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Food Voices: The Interviews

Heather and Phil Retberg, Farmers
Penobscot, Maine

Heather and Phil run Quills End Farm. It is a 100-acre pasture based farm where they grow vegetables and raise beef cattle, sheep, pigs in the woods and in pasture, as well as laying hens, dairy cows and dairy goats.  They have been at this farm for 5 years and farming for 12.

Phil: In order for me to be here full time as a diversified farm, we have to piece together a living from a whole bunch of different things. One, because it is ecologically sounder to run multiple species on the same ground and Two, because it is always easier to sell more stuff to one person than just one thing to a whole lot of people. So, if we could sell someone beef and pork and lamb and chicken, then we are capturing more of their food dollars.

Heather: On our farm, chickens just make a whole lot of sense. The farm was abandoned for so long and the fields were growing acidic. Chickens are really great way to bring the fertility back quickly. Because they have a really high nitrogen poop. And it’s been so amazing seeing them in places where we have poultry, how quickly that area recovers and how much more fertile it is.
 
Phil: We decided we would raise 1,000 meat birds. We talked to a colleague of ours, and he said, yea, you can run them through my facility. He has a 20,000 thousand bird exempt facility. At the time he was doing about 1,500 birds a year. We raised 1,000 and we helped him fill his orders to restaurants and grocery stores. We had a pretty good idea that what we were doing was not legal when we started, because we had known other poultry facilities in the state that had been closed down for doing other people’s birds as well as their own. I guess it wasn’t much of a surprise when the inspector said “cease and desist,” which means you can’t do that anymore.

Phil: The poultry industry was the last to consolidate. Poultry consumption per capita has skyrocketed. It used to be in the ‘20’s a chicken cost a man’s day wage. It was an expensive meat to buy, because it requires purchased inputs. It requires grain, whereas ruminants don’t. They can live entirely off grass and no one used to feed hogs. Hogs were let loose in the woods, you caught them, fed them two weeks on grain to sweeten the meat and then you killed them. So, when the consolidation of the beef and pork industry happened, it didn’t happen with chickens. The chicken industry relied on a lot of producers doing 20,000 and above.  And that’s why there was the 20,000 bird exemption for processing. With the thought, no one really wants to do less than 20,000. You can’t make money on less than 20,000 birds. So, if we put this exemption in here, it basically is no exemption at all. Because no one will do it. With the advent of the local food movement, now you can make money doing it because it is not your whole farm. 20,000 birds isn’t your whole farm or 1,000 birds isn’t your whole farm. It’s part of the whole of what you are doing with a diversified operation. Now it is coming back and nipping ‘em in the bud. And probably, they are not happy that they left it there. We’re not happy with how they left it there.

Heather: Those regulations force your hand at consolidating and the diversified model is so much better for the land and the animals and it keeps all those things in balance. But, now instead of ecology driving your farm economy, your farm economy needs to drive what your ecology is on your farm. It screws everything up and then you’re dealing with so many health problems that are stemming from the soil up because that’s what the regulations have forced you to do. If you are going to have a facility, you got to have more chickens to pay for the facility because the land is not going to support that.

Phil: Overall the farming population in Maine and across the country will be dead in 15 years. The long and short of it is that we’re already one and half percent or less of the population. The US census bureau stopped counting farmers in the ‘90’s because we are so few. What happens when we are gone? Something’s got to happen very soon.  

Heather: I think that is what’s happening. I think that’s the hopeful thing that is happening and we can see happening. In Maine, new farms are increasing and the age of farmers are younger in Maine than in any place else. People have accepted that farms are here and it still looks so rural and you still see animals here, but if we don’t do something to protect it could disappear. 

Phil: It’s something to encourage as well. People need to spend money on local food because that’s the only way you are going to encourage the next generation of farmers to actually take it up. A lot of farmer’s children want nothing to do with it. If you don’t have your father’s disease to milk cows, you’re not going to milk cows, ‘cause he wasn’t even making a living. He was working two other jobs to make a living. If he’s making a good living milking cows, you may want to follow in his footsteps. We need to bring that back to reality. And that takes money. It takes politics and policy and everything else, but more than that it takes people voting with their money. ‘Cause that’s the only thing that will ultimately influence it. That’s the most effective vote that you can have in America. It’s with your dollar.

Heather: We know the supermarket brings in a lot of money and it creates jobs, the farms in our community create jobs. The money people are spending at the supermarket is going someplace else where the money people are spending on farms often stays right here in our own community. It’s the way of life where our customers aren’t just our customers, they are willing when times are hard to buy a cow for us because we need another one. It is absolutely wow.

Heather: It is not just that we care about the land or the animals. It is also that we care about the people who we are providing food for. And they care about us. So, it’s not a small responsibility when my friend who is pregnant weans her baby onto our raw milk. That is so much more powerful incentive to be doing an excellent job and we are feeding it to our own children. When the finances are tight and the work is hard and the days are long, and you have five people come down the driveway and say, “thank you so much, we know this is really hard and we are so grateful that you do it.” It keeps you going.