May 30, 2011

Beyond Organic: A Family Affair for Amish Farmer

Print More
yoder sign

Robert Yoder’s animals have the most luxurious lives of anyone on his farm. On a windy morning in Bloomfield, Iowa, the 32-year-old was out in the pastures with his six small children working hard to ensure one thing: that his cows and chickens were happy.

Marvin, six, held a spool of portable fencing high between his fists. His father marched down a field of bristling prairie grasses and drove a stake into the ground. Michael, eight, directed 50 trotting brown, grey, white, and black cattle into their newly sectioned-off paddock. Soon, the chorus of teeth sinking into thistle, grass and hay overtook the scene. Yoder’s four daughters stood watch atop a horse-drawn wagon, the oldest holding the youngest, wrapped in wool headscarves and crisp bonnets.

On higher ground, Yoder’s hens foraged for bugs and worms around a coop Yoder built by hand. Carved wood perches line the inside walls, fresh air ascending from clean mesh flooring. Big downy hay beds line the east side like cozy bedrooms, hens roosting over Irish-cream colored eggs, and sunlight bouncing off shells.

Old Ways Have Modern Appeal

As old-fashioned as Yoder may seem, his farming practices are far from traditional, even for those living outside of his Amish community. He describes his practices as “beyond organic,” a somewhat nebulous term farmers have begun using to describe their philosophy.

Beyond organic can mean anything from creating space for wildlife on the farmstead to emphasizing social justice for workers. But all farmers using the term feel they in some way exceed standards required by USDA organic certification.

Book Shows the Way

For Yoder, raising livestock on pasture is the heart of beyond organic, allowing them to live a natural and humane life, hence creating a healthier meat. Certified organic chickens are given organic feed but often live a life of confinement similar to conventional birds.

In contrast to many organic operations, Yoder’s farm is Animal Welfare Approved, a free certification program created in 2006. Only family farms are eligible, and the program requires all animals be raised on pasture. Selling locally is also an integral part of Yoder’s philosophy, supporting local economy, freshness and energy efficiency.

“I was looking for something, but I didn’t know what it was,” said Yoder, brown-eyed and soft spoken, with an undercurrent of Pennsylvania Dutch. Yoder’s sister had unknowingly found what he was searching for, recommending he read You Can Farm by Joel Salatin, without knowing its contents. Yoder stood by the barn he’d built by hand, looking out on his land and marveled: “It made so much sense reading that, it just blew my mind.”

Inside You Can Farm, Yoder found practical advice as well as a passionate commentary about the state of American food production. Salatin was concerned that a bottom-line mentality was causing farmers to produce what he characteristically called, “adulterated fecal particulate pseudo-food.”

Salatin’s book resonated deeply with Yoder, perhaps because Salatin himself is a devout Christian with similar values. His book put into agriculture the principles that guide a traditional Amish life, such as being neighborly and a steward of the land.

Beyond Organic Requires Heart

“You need to have your heart in it,” Yoder said, his chin-strap beard and shorn bangs framing a face animated with excitement. “Most farmers will do whatever they want to their animals; it’s not an issue to them… It’s all about making money.”

Yoder has seen this sentiment trickle into his own community.  The Amish avoid using technology. Yoder says the Bloomfield community holds “pasture walks,” gathering at a neighbor’s farm and exchanging ideas and resources. Here they have discussions about ways of farming that Yoder admits, “almost turn into disputes.”

“I have to be careful what I say,” says Yoder, “because they’ll think I’m a total weirdo.” However, when Yoder’s neighbors tease him about his small production, he’s ready for a lively debate.

“An old feller down the road always kids me about my free range eggs,” Yoder recounts,  “I only have 300 chickens and he has 8,000.”

Cage Free Not So Free

His Amish neighbor sells “cage free” eggs to Farmer’s Hen House. Although cage-free birds are not individually caged, they are raised in confinement buildings by the thousands. “Cage-free is a big hypocrisy,” Yoder said.  “He has to de-beak his birds so that they won’t cannibalize each other. I try to get him to think, ‘Why do they want to eat each other?’”

Yoder and his wife, Luella, are one of over 150 Old Order Amish families living quietly in the countryside skirting Bloomfield, Iowa. Telephone booths flank the roadside every quarter mile, and one Bloomfield local has made a career of driving the Amish. None of them own a television, computer, phone or car. The community began in the late 1970’s when an Amish couple and their three sons moved from Missouri, breaking away from an Amish society where drinking had become prevalent among the youth. In Bloomfield, they created an economy reliant mostly on construction, tourism, and farming, jobs that allowed them to maintain a simple life and limited exposure to the outside world.

When Yoder was 17, he briefly left the Amish. In his five months away from home, he felt he grew up and learned some of the “hard lessons of life.” He found a job milking cows in Lockridge, Iowa, but fought with his boss and was unhappy. In the end, his parents were what brought him home. “My parents weren’t angry, they just kept telling me that they loved me.”

Farming is Labor of Love

Yoder began building roofs at an Amish construction company called Midwest Truss. After reading Salatin’s book, he began his own farm on top of having a full-time job.  He wakes at 5:30 a.m. to feed cows, chickens and goats before moving them to fresh pasture and going to work. He calls this “mob grazing.” When he gets home from work at 4:30 p.m., he takes his horse and cart out to the hen house to collect eggs with his children and to move fencing once again.

Although farming this way is labor intensive, Yoder doesn’t complain, saying, “I get paid to get my exercise.”

Yoder soon became an activist of sorts for beyond organic. He contacted Joel Salatin and got him to visit Bloomfield in 2006 to lead a farming seminar.

“It was a million dollar experience,” said Yoder. “There are still people talking about it to this day.”

After Salatin’s visit, Yoder travelled to conferences in Midwestern cities such as St. Louis and Kansas City to learn more about natural and organic meat production, paying his Bloomfield locals to drive him there since he had no car.

Although Yoder sees beyond organic as fitting perfectly with his Amish values, it has also given him a reason to reach out to the outside world.

“My whole life is different, because I’m Amish,” Yoder said. “But my wife and I have different philosophies about what we eat.”

He knows a handful of Amish farmers who share this sentiment, and Yoder says he’s “grateful for that.” But instead of trying to persuade others, Yoder is making plans for his own future, saying, “My dream is to be a full-time farmer.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *