How Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other Healthfood Stores are Killing My Farm

I posted this blog on my personal blogsite.

This post has been a long time in coming.  I hope you enjoy my candidness.  Buckle your seatbelt.

Whole Foods, Trader Joes and other health food chains are whittling away at the movement we created.  When I say we, I mean pasture raising farmers.  Farmers who are raising foods that not only taste great, are healthier for you; all the while, they are healing the land that has been irradiated by feedlots, pesticides and confinement house farms.  The movement that was pioneered by people like the Burlingame’s, Joel Salatin and others, now carried out by people like my husband, Galen Bontrager, Graham Donahue and many others, is being hijacked by the mainstream.

What do I mean you say?  How are they killing your farm you ask.  I will tell you.  They are now starting to offer what looks like our food but isn’t.  These health food giants are catching on that people are starting to care about how their food is treated, what it is pumped with and how it’s raised. They will tell you that they now have Organic, GMO free meats, and you can pick them up with your bag of Brussel sprouts and a bouquet of roses at the checkout.  They have the convenience factor we farmers are trying to create with our deliveries.  What they don’t have is transparency, localness, financial reality and family.

Transparency.  What mainstream health food stores (Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Martins etc.) can tell you with full confidence where that Organic, Free Range, GMO Free chicken came from?  Can they tell you its total diet?  Do you know that all the “Organic, Free Range GMO Free” label means is that the chicken was probably in a sunless building on a concrete pad with some “litter on it for their natural foraging instincts”, fed a certified organic feed.  Organic requirements state that chickens must have access to pasture; that is a 1×1 foot square opening that is usually closed and the chickens don’t know how to use.   That chicken that you’re getting for $2.75/lb was never allowed to scratch in the dirt for bugs and clean the grass of insects that could harm other animals. {That’s what chickens do.  They eat the maggots of flies that are in the dung piles from the other animals, thus reducing the fly amount that annoy the cattle/other animals and promote disease.}  Being fed a vegetarian diet confirms what I have just stated.  There is not bug eating, natural scratching allowed in the Mainstream Health Food store world.  They can’t tell you about the breed of the beef you’re purchasing.  Was it Herford, some Highland, and a bit of Black Baldie?  A farmer can.  You ask any farmer who raises animals on pasture about the quality of the grass for their chickens, the breeds of cattle they have, or the types of grass they are growing for specific types of hay for the winter and they will have an answer for you.  A farmer can tell you that the chicken you are buying is a Cornish cross or a Freedom Ranger.  They’ll tell you how that chicken is fresher than any chicken you’d find in a store.  Sometimes within a day of being processed.  That’s fresh.  That’s transparency.  You won’t find that anywhere else

Localness ties into transparency in that you can know where your food comes from.  Can you go to the farm that the “Grass-fed Ground Beef” you buy from Whole Foods or even Aldi comes from?  Most likely not.  Why?  First off to be a supplier for those big chains you have to supply a very large watershed of stores (like the entire eastern seaboard) and for beef specifically most of it comes from New Zealand because – THEY GET IT!  {New Zealand is the hub of grassfed beef and lamb.  They understand that that’s how those ruminant animals were designed to be raised.}  I personally know more farms than I can count who are raising animals on pasture who openly welcome visitors.  Come see them move the cows to a new grass paddock, feed the chickens and turkeys, or even come on processing day and really know where your food comes from.

Financial reality.  This one hits home.  This is by far the biggest issue I/we have.  People ask “Why is your food so expensive?  I can get it _____ place for cheaper.  And it’s Organic.”  Or worse yet, they never ask you – they just never buy your food.  I’ve already explained that the title “Organic” means very little.  Yes, it is free from genetically modified material and not sprayed with pesticides.  But it doesn’t mean that the animal ever saw a blade of grass, a bug, or a ray of sunlight.  So don’t tell me that because it bears the title ‘Organic’ that it’s any better than mine.  My meat will outshine that meat 10times out of10. I know that my practices are all organic and the reason I don’t have that pretty little label on my food is because of all the hoops and buckets of money it costs to get that little certification.  So I don’t plan on getting it.  I want you to get to know me, know my farm, know your food.  Don’t just be fooled by a little label.  I have more faith in you than that, though maybe my faith is ill placed.

Have you ever ordered a baby chick and raised it out to full size and then killed and ate it?  Did you know that each chick costs about $1.  The deathrate on those little chicks can be as high as 20%.  So out of 100 chicks, there’s $20 down the toilet, and the other 80 chicks need to pay for..  Now let’s feed that little critter.  The first 3 weeks it lives in a brooder, an enclosed shelter away from predators.  Then the last 5 weeks it lives in a floorless shelter that is moved each day so that each chick has ample exposure to grass, and bugs as well as the GMO Free Feed that you have available to it.  {Poultry and Swine are Omnivores – they need both meat and veggies in their diet.  The bugs and critters give the meat element and the grain and grass provide the veggies/carbs} Each chicken consumes about $4.50 of feed in its 8weeks of life.  The electricity in the brooders to keep them warm, the water to keep them hydrated, the bedding in the brooders all boils out to about $2/chicken.  And then you have to package your chicken.  Each vacuum seal bag is 25cents and you’ll use 3 of them per chicken and a bag for the backs (10 cents)  Let’s add up that cost:  It will cost you $8.35 cents to raise that chicken; that is NOT including labor, paying yourself anything, and any help you get, processing that chicken, the propane used on processing day, the water used on that processing day, refrigeration, and the gas to deliver it to your desired location)  So, when whole chickens are priced at $1.00lb in stores the financial reality is just not there.  It is impossible to raise food at that price.  The big companies get away with it because they sell more volume so they can recoup that cost and they don’t care about the fine details like sunshine, moving the animals, fresh bedding etc.  It is expensive to raise food, and when you see food priced that cheaply ask yourself why?

How are they able to get it that cheap?  Or better yet – ask a pasture raising farmer how much it costs to raise an animal.  A heifer calf cost $700-800 each – then you have to raise it out and move it daily and provide it with minerals necessary until it’s big enough for your customers.  Piglets are $75 each.  Please realize that the costs to get good food to you are great.  Our Heritage Farm paid over $60,000 in feed last year.  Feed for the pigs to supplement them being in the wooded pasture, feed for the chickens in the field, feed for the laying hens in the field.  Gasoline:  making hay, traveling to markets, traveling to Pittsburgh, traveling all over… $12,000 last year.  Insurance prices are on the rise for us and then the taxes too! The other things: marketing materials, canopies, tables, brochures, coolers, freezers, maintenance on all these items, vehicle repairs, hiring help… it is a huge undertaking.  All this to say:  that the mainstream Healthfood Giants (Whole foods, Trader Joes, etc.- their prices don’t reflect financial reality for a farmer.  They reflect financial reality for a confinement house owner and mega market.

My final point is family.  Family is one of the biggest reasons we do what we do.  We know our customers.  They know us.  We get Christmas cards from them.  We keep updated via emails here and there on what’s going on with them.  Some I’ve never met in person (namely because I have to keep my 3 crazy boys maintained at home!) but I feel like I know them personally.  When you buy from a farm and not a corporate store you are helping a family.  Because of your purchase I can go and get my boys a new pair of boots so they can go help daddy on the farm.  My boys want to raise animals like daddy does when they get big.  If you were a fly on the wall in my house on any given day you’d hear my boys use play cell phones to call Ed (our current apprentice) and tell him their imaginary sheep are out and they need to get them back in, or hear them tell you they’re going to go butcher chickens today.  They can grow up and be a farmer like their daddy because of customers supporting our farm.  However, we have seen a major decline in purchase quantity and quality in the past few years since the Health food Giants have come into our market areas.  It hurts us so badly.  Our email list is over 300 people, but orders are in the teen some weeks.  We don’t want to have to move to where folks care about their foods but that’s what will happen if folks don’t start waking up.   If folks choose convenience over quality, they will kill the farms they “say” they are supporting.   We started this movement and it’s being stripped away from us… one customer at a time.




What can I do?

If you’re reading this and you want to know how you can help farms from dying, I can help you with that answer.  Buy Local.  Support farmers.  Get to know a farmer, build a relationship with them.  Don’t be afraid to touch meat, it’s cheaper to buy a whole chicken and cut it up yourself instead of buying it pre-cut or just the pieces.  Alter your priorities.  If family is a priority to you – which is commendable for sure- don’t just settle to get food it their bellies.  Make it the best food you can get for them.  Do your homework about benefits of pasture raised meats, and learn about the Omega6’ vs Omega 3 balance, CLA, and Vitamin D and E.  If it means that things may have to change up a bit for you… maybe it’s worth it.  Your families’ health and well-being will be impacted by choosing good food over crap.  That could lead to less doctor visits, which leads to more money in your account, which can help you be able to get more good food for you family.  Seek out the best.  If you can’t afford it, then get what you can afford.  Talk to your farmer, let them know that you support them and what your situation is.  They can lead you in the best method of getting foods that you can afford.  Communication is a wonderful thing.  It takes a commitment and possibly a change in schedule, but the pay offs are immeasurable.  Also, if schedule changing isn’t working, find a friend who can pick up for you or best yet talk to the farmer.  We deliver directly to some people’s homes because they have a situation and they’ve asked us to.  Communication.  I hope that you come away from this reading more informed than you were when you started and with a greater understanding of what the life of a farmer is like.  I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  I love my life; being married to a GrassFarmer is a great thing and I have the best life.  That said, it is tough, and people don’t understand it nor do they try to understand it. I hope now you do and you will.  Find a grass-farmer and you’ll find a friend.