Listen to Your Momma

Mac Stone, Ann Bell Stone, and extended family operate Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, KY. Mac was the executive director of marketing for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, administering the Kentucky Proud program among many others. He is former chair of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board. His focus is on farming and marketing organic foods for the family and working with nonprofit agriculture and food organizations. Mac can be reached at 859.621.0756.

GEORGETOWN We see it every spring: Cows, ewes, and turkey hens behaving differently than they do other months, because they have a baby by their side. Natural instincts have taken control of their actions. During morning chores, when we check on the herds and flocks, a new momma will stand firm, stare us down, then turn her head to her baby to make sure it is still right there, flank to flank, only to return to the glare. Ewes stomp a front foot as a warning to not get too close, and hens will charge if you do get too close.

Over the following weeks, the mothers release their grip on their little darlings and chill out as we walk among them. The newborn mammal’s lifeline is mother’s milk, the perfect food for weeks and months as their digestive microbiome enriches to convert grass into meat and bone. Our job as farmers is to be sure the momma has a proper diet to deliver healthy babies every year. It turns out, grass and clover are perfect food for these ruminants, mother and baby alike, when properly proportioned. There is a lesson to be learned here.

For many of us, our mothers were like that, too—we just don’t remember that part. But we did what she said, and most of us were raised on perfect food—breast milk—or pre-made formula, designed to mimic breast milk the best man knows how. The problems started showing up when we decided for ourselves what we would call food.

For many of us, our mothers tried to get us started on the right foot. In my case, we had a “you can’t get up from the table until you eat your peas” policy, and I remember it to this day. I had hoped that anything that tasted like them was not going to be a big part of my childhood, so why try to acquire a taste for them? But the peas kept coming. My parents did make sure their skinny, geeky son had plenty of carbs to stay upright, and the clean plate club was partly out of economics and mostly honoring the cook. Grandmothers were hard to please. If I didn’t eat all my food (and they gave me too much since I was a geeky, skinny kid), they would be offended that I didn’t like their cooking. If I did eat all my food, they’d think I didn’t get enough. Just like the young calf, momma was right there monitoring nutrient intake.

Eventually we wean ourselves of our mother’s influence on our diet, although we have to defend it at holidays sometimes. In the case of our livestock, we give the pre-pubescent calves and lambs access to forages so they will grow up healthy and strong. They do not, however, have run of the whole place. We divide the grazing lands into paddocks so the various herds/flocks are contained on a few acres at a time, then moved to the next paddock, effectively rationing their daily intake. Mature cows have different nutrient needs than do young stock, so the type of grass, or the amount, is varied to be sure each has the perfect food to be healthy. Mother Nature knows her stuff, because for decades now, we have been rearing generations of beef and sheep, with good reproductive rates, regeneratively providing proteins for people, with no herd health issues.

Notwithstanding a global pandemic, diet-related diseases are debilitating the U.S. population, while many of us shrug it off as that being just the way it is. Nobody did anything wrong, so it has become the norm. I beg you to consider: Is it right in the eyes of Mother Nature for such a high percentage of a species to suffer diet-related disease?

Until my grandmothers’ generation, processed foods and cheap abundance were not an option. When a chicken had to be caught, eviscerated and cooked before eating, there was some reverence for the food. Now in a few minutes and a few bucks, a bucket of fried chicken is laid before you without a thought toward where it came from or how it was raised. Today’s grocery stores feature aisle after aisle of products that have transformed simple vegetables and meats into some unrecognizable form of “health food.” Don’t worry about all the preservatives, additives, salt, sugars, packaging, etc. (For the record, if our animals were able to rummage through the feed mill, they would also gorge themselves on great-tasting grains and sweet-tasting corn and develop all manner of metabolic disorders, even if they did not find the bags of vitamins and antibiotics.)

Growing up, grocery stores were fairly big stores and pharmacies were small shops down the street where the druggist knew us and our doctor. Now the right half of the expansive buildings is for groceries and the pharmacy gets the left half. What’s wrong with that picture?

We have done this to ourselves, but it does not have to be this way. We have all known, since those first nights at the dinner table, that eating fruits and vegetables makes for a healthy diet. Maybe you tried eating these foods and found it too time consuming, or expensive, and not very tasty or rewarding to do so. That is a distinct possibility when you purchase produce from said big box store. Case in point: Instacart accidentally delivered us some conventional strawberries. After a few days, I tried one. It was white throughout, and if I closed my eyes, I could get a hint of strawberry flavor. Three weeks (and counting) later, they look just the same as the day we got them. Our local, organic berries are red to the core and should be eaten within a few days. Which ones do you think kids are going to eat and which ones will feed our immune-building gut microbes more effectively?

The lesson to be learned here: Mothers know what they are talking about, although there is the Santa Claus and tooth fairy thing, and there really are things in the dark that are not there in the daylight. Mother Nature gets it right for our livestock with a little guidance from us. For many of us, our mothers wanted us to learn to like fruits and vegetables to take diet-related diseases out of our lives. Locally sourced, organic fruits and vegetables are perfect foods for humans. If it feels costly to use these ingredients, realize you are investing in yourself, not living with and treating the symptoms of diet-related disease. Diet is the remedy for diet-related disease. Food is thy medicine. Find a farmer to make it so.