Driving across his ranch in Greenville,Robert Hutchins watches as a hawk swoops down into one of his chicken hoops (no, not coops). Killing the engine of his flat-bed truck, Hutchins waits for the hawk to come back into sight. "I just saw you," he says under his breath. "Look at that dadgum hawk, bet it just killed a chicken."
But Hutchins isn't upset and gnashing his teeth, because at Rehoboth Ranch losing a few chickens to predators like bobcats and hawks is an unavoidable part of the way they do business.
Bucking the trends of conventional agriculture—instead of using confinement houses, cramped cages or feedlots—all the animals on Hutchins' ranch are "pasture-raised" in their natural environment and fed only a natural diet. And the Hutchins family manages the 300 acres of their ranch organically, never using any chemicals, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. While Hutchins' methods are firmly rooted in the past and may seem counterintuitive in today's work-smarter-not-harder world, farmers and ranchers like him are looking to the past while paving the way for the future of food.
This year the Food and Drug Administration made several controversial rulings, including declaring milk and meat from cloned cattle, goats and swine as safe as conventional meat and issuing new regulations approving the irradiation of fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce. But as more and more genetically modified foods are introduced to the public, and meat and produce recalls continue to be a staple on the evening newscasts, many shoppers alarmed by the practices of modern agriculture are turning to naturally raised, organic products.
So, the future of food is at a crossroads that leads in two utterly different directions. Down one path, our grocery stores' shelves will be filled with genetically modified foods, cloned meats, and irradiated grains and produce. On the other path, wary shoppers will increasingly seek out natural foods produced by farmers and ranchers like Hutchins and his family, who use the traditional methods of the past.
"The only way the consumers can be 100 percent sure what they're eating is to know where it comes from, know the people who raise it and know how they raise it," Hutchins says. "And we don't sell any product where we aren't there handing it over to the customer."
The Hutchins family does all the work on the ranch, from milking the goats and gathering eggs to processing the chickens. Visitors to Rehoboth can purchase the meats, dairy products and eggs in the ranch's store, but the majority of business is done at farmers markets in Dallas, McKinneyand Coppell. The family initially thought that their business could be supported by consumers driving out to their farm, but they soon realized that they needed to get closer to them. And the strategy worked. Hutchins says, "I can plot the weekly sales from all the farmers markets, since the beginning, and the growth is very consistent.
"People are starting to rightfully deduce that there is a definite connection between the foods we eat and our overall health," he says. By eating grass-fed meats, he says, consumers can avoid the antibiotics, growth hormones and other questionable additives found in conventionally raised animals. "Someday I think we'll look back on this period of history and say that we were very ignorant and barbaric about the things we offered to the general public to eat."
Hutchins says whether one believes that animals evolved or were intelligently designed, modern agricultural trends are a problem because either way we're using technology to tamper with the natural order of things.
"We're not opposed to technology," he says. At Rehoboth they use computers extensively, modern electric fencing, and e-mail newsletters to keep in touch with their customers. "We're just for the appropriate application of technology."
One of the biggest problems that farmers like Hutchins faces is that a lot of historical knowledge has been lost over the years. They have to rediscover successful farming methods from the past. "Things that we're trying to do without chemicals people used to know how to do," he says. But over the years agriculture grew dependent on modern innovations. "We have to pick up things along the way. One person told us, 'I remember hearing that you can worm pigs with wood ashes.' And by golly, sure enough you can!"
They use electric fences to enforce rotational grazing. All the grazing area on the 300 acres is divided up into small paddocks. The animals are allowed to graze in one paddock only for a few days before they are moved to the next area, which allows the freshly grazed and recently fertilized grass to rest before it is grazed again.
Hutchins wasn't born into farming. "You'd have to go back to my great-grandfather to find someone in my family who made their living in agriculture," he says. After spending more than 20 years in the defense industry, he decided to leave the corporate world behind. But the first few years on the ranch weren't easy.
"Becoming financially viable was a lot slower process than I would have thought," he says. "And it took a lot more of my savings than I'd imagined. But it is worth it to be working with my family and not have to live the stressful corporate existence."
Each year Hutchins sees more people who are interested in Rehoboth's products. "I think this trend will continue to grow until it significantly damages the established mainstream food infrastructure," he says. "This year, for the first time, we have competitors at the farmers markets. But the whole market grows like a rising tide. The demand and the supply grow at a reasonably balanced rate."
And when asked about the long-term prospects for his business and those like him, he says, "So long as the mainstream food supply remains corrupt, our outlook looks bright. And the government hasn't disappointed me yet." Daniel Rodrigue