It feels good to be back at the keyboard again, writing in this WordPress box. The past couple of weeks have been tiring and hectic ones, but through it all, I’m just glad to be in one piece with all my faculties intact. The up side – apart from a renewed perspective on the brevity of life – is that we have a new car (yay!) and I’m enjoying the many wonderful benefits of regular visits to the chiropractor, so life is slowly heading back to normal.
Thanks to my lunch buddies, I get to revisit a childhood favorite for this month’s lunch theme of Grilled Cheese Sandwiches. An American classic, my non-American family’s version is called The Mousetrap, because, in my mother’s words, a slice of cheese on bread is the easiest way to catch a mouse! Particularly when topped with tomatoes, onions, peppers and bacon, for a messy one-stop meal. You don’t need to be a mouse to be drawn to this one. My fondest memories go back to those mornings when I woke up to the smell of grilled cheddar and toast in the oven, accentuated with the tang of dried, roasted peppers, underwritten with a layer of earthy, musky bacon fat. It was the harbinger of hope in my food-centric universe, that the day was going to be different, all because it started it with a Mousetrap.
As usual, the bacon on this Mousetrap comes from our favorite pork farmers at TLC Ranch, the producers of the tastiest, sweetest pork cuts I’ve chomped into, and it’s thanks to them that we enjoyed a lovely pork roast last Christmas. Sadly, they’re soon to be no more, after working hard at establishing an organic, sustainable and pasture-raised farming model for six years. I got a chance to speak with co-owner Rebecca Thistlewaite about what it means to be a sustainable and humane farmer in the US today. Here’s a snippet of our conversation. The recipe follows.
1. What does it mean to be a farmer in the US today? What does it require you to do in order to be successful?
At this point, we (with her husband Jim Dunlop) are both a little negative about the prospects of other young and non-wealthy people running farms, but that’s part of why we’re planning to travel round the country and volunteer on other farms to see if there are successful models we can learn from. If someone wants to go into agriculture, I’d suggest that they have a good amount of financial and social capital. When we started out in California, we had no family or community in the area, and there was no one to pitch in when we needed it, like covering us for the farmers’ market or babysitting our daughter, and no financial help from anybody. We started with no money. What supported us in the beginning was my full-time job that covered all the expenses – rent, car, health insurance, bills – while Jim focused on growing the business.
70 percent of farmers’ income is from off-farm sources, so my advice for anyone looking to go into agriculture is to not quit your day job. Ideally, you would have a business partner and one of you would keep your off-farm job while the other focuses on farming. It’s a much better way to ease yourself into full-time farming, unless you’re wealthy, then that’s a different story.
I’d also recommend having a lot of farming experience. A minimum of five years spent working on other farms, not just apprenticing, but having management positions so that you’d understand what it takes to do all the planning, and the financial side of the business (book-keeping, budget, etc).
Finding the right location is also pretty tricky. We’re surrounded by really good markets, but the land here is really expensive. On the other hand, you’ve got lots of cheap land around the country, with no good markets nearby. It’s a Catch-22 situation. We’re not willing to have to travel four to five hours to sell our products, because we believe it’s important to have a connection with our customers, to be close enough so that they can come visit the farm. If you have a farm in Kansas and ship your products to California, you’re not going to be able to have a partnership with your consumers and educate them.
We had 300 hens stolen in the Spring and those customers that helped us raised funds were the ones that had visited the farm or had taken butchering classes, and know what it takes to run a farm. I think having a relationship with your customers makes the business more sustainable over the long-term. They can help you through thick and thin. We had a core group of customers that were really good, who’d turn up rain or shine, but I’d say that the majority of customers were….how should I put it, ‘flaky’. By that I mean that their actions show that they’re not really committed to sustainable agriculture in the way that’s needed to help build a model like that. They penny-pinch on organic, sustainably-raised products and still shop at Costco, Safeway, Trader Joe’s…
2. The type of customer you referred to in your post (about starting a food revolution)…
Yes, that post was all about these customers.
3. So let’s talk a little about consumer awareness. Given the big discourse around sustainability and organic produce in California, you’d expect local consumers to be the biggest supporters of farmers like you and what you do. Have you found this to be true in the past six years?
In general, I find that those Californians living (in cities) along the coast really take their food for granted. They have access to the most amazing food in the country which is available year-round. We’re the salad bowl of America, we grow everything. Californians take that for granted and assume that it’s always going to be there. I’ve noticed, from travelling to other areas (in the country), that while markets might be smaller, the customers are so grateful for the food that you’re bringing them. I don’t get that sense in California, in a way, there’s some degree of arrogance here.
Only 2 percent of US food sales is organic, which means that 98 percent of food sales isn’t organic (Edit: By the end of 2009, this increased to 3.7 percent). There’s a still a huge way to go in terms of educating consumers and support farmers, because a lot of Californians are still shopping at their Trader Joe’s and Safeways and not eating organic. There was a study recently into the egg consumption levels in Santa Cruz county where we are, and it showed that the demand out there can easily support an operation of 600,000 laying hens. We have 2,000 hens at TLC Ranch, but we still can’t sell all our eggs, because people want to continue buying their $1.99 (per dozen) eggs. We need a vast new awareness and education of consumers to support farmers. And while there are more people encouraging new farmers to enter the field, there’s not enough demand to really support it.
At this point, the whole situation is really ironic. You need to be wealthy to be able to farm, and to be wealthy to eat well. All the rest of us are basically screwed, and its a really sad state of affairs. Even with NGOs out there helping farmers, I don’t think they’re getting it right. We’ve received no help whatsoever from NGOs in the past six years, instead help came from customers and farmer friends that have chipped in and provided us with interest-free loans. From my perspective, these NGOs are not doing anything to increase demand for sustainable food…it’s not the foodies that need to be converted, it’s those that are going to Walmart, Costco and Safeway.
4. What could they (NGOs) be doing instead?
A lot of them currently work on policy issues at the state and federal level. These are intangible issues with no immediate impact on farmers. For example, the Farm Bill policy work going on right now doesn’t affect TLC Ranch at all because we don’t grow the right crops (such as corn, soy or wheat). It generally doesn’t matter that much to agriculture in California which receives hardly any funding from Farm Bill because we don’t grow the crops that receive subsidies, except perhaps for rice.
What they could be doing more of is working on County and zoning regulations. These are a big deterrent for new farmers because filing for them is a long and expensive process. Some of our friends in San Benito county are fighting the Solargen project in the Panoche valley because it will use up all the farmlands for solar panels. Although this land is protected under the Williamson Act (where landowners pay lower property taxes in return for not developing their land), the County went about it in a really sneaky way by cancelling their contracts with these landowners in order for the project to go through. There may not be a lot of people living out there because it’s mainly farming and ranching land, but this issue needs to be addressed and discussed in the media. One of the dairies out there is Claravale Dairy, one of the few raw milk producers in the state. If this bill goes through, they’ll be destroyed.
These are just some of the many things happening on the local level that farmers are not getting support on, and we have too many NGOs working on high-level indirect stuff.
5. Well, there needs to a better balance, addressing the immediate, tangible issues and also planning for the future with policy issues.
Right. In general I feel like we are fighting an uphill battle. We were one of the first farmers to be raising pastured chickens and conducted a lot of education about grass-fed meat. We were ahead of the curve.
6. What did you set out to do when you set up TLC Ranch in 2004? Do you feel you’ve achieved those goals?
Our goals were basically to create an economically-viable business – to pay my husband for the hard work that he did. One that produced nutrient-dense, really tasty, high-quality animal products, one that protected the land and helped restore it, and that treated the animals really humanely. We strove to be really organic and to take farming beyond organic. We wanted to use being organic as a foundation and I think we did all of those, except being economically-viable.
We wanted to have a more diversified production, and to eventually create a meat CSA, but this didn’t work out mainly because there weren’t enough meat processing facilities for us to offer the diversity of meat products we wanted to have for the CSA. Also, because we don’t own the land, we can’t install the fencing that’s needed to keep the different species safe. So in the end, we focused on pigs and eggs, a bit of lamb and had five steers, but it wasn’t enough.
We don’t regret the experience. For both of us, it has opened up a lot of opportunities along the way. It’s been really trying, there were many times I wasn’t sure if our marriage was going to make it, but since we’ve announced the closure, we’ve had invites from over 60 farms all across the country to visit and help out. We can start a consulting business, and tell them what not to do! (Laughs)
TLC Ranch will be at the Mountain View Farmers’ Markets until November 21st. Rebecca, Jim and their daughter, Fiona, will set off on their RV tour of small and mid-sized farms around the country after Christmas, and invite you to follow along on their adventure at Honest Meat.
Serves 2 generously
3 ounces/ 50 grams shallots, thinly sliced
5 ounces/ 100 grams mixed peppers, diced
5 ounces/ 100 grams good quality bacon, diced
1 large tomato, halved, then sliced into eights or tenths, depending on the size of the tomato
3-4 ounces/ 100-120 grams shaved cheddar
1 large French baguette, sliced at an angle
Preheat the broiler to 450F. Place the sliced baguettes on a baking tray lined with foil. Cover each baguette slice with squares of shaved cheddar, followed by a thin layer of shallots and a slice of tomato.
Generously sprinkle the peppers and bacon over the tomato-onion pile, then top the stack with more shaved cheddar.
Broil the sandwiches for 8-10 minutes, until the tips and edges of the crust, bacon and/or peppers are slightly browned and the cheese has melted completely. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.
Before you leave, check out what my fellow lunchers are having today:
- Cheryl at A Tiger In The Kitchen with her classy Cheddar and Blue Cheese with Asian Pears and Rosemary Honey
- Chris at Blog Well Done with *two* creations: Grilled Colby Jack cheese with Black Forest Ham and Pickles, and a Buffalo Chicken Grilled Cheese with Confit Chicken
- Emma at Dreaming of Pots and Pans with her Grilled Cheese on 9-Grain Toast with Truffle oil
- Linda at Free Range Cookie with an Oven-grilled Cheese