Grass Roots Family Values
Grass Roots is a cooperative of small-scale family farmers on a mission to change the way meat is produced and consumed in the USA. We are proud to raise and process all our meat in America, with local farms ranging from Oregon to North Carolina. A core part of our mission is to grow the next generation of farmers in America. This means providing a living wage and access to the materials needed to sustain their farms. The sad truth is that the family farm is dying out largely due to industrialization.
For the family farmers at Grass Roots, the work they do with the animals and their land go far beyond a job. Farming is part of a larger mission that enriches their personal lives, with generations of shared values and integrity. We had a conversation with Chris Ward, the Head Farmer at Fresh Food Farm in Harrison, Arkansas about the lessons he's learned as a farmer, father, and grandfather that he'll share with the next generation.
The Journey to Sustainable Agriculture
Chris, you’ve had a fascinating farming life, which has been influenced by global travel. Tell us a little about your journey to sustainable agriculture?
Well, my career in agriculture has been pretty diverse. But, really, I’ve been a farmer or doing something to support farmers most of my life. In my early years, I operated commercial poultry, dairy, beef, sheep, and goat production systems. Then, I worked in retail meat processing and packaging. Eventually, I was employed by the United States government as an Agriculture Advisor. Basically, I helped foreign governments develop agriculture assistance programs and projects that could improve the livelihoods of local farmers. I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, which was really enlightening.
One of the keys to building a good and effective program, of any kind, is to ensure that it’s sustainable. While working abroad and developing the systems for new farmers, I gained a new perspective on my own farm operation and I realized that many of the practices that I had been employing as a conventional farmer were not sustainable. So, when I returned home, I began to change the things that we were doing that were having a negative impact on the animals, the environment, the ecosystem, and our very own livelihood. It seemed that modern conventional agriculture spent huge amounts of resources working against nature, and we wanted to change that and to work with it.
Your extended family has stayed close to you and the land. How does it feel to be bringing along the next generation of farmers, dedicated to farming with nature?
I am so grateful that I am able to share this lifestyle with my kids and grandkids. I truly believe that It’s our farming heritage that has made us the people that we are and that has shaped our values. When we nurture a weak lamb back to good health, we learn to care more deeply. When we build a brush pile to ensure habitat for native prey—to feed a mother coyote and her pups coming close to the herds—we have learned to be considerate of every creature around us. When we’ve gotten too close to a nervous mother cow with a newborn calf, we’ve learned respect. We’ve learned compassion when we put out piles of warm hay for cozy pigs on chilly nights. And we’ve learned about joy when we’ve witnessed a chicken running with a bug in its beak and others chasing closely behind. All these lessons enrich our lives, and I’m happy that my children want to continue in this tradition.
The Focus to Farm
What is your role in the cooperative, and how has being a part of it impacted your farming?
At the beginning of the cooperative, I was the Processing, Aggregation, and Distribution Manager. I helped to develop the strategic plan for the cooperative business and to professionalize the production systems. Now, I’m a member farmer.
Grass Roots takes so much pressure off of the farmer by employing a professional staff with expertise like accounting and marketing. This allows the farmers to focus on caring for the animals that we raise. It’s such a relief to no longer worry about developing new markets or finding new customers—the staff does that for us.
Starting at Daybreak
A typical day starts at about daybreak. Our first responsibility is usually to tend the baby chicks in the brooder. We make sure they are warm, dry, and well-fed. We then make our rounds to all the pastures, checking on the chickens first—making sure that they have adequate feed—and then move on to the cows, hogs, sheep, and goats. We then return to move the chickens to a fresh section of pasture—which we usually do before the sun is very high in the sky.
Next, we move the hogs, cattle, sheep, and goats. Hopefully, we can grab some lunch and head back out to interact with the chickens once again, checking feed and water and making sure that they are comfortable. Late afternoon is the time that we have set aside for special farm projects, which usually includes building a fence or installing a new waterline. We try and wrap this up in time to make visits again to all of the pastures and animals before dark. After dark includes two more evenly spaced visits to the baby chick area to check for chick comfort. Then it’s off to bed. It’s quite a full day, for sure.
What’s next for Fresh Food Farm?
We want to help grow interest in improving food systems in our community. We are committed to practicing sustainable agriculture and agrarian community revitalization in our area, and we hope to continue to demonstrate how to farm with nature and be profitable doing it.
Follow Fresh Food Farms on Instagram @thefreshfoodfarm