This is the fifth in a series of posts about a few days visiting different farmers and producers in Iowa, including several from whom we’ve bought pork. Additionally, my perceptions are certainly informed from previous trips to the state, of a more social nature. Everything here is just my observation as an outsider; I’m sure I’m missing many subtleties and in several instances I may be just plumb wrong. Caveat emptor.
After visiting several pig farms in Iowa, and talking to quite a few farmers, I started to believe that maybe the kind of agriculture we are looking for — the integrated natural farms we’ve seen at places like Old Creek Ranch, Cane Creek Farm, Caw Caw Creek, and others — just didn’t exist in this state. That perhaps because of the dominance of single-crop and industrial farming, it was just impossible, or at least highly unlikely, that a farmer could make such a severe break from the conventional methods and go back to the old ways which seem to have become a fairly distant memory here.
Then I met Barney Bahrenfuse.
Following Kelly Biensen’s orders, I drove one afternoon out to Grinnell to see Barney’s farm. Barney is one of a couple dozen farmers for Eden Natural pork, and Kelly suggested I talk to him because Barney is one of just three or four farmers whose Berkshire pigs qualify for Eden Natural’s “Never Ever” program, which is for pigs that have never had any antibiotics (as opposed to most pigs from Eden Natural, which are not given antibiotics in the last 100 days or more before processing). In an environment where the close containment of huge pig stocks have led to rampant problems with pathogens, it is quite an accomplishment to be able to maintain healthy pigs this way. (The other farmers in the “Never Ever” program are outside of Iowa’s main pig-farming regions, in Kansas and Wisconsin.)
It turns out that Barney is both lucky and good. Lucky in that he doesn’t have a lot of neighboring pig confinement units that put his animals at risk. Good in that he successfully runs a decent-sized, integrated farm, providing lots of local people with pasture-raised meats and also raising enough to provide some pork to Eden Natural. And both lucky and smart that he lives in Grinnell, which Iowa’s, as he affectionately put it, “lefty college town” with a sizeable population of folks who are likely to seek out independently raised, grass-fed meat.
Some interesting tidbits I learned during our several hours hanging out:
- His cattle is mostly grass fed, but when he feeds them or his pigs corn, he feeds them “ear corn.” Most field corn now is harvested with machines that harvest only the kernel, and leave the ear on the ground. Barney takes the ears, shucks them and cuts them, and feeds them to the animals that way. He believes that the animals are healthier eating this way. He told me, in regards to this, that he farms “40 years in the past.”
- Unlike pretty much all Iowa farmers, who grow corn and soybeans only, Barney grows many different kinds of grains. He told me that he didn’t have to buy crop insurance, because diversity was his crop insurance.
- He started farming this way because as both a farmer and an eater, he started to feel it was obvious that the antibiotics, hormones, and other chemicals in the food chain were likely to affect the people at the end. Barney didn’t want to eat all that stuff and he thought his community would want to avoid it, too, if possible.
- Barney’s animals live across a country road from his house, and he was training his dogs to look both ways before crossing the street. That was pretty cool.
After touring his farm, we went to lunch at a little cafe in Grinnell called Phoenix Cafe & Inn. This is a modest little cafe, with reasonable prices, where are the meats are sourced locally from independent farmers such as Barney. I believe all the beef and lamb is grass-fed, and all the pork — no, I’m just kidding about the pork: the owner, Kamal Hammouda doesn’t eat or serve it. He is, however, a great host and a really thoughtful guy. He sat with Barney and me for a while and we talked about the challenges we face sourcing this kind of meat in San Diego. One thing that Kamal said which really caught my attention was that in Egypt, it was cultural wisdom that the minimum crops you needed for rotation was four (which was possibly meant to be one for each season). It was hard to believe, he thought, that a two crop rotation could ever be as good for the soil as a four crop rotation.
A google of Kamal Hammouda is quick to show that he’s done a lot of work in supporting local agriculture in Grinnell, and helping make sure that his community can eat food farmed in the traditional ways. He’s an inspiration for us, as is Barney. Thanks to both of them for their hospitality, creativity, and work. We intend to bring some of Barney’s pork in later this year, too (as soon as his next pigs are ready).