One of the great divides among Americans that we can add to a list including Presidential candidates, access to education, and treatment by the law, is access to food. We can sit and debate food production, farming, and subsidies as roots to the problem or we can also look at smaller models set in functioning circumstances and ask, what can we learn from the ideal? What does it point out about the rest of the food we are consuming? Our interview with Vermont seasonal farmer, David Hull, is an attempt to draw out the benefits found in the life of a small family farmer catering to a clientele that values and can afford this ideal, and ask, what is it that they value?
A few times a year, Hull parks his pickup laden with coolers full of fresh meat from his Snow Farm in Vermont in a driveway in West Cambridge and then in Concord. He emails customers who have bought shares to come and collect their meat for the winter. One by one, over the course of a few hours, the meat is collected. I sat with him one Friday afternoon while he waited to discover what he is doing and why.
What are you focused on most right now as a farmer?
This is a seasonal job. The animals show up in the middle of May and they start leaving to the slaughterhouse at the end of September. Throughout the winter, it's a little bit of marketing and fixing the property, but mainly the farm runs for half of the year.
I stay awake at night thinking that the fence is broken and coyotes are getting in, or about what I have to do that next day. Some days I spend zero hours doing farm work and some days it's eighteen hours. It just depends. As my wife likes to say, ‘there's always something breaking.’
How many of you work on the farm?
It's a one-man show. But my wife is the bookkeeper.
How many animals do you raise?
Last year, and for a few years before that, I was raising about eighty to ninety lambs, ten goats, six or seven steer, a dozen pigs, and about a hundred chickens. This year it's about sixty fewer lambs and just one goat, but everything else is about the same.
And you’re able to handle that by yourself?
Eighty lambs are as easy as twenty lambs. There's some more grain that I have to give out, I have to make sure there's more water getting to them, and I have to move them a little more often, but it's pretty much the same process.
Why don't you hire help?
I'm a teacher at heart. I really enjoy having people to work alongside me and I have worked with WWOOFers. It used to be Willing Workers On Organic Farms. Now it's the Worldwide Organization of Organic Farms. It's very cool. There are hosts and there are WWOOFers, and the WWOOFers send an email to the hosts saying, ‘I'd love to come up for this span of time.’ As host you have to supply room and board and the expectation is about a half a day of work. We've had some people that have been great and we've had some people that it's too much. If they don't know what they're doing, I get tired… their willingness to work or their eagerness to finish a task varies.
How often are WWOOFers on your farm?
We did it for the whole season last year – we have a cabin on our property and they would live in that cabin and they'd eat with us. But we aren’t using them anymore. It changed from them having almost every meal with us to trying to keep them out of our family life as much as possible. It was too much to make a meal for ten people instead of four every night. It was just too much.
Would you grow your farm if you could?
I would grow. We have the space. We could clear more forest and turn it back into pasture and go that route. There are so many people that want to be eating and feeding their family good meat and they're willing to pay top dollar for it. My work is to find these clients. The size of farm I have now has allowed me to be able to do it by myself, which is pretty great. If we grew, I would probably have to hire someone else. I'm not sure. I'd have to find the right person.
What's the advantage or meaning for you as a farmer of selling direct instead of though a place like Whole Foods?
I'm not sure that I could sell to Whole Foods because of my size. I am so seasonal that it's only six weeks of the year that my beef is available. Potentially Whole Foods or another restaurant could take all of my meat and fit it into their system and make it work. But it's hard for them to do that or for restaurants to do that when they have a purveyor that they're accustomed to who can bring it every week and they get the exact cuts they want and everything's the same size. They just know how it works.
Ana Sortun is a prime example of someone who wants to make it work for farmers and I have worked with her. She's willing to take whatever that farmer has and make that work in her restaurant, and that's uncommon. She is super committed.
I believe she’s married to a farmer?
That's right. My wife, Apple, and I helped get them together. Actually my father-in-law helped, too.
Apple's dad was Don Gifford, and he was very into the food world around here, first starting Chef's Collaborative and then Old Ways, which his partner Sarah continues today. It was all around Slow Food and Mediterranean diets and good oils. Certainly, I would be willing to supply my meat to a restaurant or a grocery store. But there is a much bigger benefit for me to see the person I'm selling to and talk recipes and see their kids and know who is actually eating it. It just feels better. There is something neat about walking into the kitchen of a restaurant with all these boxes of meat and knowing that it's going into fabulously well-made food, but I would pick the CSA model over that.
Do you have a term you use for your kind of farming?
The "family farm" term is certainly still in use and we are one, in that we're small. We're not organic, but we feed everyone organically. We're not certified.
What's the barrier to entry for that?
There's none. I've never bothered with it because I feel like if I tell my customers that animals are being fed organic grain and they're eating grass that has never been touched and they don't get hormones or antibiotics, then that's all my customers need to hear. I don't think they need to see that label of certified organic.
It costs a little bit of money and there's paperwork and all that – paperwork is my absolute least favorite thing in the world. So, I've never even looked into it.
In one of our earlier interviews, Hashim Sarkis planted the idea about "the one world city." You're talking about something antithetical to that, it seems. You’re talking about the hyper local. Do you have a mission and how did you become such a local farmer?
I grew up with a big garden and we had pigs for a couple years, but this was in suburban Connecticut and my parents were a bit older so it was definitely a Victory Garden feel. We had three freezers. We canned stuff and we would point out what was from our own garden when we would eat a meal, and that felt good to me. I really enjoyed that and the food tasted good.
I hated the work – hated it – and, at age twenty, I started farming again in college. My family had no idea why I would've gone back to that, but there was something about it in my life and I think I romanticized it a bit: the idea of having to sleep in the hay loft while you're waiting for the sheep to give birth. There's something cool about that.
Apple and I then moved from the Cambridge area to Vermont to have a real winter season instead of slush, and we wanted to remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle and to raise our family on a farm and to be part of that cycle.
Our girls (kind of) eat meat. One is definitely super against the idea of raising animals in order to eat them. It's making it much harder for me. I've been thinking about it a lot more, as well. It's not easy what I do, the taking of lives, but I guess I balance it with the reality that there are all these individuals and families that want good meat. I enjoy the work very much and we moved up there so that we could live that lifestyle. We've enjoyed it ever since.
Are there other young families up there doing the same farming?
No, but there are plenty of young people that have moved to the area for the same reason of wanting to get away from the big city life and to slow down a little bit. They're artists or wood workers or something along those lines.
What have you noticed being in that environment?
I've noticed that half an hour of driving to school is still the same there as it is here, but there's never any traffic. So, there's that. Everything is slower and quieter and we have this cabin, now on Airbnb, and so many people say the exact same thing – "it's just so quiet" – and that's great. I love it up there.
This movement to Thoreau’s cabin in the woods is happening on the heels of the return to slow food that took mainstream culture by storm with Michael Pollan’s books. Now we have emerging digital publications like Modern Farmer Magazine. What do you see happening next?
I think that we are moving away from meat. It will never disappear, obviously, but I think the same people who five years ago were willing to pay top dollar for the absolute best meat that they could find are now vegetarian, or will be in five years. It's better for the planet and you can get all the protein you need from vegetables. We are definitely going to see more insect protein available which is a little bit odd. I'd totally be into it.
I'm grossed out.
It doesn't bother me whatsoever but I think that meat is on the decline. I think people doing what I do have to have a core group of customers or else they will have to quit.
Every year I lose a handful of customers because a lot of my customers’ kids are essentially aging out of the family dinner – either they are at boarding school or they're in college and, given I sell large shares of the animals, I need size. I need to find younger people starting families if I'm going to continue doing this and I don't market our farm. I don't know how I might change as meat demand slows. I could find families where I would raise them like a whole half a cow instead of thirty pounds of meat. Or maybe they and three other families all split a cow or something like that because this model of the CSA shares is a little bit tricky with the number I'm trying to provide.
People say this is an elitist, unaffordable product. How do you respond?
I feel the same way when I open a newspaper and I see that you can buy pork for $0.89/pound and mine is $12/pound for the same cut. The wrapping costs alone for my pork is $0.95/pound this year. That's how much it costs just to wrap it! Add the feed costs and the slaughter and the kill costs and all that… The fact that this meat is available at that price, to me, there's something wrong with our system. If people are able to make money selling their pork for $0.89/pound, there's something dreadfully wrong.
There has got to be some sort of subsidies that happens in the background that I don't know about, and truthfully I don't really care. That stuff happens all the time and I just keep living my own life but those animals in those factories and the wage the people are paid to work there… those are horrible places.
How many slaughterhouses are there in this country?
There used to be a few. I don't know about America, but in New England there were a few. A couple burned down about ten years ago and it was suddenly in the news that it was so difficult to get to the slaughterhouse.
The slaughterhouse I use is constantly busy but I get my slaughter dates in the springtime before the fall and, if I wait too long, it becomes difficult.
I know that Hormel or Oskar Meyer have their internal slaughterhouses. They're not using someone else's facility. I have a friend in Nebraska who grows pork for Hormel, and they tell him what type of pig – they might even give him the piglets – and everything is done exactly to their standards, as it should be. In a company that size, they need to have everything exactly the same every time. He gets paid well for doing it and he feels like it's a good job.
I've seen pictures of his facility and I wouldn't want to do it. Those pigs don't have a life that, in my mind, is worth living. Whereas my pigs live on my farm and then they are killed and eaten. That last day is not a great one, but every day on my farm is a great day.
[We checked online and found this on farmtoconsumer.org, a legal defense fund for farmers: In 1967, there were nearly 10,000 slaughterhouses in the country. According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) there are only 2,770 in existence as of January, 2015. Michael Pollan notes in an article in The New York Times that journalists are forbidden on the kill floor of slaughterhouses.]
There have been murmurs about fear hormones in meat, and eating fear contributing to disease for humans. Have you heard this? What do you think?
I know that there's research done on the adrenaline and hormones that are built up in the animals, and the Temple Grandin-designed cattle handling systems and kill floors and slaughter shoots and all that stuff. That's real. That research shows that they're panicking and that stuff can build up. I don't know that there's research that shows if you eat it that it goes into your system and therefore you act differently, but there probably is data out there.
I love the pigs. Of all my animals, they're my favorite by far and you scratch them and they flop over and they're sweet and they run and they play and it certainly makes it harder to send them off to slaughter. I have no problems biting into a pork chop but I utter some thanks that they offer their lives for this meal. With my daughter talking to me more about it, it definitely makes me think more about what I could be doing differently.
Most of us are disconnected from all this. Do you harbor any issues with big meat producers?
I'm such an ostrich head in the sand kind of person. I don't listen to the news. I don't read the news. My wife tells me the stuff that I need to know. I just live my life up there and enjoy it and it's a pretty small world for me. The Airbnb cabin is nice because we have so many more people coming up with the exact same questions that I used to have when I worked at The Farm School. Students would ask: how can you eat this? And I am able to say, ‘would you rather eat the pork chop in the Styrofoam container, knowing what that animal did with its life, or would you rather eat this one?’ It makes people think a little bit.
Is there any public opinion you'd like to change?
You mentioned the elitist thing and the meat being too expensive, and I agree in a way that it is too expensive. It seems crazy that the going price for a prime rib is $24 a pound and to buy one of those and serve it at Christmas means you're putting out $150. But that's what it costs me to raise the animal and if I were to do only this for a living, I'd either have to have twice as many animals or charge even more money. Truthfully, I'm not sure I'm making much money at all this year.
My wife, my bookkeeper, we have to do some talking and figure out how long I can keep doing this. But I would say the public opinion I’d like to change is the idea of what meat is worth. If you could get people to understand this is how animals should live a life and this is what the farms should look like, and therefore this is what it should cost, that would be a pretty good run.
How often do you come into the City to sell your meat per year?
Three or four visits.
Is there any juxtaposition selling your nature farm life to these urbanites?
I can't really shake my head because it's my lifestyle as well. It's a lifestyle that I'm a part of because I was somewhat raised that way. I'm married into it. When all these moms pull up in their sweet cars, I don't shake my head like, "oh, my God. How can you drive that $60,000 SUV?" I think, "I wish I had that SUV." Or the dads wearing their $120 jeans, I think, "I bet I'd look pretty good in those jeans too." For real.
[I am laughing.]
It’s hard to shake my head. I did have some customers, five years ago, and I guarantee they never ate any of the meat. They bought the meat right when the Michael Pollan book came out and I'm positive that at cocktail parties, they were like, "oh, yeah, I get my meat from this guy in Vermont. It's amazing. It's so good." I know that they never ate it. It just lived in their freezer. That’s frustrating because it's great stuff and it's expensive and if you're going to buy it, you better gosh darn eat it or give it away. That was frustrating. Yeah, there's not much to shake my head at really.
I wondered if you would be very anti-big slaughterhouse and things around food given your dedication and life farming. But you’re not that way. You seem happy. As a farmer, what advice do you have for society?
I do think that we have the ability to grow our own food. Each generation, there are a growing number of kids who are told to get a carrot out of the garden who don’t know that it grows underground.
I think that the Modern Farmer and some of these other movements are trying to get people to grow a pot of tomatoes on the front porch.
I am worried that people are losing even more touch with how food is grown and where it's coming from and they're simply trusting Whole Foods...
It's really not that hard. See what it's like. See what it tastes like. Learn the joy from seeing it start from a seed and harvesting it. I am worried that people are losing even more touch with how food is grown and where it's coming from and they're simply trusting Whole Foods, God bless 'em. When it was Bread & Circus, it was way better I love that they offer such amazing stuff but all those small companies are getting bought up by bigger ones, and Whole Foods is like a giant conglomerate. There's beef you can buy from them, maybe year 'round. It comes from a Vermont farm and the picture of the farm looks awesome. It seems like a beautiful place. They raise 900 steers. When you're raising 900 steer, that's a giant farm and it's nothing like the size of the ones out in the Midwest. But 900 means that you have no idea what these animals are doing and what they're eating.
How do the nutrients compare?
I think it’s probably the exact same thing. Our little tag line that we've used is, "raised with love," and that's the real deal. I'm out there. I pat them. I enjoy them. I'm worried about them.
I get something out of doing my job and know that I'm doing it well in every aspect that those animals have the best life possible except for that last day.
Any event you're looking forward to?
Newfane, Vermont where we live has a heritage fest weekend and that's fun, organized by our church, and it's a big moneymaker – maybe $40,000 is raised once a year. The average age has to be sixty so we are younger and all those folks come together, bring their tent, and they set out their own wares.
Do you sell your meat?
I don't. I've thought about it before. The local inn, which has newly reopened, is a lovely spot, and they're going to do an apple pressing on their front lawn. The weather always seems to be great. It's just a nice time.
How can we stay in your cabin?
You can go onto Airbnb: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/8714601