As I write this, Andy and I are getting all of our half gallon jars together and seeing what quantity we have. So far, we're good for 4.5 gallons and could possibly acquire three more bottles for a total of 6 whole gallons. We're putting together our bottle stock in preparation for a milk run tomorrow.
Since we began milking cows in May of 2009, and then worked for the farm in La Crosse, we have always had access to free, wholesome, fresh-from-the-cow milk. Since we moved away from the farm three weeks ago, we have officially stepped out of the role of producer and been ushered into the realm of consumer once again.
It's a bittersweet time in our lives. Being a consumer is by far the easier path to follow, at least physically. As I watch the thermometer outside push beyond 100˚ today, I'm secretly thankful to not have any animals to check or fences to repair. Likewise, I think of the bitter winter winds dropping the degrees below zero and count my blessings to be able to stay in warm socks and a sweater indoors. Farming, or gardening, isn't an easy route to travel and the reason you see the majority of folks in this country opting out. But not producing is bitter for us as well. Being able to make a meal from meats and veggies and fruits that you worked hard for, managed and harvested is an incredible reward that no sauna-like day can take away.
Part of Andy and Ben's business involves taking part in several local farmers' markets, trying to spread the word about Gourmet Grass-fed and just get the local public educated about grass-fed meats. I have taken the kids to visit them at three of the five markets they do in a given week and we have fun seeing all the different farm vendors and crafters in each city. It sure is a lot easier to walk the aisles of breads and vegetables and meats, picking what you'd like for the following week's meals, than to have planted and weeded and sweated and harvested all those good things. The folks behind the tables busily tend to the customers or replenish their stock, making it look beautiful for me, the consumer. I appreciate the effort and smile as I see some have gone to more effort than others.
Last week, I bought a pasture-raised chicken from one of our old farmer friends, Ralph Polasky. $8.25 was a steal in my opinion, considering I know the amount of work it takes to raise a pastured bird to market weight and get it ready for sale. I wanted to give his newest product, Cornish Game Hens a try, but I had run out of cash for the day (I budget $20 per week at the markets). Maybe this week will be Game Hen week.
At the Neenah Farm Market, I saw our old friends from Hample Haven Farm. This family was just getting into grass-fed lamb as Andy and I were setting up the Omro Friday Night Market last summer. They wanted to be a vendor in the fledgling market and we welcomed the diversity. Ultimately, the drive was too long for their return on sales, so they stopped vending in Omro. We didn't hear from them again. Therefore, seeing the family last week, selling out of their healthy and sustainable lamb cuts in Neenah was very encouraging for me. Knowing what I do about the unique challenges raising grass-fed lamb, I spent $11.64 of our $20 on some meaty lamb shanks from Hample Haven Farm and wished that I could have spent more. I know that this Saturday, we'll probably get some more "poor man cuts" from them as braising hocks and necks and tails are our favorite dish! (And even something I feel comfortable doing in the kitchen).
It feels good to patronize farmers we know. Our eggs are coming directly from a farmer just outside the county line. He raises free-range hens, pastured poultry and bison. We are happy to drive out once every few weeks to stock up on $2.50 orange yolked eggs from this man. Lennie and his wife Julie were one of the few established farmers that took us under their wing when we first began our adventure at Foxwood Farm. They even gave us twin Jersey calves in exchange for fencing labor back in 2008. Even though our situation is completely different now, I feel no shame stepping into their thriving on-farm store for 6 dozen eggs at a time. Soon, we'll be purchasing some bison cuts on one of our trips. We're happy to have the good food so close to home and want Lennie and Julie to stay in business.
Or course, buying local and not producing much of your own food does cost money. We are on a tight - super tight - budget now that we are helping grow a company from the ground up. We've been on super tight budgets before (remember, we were the farmer once)! But the difference now is our priorities.
Let me elaborate. $20 at a farm market once a week isn't going to feed a family of five, no matter how well you plan. We decided that in order to keep eating like a sustainable farmer without actually being a sustainable farmer, we were going to have to give up some of our "consumerist pleasures."
• No paid TV. What the antenna gets is what we get. Some days we get nothing. We're better off for it. Saved: $45/month
• Goodbye Smartphone. While a necessity when working at St. Brigid's Meadows, this is now a luxury we can do without. Including the internet plan. Saved: $100/month
• Combining errand running/other trips. Gas isn't cheap and until we are blessed with an alt. energy vehicle, it's going to continue to tax us. Saved: $75/month (one tank of gas)
• No more going out to eat. Going out to eat became quite the bad habit of ours at St. Brigid's. When Andy would deliver products or we would be in town on errands, inevitably, some mealtime would show up and we'd be unprepared with food for the kids and just have to stop somewhere for grub. Better planning and fewer trips into town = no excess restaurants. Saved: $60/month
This is just the beginning. If you add up everything that we are cutting out and the accompanying cash, we have a total of at least $280 that is not being tied up in luxury items. $280! Now, some of that money will just never get spent as we are reducing what we spend each month overall. But you can bet that at least $100 will go right back into our monthly grocery bill. And we'll eat like kings for it!
So we don't have GPS on Andy's "dumb" phone and can't look up a business's address on the fly. Really don't care because I've got a couple green bags full of lamb, chicken and eggs, direct from the farmers who produced them. $100 out of the pockets of Olive Garden and Kwik Trip. $100 into our local farmers' hands. $100 making our family healthier, happier and better overall consumers.
Pretty simple math if you think about it. As a full time consumer, I am happy to be so intentional about how I am voting with my very limited Dollar. Never again will I compromise food because of income. That's just our family credo and I don't want to push it on anyone else. Everyone has different needs and wants. I don't presume to place everyone into our box of existence.
Food makes us happy, though. So I want the best possible food on our table. Top of the line, straight from the farmer whenever possible. Which brings me back to the start of my post: gathering bottles for fresh milk.
Tomorrow, I'll be driving with a former Foxwood Farm customer and good friend of mine in order to gather up milk for our families. She will also pick up milk for two other families in the area who also used to buy fresh milk from us. In total, we'll present this new farmer with enough bottles to fill 24 gallons! At $4/gallon, he will bring in just shy of $100. Imagine, a farmer being paid a fair price for his grass-fed, Jersey milk. I was told that he is selling nearly enough milk direct to sustain his dairy on direct sales alone. What a wonderful thing! I am happy to be getting fresh milk again and more than happy to help him reach his goal of complete independence from the creamery he ships to. After all, I can relate.
But here's something I won't be doing for this farmer. You see above whenever I mentioned a farm producer, I included their website (if they had one) in order to possibly give them more business. For our dairy farmer here, I won't even tell you his first name. As you well know, in the state of Wisconsin looks fondly on people making a living off of vegetables and fruit grown in their yard. They encourage families to raise chickens and sell the eggs or meat. They have programs to help farmers convert ailing cropland into managed pastureland so that more grass-fed beef and bison is produced sustainably. It's the smiling face of the Department of Ag, saying "Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin." Keep our farms in business!
But as soon as a grass-fed dairy operator says, "Hey, my product can sustain this family farm as well! People are demanding fresh milk at an exponential rate. I'd be a silly businessman if I didn't provide product for this burgeoning market," the same Department says "You need to sell your milk to a distributor at historically low prices and figure out for yourself how to stay afloat. Get big or get out. Your product is not safe for human consumption no matter how you produce it and we will spend our last tax dollar making sure you go under if you sell one drop to the hapless public."
Ok, ok. The last paragraph is admittedly dripping with a bit of experiential anger. That department began the downward spiral which caused us to lose our farm. I will not allow that to happen to another farmer on my watch. This man is helping over 40 families get the product they desire or need at the risk to his entire operation. How sad a state that I have to keep it quiet. He will be getting a sizable percentage of our monthly food dollar and I can't whisper a word about him.
But I'm so glad he's here for a consumer like me. Andy and I ran out of milk from St. Brigid's over a week ago and we've simply done without. Andy is close to flipping a table for lack of milk, so I arranged to join a rotation of families to keep us all in supply of milk. Each week, one mother will gather jars from the others and go to the farm for fill up. Tomorrow, I'll learn the ropes and start pulling my weight. Waiting two weeks for milk is nothing. The families I'm buying with waited well over 6 months to find this producer in the void left by Foxwood Farm.
For those of you not really into the fresh milk scene, this probably seems like a lot of hassle. I'm not denying it's a bit extraneous. But having had the BEST for our family, we won't compromise and go back. Having fresh milk as close to home as we do, we consider it pure joy to drive "out of our way" to get what we need and support this farmer as well.
Andy and I are not producers anymore; of milk, of beef, of lamb, of eggs, of pork. It's bittersweet to be a consumer again. But I now know how we can embrace our new life: We will do whatever we can to support our local farmers. We've got a revised food budget that we can pour into their income streams and possibly help them do what we could not: stay producing and survive.
Honestly, it's the very least I can do for them. I mean, on days like today with a heat index of 110˚, I know my friend and fellow mother Dani is out harvesting and watering her produce with her 8 month old babe strapped to her back. I know that Ralph is keeping his poultry and turkeys fully watered and under shade at the expense of his own comfort. And I know that the dairy farmer I'll meet tomorrow won't miss a milking in this heat. Can you imagine sidling up to a sweltering cow in a stifling barn just to collect milk for the likes of me?
Dedication and tenacity like that deserves to be rewarded and if I can humbly present them with a few more food dollars each week, I will be the one amply blessed to be the consumer of their fine products.
I truly hope that you, too, can experience that sort of blessing in your weekly consuming as well. Revisit your priorities and choose with your heart, friends. It will make all the difference in your daily consuming.
Rebekah Sell lives on a small plot of land with her husband, Andy, on which they are hoping to build a sustainable homestead. With a small business and four kids, life is always interesting as Becky and Andy live fully the idea that the journey is the reward. Find her on Google+.