As we continue to work toward our goal of running a successful small farm, we’ve moved into a second stage of development: Divide and Conquer. While Christina is traveling around the US, charming butchers and market managers and scouting the surrounding area for livability and unmet demand for the products we want to produce, I’m learning how to produce these things at the kind of scale we’ll need to survive. It’s tough to be apart during this important phase in our lives (and right before we get married to boot), but we don’t want to spend years searching for a new home and we decided that this was the fastest way to make progress.
So until Thanksgiving I’m working as an apprentice at Fickle Creek Farm near Durham, North Carolina. While it’s still a small farm, Fickle Creek is pretty big. We’re nearly 300 acres spread across several properties, and active at five markets year round. But what’s best about Fickle Creek is that it’s so diversified. Similar to the way Christina and I have spread out the responsibility of our farm project, here at Fickle Creek we have a variety of products to minimize risk and spread out the workload. Everything here is dual purpose: the ducks lay eggs and eat slugs from dormant garden beds, the pigs eliminate invasive weeds while stuffing their snouts to make our bacon, and the sheep keep the grass at bay while pumping out a few lambs every spring. It’s one big organism.
It can be tempting to say that we want to just get really good at doing one or two things. But that’s not realistic for small farmers. We need to be good at ten things so that if one of them fails it doesn’t bring the ship down with it. And animals are very good at the few things they know how to do. If you provide them with a few basic things, they’ll work for you rather than you working for them. It takes a heckuva lot of planning and careful execution, but the reward is a life of pride in what you do.
It’s taken a lot of patience for us to get this far, but it finally feels like we’re moving forward on a plan that’s now been years in the making. Updates here will be less frequent than in the past, but stay tuned. Big things are happening.
“I eat local!”
“I don’t eat GMOs.”
“I only buy USDA organic!”
“I eat exclusively certified humane, grass fed, free range, no-spray, fresh and seasonal.”
I hear this stuff a lot. It’s great that people are thinking about their food, it’s just that all these labels can be misleading at best, and plain old criminal at worst. For example, did you know that meat from factory confinement farms (yes, the ones with the horrible conditions for animals) can be labeled USDA Organic? (Source: §205.239(b) and (c))
As we plan our farm venture we’re going to have to pick a path to follow regarding organic certification, and of course, it’s a tangled web of bureaucracy and paperwork. But the research has taught me a lot about the food that I buy and how easy it is for producers to misrepresent their food with labels. On the flip side, if you’re dogmatic about labels you’re going to miss out on a lot of great food because small farmers can’t or won’t jump through the hoops of the food police. Here’s a little of what I’ve learned:
USDA Organic: The big one, you probably recognize it. Has a lot of good intentions, but a lot of loopholes. Given the choice of two products equal in every way but one labeled USDA Organic I’d buy it the organic one every time, but I don’t treat this designation as gospel because it’s difficult and expensive for small farmers to be USDA certified. I’d rather buy from a local producer that doesn’t abide by the letter of the organic law than a big monoculture farm that’s figured out how to evade the regulations.
Certified Naturally Grown: This is from a third-party, non-government organization, and the onus of policing is on the customer and other farmers. Its’ code is based on the USDA Organic regulations, but calls for a specific minimum number of days on pasture, while the USDA’s is full of loopholes. CNG certification is tailored for the small farmer that can’t afford USDA certification but still raises plants and animals responsibly: “To be granted the CNG certification, farmers don’t use any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, or genetically modified organisms. CNG livestock are raised mostly on pasture and with space for freedom of movement. Feed must be grown without synthetic inputs or genetically modified seeds.”
I treat CNG products as equal or better to USDA Organic products, simply because I’d rather buy from the little guys and take them at their word.
Animal Welfare Approved: The “gold standard” for meat and animal products according to their website, AWA is a great option if you can find their food at a reasonable price. Their slaughter standard is particularly stringent, as well as their free range requirement, but the big difference here is enforcement. While CNG is community-policed, AWA conducts regular audits.
Non-GMO Project Verified: This is a somewhat creative workaround to the “Label GMOs!” campaigns that have failed in the past few years, but again it doesn’t tell the whole story. Just because something doesn’t contain GMOs it doesn’t mean that the product is healthy or good. In fact, I just ate far too many GMO-free potato chips and now I’m feeling a little nauseous.
A somewhat obvious question is: why should the responsibility of labeling be on the producers that don’t include GMOs, rather than those that do? Should we accept food with GMOs as the norm? In this case, telling me what isn’t in a product is counter-productive.
I could go on all day, but you get the point. There are a lot of labels being thrown around in this arena and its tough to know who to trust. But! (There’s always a “but”) The answer is simple and easy: see for yourself. Buy directly from the farm or go to a market and talk to your farmer. Look her in the eye and ask the questions that matter to you. I think you’ll learn a lot, and find some really tasty, nutritious food.
It’s a strange feeling trying to acclimatize to a new culture, new meal times, new language, while also planning for our return to the states. For the past year, we’ve moved from one country to another and learned a new set of customs every month or so. Next week we’re returning to what we call our home, what is supposed to be normal, except it hasn’t been our home for a long time.
When traveling, you’re always planning the next step. In Indonesia, we were looking into how to get a SIM card in Nepal. In India, we were making plans for Turkey. You are booking flights and researching hostels, looking at exchange rates, local foods and significant cultural sights.
But planning for the next chapter of our lives is much different. Our planning involves researching health insurance, used car prices and reading profiles of cities in the US that might be our next home. We have been doing all of this from farms in Spain. In the morning we have been working outside harvesting beets, sorting dried beans, or cleaning out silos. But at lunchtime, I’m Skyping with Leticia at the Maryland Health Connection office and Zach is sending out applications for farm internships in North Carolina. We are returning to our country, but starting something new.
I have to admit, I have a whole boatload of feelings about coming home. I’m dying to see my sister and my niece that I haven’t yet met. I’m ready to have a living room again. There are bits of American culture that we haven’t seen (or eaten) in a year and a half: chicken wings and a Lagunitas IPA, Netflix and Midol and well paved highways. But every country has it’s pros and cons and spending time living with folks in other countries has helped me realize that there are more ways of living than the go get ‘em culture that is so common in the US. In New Zealand, we learned to slow down and have a chat with the neighbors. This often involves tea and cake. Nepal made me realize how easy and comfortable and clean we have it in the States, but also how many regulations we have (you’d never be allowed to take a sheep on a bus at home).
I’ve come to enjoy the small towns that we’ve stayed in and hope, as we transition out of our backpacks, to make our home in an adventurous place where kind people work hard and enjoy their lives. So though our trip abroad is coming to a close, our travels continue as we find a new hometown in the US of A.
Last week we had a few days off from our job at the diary farm in Spain, and instead of hanging around talking to cows we decided to hop on a bus down to Porto, Portugal for a brief visit. It was pretty much two days of travel for one day in the city, but it was worth it because Porto is beautiful (art nouveau and classical architecture with a rough edge), unique (dozens of port cellars and signature sandwiches? yes please), and cheap (killer wines for 2.60 euro per bottle).
If you have the chance, visit Porto! And send me an email if you do, I’m happy to give you a few more detailed tips.
7am: Wake up, raining again!
8am: Still dark, feed cows, shovel poop, hose down milking parlor, make lots of curious cow friends
Noon: Walk the giant mastiff guardian dog recuperating from an injury
2pm: Food food food
3pm: Nap nap nap
4pm: Take pictures of calves for promotion
6pm: (always Bring a) Snack
9pm: Food, Wine
It’s a simple life, but it’s a good one. We worked on a lot of small farms in New Zealand, but our focus here in Spain has been the big guys. We want to start our own farm when we get home, so we need to see how commercial operations do their business to learn how to become profitable. It’s been really interesting to see how much work goes into making this place run. There are about 20 full time staff, including sales, marketing, production, animal care, and maintenance people.
The purpose and management of WWOOFers here is also much different than anywhere else we’ve worked. At small family farms we all ate together, sharing wholesome stories and getting to know each other. Here we’re provided cash and a kitchen and set off to our own devices. There’s less cultural exchange, but Christina is a great cook and its nice to make our own food choices again. Both flavors have their merits.
While smaller farms want help in the garden and someone to talk to, or care about educating young farmers and want some exposure for their kids, here they NEED very temporary workers to do simple tasks for little pay. No one is watching over our shoulders, but we definitely don’t get the fun jobs. But hey, that’s what we signed up for and we bear much of the blame because we speak poor Spanish. Though I do wonder what it would be like if we were more proficient in the language.
Regardless, there’s a lot to learn here by observation alone. This farm sells yogurt all over Spain, so their production, distribution, and marketing is very complex. For example, today we spent several hours trying to convince month old calves to look at us as we propped name tags on them and snapped photos for customers.
We work hard because we enjoy learning and because work exchange makes long term travel affordable. But when we’re ankle deep in poo stew, we couldn’t help but laugh at all the times people say “You’re so lucky you get to travel!”
I can’t believe we’ve been in Spain for a month already! With the help of very patient locals and the iPhone app, Duolingo, I’ve gone from being able to ask for a glass of wine to being able to talk about the pros and cons of NYC public schools, GMOs, and how to make cookies entirely in Spanish. Granted, I can only speak in the present tense and say things like “I much like it very.”
Our time in Spain has been split between cities that make my heart sing and rural towns where we have been climbing or working. We spent a long weekend in Barcelona, a few weeks climbing in central Spain, then up to San Sebastian in the Basque country where we ate everything in sight, and have spent the past two weeks on a farm outside of Segovia. Work, play, eat. Work, play, eat. In our opinion, that is the most satisfying way to travel.
I’ve been musing a lot about my experience traveling in India at the end of 2013, and yeah, I guess I learned about some history and culture and shit, but really, the main thing I learned was how to get a good price on a hemp t-shirt. Before we landed in Delhi I was pretty helpless when it came to negotiation. Here are the things I’ve learned:
1. Remember that nothing is unique. Every tourist town has about a dozen different versions of the same shop with all the same goods, so pop in to one and do a little research. Ask for a price and act uninterested, then leave. You’ll probably get the shop owner chasing after you shouting lower and lower numbers. Keep walking.
2. Decide what you think the item is worth before you even ask for a price. After you’ve expressed firm interest through an offer you’re in a weaker position, so figure out what you’re wiling to pay as soon as you can. How do you know what an item is worth in this strange currency where prices seem arbitrary? I’m glad you asked.
3. A tactic Christina used with great success was actually shopping without any money on her. She’d leave her purse at home and pop into shops just to see what they had. Even if you can’t find that exact item in another store, you can always come back later.
4. When its time to make an offer, ask for a price. If you think its extortionate, smile and ask for a better price. Then maybe smile again and ask for the best price without even making an offer. Hopefully that will get you to a more reasonable starting point. From there you can go back and forth a few times (always with a smile) and settle on a mutually agreeable price. If the shop owner won’t budge, remember your trump card is to walk away. If he STILL doesn’t budge, maybe your price is too low and you should consider not being such a cheap ass.
5. Don’t fall for the “What’s 50 rupees to you, a dollar? It makes no difference to you but to me it’s a meal for my family!” Ok, maybe that’s true, but if everyone paid Rs 50 more for everything soon the prices would be higher than the west. Price is not only determined by what the vendor bought the product for, but what he thinks he can get for it. This is especially true for rickshaw rides, which cost drivers very little. Rest assured, vendors are making money on the transaction regardless of how good you are at negotiation. You’re always paying the tourist tax.
6. A line my friend Stephen likes to use to cut through the bullshit was something to the effect of “I just want a good price, add a little to what it cost you and I’ll be happy with that.” It helps to know a bit about what it cost but it also appeals to the vendor’s softer side, something they aren’t used to getting from tourists. You may disarm them (with a smile).
7. Don’t get hung up on it. You can drive yourself crazy with the constant negotiating. Sometimes its worth it for your sanity to just take the first offer (if you think it’s fair enough), or even MAKE the first offer if you have an idea of what the item is worth from the start. Remember that stress and time are worth something to you as well.
That’s it. Some of it seems obvious but to someone like me that avoids confrontation, it helps to have a plan. I’ll leave you the story with one of my more successful negotiations, which happened almost entirely by accident:
We were in Jaipur and I’d broken another pair of cheap plastic sandals. I wanted something that would last a little longer. We stopped into an upmarket shoe store with window displays and well-dressed employees. I asked about a price of sandals.
“700 rupees,” the manager said. This was a little more than $10. Not expensive but more than I wanted to pay. I thought it was fair for good quality but I had no idea how long they’d hold up. I decided to look around a bit. He didn’t make another offer as I left, so I figured that price was pretty firm.
Later that day I saw a very similar pair of sandals at another store, this one a bit dustier and with harsh fluorescent lights. Instead of neat boxes there were piles of different sizes strewn around.
“How much?” I held up my chosen camel-leather sandals.
“600 rupees, very good quality.” The salesmen demonstrated the flexibility of the soles. I still thought the first pair were better quality, and that I could negotiate them down a bit.
“No thanks,” I said, and started to walk out. I genuinely didn’t want the sandals.
“Ok, 500, my friend.”
I continued out the door.
“300!” Now we’re talkin’. I was willing to take the risk that these weren’t the same shoes for less than half the price of the first store, which I wasn’t sure would budge from 700. And if they stayed firm I’d have to trudge all the way back here, tail between my legs. I could have been ruthless and offered 200, then maybe settled on 250, but I’ve got a heart. In this case the 50 rupees didn’t matter; I’d already won.
Well, this was a few months ago, and I still have the sandals. They survived daily wear for our stay in India and broke in with a beautiful patina. I considered filling my suitcase with dozens of pairs for resale back home, then thought better of venturing into an India-based import business and decided to be satisfied with my accidentally successful negotiation.
May you all have the same good fortune. Go forth, and bargain! Ok, maybe not at the dentist’s office.