Friday, August 5, 2016

Farmer Friday - 8 O'Clock Ranch

Intern Amands Korb offers us another reflection on food and farming issues on the last day of her internship...

In the 21st century, the rise of grass-fed, all-natural, free-range, cage-free, pasture-based animal products is certainly evident. We buy the bloodless package of ground beef with a sticker of a picturesque red barn and white chickens in the yard and the cleanly washed pearl-white eggs. We are living in a food illusion, and the lack of transparency between the farmer and the consumer is only getting wider. I believe we must ask ourselves what are our personal beliefs are in terms of food, or rather, what do we demand as consumers when we purchase items. On a more personal level, we might ask what is it like for a chicken to live in a cage, to be given certain feeds or various medications? And furthermore, do we care?

From pig to cow to chickens, the large-scale production of animal meat (think 2 million hens per “warehouse”) personifies the broken American food system. We all know the horror stories of the industrial farm—some of us turn a blind eye, thinking, “How else will be feed the world?” while others choose to eliminate the product from their diet as a form of animal solidarity.

These were a few questions Kassandra and John Barton asked when they first started 8 O’clock Ranch in 2001. Their 200-acre mission to raise non-GMO, soy-free, pasture based meat is far from the images Food Inc. portrays. On the larger farms, “ag gag laws” forbid any form of filming or photography of farms without the consent of owners. Even with consent, the images do not portray the full story. This was not the case with Kassandra, who specifically invited me to come on butcher day. I pulled into the ranch’s driveway, greeted by her amiable face. She instructed me to the barn where her sons and neighbors were at the head of the butchering assembly line. They were in charge of killing, scalding and then chilling the birds. I was impressed by the cleanliness, efficiency and humaneness of the process. One might think the birds would be squawking as they faced death, but these hens cooed sweetly.

After chilling, the hens were then cleaned and split into parts. All portions of the bird are consumed except for the head. (Customers do actually ask for them, but Kassandra hasn’t figured out a way to package them safely.) The liver, heart, necks and feet are packaged for sale elsewhere. 8 O’clock Ranch used to work at the Canton Farmers market, but slow demand led the couple to “follow other marketing strategies,” like shipping all over the east coast or delivering milkman style to one’s doorstep.

“We wanted to do what they used to in the 1700’s,” Kassandra remarked. “Sure I use new technologies, and I utilize YouTube a lot too, but a lot of what we do now comes from old books. If it worked then, why can’t it work now?” Their land is called a ranch and not a farm to reflect how they believe animals should be raised—free to roam with ample amount of fresh land, air and grass. They practice block pasturing and intensive grazing, which has reduced the unwanted growth of thistles and instead encouraged clovers to flourish. As Michael Pollan writes, “It is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients.”

Kassandra is a firm believer in healthy soil: “If the soil is healthy, then the rest falls in line.” They regularly add minerals to the ground, although they recognize it takes 18 months system integration. Prevention, it seems, is a better method of treatment. In fact, John and Kassandra have only called the vet 4 times in 8 years. “If you’re calling the vet, then there is something lacking in your management practices.”

Around 1,000 hens a year are processed at the ranch, alongside 40 lambs and 100-120 beef cattle. I asked the inevitable, given their success, would they consider getting bigger? “Any bigger and our job would be harder, especially since we insist on sticking to our standards,” John responded. Their morals are tried and true—a few years ago the couple threatened to shut down when USDA regulations had them shipping their meat to far off processing units. Kassandra and John are firm believers in giving their customers what they desire- transparent, healthy, truly natural meat because “customer service is what keeps [them] going.”

“Taste is our biggest advertisement,” she further commented. “When selling meat, the hardest part is getting people to actually cook the meal. But once they taste it and show their friends, they understand why we do what we do.” On average, Kassandra and John have a 90% CSA renewal rate. The word of mouth sales are certainly proving to be fruitful.

Promoting local healthy food is an easy feat, but to actually execute the philosophy is a more strenuous process. 8 O’clock Ranch used to participate in GardenShare’s Bonus Bucks program, but had to demure their participate due to USDA regulations. When I asked Kassandra what role she thinks government should play in small-scale meat production, she quickly responded none. “Because they [the government] is involved the cost of food increases. People who can afford food don’t care that much and we secure their business no problem; however, this makes access to low-income or working households difficult.”

Currently, out of house sales are illegal unless permitted otherwise. This means Kassandra’s customers must pre-order meat, a process deemed inconvenient due to our instantaneous society. “If a customer could simply come and go it would be easier. Also, this would help keep prices lower for people to try new meat. It would be easier for people to say, ‘I want to eat healthy, local food.’”  

When I asked how to fill the gap the USDA creates between her meat and the customer’s plate, Kassandra further said, “Many mothers ask, how do I cook, look up recipes, share that knowledge, and have the ability to eat? You can’t expect to cook all meats equally. Visits to a farm, where a meal can be shared, are conversational and relatable way to cook food.” I invite all North Country residents to give Kassandra a call. 8 O’clock ranch is a 100% transparent operation that produces ethical and sustainable meals for families and friends.