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Thistles & Clover – Danbury, Iowa

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Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself…
Henry David Thoreau

Thistles & Clover is a small family farm located in beautiful western Iowa. They raise healthy cattle and poultry and offer grass-fed beef, chickens, turkeys, pork and eggs. Thistles & Clover is owned and operated by Adam and Lucy Cameron.

I have become very interested in food and where it comes from and in the relationships that exist among what we eat, the environment and our total health. I’m trying to educate myself within this field with no real direction other than to put my hands in the dirt and talk to as many folks as I can. Kind farmers like Adam and Lucy who are willing to share their journey, routines, joys and frustrations are allowing me to learn and grow. Knowing next to nothing about their daily life, but desperately curious, I sent them a few questions to answer at their convenience. Since then, we have met and I have witnessed the relationship they have, and work very hard to preserve, with their customers. It’s beautiful, and they are heroes to me.

After reading their answers to my questions, I was struck by the content and grateful for the effort and sincerity with which my questions were addressed. I think what they have to say is important for others to hear as my eyes have certainly been opened. Thank you, Adam and Lucy, for the work you do, for warmly welcoming me into it, and for your meaningful and thoughtful perspective.

First, a statement from their website:

We were both raised in the Midwest – Adam on an Iowa farm and Lucy in an Ohio city. We met out west and came back to Iowa together to farm. Our two young sons make sure we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

We like to do things naturally, both in our home and on our farm. This means we do not give our animals hormones or antibiotics to increase their rate of growth. Our beef products come from grass-fed cattle. Our laying hens roam freely and receive freshly-ground feed. Our broilers are moved onto new grass daily.

We work hard to develop and maintain pastures that support the health of our animals. Our farm’s name is inspired by our ongoing efforts to increase the amount of clover in our pasture and decrease the amount of thistles. Sometimes, it seems like an uphill battle, but change happens slowly on the land.

And my questions:

(1) How would you summarize what you do and the services you offer consumers?

Probably the most important service that we offer our customers is a direct relationship with the producer of their food. We offer our customers premium grass-fed beef, and pasture-raised poultry, pork and eggs. Our work managing our pastures includes planting beneficial species, rotating our animals, and removing noxious weeds. Managed pastures offer our local community open spaces, wildlife habitat, and plant diversity.

(2) What sets you apart from other small-scale animal farms? What are the principles on which your farming practice is built?

What sets us apart is our ongoing commitment to improving the health of our soils. The decisions that we make regarding planting, and how we manage our animals all relate back to what is best for the soil. Healthy soils ensure healthy plants and healthy plants ensure healthy animals. Healthy animals ensure healthy and delicious farm products. If we did not focus on soil fertility, we could eventually end up not being able to produce enough off the land to stay in business. Managing for soil health ensures that this family gets to stay on the farm.

We are also unique from many other farms because we do not have “off-farm” jobs. Recent studies reveal that the vast majority of farmers also have jobs “in town.” A quick survey of most of the vendors at any farmers market will reveal that most are either retired or simply “weekend” farmers. Without the cushion of a regular paycheck, we have to take our role as farmers and food producers very seriously. Business and farm plans extend out multiple years into the future, yet we must constantly adapt to unforeseen daily changes (e.g. weather, illness, broken machinery, rising rents, etc.). Although our lives may seem romantically ideal, we have to have enough business acumen to run our operation as tightly as any other small business in order to stay in the black and on the path towards financial sustainability.

(3) Why did you decide to raise animals the way you do? (i.e. for health, ethical reasons, to avoid criticism, etc.)

We raise our animals the way that we do because, in the long run, we believe that it will result in the greatest improvement of soil fertility. Fertile soil ensures that whatever the land is used for in the future, it will be as productive as possible. Carbon is sequestered, potentially reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Desertification is evaded and the potential for future food production for a growing population is improved.

We are pleased that raising our cattle on grass results in more fertile soil because working with cattle in a pasture is so much fun! It is beautiful, the animals are happy. Calves get to be born onto fresh green grass. It is fun to have young children who get to see these animals in a natural environment. Rotating the cattle through the pasture means that they become very accustomed to our presence. Calmly walking among these 1000+ pound undulates is a real joy.

Having both our cattle and poultry on grass is wonderful too because manure is spread onto the land more naturally – rather than having it accumulate in confined settings where it must then be loaded, removed and distributed elsewhere. The sun is a great sanitizer, helping to keep disease down and health up. Fresh air helps maintain animal health as well.

An added benefit of having our poultry on pasture is that they forage for a significant portion of their food. This saves on feed costs, which help us maintain reasonable prices for our customers.

(4) What challenges do you face regarding competition in the industry? Are you ever frustrated being up against large-scale feeding lots when you know your product is superior in terms of quality and how it was produced?

Because we feel that one of our primary services that we offer our customers is a direct relationship to their food producer, we feel that, in a way, there is no competition. Of course, there are a handful of other local farms producing similar products, but the current demand is such that we do not seem to step on each other’s toes. Rather, we often can work cooperatively to help each other fulfill the area demand for farm fresh foods.

As to beef, poultry, pork and eggs that are produced as commodities – we don’t really feel that these are “competition.” Last time I checked, a dozen eggs were selling for about $1 at the local grocery store. We certainly can’t compete with that, nor should we try. We are not trying to produce the cheapest egg possible. We are trying to produce great eggs as economically as possible and charge enough in the process to help support our family.

(5) What needs to change in food/farming policy in this country to help farmers AND to make our food system safer and healthier?

As someone who was born and raised in urban America, without any real connection to food production, I am guilty of once having thought that “if only farmers would stop using all those chemicals, confining their animals, using antibiotics to increase rates of growth, etc. etc.”. After living in rural Iowa for over three years now, I am convinced that I was barking up the wrong tree. The truth is that most farmers are decent, hard-working individuals who chose to be farmers because they enjoy farming. It is up to the public to elect officials who will set and enforce policies that encourage sustainable agricultural practices. I am convinced that most farmers would have no issue with switching their farming techniques if the government set policies that made alternative agriculture a more attractive option than conventional farming – instead of vice versa.

Six member states of the European Union have prohibited the cultivation of genetically modified corn. You won’t find genetically engineered crops in Japan or New Zealand. Denmark has recently prohibited the routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics on their livestock. Russia recently rejected US poultry imports because there was too much chlorine residue from the final “sanitation bath” used at large-scale poultry processors. People in these countries protected from questionable modern agricultural protocols yet such techniques, and the resulting food products, are omnipresent to consumers in the United States.

In the United States, our leaders seem to be increasingly beholden to powerful business leaders, whose interests may not always align with what is best for the general public. The voting public needs to elect officials who offer policies that best serve the general American public. People must get politically active and hold their governmental representatives accountable. People must make being politically active one of the “things they do every day.” Stay on top of agricultural bills that are in the House and Senate. Public comments are accepted every day and they really can make a difference. Check out the “Food Democracy Now” website for current information about pertinent bills that are going through Legislature.

Another powerful way that people can ensure that changes in land and animal management occur, is to “vote with their dollar.” This means purchasing your food from local, sustainable producers. If you have time and interest, volunteer to help your local farmer. If you like their products, refer your neighbors to them. Do what you can to help them stay on the path towards financial sustainability – thereby ensuring yourself a steady supply of great, local foods!

http://www.thistlesandclover.com/

We clasp the hands of those that go before us and the hands of those who come after us. We enter the little circle of each other’s arms and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance. And the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance…to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it, except in fragments.
Wendell Berry

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