I bought a cow from my neighbor this weekend. He farms the hill next to our house. He keeps about 40 head of cattle on 100 acres. I love to watch them – it’s better than TV any day of the week. In case you didn’t know, the price of beef is high right now. This spike in price has to do with a lot of things: the drought in Texas, a new trade agreement with China, consumer demand. If my neighbor took this cow to the local stockyard, he could get about 1/3 more money than he is by selling it to me. Bringing it to the stockyard involves loading it in his trailer, driving about 30 minutes, dropping it off and getting paid. For me, he loads it in the trailer, brings it to his holding barn about 30 minutes away, feeds and waters it over the weekend, goes back to the barn in the dark of the morning to load it again and drive it 60 minutes to the butcher. At the butcher he will relay all my instructions regarding the cuts and the aging. All this on top of talking to me for about 2 hours about this cow, his other cows and answering all my questions about both. On my end, I’ll end up with about 200 pounds of beef that will come in at a slightly higher price than what I could pay at the store. To anyone with any business acumen at all, this doesn’t make one bit of sense. He could make more money. I could pay less. And yet we happily continue to do business.
We get a lot of our food from our neighbors. In addition to all that beef, we get eggs, milk, chicken, strawberries, blackberries, tomatoes and whatever surplus vegetables my neighbors bring by the bagful early on a summer morning. This all happens within about a mile of my house. The choice currency of most of this commerce is conversation, although sometimes money is exchanged or baked goods are traded. These people are dear to me. They feed me and sustain me on a level beyond simple nutrition. When I first moved to this area, I used to carry a certain romance about farming: the land, the sunshine, the bounty. Knowing my neighbors the way I do now, I know that was foolishness. I have heard too many stories of heartache, injury, worry and general frustration to harbor any rose-colored notions.
There is one bit of folly I refuse to let go: that somehow all of this matters. Somedays in the rush of it all, I just want to buy milk while I am at the store. Not call my neighbor, talk a little on the phone, arrange a time to come by, go to his house, talk a little more, find out what is happening on that side of town, get the milk, talk a little about another neighbor’s new venture into raising ducks, pay more than I would at the store, hope I don’t break the glass jars on the way home and finally put the milk in my refrigerator. And yet, when I put milk in my coffee in the morning, or make my boys burgers for lunch, or can 40 pints of blackberry jam to make room in my freezer for all that beef, there is nothing more in the world that matters than the way we do business around here.