guest essay: the false sense of cheap
A Q&A with Jackie Cleary of Auburn Meadow Farm
How long have you been farming?
I started this farm in 2009. It seems sort of random if you didn’t know me well, as I left a twenty-year real estate practices to start a farm, but prior to real estate I worked in the horse industry, and kept horses always, so caring for large animals was something I had been doing for years. I am first generation, my family is very typically disconnected from food and we had no old world food traditions left. They think I am a freak with my interest in things that are not hermetically sealed, old food preservation ways and fixation on waste.
What was the impetus to pursue farming?
The hypocrisy of our food beliefs, learning more and more about the deceptions in marketing, and the negative impact of industrial agriculture. I also missed very much the lifestyle of caring for animals, and physical labor. And getting my hands on the types of ingredients I wanted in my kitchen was hard. You’re forced to do it yourself if you wish to try some of these flavors and methods.
What did you do to prepare/educate yourself for this new role?
It actually was a gradual process. My cooking habits just became more and more focal in my daily routine, expanding to seeking out products from farms and getting to know farmers, writing and studying about old food ways, cooking and giving away lots and lots of food, and I took a job as a monger in a local butcher shop.
What skills do you use that you did not expect?
My marketing and sales skills from my real estate practice have served me very well. Selling local meat is community building just like selling homes, and I was already using technology like blogging and social media to connect and had been writing effective copy for a while. Things like contracts, managing deposits and reservation forms were already a process I was very comfortable with, so that aspect was easy.
What is your biggest challenge?
Managing supply pipeline for the type of consistency modern consumers don’t realize is disruptive. To them, there is no real seasonality, and to me, I run out of things. I am very small, and my infrastructure is very fragile, so I run out of bacon. I run out of ribs. And until I sell all the sausage, there won’t be more. That is a delicate balance.
What personality characteristics do you have that drew you to farming in the first place?
I like to work alone, I like to work outside, I like to do physical stuff. Machinery and construction are definite weak links for me, but I seem to make up for it with good animal skills. Yes, my crappy fences and gates allow the pigs to escape sometimes. I get frustrated with myself because I am not always on top of those items, but then, something goes wrong, and I always seem to be able to put it right, so there is that plus.
What has been the biggest reward?
Some of my customers have been so incredibly supportive, encouraging and heartwarming. For example, recently I posted a story about my experience with a young livestock guardian dog I was raising to guard my chickens. We were going through a rough patch, and I shared a funny/frustrating story with my readers, and the next week, I got a package in the mail. It was a book from one of my customers I had never heard of that was so thoughtful and perfect. It pleases me tremendously to hear people commenting on the noticeable difference in my meats, and it gives me a lot of joy when my breeding program yields fat, happy, gorgeously healthy stock. I love watching them go about their business, socializing, playing and raising their babies.
What do you want your food to convey to others?
So many things. We do not need so much QUANTITY. I have a much greater appreciation of the beauty of eating my way around a year, season by season. Food is a celebration, and a connection. And seriously, we are not THAT busy that we can’t eat good food, and we can afford it. The problem is that our approach to cooking is single meal/recipe driven, and all of our knowledge and recipes are designed to influence our buying decisions in favor of processed food.
What does it mean to you to be able to farm?
Lol, I often feel like Tom Hanks in Castaway. The part where he has returned to his old life, but is so strangely out of rhythm and it fits him so badly now because he has changed so fundamentally. If I was not able to continue farming, I am not sure I am fit to return to corporate life. Farming is real. It is connected to life, universal truths, nature and death. I am an independent thinker now, and will never be fooled by false business again. My farm brings me peace, and makes my heart swell when I look at it. I have a long way to go in building my farm, and what it means to me in terms of a mission has been evolving as I go.
What do you wish people understood about farming?
Arrrggghh. Lol, SO MUCH. But mostly, the false sense of cheap, the full cost of their superficial fickleness, the depth of manipulation behind so many of our food provisioning traditions. The reality of just how much time cooking real food actually takes, how it is possible to eat better on less money, and how important agriculture is to the foundation of our society. And how fragile our water future is.
What are some things we as can do to help create support, equality and awareness for women farmers and small-scale farms?
i hope that we will reach a time when we are just farmers. That gender is irrelevant, but I suppose that is dreaming. Today, I think just treating other women as farmers and not as precious dabblers would be a great start. To create support for all small scale farms, it would help to pound the reality of corporate hijacking of the movement and it’s words, to manipulate dollars away from communities and into their vertically integrated funnel.
What resources are you lacking in order to be successful?
Capital is my biggest struggle. From the beginning, I was only able to navigate one mistake or learning curve at a time. It has happened that two or three piled on, and clawing my way to continue has been really hard.
Good help, solid in the construction and machinery skills that I lack would be tremendous.
If you could change one thing about our current food system, what would it be?
Transparency. I am okay with different models and approaches, I think there is room for everyone. What is a huge problem is the confusion created by corporations astroturfing, stealing the words, and twisting them. They have the venture capital millions, the dedicated employees with the time and budget to just write razor-sharp copy all day, and watch the numbers every day to know what side of solvency you are on at every moment. They pretend to be us, but will bail as soon as the VC dollars are gone, and will not flinch a bit to switch to a completely new product. They are in it for different reasons than those of us who are risking all and getting dirty on the front lines.
Land access is one of the big challenges to smaller farmers. Do you own your land? Rent? Share?
I own my farm. I agree it is a challenge, and part of my goal is to make my farm a legacy project to jump start other farmers.
How much of your farm business is driven by community need vs your passions?
I live in a rural community more rooted in the beliefs of commodity farming. Pasture based farming, using old fashioned breeds popular before Get big or get out became a thing is a novelty. They do not consider what I do to be professional, or real. But, because I am respectful, and do not pound them with my beliefs, they are kind to me, and over the years, some have taken notice, and I feel some definitely are nostalgic for when they remember their grandparents farming the way I do now. So, in my case at home, definitely my work is self driven, though more and more locals are expressing interest.