This is our farmer, Nathan.
I’ve been staring at that sentence for a couple minutes now, thinking about how odd it is that we talk this way, that we lay claim to the producers of our food. ‘Our’ farmer. But it’s true. We chose him. We met him at a farmers market last summer, we liked what he had to say about raising animals, and we chose to support his new farm by becoming CSA members. In fact, he is more ‘our’ farmer than we are ‘his’ customers; farmers don’t get to hand-select what sort of people buy and eat their food, but as consumers we get to actively patronize the growers and ranchers that appeal to us, whether for reasons as simple as price and availability, or as complex as philosophy and growing practice.
Today A and I and a couple friends had the opportunity to drive down to Nathan’s farm in Molalla, OR, to see the operation, meet his animals, and get a better understanding of what he is trying to create and where he wants to go with it. We picked the perfect day for a farm visit, unseasonably warm for early May, with cloudless blue skies and a refreshing breeze. As we pulled into the dusty driveway, you could see both Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens in the distance, their snowy peaks sparkling in the sun.
Moomaw Family Farm is a livestock farm currently operating on a Community-Supported Agriculture model; that is, customers pre-pay for monthly or semi-monthly deliveries of meat. Under the CSA model, farmers like Nathan are able to collect much-needed capital in advance of the growing season, and customers receive a whole host of benefits: prices typically work out to be lower than retail, farms may offer home delivery, and CSA members have opportunities to build personal relationships with their farmers via open-farm days or conversations about recipes or what’s going on at the farm.
CSA members share in both the risks and rewards of farming. In a lean year, they may not receive all the produce they were expecting, but in an abundant year they often find themselves with more than they can use. But most importantly, a drought or other kind of crisis in the field won’t hit a CSA farmer quite as hard as it could have, because not only does he or she have that bit of extra capital at the beginning of the year, but they’ve also worked to develop a community of support that will stand by them in the tough times and be ready to celebrate when good times return.
This is Moomaw Family Farm’s first year of production, and Nathan is raising chickens, sheep, pigs, and rabbits. As he walked us around each of the animals’ enclosures, showing us the shelters and watering systems that he designed and built himself, he told us about his efforts to raise heritage breeds and dual-purpose animals, such as meat chickens that are equally good at laying eggs. These sorts of animals that were once the mainstay of the barnyard are harder to source now, but Nathan is one of the growing numbers of animal farmers dedicated to maintaining the traditional breeds and biodiversity of our livestock.
Nathan’s land is a gently sloping pasture, rolling down towards a creek where the landowners are currently restoring a riparian habitat. All of the animals we met looked happy and comfortable, as they foraged in the grass and lounged in the shade of decades-old oak trees. In the fall, Nathan will add the acorns from these trees to his pigs’ diet. When he needs to move the animals to a new pasture, he says, he simply sets up the new fence and the animals follow him over. In all of their interactions, it’s apparent how much the animals trust him, from the mama rabbit who sat by calmly as he reached into her nest to show us her brand new babies, to the sheep that ran skittishly from the rest of us but came right up to nuzzle his shoes.
After meeting all of the critters, we shared a picnic in the grass, soaking up the breeze and the bucolic scenery before heading back to hot city pavement and the reminders of work in the morning. As we walked to the car, Nathan talked about joining with another farmer to urge the local feed mill to use less Midwestern grain and more Oregon-grown grain in their feed blends.
It wasn’t just the happy animals that make me want to call Nathan ‘our’ farmer. It was the thoughtful way he began his business, the way he talked about balancing customer demand and his ability to grow the farm in a healthy way, the fact that he’s been farming for less than six months and has already given testimony in the state capitol in support of small farms legislation. As I find ways in my own life to champion food security and small-scale local production, Nathan is the sort of farmer I want on my team. As consumers we all have the opportunity, perhaps the responsibility, to choose which ideas we want to support and patronize; so who’s your farmer?