I recently crossed one thing off of my long-standing wish list – going to Farm Camp!  Hosted by farmers Jen Small and Mike Yezzi of Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, NY, Farm Camp is a nonprofit program that provides an intense hands-on learning experience for chefs and food professionals about the real challenges and costs of producing good food.

Shanna Pacifico, chef at New York's Back Forty restaurant. Photo courtesy of Leitha Matz.

As the executive director of Chefs Collaborative, with a focus on promoting chef/farmer partnerships and on providing educational resources to chefs about making responsible food purchasing decisions, this was an invaluable experience.  I will not soon forget what it was like to slaughter and gut a chicken and hold an adorable piglet while it was being castrated.  But, what did I learn from my time in beautiful Washington County, as we walked through a small CAFO, a USDA slaughterhouse, a goat farm, a poultry farm with a state certified poultry processing facility, a milk bottling facility, and heard from policy people from organizations like American Farmland Trust?  Here are a few nuggets I walked away with:

* Farmers raising animals for consumption may have the ability to grow bigger but need to do so in conjunction with the market.  Since it’s expensive to raise animals (especially when pasture-raised and humanely cared for) and farmers carefully calculate the optimal time for slaughter, having a plan for who is going to buy the animals in advance is key.

* A community of farms in a region is essential for supporting an infrastructure of affordable supplies, services, grains, etc as well as mutual support for one another (for example, taking turns bringing product into the city).  For this reason, the presence of a large farm in a community is helpful to the smaller ones.

* Good food costs more.  We knew that one but it sure helps to be reminded and seeing is believing.

Eagle Bridge Custom Meats. Photo courtesy of Holley Atkinson.

And not to be underestimated, Farm Camp was an opportunity to enjoy the deliciousness of eggs collected that morning, peppery greens from a local farm, roasted pork leg from a pig raised on that farm.  Thank you to Erin Fairbanks, formerly of Savoy and Gramercy Tavern, and Shanna Pacificao, chef at Back Forty in NY, who cooked for us!

Changing the food system is a complicated proposition.  We may not feed the world with small farms like the ones I visited in NY, but we can support local communities of farms to ensure a ready supply of local, tasty food, we can influence the big guys to adopt some of the humane, environmentally sane principles used by the smaller sustainable operations, and we can contribute to biodiversity in our food supply through the efforts of communities of farms around our country.