When we started this whole farming thing I spent a lot of time mulling over what to call myself and this place we are calling home. Am I a farmer and is this a farmstead? Am I a homesteader and is this a homestead? I settled on the label farmer, but for awhile I still struggled to define myself as a farmer because I felt like a real farmer was more heartless, more exacting, more businesslike than I was. I was farming, but with a heart; maybe I had too much heart even. After much thought, I finally can own the title of farmer. I grow food; thus, I am a farmer.
Now when I say I’m a farmer, I own it, but fear that folks misunderstand what I really do. Most people are so disconnected from their food that they simply give me a blank stare when I say I farm on my homestead. For some, they assume I mean that I grow acres and acres of one thing, or have a barn full of zillions of chickens. If someone is actually interested enough in what I do to ask some questions or at least politely listen to me I eventually work my way around to one thing.
What I grow here is “integrity food,” so I’m an “integrity farmer.” I know everyone knows what food is and I suspect we all have a pretty good understanding of the word integrity, but what does it mean when we put them together? Joel Salatin, who coined the phrase in a 2014 article for Mother Earth News, defines it this way: “I define integrity food as food that’s raised in a way that heals the environment and builds the soil, creating sustenance that’s nutrient dense and life-affirming---including for the lives of the humans who raise, process and consume it.” In a nutshell, he’s saying that the agriculture that produces integrity food must be sustainable (for the planet), nutritious, and up-lifting (for the humans).
Though I agree whole-heartedly with Salatin’s definition there are a few things I would add that define further what I do here on my farm. I raise dairy goats, chickens, bees, and organic vegetables. I do most of the work by hand. This is important to me, to do the work by hand because I want to stay close to my food, physically and emotionally. For example, I milk my goats by hand and I feed each goat individually. When they finish I talk to them, touch them, and say their name. I do this EVERY day for EVERY goat. I am present for the birth of every kid who will one day produce our milk. In the garden, I plant and harvest by hand. I pull the weeds and water by hand. In the kitchen, I can, freeze, preserve, prepare, and peel by hand. I am responsible for vegetables from seed to table. We raise chickens from one day old and dig the holes when they die, by hand. We touch everything on this farm and it touches us...that is integrity food.
Doing most of the work by hand means doing it slowly and that means you have time to think about what you are doing. You stay connected to the work and thus, the food. Some folks might be disgusted by the thought of milking a goat, reaching between her legs and squeezing her teats, but I can’t drink milk anymore unless I know where it came from. Because all that time I spend with my girls, slowly and quietly milking, makes my food better. I now think about where my food comes from; I have a conscience; I have integrity of a different kind. I know my girls are treated well; I know they are fed well; I know they are loved. All that slow, quiet work lets me think about what I’m doing and it makes me question the way it is done in conventional agriculture.
For me, integrity farming also implies a certain kind of freedom. Wendell Berry, in his essay “The Pleasures of Eating” says it better than I can:
"There is, then, a politics of food that, like any politics, involves our freedom. We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else....One reason to eat responsibly is to live free." The ability to provide for our nourishment frees us from shopping trips and expenditures, and allows us to opt out of the chemical laden conventional fare most widely available.
With that said, maybe it would be easier to understand integrity food and farming by defining what it is not. For me, integrity food has no machines, no factories, no conveyor belts, no vats or trucks. Integrity food doesn’t come from the store. It doesn’t come in a box or bag. It is never wrapped in plastic or encased in tin. An integrity farm would never grow just one thing. An integrity farm would never keep animals confined. An integrity farms doesn’t use chemicals or any kind, no antibiotics or hormones either.
As Salatin says, integrity food is “life-affirming.” For me, this farm gives me a Purpose and yes, I meant to use a capital P. The act of feeding those that I love is life-affirming. Treating my animals well is life-affirming. Rebuilding the soil is life-affirming.