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Restoring Food Security And
A Dying Way Of Life : Getting To Know Your Local Farmer

By Carolyn Baker

26 November, 2008

The U.S. financial system is in collapse, and energy costs are likely to come back again next spring and summer with a vengeance that we can't imagine. This will make the price of food, already off the scale, skyrocket even further. We must all get to know our local farmers, or better yet, become them. In the moment, we have the "luxury" of low energy prices, and it is during this time that we should be making food security our top priority.

A few months ago I was introduced to Stuart and Margaret Osha of Turkey Hill Farms here in Central Vermont. I originally contacted them because people around me were raving about the taste and health benefits of raw milk. In fact, a couple of Truth To Power subscribers who live in the area were thrilled to have attended a workshop with the Osha's on "The Family Cow", and they wanted me to check out Turkey Hill Farms.

I'll never forget the day I met the Osha's and the feeling I had when I left there driving off into the lush, rolling hills with a couple of quarts of raw milk, home made granola, eggs, and vegetables-all produced at Turkey Hill. For the first time in my life I had purchased my food directly from local farmers-not at a farmer's market, but directly from the farmer at the farm, and the feeling of satisfaction and a sense of rightness about it brought tears to my eyes. This was, after all, what I had been promoting for years, and finally, I had the opportunity to practice what I had been writing about.

But Vermont is not the only place where people can and should get to know their local farmer. Opportunities to do so exist almost everywhere in North America. As I have learned more about organic farming, and particularly as I have consumed vast quantities of raw milk and gotten to know the people who produce it, I'm deeply motivated to invite Truth To Power readers to create similar opportunities in their local communities.

I cannot stress the urgency of this. The U.S. financial system is in collapse, and energy costs are likely to come back again next spring and summer with a vengeance that we can't imagine. This will make the price of food, already off the scale, skyrocket even further. We must all get to know our local farmers, or better yet, become them. In the moment, we have the "luxury" of low energy prices, and it is during this time that we should be making food security our top priority.

To that end, I thought that sitting down with the Osha's and allowing them to share their experiences with local farming would be especially useful. They graciously took time from their many chores to speak with me.

CB: Stuart, you were an organic dairy farmer before you moved to this property in Central Vermont. At that time, you wrote a book, Loving A Dying Way of Life, so can you tell our readers a little bit about what inspired you to write the book?

SO: Margaret and I were living on her family farm, and I was doing a lot of writing, and emotions were just coming out about a time in my life that was so dear and precious to me-childhood memories and a sense of community back in the 1940's and 50's. I began to realize that this life as I remembered it, was dying. That's really what inspired it. Margaret and I were farming at the time, and it took a tremendous amount for us to be doing it because there wasn't as much organic dairy farming going on at that time. I think maybe there were thirty-some organic dairy farms in Vermont that were NOFA-qualified.

CB: Can you explain what NOFA is?

SO: NOFA is the Northeast Organic Farming Association, and they do a number of things, but their main focus is certifying farms as organic, and they offer a number of workshops and have an annual conference. They have been the torch carriers for the organic movement here in Vermont and the Northeast.

CB: So there wasn't much support for what you were doing, and you had been talking about The Dying Way of Life. Please feel free to continue with that.

SO: Yes, in the ten years or so since I wrote that book, I could say the dying way of life is coming back. I see it everywhere. And it's so exhilarating to both Margaret and I to see this, and our communities are going to be depending on us once again for this way of life. So at that time in the mid to late-nineties, I really thought that it was dying, and in just ten years, it's started to come back. We notice every year that more and more people are interested in what we do, and more and more people are buying our products. We started out with just having a milk cow, and it's really grown into something tremendously inspiring.

CB: Right now we're finding ourselves in a very painful recession that by all accounts is going to become much more severe. Some very astute economists are calling this what it is, the collapse of the global economic system. An overwhelming majority of our readers eat organic or natural foods and are strongly committed to their local economies and local solutions. What is your sense of the role of local economies and family farms in providing an alternative to the global economy?

SO: Back when 9/11 happened I remember distinctly thinking that it would be good for small farmers because if you want food security you need lots of small farms. Well, obviously it wasn't, and we continued to go in the direction we were already going.

Food security is now a huge issue. When you find out that China's putting chemicals in the milk, that ought to wake up most people-that you need to be buying local, and you need to know the people that you're buying your products from. So I think this has been coming, but the present economic situation is creating an awareness in people that local is better, and they should know their producer.

Everyone is on hold with the oil situation because prices are down now, and people have put that on the back burner because they're worrying more about their mortgages. But in reality, the oil situation will be back, and when it comes back, it will come back with a vengeance, and we're not prepared to face it. The point here is that the prices of food produced locally have always been higher than food from the grocery store, but really not when you consider how much of the grocery store price includes the price of transport.

As we go forward and as we face the economic crisis, the oil crisis, and climate change, locally is going to be the only way to get your food, and it's also going to be a more economical way to get your food.

Also, the development of local communities where people work together and share together-this combination is going to be our road to survival.

CB: In this article we're going to be linking to your Turkey Hill Farm website, and of course, one of your specialties here at Turkey Hill is raw or real milk. You've certainly researched a great deal and have found some very interesting things about raw milk. Please tell us what you know.

SO: I can tell you what I know, and I'm pretty sure Margaret can tell you more. Raw milk gets a bad rap-everywhere-the medical profession, agricultural departments all over the country, and I believe probably there's a lot of politics here as there always is. But the fact of the matter is that raw milk is good for you. It contains enzymes and vitamins that are not depleted through the pasteurization process. It boosts the immune system too. In Vermont, we're very fortunate to be in a state where we can advertise it. We have a naturopath physician who is one of our raw milk customers and sends people here to get it because he wants people to have it as part of their diet.

Vermont law states that you have to go buy raw milk at the farm where it's produced. I think that's a good idea because you should be able to see the cleanliness, milking practices, cows, how the milk is handled and make your own decision as to whether you want to buy it. What we can't legally do yet is advertise products related to the raw milk such as butter and cheese, and that would be a big help if we could.

We've been absolutely amazed. We started out with one cow and a few milk customers. We now have two cows and over 30 customers getting milk from us.

CB: I remember one time you and I were talking about raw milk, and you said "Cleanliness, cleanliness, cleanliness is the motto." How do you do that?

SO: In any food preparation it's fundamental. It starts with the barn, keeping everything cleaned up every day, the cows, the milking equipment, the udders, how the milk is handled once they have dumped it into the pail, through the strainer, to where it's bottled-everything has to be cleaned very well every day, and attention to detail is crucial. If you don't do that, then you're probably risking some bacteria.

CB: Margaret, do you have anything to add about the raw milk?

MO: Well, I've just been reading The Untold Story of Milk. There's a lot of history in that book. Back in the early 1900's a lot of people were getting sick from city dairies in New York and Boston, and the cows were actually eating swill from liquor making. It was a very unnatural diet for them, yet they produced a tremendous amount of milk. Also the cows weren't housed properly, facilities weren't clean, the swill wasn't that digestible for the cows, and a lot of problems came about from that. It was that poor quality milk that led to the pasteurization process. Yes, there have been cases off and on where raw milk can cause problems, but they stem from doing something unnatural for the cow.

CB: You know, I have to say that my own experience with drinking raw milk has been amazing. I feel so much better, and people have commented that my skin looks better too. For me, it's like medicine.

SO: I've received the same comments, and Margaret has become a chapter leader for the Weston Price Foundation, and we're pretty much following that diet. It's very much about eating whatever you like and not avoiding fat. We've been doing that, and I feel like I've responded tremendously. Of course, we're talking about fats that come from natural, not processed, foods.

CB: This is very much the philosophy of Michael Pollan who wrote Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. It's about eating whatever you like as long as it's natural and not avoiding certain food groups simply because someone says they're not good for you.

Stuart, I'd like to get back to you and your health. A couple of years ago you were diagnosed with cancer and went on a journey that many of us who are cancer survivors are quite familiar with. How did that journey change you?

SO: Well, it did. I looked at life quite a bit differently afterward. My oncologist told me that my chances of not having a recurrence were much better if I were to have chemotherapy. So I did, but it nearly killed me. Actually, I didn't get through it all because of that. At that time I had a business, and I said, "We're getting out; I'm going to sell the business, and we're going to do what we want to do." We weren't sure what we were going to do, but we started to evolve back into a farming situation. Since we have started doing what we're doing now, life has become so sustaining and so inspiring, especially all the people we meet. The illness really changed my thought process.

CB: More recently you've had a spike not only in your raw milk business but with an increase in customers who want to buy organic eggs, butter, cream, organic meat, and vegetables. What do you make of this surge in people who want to buy these products?

SO: I think sometimes that's easy to analyze, but on the other hand it isn't. A big thing for us is being able to advertise the raw milk. Also, if you look at the demographics, many of these people are folks who have moved here from other places. And we are more left of center than some states, although I myself came from a family that was pretty far on the right. These folks have moved here, and they have an appreciation for our quality of life, and they're probably more educated and informed, and they know that food is extremely important.

The difference in the quality of the food from a farm where it's been raised naturally and what you buy in the store-there's no comparison in the flavor.

MO: We've had several people say that they used to be vegetarians, but since they know where the meat is raised and how it's being raised, they're eating meat now.

CB: And so you sell meat?

SO: Yes we sell chicken and pork. We may have some veal to sell by February.

CB: Margaret, I wanted to ask you about the workshops you've been conducting. Why are you presenting these workshops? What has been the response?

MO: We've mostly done a series on raw milk, and most of that has been cheese making. There again we did a workshop this summer through NOFA, and it was called "Family Cow". We were amazed at the amount of interest that generated-probably 30 people from all over the state. The interest in cheese and butter-making has been huge. There are lots of things to do with raw milk besides drink it, and we wanted to demonstrate that. We want to have seasonal workshops with another one coming up in January, probably focusing again on cheese-making. We also want to share some knowledge about broth-making and some of the old time farmer kitchen things that people just don't do so much of anymore. There's an art to doing it well.

I'm just so interested in local food and food that's been raised in a thoughtful, healthy manner. I'm interested in peoples' health, and I feel badly for people who just go to the store and buy prepared food and don't know the joy of cooking-the joy of eating very simply and nutritiously.

CB: You've also become a chapter representative for the Weston Price Foundation. Please tell us what the Weston Price Foundation is, and then tell us what you'll be doing for the foundation.

MO: The Weston A. Price Foundation's president, Sally Fallon, has a wonderful cookbook called Nourishing Traditions. This is all based on the experiences of Weston Price who was a dentist who saw in his practice a generation of people who had very healthy teeth and pallets, and then he started seeing in their children and their children's children that something was changing, and the teeth were becoming crooked with many more cavities, so he decided to travel the world and research diets. He traveled to many different places where people hadn't been exposed to industrialized food, and he found that what people were eating made a huge difference in their dental health. Although the diets of these people varied, they were generally diets of natural foods and were high in fats. The foundation is very much about bringing back traditional ways of raising and cooking food.

As a chapter leader I'll be trying to organize a group of people in the area to help create a resource list of organic farms, holistic practitioners, and others who support natural eating and food production.

CB: In one of our conversations recently you commented that you're both at an age where people should be slowing down, taking it easy, traveling, and not working so hard, but you find yourselves doing just the opposite. Would you comment on this?

SO: Well, I just couldn't slow down. I want to slow down naturally. An old farmer I used to know said, "You can tell when you're getting older when you have to go back out after lunch to finish morning chores." So we slow down naturally, but it's hard to imagine not doing the type of work that we're doing. I would not be happy traveling, camping-a lot of the things that people enjoy in retirement. Actually, this is my retirement. Life doesn't get any better; these are the best years right now as far as I'm concerned-doing good things for the land and for people.

We're part of nature; we're part of the land, and when you have that feeling, it doesn't get any better. That's not to say it doesn't get discouraging sometimes.

MO: Agriculture is in one's blood.

CB: I'm asking this question of both of you now: What is your passion? What excites you and keeps you doing what you're doing? And if I may ask, what is calling you right now?

SO: Farming is my calling. I'm not a social person. I can stay right here for days, but it's so wonderful having people come, coming to get something they want, and the conversation is wonderful. This life that I'm living motivates me and brings me meaning. It's also a very spiritual feeling. I feel close to the land. I love the woods; I love cutting firewood; I love sugaring-I just love it in the woods. Sometimes when I'm having a hard time about whatever, I have to go to the woods.

MO: I have really found meaning and purpose in what we're doing. I love food and everything about it. I love food that I grow; I love preparing food-in fact, I almost have to have a relationship with food, and if I can give that love to somebody else, that really makes me feel good. It feels so good to get back to raising all of our own stuff and being self-sufficient. It has a wonderful purpose for me these days that it didn't have twenty years ago. I feel really blessed to have had all the experiences I've had with cooking, baking, gardening, and farming. I also feel really grateful to be living in Vermont and for all that's happening here.

Summary: As I left Turkey Hill Farms after this interview, I felt what I always feel when I leave there-so blessed and fortunate to know the Osha's and so filled with awe for the work they are doing. My wish for everyone reading this conversation between them and me is that you will be inspired by it to create similar networks in your local community that sustain the land and animals and people around you. My challenge to you-to all of us, is to continue nurturing the "dying" way of life by fortifying your own food security and that of your local place.

Please visit the home page of Turkey Hill Farms where you can purchase Loving A Dying Way of Life. Stuart and Margaret Osha may be contacted at:

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