tater diet, see which one the baby gets more full on.

Bruce, I think you and Tim & Liz are all excellent growers. You've got way more in common than different, and anybody that can make a respectable living farming, no matter how they do it, my hat's off to them. Well, there's my three cents.


Melissa said...

Spence, you have no argument from me on your points on being good neighbors or predation. However the conversation wasn't about that. It was about nutrition and minerals. I understand that the gypsies learned about herbal remedies from watching their own unconfined animals pick and choose what herbs to eat based on whatever issues they might be having at the time. You make it sound as though free ranging animals have it really stinking tough out there, but the truth is the herds in both America and Africa were thriving until the Europeans came and decimated their numbers. You're comparing apples to oranges and I don't think you understood my point.

Bruce King said...

Spence, I'm don't have any dairy animals, so I can't really speak to what it takes to produce good milk, or the qualities of the milk. but the dairy I had pictures of was feeding forage to their cows. I'm not intending it as a slam, just pointing out that they appear to be trending halfway towards modern dairy practice, for the same reasons that most dairy farms do. I appreciate NHFs profit motive. They charge $7.50 for a farm tour; which never even occured to me. Awesome.

Craig said...

Wow! America's most sustainable farm. I didn't know there was a contest. What makes them so sustainable? Do they grow all their own feed? Do they operate a closed herd? What does the word sustainable actually mean nowadays?
I used to read their blog until 6/20/10 when Tim mentioned about how Berkshire pigs did not have good materinal instincts in a natural setting and that most are raised on concrete or dirt.He also mentioned that many first litters of pigs tend to be small. Both points are complete bullshit and I realized that this guy doesn't really know what he is talking about.He basically has the "good talk" and is a good marketer. My wife and I raise Berkshires outside on pasture and in woodlands and they have done very well farrowing and being good mothers.When a gilt farrows only four on a first litter then she is culled.That's just basic herd management.
I appreciate that they went back to the land and starting farming but maybe they should delay their farm school until they have a little more experience under their belt. I grew up on a farm and thirty five years later I'm still learning.

Anonymous said...

A couple of thoughts. #1- anyone with less than 5 years experience trying to teach something is complete foolishness. Look at the educational system. How long does it take to learn enough about basic chemistry to teach it at the high school level? I think people's ability to access vast masses of (mostly opinionated and untested)information (hello internet) has created lots of "experts". There was a show "the fabulous Beekman Boys" http://planetgreen.discovery.com/tv/the-fabulous-beekman-boys/the-fabulous-beekman-boys.html about "farmers".

Melissa- From a Biologist (me) the idea of not feeding minerals to domesticated animals is some of the worst in animal husbandry. Native wild animals do OK at getting the minerals they need. But no, they didn't "thrive". The survived. Buffalo in the Yellowstone area come close to death due to high selenium in the grasses they have to eat in the winter.

As to sustainability? Hello Marketing! Brilliant really, hard to verify. Blocking Nay-sayers? Again brilliant, if it doesn't bite you in the butt. There are millions paid every year, by big corps, to keep the negative press out of the press. They are doing it on a smaller scale. Can what they are doing/saying hurt truly sustainable farms? Sure. Will truly educated shoppers eventually figure out what their angle is? I hope so. Truly the only thing currently running sustainably is the big blob of Earth. Oh, except that the sun gives us the juice to make it all spin. And it will (in like a zillion years) run out of gas. So really, we are all getting "off the farm" inputs.

Lisa Rae said...

I thought it was kind of an odd question to pose, and certainly not one that I would ask of my shareholders. I'm the farmer. I decide how to feed and care for my animals. I run the show, not the people who buy my food. When non-farmers start to give me suggestions, I just politely tell them it's MY business and not theirs... If they like how I do things, they'll buy from me. And there's certainly plenty of demand for real food, so it's no great loss if they don't. I guess the end result is that we all make our choices. I love providing real food for as many people as possible... not just the elite. This said, I also believe in feeding as little grain as possible. But for many of my girls, grain free is absolutely out of the question... as they'd milk themselves into the grave.

Anonymous said...

This doesn't make sense to me - about feeding pigs garbage: "I do it to keep my produced pork available to the average consumer. I have no interest in producing a product that only wealthy people can enjoy."

You feed your pigs garbage because it increases your profits and isn't so wasteful.

You charge the maximum you can - because it is good for you.

Those are both unrelated to you choosing to produce products of average quality, so that average people can buy them.

E.g. suppose you raised fancy animals, that only rich people can afford - e.g. Wagyu cattle or Mangalitsa pigs. You'd still feed them cheap feed, and you'd still charge as much for them as you could, right?

Bruce King said...

I do feed my pigs to recycle the food, but I'd like to make a good quality product available at a reasonable price, so no, even though I can charge more I'd like to have a small, fair profit and sell more product.

This is my first foray into diverting part of the waste stream that goes into the landfills to a more productive purpose, and I'm happy to do it. It seems a much better use of the food than as either compost directly (I feed it to the pigs and then compost it, vs directly composting it as the city contractor does for Seattle) or as just plain old landfill.

Yes, I can charge more, but no, I'd rather have 1,000 customers at a dollar than one customer at $1,000.