Friday, April 28th was the 2nd broadcast of Lexington Food Justice Radio 🎧💯🍽⚖️🌱🌎💚
Our guest was Mac Stone from Elmwood Stock Farm. Mac talked about:
- His roots as an organic farmer,
- The history of Elmwood Stock Farm and its trajectory to become 100% Certified Organic in 2002,
- The ins-and-outs of organic certification,
- The benefits of a CSA to the farmer, the consumer, and the community!
Fascinating and comprehensive discussion. Mac is such a wealth of knowledge that it seemed every word dripped of insight. So below are my Show Notes to help process this info. I also added some "BONUS NOTES" that were not mentioned during the broadcast. But discussed during the station breaks or research that I've done for this article to provide more context.
If you missed the live broadcast, here's a link to the Podcast on Soundcloud:
Mac's Roots as a Farmer:
- Mac grew up in an old neighborhood of Nashville. But spent time with his grandpa who had a farm in Southern Indiana. Mac rode with his grandpa to bring fresh veggies to the "girls" (i.e., widows) in town to make sure they were taken care of. This experience fostered Mac's understanding of food as a valuable way to connect with people.
- Mac's education: Majored in Agronomy at the University of KY (the science of soil management and crop production) & Masters in Ruminant Nutrition.
- BONUS NOTE: Ruminants are mammals that derive their nutrition from plant-based diets. Their stomachs are comprised of 4 compartments that allow ruminant animals to chew a cud comprised of regurgitated, partially digested food. E.g., cattle, sheep, deer, etc.
- Mac's farming career started in mainstream agriculture. Working for larger farms that supported the commodity market. Then worked at Kentucky State University (KSU) where he developed a well-worked tobacco & cattle farm into a research and demonstration facility.
Mindset Shift From Chemical Band-aids to Organic Farming:
- Mac had a profound moment after spraying his garden with pesticides and warned his then 3-yr old daughter not to eat the veggies because he just sprayed them with poison to kill insects. His daughter said “Daddy really? Why did you put poison in our food?”
- Within same timeframe, Mac had sprayed the KSU farm with pesticides to treat weeds. And though he was nowhere near KSU's aquaculture facility, because of wind drift, the pesticides contaminated the pool and killed the fish.
The use of pesticides didn’t sit right – Putting toxins into the environment in the name of raising food. So he initiated the process of converting the KSU farm to an organic. This was 1986-87 when “organic” (the “o” word) was not overly accepted in mainstream America. But the use of pesticides and other chemicals as a farming practice was taught throughout the universities. All in the name of “maximizing yield”.
Organic Farming Lets us "Eat in Peace":
- Mac met his future wife Ann Bell and her brother John. Bell Farm was a multi-generational family farm started by Cecil Bell and located in Scott County.
- Mac, Ann & John were motivated towards organic farming for several reasons:
- Separate their farm from the rest of the market
- Eat in Peace
- Not contaminate Elkhorn Creek, which was close to the farm
Crop Rotation is a Key Principle of Organic Farming:
- BONUS NOTE: Crop rotation is a practice of growing different crops on a particular piece of land over time and in a way that is carefully designed to ensure soil nutrients are sustained, pest populations are controlled, weeds are suppressed and soil health is built.
- Mac discusses crop rotation within the context of tomatoes. Planting tomatoes in a different field every year moves tomatoes away from disease organisms and insects that seek to infest the tomatoes. This practice protects tomatoes without spraying pesticides (i.e., poisons).
- Non-chemical fertilization is another benefit of crop rotation. Elmwood implements an 8 year crop rotation. 5 years to build soil health by growing alfalfa, which is a legume with a tap root that allows nitrogen to build naturally in the soil. 3 years growing intermittent cover crops between planting vegetables.
- BONUS NOTE: Cover crops protect and enrich the soil by preventing erosion, improving the soil’s physical and biological properties, supplying nutrients, suppressing weeds, improving availability of water, and breaking pest cycles.
- BONUS NOTE: During a station break, Mac discussed how the widespread use of chemical fertilizers began after WWII when manufacturing facilities that produced nitrogen for bombs and other explosives were used post-war to produce ammonia for soil fertilization. So the inputs for bombs are the same as those for chemical fertilizers! 👉 A Brief History of our Deadly Addiction to Nitrogen Fertilizer.
- The Bell family patriarch, Cecil Bell practiced crop rotation. While John & Ann continued this practice, they also used pesticides and chemicals on some crops.
- John farmed a large acreage for the commodity market. If a problem occurred that he didn’t see in previous years, he would consult with the university. And was advised to spray with pesticides. John recognized pesticides was a band-aid because these same problems did not occur year to year.
- At the same time, Ann Bell was taking produce from acreage she farmed and sold at farmer’s market. But was troubled that she couldn't guarantee that the produce was safe (no pesticides).
100% Certified Organic in 2002:
- In the late-90's, John & Ann decided to get off the "chemical treadmill". The farm became 100% Certified Organic in 2002. And the farm just keeps getting better every year!
The Rigorous Process of Organic Certification:
- Mac worked for the KY Dept of Agriculture where he administered the organic certification program.
- Steps for certification include:
- The farm submits stacks of documentation to explain how it will farm without chemicals and how it will follow the organic regulations
- An onsite inspection occurs to confirm these practices
- Surprise inspections even after the farm receives its certification to ensure practices continue.
- Farms that believe in the certification welcome these inspections. because there is a lot of "green washing" in the local food movement.
- "Green washing" refers to farms using terms like “organic techniques” or “organic but not certified” or “follow organic”. Organic certification is a complicated and rigorous process. Mac says they still pull out the manual of regulations to make sure they are in compliance. So if a farm is not certified, it would be hard for them to know if they are following the right practices or not.
- It is possible, however, to grow organic & non-organic crops on the same farm. BUT these crops cannot be co-mingled and documentation must support the separation.
What the Organic Certification Means for Consumers:
- For farmers, organic certification is a farming program. But for consumers, it’s a labeling system.
- During minutes 16:00 – 18:40, Mac describes the inspection process and the documentation that the farm must produce to verify that from seed to the store or farmer’s market the entire process is pesticide, chemical, and GMO-free.
- If eating organic is important to you, this is definitely worth a listen!
Organic vs. Processed Foods
- Mac served on the National Organic Standards Board. A 15 person Board, appointed by the USDA Secretary of Agriculture. Mac represented the Certifying Community. During this experience he learned so much about organic vs. processed foods.
- There are 1000s of ingredients that can be used in processed foods. But for organic, the list can fit on 2 pages!
The Organic Certification is not Expensive:
- As rigorous as the process is, at least for KY farmers, the certification is not expensive because subsidies are available through the KY Dept of Agriculture. Commissioner Ryan Quarles and his staff keeps the cost down to promote organic farming. Commissioner Quarles added staff to help support the program!
- The USDA also offers cost-sharing such that 75% of the cost of certification is reimbursed to the farm. So Elmwood's certification costs $200/year.
- The record-keeping that's required for initial and continued certification can be expensive. But all of this documentation is good business practices.
Challenges for Beginning Farmers:
- Access to land and capital equipment can be a very daunting, perhaps even undoable expense for beginning farmers.
- The UK Sustainable Agriculture program trains young farmers sound sustainable practices.
- The Organic Association of KY (OAK) is working towards mentorship and shadowing programs. Also offers farm tours around the state to help promote organic farming.
- Organic farmers are a community of sharing knowledge and expertise. There’s very little internal competition because they know that the more organic food that is produced, the more available for consumers to buy.
Crop Rotation Math Problem:
Elmwood utilizes crop rotation so they can grow 40 acres of vegetables on only 35 farming acres!
Elmwood Farm Tours:
- Understanding the farming process can build consumer awareness to appreciate the rigorous process of how food gets to us. Which is why Elmwood began offering a Farm Tour Series to invite the community onto the farm.
- Tours start later this month -- so be sure to check out the link 👉 Elmwood Farm Tour. Get to know your local farmers who are growing your food. AND more importantly, learn more about these complex organic practices that Mac discussed during this show!
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA):
- Farm sharing programs. Original pioneers of these programs required people to work (help harvest) to have a farm share. Which saved on farm labor.
- Consumers sign up for the program in the spring. Then during growing season, will get a box of veggies once a week. This is a business model where customers invest in farms.
- Farms spend extraordinary amounts to grow crops (seeds, labor, etc). CSA customers are the investors so farms don’t have to borrow money. CSA investors are the prime customers for farmers and experience a very warm & welcoming relationship. CSA's are first in line for crops, especially those in limited supply.
- Elmwood’s CSA grew from 45 customers to 400+ now!
- When investing in a CSA from Elmwood, customers are “voting with their dollars” to not have toxins sprayed into their environments based on their choices. We make so many decisions every day, several times a day. These can be reflections of our values if we make intentional choices.
- BONUS NOTE: It's not too late to sign up for a CSA 👉 Elmwood CSA. KY Dept of Agriculture also offers links to other CSA's around the state: KY Department of Agriculture 2016 CSA Registration. And if you don't live in KY, here is a link to find a CSA near you: Local Harvest. All of these links also offer more details about the benefits (and drawbacks) of a CSA to help determine if a CSA is right for you.
Community Benefit of CSA's:
- LFUCG & UK offers $200 vouchers for employees who want to purchase an organic CSA. Vouchers available via a program called Bluegrass Harvest and managed by Community Ventures.
- This voucher program is based on the public health benefits from a study conducted by UK Dr. Tim Woods. This study found that for CSA customers the number of visits to the doctor decreased from 7 1/2 times to only about twice during the six-month program 👉 Offering Employees a Share in Local Farm Harvest Could Impact Health Costs.
- When customers pay up-front they are invested and don’t want the food to go to waste. Will cook at home more and eat their veggies. Many causes of health issues are preventable by eating the proper foods. And if misfortune strikes (e.g., cancer) folks will be stronger & better able to fight the disease.
- Sugar is a primary contributor of the 3 main health issues: heart disease, diabetes & obesity. No sugar in CSA box!
Health Benefits of 100% Grass-fed, Pasture-raised Meat:
- Mac discusses that the historical politics of fats & sugars is a tragedy for our country. E.g., is with the grass-fed meat that Elmwood sells. When ruminant animal eats nothing but forage, the digestive system has higher PH (which is normal) – The way the animal was evolved to be. When that same animal is raised in feedlot, where it is fed grains, this lowers the PH in the stomach. Which causes bad fats. So when we eat these feedlot animals, we are less healthy.
- CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) vs. 100% Grass-fed, pasture-raised: CAFO animals are fed GMO corn & soybeans. Therefore, when we buy this meat, we are buying the chemicals for farmers.
- BONUS NOTE: Much debate nowadays about CAFO vs. 100% Grass-fed meat. Obviously, my preference is 100% grass-fed, pasture raised. Both because of my personal view about the health benefits AND because we believe in and support properly-raised, high animal welfare practices. I've posted a few articles about this topic. Here's a link to one 👉 A Primer on Grass-fed Meat.
- BONUS NOTE: If you'd like to learn more about the debate, this article lays out both sides fairly. So you start formulating your own decisions 👉 Grass-fed vs. Conventional Meat: It's Not Black or White.
- Bottom line is that there is lots of power in the consumers’ hands. Thus voting with our food dollars is a very real concept.
Voting with Food Dollars:
- Starting at minute 41:30 – Mac discusses that the widespread use of chemical farming practices are NOT the farmers’ faults. The marketplace has driven farmers to it. So it's important to recognize that big business farmers are not the bad guys.
- Again, because we do have so much power in our hands, we need to keep this in mind when shopping. Give thought to what we are buying and make sure choices reflect our values.
Price Per Meal:
- Mac discusses an example of the "voting with dollars" concept: Elmwood's organic chicken (100% pasture-raised) is $21 vs. fully cooked chicken at "big box" store is $5 (maybe)? To eat good, healthy food on a budget, consumers should keep in mind that Elmwood’s whole chickens can serve several meals. Also use the bones for stock. Thus thinking about "price per meal" (with proper portion control) can rival the cost of conventional food.
- I wrote a blog post about this 👉 Consider Price Per Meal.
- BONUS NOTE (for a future posting): The rule in our house is to always save the bones!! No bone goes to waste here because I use them to make homemade broth. I've been doing this for years. Soon -- I promise to post the recipe!
Chef Heather's Amazing Success:
- During minutes 44:00 – 46:27, Mac discusses the concept of health benefits from proper food choices.
- Chef Heather runs a feeding program for Bright Horizon @ Lexmark. A couple years ago when avian flu was a concern, Chef Heather approached Mac to buy boneless, skinless chicken breast. Mac cautioned that he couldn't discount the chicken because of the farm's processing cost. Chef Heather said that was OK.
- She also started buying 100% grass-fed, pasture raised ground beef & ground lamb. And started cooking everything from scratch.
- After some time, Chef Heather reported to Mac that even with the higher prices, the program’s books showed the program was under budget because she was not buying processed food.
- And when the Childhood Behavior Specialists reported improved moods & learning abilities. The children were calmer, learning, sitting still, paying attention, taking naps.
- All from changing from Processed foods – Real Foods!
- Chef Heather is working with the parent company to teach these concepts to other daycares around the country.
- Chef Heather, Ben & I will be inviting you to the show 😀
Sadly, we wrap up:
- Mac offers some final thoughts:
- Participate in Farm Tour series. These farm tours will help people make better decisions about food.
- Go to Farmers Market. Talk to farmers. There is so much misinformation and confusion about food, especially with internet. Farmers will take time to talk with customers. So engage with them and learn more about food.
- Order the local, organic item on the menu at the restaurant. When we do that, we are supporting our local food system.
- Look for organic seal. There’s integrity behind the seal (See image below).
- Go to Farmers’ Market in the rain. The farmers are there. They still bring all their food. It will make their day to show up and talk with them!!
- All great tips, don't you think? Post your comments to let us know!!
Final BONUS NOTES: