I met Mark Casson of Green Acres Farms when he started working at Roberts & Roberts Brokerage a little over a year and a half ago. Mark and his family are dedicated to permaculture based livestock farming where the animals are raised on their natural diets and allowed to roam free in a natural habitat. This approach to raising animals produces physically and mentally healthy animals that are much healthier for you than meat raised through factory farms. Having been to the farm, it is truly a great experience to see animals being raised the way nature intended, and though I don’t have land of my own yet, I have always looked forward to growing my own food and raising some small amount of animals for personal consumption.
Mark sells his food at the local Palafox Market in Pensacola, FL alongside other farmers and artisans. Due to regulations, his meat must be labeled “for pet consumption only,” even though it is truly the best meat I have ever had (don’t tell the regulators!). I got to pick his brain about his farming operation, and he had some valuable insights to share.
What made you want to start raising livestock specifically?
My father had wanted to be a livestock farmer and I think some of that carried over to me. I can remember as a kid going to the county fairs and I always really enjoyed seeing the animals. Sometimes people ask me why I don’t grow crops but I’m just not naturally inclined toward that. Raising animals is a more natural fit for me.
Does Green Acres have a philosophy about raising the animals?
Our philosophy for raising livestock begins with an understanding that healthy animals are a part of a healthy and diverse ecosystem. We are big fans of nature and in nature no animal, plant, or organism lives isolated. We are all dependent on thousands of other live forms. Worms, micro-organisms, and fungi all contribute to the health of the soil, which contributes to the health of the plants that grow in it, which provides clean air to breathe and forage for animals to eat, which provides healthy meat for us to eat. So, looking at farming in that light we manage our livestock in a manner in which will provide the best environment for worms, micro-organisms, and fungi to thrive. It has been said that we should not look at ourselves as livestock farmers or grass farmers but soil farmers. In truth, I think we need to be all of them.
What types of animals do you raise?
We raise chickens, turkeys, sheep, hogs, and cattle. Oh, and a couple goats. We’ve raised some ducks in the past but we don’t have any currently.
What are the hardest challenges you face operating an organic livestock farm?
What I think is hardest in an operation like ours is that being a farmer means being the investor, laborer, processor, marketer, customer service representative, accountant, and probably some other things I’m not thinking of right now. I have a hard time managing how to allot my time between the different roles. And then there’s how I value the time I spend in those roles from an accounting standpoint to understand which ones to drop when I don’t have enough time to do it all.
Could you explain some of the different personalities the animals have?
On our farm the chickens will generally do their own thing but come to us for food, where turkeys on the other hand are curious animals. Anything a turkey sees that looks a little different, they will peck at and sometimes swallow. Sometimes this might be a piece of plastic or something else that isn’t digestible. I’ve seen 7 turkeys standing around in a circle staring at a cotton mouth snake. They are just curious and not always smart animals.
The sheep have that flock mentality; if one runs they all run. It makes sense as they really don’t have any good self-defense in the wild.
Hogs are an interesting animal. They are smart, curious, fast, and strong. A momma hog is probably the most potentially dangerous animal on a farm. You really want to think through how you handle your hogs. Like when you need to load them into a trailer; if you set it up so it’s calm and easy then great, but if it’s stressful once they will remember and the next time will be even more challenging.
Our cows get moved from pasture to pasture almost every day so they are used to us and are relatively calm but still not pets.
Switching to turkeys, what made you decide to focus on raising them along with the other animals?
Raising animals this way to eat provides food that is delicious. It makes eating truly enjoyable and when do people enjoy eating more than any other time of the year? Thanksgiving! The response we get from customers over our Thanksgiving Turkeys has really been great. It really is the best venue for this type of food; you’ve gathered people you care about together, the center of attention is food, and the star attraction is a turkey. How great does it feel to present a turkey that you know was raised well, is healthy for your loved ones to eat and they are going to rave about how delicious it is?
[Interviewers note: I can personally vouch for how delicious those turkeys are. You have to reserve them early because they will sell out, and my mom is still raving about how good the turkey was from last year. There is nothing you can by in a store that even comes close to the quality of Mark’s turkeys, and having been to the farm, I know they were raised lovingly and had happy lives.]
What are some issues that have come up raising the turkeys?
Young turkeys don’t have the best survival instincts. After they get about 3 weeks old we let them out of the shelter during the day but they don’t have the common sense to go back in for protection at night. If you don’t herd them back into the shelter and it rains they may get chilled and die or an owl may decide that Thanksgiving has come early and enjoy a turkey or two.
How does farm life benefit your family specifically your children?
Raising the kids on the farm gives them a connection to the environment, it exposes them to the real relationship between life and death (the fact that nothing lives without something else dying). It teaches them real truths about life which most of our society are unaware of or chooses to deny.
It’s very difficult to run a farm and not everyone is cut out for the work, but do you have any advice for how people can incorporate the lessons you learn on a farm into their lives even if they lack the resources to do it themselves?
One of the things we learned early on in this farming/food journey is that labeling, even on the products at the health food store, are meant to sell the product, not to inform the consumer. My advice is to really inquire into the sources of the foods you eat the most of every day; the ones that make up the majority of your diet. It’s a lot of work but if you do it just for your main staples it could really make a difference.
People can sometimes idealize farm life, but what expectations would you advise people to have or not have if they choose to start raising livestock or farming on a large scale?
Most of the benefits of small scale farming don’t come in the form of dollars but they are plentiful none the less. Living in a conscious relationship with the natural environment, the health that comes from an active lifestyle and eating great food, and knowing that you are doing something that is improving the environment and the health of the people you sell to are all truly rich assets in life and should be counted as such. If assets such as these are high on your list for things that would be counted as valuable in your life then I think you should consider this lifestyle. But from my experience and that of others I have talked too, a humble financial return for a great amount of time and labor invested should be a part of the plan. An additional source of income is usually a good idea.
I’ve read some articles claiming there’s resurgence in people growing their own food and raising their own animals. What do you see for the future of farming in this country? Do you think there is a trend towards more people becoming self-sufficient as times grow harder?
There is definitely a movement of people getting back involved with the production of their food and I think that is a great thing. More and more people are interested in and moving toward self-sufficiency and in doing so are upsetting the status quo. The future of farming will continue to see industrial agriculture using government regulators to try to maintain their control over the food supply in this country, and many times they will be successful in creating regulations that make our type of farming illegal. It usually comes in the form of food safety regulations. I mean who can argue with that? Of course we want our food to be safe.
What will be interesting to see in the long term is, “Do we have the resolve to physically work hard for our health and well-being, without much financial reward and then stand up and fight for our right to continue?” So, the future of farming depends on this resolve.