Small Farmers Dedicated to Fixing a Broken Food System
Jun 30, 2019 03:39PM
● By Sheila Julson
Small farmers are the stalwarts of a sustainable agricultural economy, connecting residents with regionally grown food produced in an environmentally sound manner. Three local leaders in sustainable agriculture spoke with Natural Awakenings about their passion for farming and advantages of sustainable small farms over Big Ag.
Marie Tedei, of Eden’s Garden CSA Farm, opened her business as a garden center in 2007 on a 14-acre parcel of land in Balch Springs. She noticed a dearth of farmers in the area growing with organic methods, so with encouragement from members of the Texas Organic Farmers & Gardener’s Association (TOFGA), she started her own farm. Tedei is the TOFGA regional director in Dallas-Fort Worth.
Despite the challenges of running a farm, Tedei remains driven by dedication to care for the land and provides a wide variety of nutritious vegetables, including heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, Brussels sprouts and squash. Like many small farmers, Tedei’s farm is funded primarily through community-supported agriculture (CSA), a model in which consumers buy a share of a farm’s harvest in advance of each growing season and get direct access to their produce. Tedei also runs a farm stand on her property twice a month.
While there was strong support for farm CSAs a decade ago, membership is declining, Tedei notes, due to competition from big-box stores, home-delivered food and meal kits. She says less obvious competitors also include nonprofit organizations running community gardens and doing good work that benefit from volunteer labor and grants for which for-profit farmers don’t qualify.
“When you factor in challenges like weather, cash flow, pests, weeds and diseases, tarps—which are used to control weeds instead of spraying harsh herbicides like glyphosate—transportation and death of livestock, people have to understand that all plays into the cost of food. Some people think food should be cheap, but good food is not cheap,” she emphasizes.
Through educational efforts, Tedei hopes that small farmers can level the playing field. Films such as the breakthrough 2008 Food, Inc. highlight the difference between small family farms and big ag, and documentaries like The Biggest Little Farm, shown at this year’s EARTHxFilm festival, prove how small farming is more than an idyllic lifestyle. “Sustainable farmers work to preserve the land,” she says. “I have 14 acres of land with a natural pond, a creek and prairie. If I treated this land like big conventional farmers, it would be stripped down from fence-to-fence with nothing in between but crops. That’s not what we’re striving for. We’re striving for balance with nature, not to conquer nature, and it’s more expensive to do that.”
Tedei hosts farm tours, school groups and farm dinners, measures that promote transparency and educate consumers. She’s signing up people for autumn CSA shares. “I focus on CSAs and cultivating an educated CSA customer so this farm and homestead lasts into the future,” she summarizes.
Eden’s Garden CSA Farm
4710 Pioneer Rd., Balch Springs
When restaurateur Rick Wells was named Civic Leader of the Year in 2013, he knew he wanted to continue investing in his community. “We spend millions of dollars on faceless farmers—big food distributors with big farms—which struck a cord with me,” he says. He closed Sauce, his popular Italian restaurant, and opened the community driven Harvest Seasonal Kitchen, featuring food sourced by small farms in North Texas with tables and artwork crafted by local artisans. To nurture this community effort, he created the nonprofit Seed Project Foundation, which funds educational, agricultural and community farm efforts.
The educational component reaches out to children by installing and maintaining gardens at elementary schools. Known as “Farmer Rick” to the children, Wells says the garden helps kids develop an appreciation for growing seasonal foods. They look forward to Tasty Thursdays, when they try what they’ve grown and are exposed to different foods they wouldn’t have tried otherwise. The Seed Project Foundation partners with Future Farmers of America, a program in Dallas area school systems that fosters young farmers.
The Seed Project Foundation’s agricultural arm supports farmers through networking events like farm to table symposiums held three times per year. “The symposiums bring together like-minded people—farmers, ranchers, chefs and local food advocates—to talk about what farmers and ranchers need and figure out solutions,” he explains. “The foundation fosters those relationships.” Wells notes the symposiums have been well-attended. Organizations such as Profound Foods, a cooperative of small farms throughout North Texas dedicated to improving logistics and deliveries to local chefs, formed through farm to table symposiums.
The Seed Project Foundation provides a Farm Crisis Fund to assist small farmers within a five-county area during crop loss due to extreme weather or natural disasters. The fund is operated through a separate sub-board of The Seed Project Foundation.
The community arm of The Seed Project Foundation is dedicated to assuring that everyone has access to nutritious, sustainably grown food. They partner with the North Texas Food Bank to provide nourishing meals for children during summer break. Wells adds that The Seed Project Foundation has excelled in creating opportunities for farmers to meet challenges like the weather, pests and competitive marketing. Wells and his wife, Robbin, host fundraising events for the Foundation at their Water Boy Farms.
Wells is confident that future generations can become leaders in sustainable farming. “You actually start raising a child 100 years before they’re born, because that’s when you start taking care of the environment in which they’re born. We’ve got to move away from these mono-agricultural systems which are driven by pesticides and fertilizers that will slowly destroy our Earth—and us. That won’t happen in one election cycle or in one generation. It took 50 years to break the system, so it’s going to take 50 years to fix it.”
The Seed Project Foundation
Lyn Horton and her husband, Steve, of N&P Farm & Dairy, offer raw goat and cow milk, buttermilk, kiefer and free-range eggs. They both grew up on farms and raised dairy goats for more than 20 years. People seek out raw cow milk because it has more amino acids, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids than pasteurized milk, but Horton says there are more advantages to raw goat milk.
“Goat milk has smaller proteins than cow milk, and the cream doesn’t separate, whereas with cow milk, the cream rises to the top. Goat milk is very easy to digest,” Horton explains. “You can digest goat milk in about 20 minutes, but raw cow milk takes 15 to 18 hours. Store-bought cow milk takes even longer, because it’s processed. People who can’t drink cow milk can drink goat milk. Goat milk is mucus eliminating; cow milk is mucus forming.”
Horton adds that goat milk, an A2 protein, is the closest thing to breast milk. Many of her goat milk customers are families with babies that cannot be breastfed or take formula. N&P Farm & Dairy is licensed by the state of Texas as a grade-a licensed raw milk seller. “Raw milk is very safe when handled correctly,” she emphasizes.
Their dairy facility and equipment is inspected monthly by the state. Samples are tested for bacteria and to be sure it’s properly chilled. The animals are tested annually for diseases. Per Texas law, raw milk must be sold only from farm premises. N&P Farm & Dairy is open Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
As one of the few licensed raw goat milk dairies in North Texas, Horton says it was challenging at first to meet the demand for goat milk when they became licensed more than two years ago. Having a niche product has allowed them to avoid issues that dairy farmers and commercial dairymen face as they struggle while milk prices plummet. But feed prices and bad weather can still throw curveballs.
“You just have to be tough-skinned,” she says. “But people are welcoming small farms, and the public keeps us going. Our food system is very broken; every week there’s a recall on certain foods, and that’s unacceptable. Know your farmer and know where your food’s coming from.”
N&P Farm & Dairy
713 CR 610, Farmersville