Free Union Grass Farm is a holistic, diversified livestock operation. By raising animals in the environment most suited to their needs and inclinations, we fight growth of invasive species, stimulate native forages, regenerate abused pastures, and build healthier soils. We fence livestock out of waterways to protect riparian areas and allow aquatic species to thrive. The end result of our work is nourishing food, and a lifestyle that sustains our physical, emotional, and financial needs.
Our practices have been described with a variety of buzzwords: sustainable, regenerative, pastured, free range, grass fed, natural, cage free, beyond organic, etc. All of these terms apply to us except "certified organic," which is a regulated term we choose not to pay for. If you're interested in why we're not certified, scroll on down.
The most accurate summary of our style of farming is "intense impact, intense rest." With the exception of the cold winter months, our livestock are never in one place for for longer than a couple days. We allow the animals to intensely impact a piece of ground heavily for a short time, then move them completely; they won't see that piece of ground again for several months, or even until the following year. The cows are moved every day during the season and about once a week when we feed hay in the winter. The poultry are moved to a completely new paddock every few days, and their portable coops, feeders, drinkers, and fences go with them. We gauge the animals' time in each paddock by the health of the stand, the weather, and the topography of that particular piece of land.
Limiting the livestock to a strategic amount of space means they fully and more evenly harvest the forages available to them. Given full reign of an entire field, they would repeatedly go after the same species, a practice commonly referred to as "overgrazing." A concentrated, brief graze at the right stage of forage "ripeness" will actually stimulate regrowth and encourage deeper root production, whereas continuous grazing will result in a stunted forages and shallow root systems. Deep roots are valuable because they hold soil in place, increase rainwater retention, and increase a soil's capacity to sequester atmospheric carbon, all of which are vital functions in our changing climate. Frequent moves also mean the animals aren't subject to the unhealthy or inhumane living conditions created by excess manure. As we manage how much time they spend in one place, we let the animals do the work of amending our pastures naturally, making their manure into an asset instead of a waste product.
A word about forages: just like the fruit and vegetables we eat, pasture forages can be underripe, overripe, or just right. The "just right" phase is typically when the forage is in a vegetative state, before it has concentrated its resources toward reproduction and gone to seed. Although a field of grass may look lush and palatable to the untrained human eye, a cow may see a stand that is over-mature, ignoring most of the taller grasses and pursuing the younger, more palatable shoots. As grass farmers, we have learned to identify that perfect stage of growth and attempt to time our rotation so that the animals can graze it at perfect palatability and nutrition.
Regarding feed, we strive to provide the animals the most natural food available in our environment based on their particular dietary needs. Cows are herbivores, meaning they should eat plants and only plants, while pigs and poultry are omnivores, meaning it is appropriate for them to eat both plants and animals (insects, in our case). The one thing they all happily consume, and incidentally, the most local and natural thing we can feed them, is the grass. We're not talking about sod, and yes, we get the "Are you guys a sod farm?" question ad nauseam. Rather, we're talking about a diverse array of pasture species that includes grasses, forbs, and legumes, with a focus on native perennials. We don't break ground or seed pastures with particular forages because of our hilly topography and rocky soil, so we use grazing animals to give native species an equal opportunity for growth.
THOUGHTS ON ORGANIC
Fundamentally, a certified organic operation is one that uses no synthetic amendments, promotes ecological balance, fosters cycling of nutrients, and conserves biodiversity. If you've read any of our aforementioned practices, it should hopefully be clear that we operate in a very organic way. But to certify our practices is a whole different beast, and for the reasons which follow, we've decided it's not necessary to our customers or to our success.
Organic certification requires that we feed our animals with certified organic feed. We'd love to do this, but our local source for organic feed costs almost twice as much as the feed we currently use. In addition to increasing necessary cash flow, our prices would have to go up to cover that cost. Our meat is already quite a bit more expensive than the average consumer is used to, and while we believe firmly that food raised right and produced without subsidies or middlemen should cost more, we do try to keep prices as low as we can.
Organic certification requires extensive paperwork. Aside from possessing a deep-seated distaste for filling out forms, paperwork requires time that is generally better spent out tending to the livestock, learning new skills, growing our customer base, or building our brand. As it is, we rarely charge what we should for the amount of labor that goes into each product we raise. Why increase our labor requirement when we are already bringing a nutrient-dense, delicious, environmentally regenerative food to market?
The word "organic" is polluted. Farm-fresh, naturally-raised food has resonated with consumers for long enough that large scale agribusinesses want in on the marketing terms. But actually improving quality of life for animals and protecting natural resources increases labor costs and overhead. Instead of collaborating to produce more eco-friendly foods, "Big Organic" lobbies to weaken the requirements for organic certification. Given the current political climate, these efforts have been and will continue to be particularly effective. We see no need to attach an ambiguous term to our products.
Organic certification requires annual farm inspection. We have no problem with customers visiting our farm - we encourage on-farm sales and invite visitors to see our operation on our monthly farm tours. Walking around the farm with an inspector and a check list for a stamp of approval feels redundant when customers can witness our practices with their own eyes. And, with our small scale and hyper-local marketing focus, there is no reason for us to prove anything to customers from afar.