‘The food system is working perfectly well for most people.’
That quote, reproduced from a page in The Stockman Grassfarmer Magazine, nearly toppled me when I read it. For years I’ve been wrestling an invisible adversary that regularly stymied my experiments born of whimsy, and these few words of insight exposed the scoundrel in an instant. Gotcha!
People are perfectly happy with the way things are. Not a few folks around the country, but a vast majority of the 310 million individuals calling this great nation home think everything food related is going swimmingly well. Since I find purpose in a position requiring constant attention to what people eat and how it’s grown, such a carefree gastronomical lifestyle seems impossible to me. Yet I’ve been staring at it all along in the form of people flocking together doing anything but worrying about food. Pop culture is far more powerful than food culture.
Such a granted level of comfort is the governor of true change and innovation. Very few people deliberately try anything new if they’re already at ease, so the collective familiarity with the food system just as it is guarantees that changing it will be difficult. By extension, it’s often a thorny pursuit to rally support for revisions of the norm that are considered unnecessary.
If we use sweet corn for an example, consumers expect modern, big eared, crispy, crunchy, super sweet varieties. Sell that, you’re in (to what everyone else is also selling). Dangle an old variety out there and the differences are met with backpedaling and quiet discomfort. Never mind that it possesses far more robust flavor characteristics that remind me of butternut squash (I grew an heirloom variety last season and stashed a ton of it in our personal freezer). Never mind that the genetics aren’t patented like a toy. Few want to learn how to grow and sell it. Few want to eat it. It’s not necessary. So it’s a joke.
It doesn’t end there. I’m fascinated by composting; that’s fertility you don’t have to purchase. But it’s tricky and labor intensive, and you can still ring up the local distributor and have truckloads of 10-20-20 delivered, so compost isn’t necessary and my piles are viewed by peers the same way children’s backyard fortresses are viewed by adults: foolish. I discovered a use for apple tree trimmings in a book titled Craeft by Alexander Langlands. Before modern infrastructure, sticks were bundled and dried for use in the home fire. I tied a few bundles last year and dried them in our basement. On a subzero January morning, I made use of my bundles by setting ablaze some logs in our fireplace. No piped natural gas needed – they set logs burning in an instant! Now I’m consumed by storing bundles for cooking fires. I’m pretty lonely during my stick-tying sessions, though, because nobody really sees a use in spending free time tying sticks, because it isn’t necessary. I go out of my way to get raw milk. Many people think it’s ‘dirty’. I collect, crack, and store black walnuts from a tree on our farm. This year I purchased some blue and black heirloom varieties of corn that I hope to make into flour for home use. Few see purpose in the project, because cornmeal is available at the store. I also hate mowing grass and love digging ponds, the former an energy expenditure established as necessary and the latter an energy expenditure outdated and dumb in the world of wells and municipal water.
Now we arrive at the big one: grassfed beef. When I took interest in the prospect about seven years ago, I never, ever expected pushback to be a limiting factor. Yet, aside from our growing following of grassfed fanatics, I’ve been flabbergasted by an influx of comments from concerned customers who are horrified that this is something I’m introducing into our inventory. My dad iterated wisdom that mirrors on a smaller scale the message I used to start this column: you’re going to be facing an uphill battle, because our customer base is already satisfied with the beef they get from us. They see no reason to change anything.
They don’t have to, and I’m sincerely grateful for customers who are so enthusiastic about what our family produces that they’re not looking for anything else. Halleluiah, friends, you’re the saviors of small business.
But stopping at what’s established is poison to my imagination. I’m looking for the fringe, and I found it in grassfed beef. The end result of a well established forage-only beef enterprise is vivid in my mind, though as I write this I’m still mired in physically and mentally challenging learning curve associated with new territory. For every moment I enjoy being with the cows and navigating them across the landscape, the emotional demands of learning to manage and sustain an unnecessary endeavor that is yet to produce a positive financial return yield moments of staggering discouragement. Though I understand perfectly well that nobody intends harm, emails, calls, and conversations with people reacting negatively at just the thought of complementary variations of beef are a whack to the knees.
I’m not complaining. I’m not venting, nor am I frustrated with anyone at all. In fact, I’m excited, because this eye-opening insight I encountered with a glance at one sentence is profound. My hope is to convert all the weird intrigues I pursue into bona fide businesses someday. I ‘get’ now why people act the way they act, and it changes my entire approach to doing what I do.
So I am calling. I’m looking to alert those unique few of you who move towards different in anticipation of all the new such a word can possess. Everything new needs a customer to grease the wheels and make things happen. You folks are the game-changers who establish new normals for everyone else to become familiar with. People can choose to sustain what already exists or to totally re-imagine what can be. The central zone of our way of life is where most find security, but life happens at the edge. You’ll find me there, occupying myself with a whole lot of unnecessary work. At least I can whistle.