We're back! Sorry for the lack of posts in the last few weeks, we've been dealing with some unforeseen circumstances in our household. Nevertheless, we're working on getting back on track, and we have a special treat for you! Below is the first part of a two part interview with Jody Osmund of Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm. Jody wears a lot of hats when it comes to advocating for sustainable local food in our region. This first part will cover his farm specifically, and in part two you will hear him talk about his work with Band of Farmers, the Chicagoland CSA coalition.
- In a paragraph or two, please introduce yourself and tell us about how you became a farmer (what did you do before farming, how did you make the transition, how did your family adjust, etc.).
I grew up on a diverse grain and livestock farm - cattle and hogs, oats, wheat, hay, corn, and soybeans. My mom kept a flock of 150 laying hens and egg sales supplemented the grocery budget. I was mostly involved in taking care of the animals, and I spent a lot of time helping in the ¼ acre family garden.
This background, however, was not a straight line to me becoming a farmer. I graduated from high school in the middle of the farm crisis of the late 1980’s. Farming as a career looked pretty bleak, so I went off to college and a professional career.
Fast forward a decade and a half… On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at an apple orchard in the northwest suburbs with our almost 3 year old son for a daycare field trip. We rode a hayrack, picked apples, drank cider, and ate apple cinnamon donuts.
On the bus ride back to the daycare, we went from the peace and joy of agricultural idyll to a reality of fear and uncertainty. The events of September 11th were a turning point for our family. We re-evaluated our life direction and priorities. Like a lot of people, we yearned for something more simple, more tangible, more real. (My career at Allstate in e-commerce software testing and my wife Beth's professional skills training position at Arthur Anderson both seemed pretty abstract.)
When the Enron scandal caused Arthur Andersen to collapse and family land (and farmhouse) came available in 2002, it was an easy decision to move to the farm. Our suburban friends thought we were crazy – they probably still do – but were supportive nonetheless. One of our friends gifted us (thanks Vickie!) Eliot Coleman’s book, The New Organic Grower which became a much used reference and the chapter on marketing inspired us to jump into Community Supported Agriculture.
- Tell us about your farm, where it is located, how big it is, and what you produce there.
Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm is a few miles north and east of Ottawa, IL. The total acreage is about 90 acres, but over half of that is taken up by woodlands, wetlands, and riparian habitat. We have about 40 acres of the arable land in pasture (mixed grasses, legume, and forbs) where we raise cattle, pigs, meat chickens, layer hens, and a small flock of Navajo Churro sheep.
- If we were to visit your farm, what would we find distinctive or unique about it? What makes Cedar Valley shine?
We’re really proud of our farm’s biodiversity.
This diversity extends well beyond the livestock (Duroc and Hampshire hogs, Angus cattle, 8 breeds of laying hens, and Navajo Churro Sheep). Our farm hosts a number raptor species (Bald Eagles, Red Tail Hawks, Kestrels, owls), water fowl (ducks, geese, Sandpipers, and Great Blue Herons), song-birds, predators (fox, coyote, racoons, opossum, mink), herbivores (deer, rabbits, beaver, voles, gophers, squirrels), along with countless insects (including a lot of native pollinators and butterflies, some feral honeybees, and dragon flies), and incredibly active living soil. It’s much different than the sea of corn and soybeans on the farms that surround it.
The most distinctive feature of the farm is the creek that runs through it. It is the highlight of our farm tours, provides a peaceful picnic spot, cools us in the hot summer, and occasionally provides a meal of fish for the table.
- Why did you decide to run a meat CSA out of your farm, as opposed to other options like vegetable farming, or selling meat wholesale to restaurants?
Actually, Cedar Valley Sustainable (CVSF) started out as a vegetable CSA in 2003. We started on 2.5 acres and increased to a maximum of 5.5 acres. We added livestock over time, started the first meat CSA in Illinois (while serving a 70 member vegetable CSA) in 2007, and fully transitioned to meat and eggs in 2008.
- How did you decide to raise beef, pork, and chicken? Which did you start with and how have you scaled up production over the years?
The first animal we brought to the farm was a dairy cow. Next we added a flock of laying hens. Meat birds followed, along with more cattle and then hogs. We raise all meat chickens and eggs for our CSA on our farm, but not all of the beef and pork. Over the years we’ve developed relationships with neighbors who breed incredibly high quality pork and beef that supplement our production.
These relationships extend the scope and breadth of our work toward more sustainable farming, writ large. They also give us flexibility and elasticity to deal with the ebbs and flow of CSA membership and farmers market demands.
When we started working with pork breeders Mark and Kristen Boe of La Pryor Farms, they were considering getting out of the pig business (commodity pork prices were very low and they were losing about $40/per pig they sold to Tyson). We helped them develop a profitable farm-to-restaurant business for their hogs and they have since started their own beef herd. They make weekly trips into the city supplying top restaurants and artisan butcher shops with their pork and beef.
I love seeing new pig and cattle paddocks when I pick up market pigs at the Boe’s farm. They’ve moved to a more pasture-based growing since they started working with us. WIN!
- What’s the most gratifying part of owning and running your own farm?
Sure, I get to do physical work outside every day and produce really delicious food, but the most gratifying part of our job is the relationships – customers, CSA members, fellow farmers, food advocates/activists, friends, family, and community that are nurtured by our farm. The image of the independent farmer, alone on the prairie is an unsustainable myth of “modern” agriculture.
True resilience and sustainability are supported by an inter-locking bulwark of interdependent relationships. Adding strength and branches to that weave is what Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm is all about.
Many thanks to Jody for sharing about his and Beth's lives as the farmers at Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm. Keep an eye out for a second post from him about his work with Band of Farmers - The Chicagoland CSA Coalition. We will also be preparing a post for CVSF's blog that we are very excited about, so be sure to follow us on Facebook for all the updates!
Are there posts you would like to see from Sustainably Queer? We've got ideas for miles, but we'd love to hear from our readers first! Please let us know in the comments, on our Facebook Page, or join us in the Sustainably Queer group for more lively conversation!