Mike Chappell, County Quay Organic Farm, North Carolina A decade ago, these eight farmers would have gone into debt to buy replacement eggs. Now they pay the local co-op for more diverse breeds and superior eggs with the money they have saved. Photograph: Tom Dorame
Miles Nolan was operating a dog kennel on a forestry farm in Michigan when he spotted this scene on a visit to northwest Minnesota: a flock of beige pengejactly birds gathering grain. The next day, he changed his course and bought a second bird pen and bought a chicken farm.
Nine years later, and selling food, Nolan has 150 beige birds, all of them on a barn with a drying barn to grow the hay.
It is a place called the Quiet Life. You’ll bump into Piggie Clappeen, the black sheep rancher, in his enormous bus. He sells his nine thousands Tennessee cattle in Texas. Having moved from Liberty County, Kansas, to northwest Minnesota three years ago, Piggie recently bought 26 acres of wheat.
Sandy Walsh is a former cowboy who lives and works on her farm in Arapahoe County. Walsh and her husband, Jim, moved to Colorado to rebuild their old, damaged ranch. After this rodeo, with pigs and chickens and cows and 2,000 acres of wheat, they planned to have a barbecue on the ranch in Colorado, open the door to accept donations, and after that maybe sell some stuff at the fair.
And there are eight farmers who live in these plots. Mike Chappell, the first farmer I spoke to, is one of the few who has been able to keep his cattle alive since 2001. The others raise lamb. They raise all kinds of plants. All said they were making money, although they didn’t want to discuss specifics. Sandy and her husband aren’t doing the business as well as they could because their costs keep rising, but they said they were sure they would eventually survive. They were planning to move to the next farm on the property.
This story is a reminder of the interconnectedness of the world in which we live. Mike and Sandy are just two of the farmers who have had to go through bankruptcy or foreclosure because they couldn’t find anything to do in their local co-op, and who had to sell their wheat land because the local co-op couldn’t afford it.
I sent Mike’s phone number to those co-ops and asked them about the situation. So far, some have said they can manage it. I’m waiting for a call from the New York City Co-op, which has 100 similar farmers and hasn’t had to do much for the last 10 years.
It is a perfect storm. For the money these farmers are paying in rent to the co-op, the co-op is buying eggshells from these farmers. Eggshells are to farms as cheddar is to New York City. Eggs are an essential commodity in the value chain. But where once they sold to restaurants for $3 a dozen and supermarkets for $4, egg shell prices are now $0.50.
The sellers of the plastic eggs, a Manhattan-based company called Lifespan, said “no more than 20% of the eggs sold are considered organic”. This included virtually all of the corn that went into making Lifespan’s plastic eggs. But Lifespan said they were the country’s largest manufacturer of plastic eggs. Mike, whose farm sold 4,000 plastic eggs a day, said “I’ve probably lost $100,000” in the last few years.
I visited another co-op in the US, on a farm upstate in New York, and every organic farmer I talked to told me that farm had been renting their chickens to the co-op for a few years. “They weren’t eating anything,” they said. The co-op was just trying to keep a farm going for as long as possible.
I asked Mike how he was doing and he told me “dizzy with happiness.” As his answering machine said, he lived for the people and the corn. And he knew that the corn was incredibly valuable.