I came across All-Grass-Farms when I was researching local farms online that I wanted to visit. I found its “our story” page and I began to read about the owners of the farm and I became inspired to share their story! “Cliff McConville and wife Konda Dees purchased a house with 8.5 acres of woods and pastures and a small barn in Barrington Hills in 1998. At the time Cliff worked as an insurance executive in downtown Chicago and Konda a Marketing Director for a local shopping center…” I reached out to the co-owner of the farm, Cliff, via email and asked if I could interview him for the EFY blog. I was inspired by his story to work from home and begin a journey with his family to create an farming business. Cliff talks about climate change, organic living, and how farming has changed his perspective on life.
Due to Climate Change there has been a rise in awareness in mindful farming, why is it important for people to buy from sustainable farms who treat their crops and animals with respect?
Fortunately, consumers are increasingly becoming aware of the environmental disaster that “conventional” farming is wreaking on our soils, waterways, and natural ecosystem, not to mention the health impacts of having all these chemicals in our foods and water.
As consumers become concerned, they start changing their buying habits which is really the only way we are going to change the “system”. As more and more conventional farmers see the economic benefits of raising organic products through sustainable farming practices, then and only then will they make the decision to switch their farming methods to more sustainable methods. The fact that organic milk, soybeans, wheat, and corn are selling for 2-3 times the prices of conventionally-grown counterparts is helping the transition. The transition is occurring, but slowly as Industrial Ag, Industrial Food, and Big Government (influenced by $$ from Industrial Ag and Food) are digging in to hold onto the conventional farming, cheap/subsidized food system. Ultimately the consumer can prevail by voting with their wallets.
Why is it important to have livestock live in “an environment that is sustainable and mimics their natural living conditions”?
The proponents of “industrial agriculture” have done an excellent job of designing facilities and production processes that reduce costs and simplify livestock management. However these confinement systems typically treat the animals as a simple unit of production with no recognition they are living, breathing, feeling creatures. We believe strongly that ALL animals should be treated with respect and raised outdoors in a manner similar to how they would live in nature. This not only keeps them healthy (with no need for antibiotics or other medications), but also provides for a more nutritious product for our customers, and benefits our soils and forages as well with their natural fertilizer.
The farm is expanding into larger acres, how has the success of the farm impacted your life and those who work on the farm?
Of course with all the new land to fence, plant, and manage and a beautiful but long neglected barn to fix up it’s been a lot of work, nonstop really, 7 days a week for the last year. However we are just about finished with the barn renovations and hope to have our farm store opened in the next week or two. At this point I feel like we are “over the hump” and can really focus on growing and improving our production and really spending more time with our customers doing daily farm tours, milking exhibitions, etc. A side benefit of running a larger farm is that we have been able to hire more employees and interns and give them more exposure to our farming techniques and practices.
You are beginning to work with harvesting honey, for certain readers who never had local honey, why is it important that they support sustainable bee farming?
We have had 12 – 15 hives on our farm for a number of years so the honey production is not new, however we have always left most of the honey in the hives so they could reproduce and survive the winters. Our beekeeper, Marcin Matelski, is working on a long term project to develop Queen Bees that are well adapted to thrive in our cold Midwestern winters and prevalence of chemical pesticides on the surrounding farmlands. Bees are one important form of pollinators that are absolutely critical to the growth and reproduction of many of our local plants, vegetables, pastures, and many commercial farming crops.
What have been some of the struggles running a farm?
Managing any livestock farm, in particular one based on pasture-raised products that are sold directly to consumers, is always going to be challenging. Part of the reason so many farms in the Midwest have transitioned to corn and soybeans is that growing those crops is very capital and equipment intensive, but not time consuming. One farmer working alone can plant and harvest thousands of acres with the latest machinery and chemicals, while taking winters off (and collecting lots of government subsidies).
Running an organic, pasture-based livestock farm and dairy operation requires animal care, feeding, rotations, harvesting etc. year round, every day of the week. In the winter my workload drops to about 8-10 hours per day, however during the height of the growing season starting in mid-March, the farm workload is 14 – 16 hours per day, every day until we get through Thanksgiving. Balancing out the workload is easier now that we have staff and interns to help with the daily animal chores, but it’s still nonstop dawn to dusk work every day. I certainly don’t recommend this type of farming to anyone that is looking for an easy way to make money!
How has changing your life to be a farmer changed your perspective on life?
One of the positive benefits is that I never worry about getting enough exercise! I’ve also become much more attuned to the environmental issues facing our planet, as I learned more about soils, the soil microfluora, and the relationship of soil health to animal and human health. I’ve also become much more aware of and involved in the regulatory and legislative battlegrounds popping up all over the country, as Industrial Agriculture/Food entities are lobbying federal, state, and even local governments to impose restrictions and regulations on local food production (often masked in the cloak of “food safety”) to slow down the transition to organic and sustainable farming.
And I have become much less concerned about having a nice house, yard, car, clothes, etc. Keeping up with the Joneses is the furthest thing from my mind when there are animals to be moved to fresh pasture, cows to milk, vegetables needing tending, pastures to plant, fences to mend, chickens to get in to the processor, and a pregnant cow to keep an eye on.
There is a lack of education on sustainable farming and the importance of it, what advice to do have for readers to expand their understanding of mindful farming?
The good news is that there are more and more educational resources available now, even compared to when we started out five years ago. Starting out myself with no farming background, I immersed myself in the writings of some of the leading thinkers in the sustainable farming movement, including Joel Salatin, Jo Robinson, Gene Logsdon, Forrest Pritchard, and Wendell Berry, among many others. I also subscribe to a number of periodicals, the most important are ACRES USA (they publish a number of books as well as an annual conference) and the Stockman Grass Farmer. There is now a “Joel Salatin University” series of videos available.
I usually attend the ACRES USA and MOSES annual conferences in the winter, they are always jammed with workshops, lectures, movie screenings, and bookstores full of the latest research and practical farming techniques. There are also a number of colleges and universities offering classes and even degrees in sustainable farming. One of our current interns will soon graduate from Lake Forest College with an associate’s degree in Sustainable Agriculture, and several of our past interns have received degrees in sustainable agriculture from Green Mountain College in Vermont. As the big land grant universities see increase interest in organic and sustainable farming, I expect that some day soon we may see a major agricultural college enter the sustainable fray, even at the cost of losing some of their research funding from Monsanto on the latest GMO crop technologies.
Images provided by Cliff.