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The State of Cairncrest Farm

September 11, 2020

By enjoyable necessity, a farm follows the weather, with the lives of humans and livestock alike shifting and adapting in response to sun, rain, warmth, growth, and dormancy. Fall is now approaching. A recent night saw temperatures drop into the low forties, the first leaves have yellowed, the days have noticeably shortened. As the seasons start to change it is natural to take stock.

It will come as no surprise that 2020 has been an unusual and challenging year. The biggest difficulty has been the uncertainty that the coronavirus has brought with it. Several months this spring were by far the busiest we’ve ever been. It was all hands on deck to pack orders and to keep as many cuts as possible in stock. We put a lot of resources into improving our shipping setup, with big orders of boxes, liners, and storage containers.

Things have settled down quite a bit since then, which is mostly for the good. Spending too much time in the freezer starts to get old. But significant uncertainties remain. Before the advent of the coronavirus, Cairncrest Farm was growing at a steady rate, which made planning easy. After the spike in demand this spring and subsequent drop, trying to figure out how many cows, pigs, and lambs to raise in the coming years has become harder. Growing the size of the herd requires commitments now, both to the livestock and to the infrastructure needed to manage them well. These sorts of challenges are always a part of farming, but they are heightened by the circumstances. 

Another difficulty of farming well, by which I mean raising animals to a high ethical standard throughout the entirety of their lives, is that it costs more. Here’s one example I often cite because it is so stark: the agribusiness slaughterhouses can kill and butcher a cow for around a hundred dollars; the local place I use, which takes time handling the animals to minimize stress and pays its employees a good wage, costs about seven times as much. There are many similar things that distinguish real farming from industrial calorie production. Cows that only eat grass grow slower, and farming on a smaller scale means more work goes into each animal. Doing things the right way simply requires more, both in time and money, which means real food from a real farm inevitably has a higher price than the stuff in the supermarket.

The coronavirus has heightened this tension between cost and values. The importance of a good, functioning local food system, robustly capable of getting food out into the community, has never been clearer. But the economic fallout has made it harder to see how best to go about creating such a system. My friend and collaborator Dave from Wrong Direction Farm pointed out in a recent email how many people who used to raise grass-fed beef locally no longer do. Participation in CSAs has been declining for more than a decade. I sometimes wake up in the night to worry about the day Amazon starts shipping its own private label beef alongside batteries and printer paper.

But I remain convinced that there is a solid future for both Cairncrest Farm and local agriculture more broadly. As uncharted as the times may be, there is clearly a hunger for real food and an abiding interest both in how to grow it and how to make it available to more people. It’s easy to look at the current moment and to assume an endless downward trajectory. But seasons change, and the winter passes in time, even in central New York. 

I truly appreciate the support you have shown and continue to show Cairncrest Farm, especially over the past year. I am always heartened to hear from you, whether you are a customer, another farmer, or someone who is simply interested in what a healthier agriculture might look like. Thanks for taking a minute to read this, and I hope you have a wonderful fall.

Garth Brown

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