Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Iverstine Family Farms, Uprooted

by Sydney Blanchard

Each month, our Uprooted series will highlight local chefs, restaurants, organizations, and farmers who are spearheading the farm-to-table and local foodways movements in South Louisiana.

Galen Iverstine (right) and his wife Angela (left) at Iverstine Family Farms in Kentwood, La.

When Galen Iverstine was nearing graduation, he said he found himself faced with the age-old question all liberal arts majors ask themselves: "What the hell do I do now?"

Following graduating from LSU, the political science major considered a number of options including the military or law school.

But a school project on food policy and environmental impacts of food systems got him thinking. He began looking at alternative methods of farming and how to bring products to consumers. 

Iverstine saw a gap in the Baton Rouge market for sustainably farmed proteins, and with zero experience, lots of passion, and some start-up capital from his father, Iverstine Family Farms was born the winter of 2010.

"[My dad] never saw a business idea he didn’t like," Iverstine said.

At the 127-acre farm in Kentwood, Louisiana, it's a family affair: Iverstine's father acts as the head project task manager; his mom does the bookkeeping; Iverstine keeps up with daily chores, harvesting, and marketing and sales; and Galen's wife Angela works full time in Baton Rouge "to support [Iverstine's] farming habit."

"[Angela] always jokes she started dating a political science major and married a farmer," Iverstine said. "Every time I have a crazy idea, she’s like, 'Hey, if you think you can do it, go for it.'"

Iverstine's crazy idea wasn't a novel one. But it was one that predates the industrialization of meat.

The farm utilizes animal impact on land to improve soil quality. Iverstine uses what is called an "intensive rotational grazing method," in which beef cattle, chicken, turkeys, and hogs work together on a patch of land.

Here's how it works: the cattle intensively graze the tall grass in pastures for one day. The cattle effectively trample the grass, feeding microbes in the soil, and defecate, fertilizing the soil. Next comes the poultry, who sanitize the manure by eating parasites in cattle feces, which reduces the amount of chemical de-wormer used on the cattle. Then, the hogs are rotated through any wooded areas and act as a kind of controlled burn.

Needless to say, for a newcomer, it isn't easy to break into the world of farming.

"While we have a large agricultural university, we’re not seeing any farmers coming out,” Iverstine said.

According to Iverstine, the biggest prohibiting factors for new farmers are acquiring land and start-up funds. Land is expensive and tends to stay within families that own it.

Further, mentors are hard to come by. Not many older farmers are eager to help out the next generation, but Iverstine was able to learn from local cattle producers and from a farm he interned with in New Hampshire.

Iverstine hopes to help foster new farmers and to pass along the skills he's learned in the last years, including how to sell products to consumers.

For Iverstine Family Farms, that includes actively keeping their customer base informed, engaged, and growing.

“Social media creates this level of transparency about what we do," Iverstine said. "I think there has been this development of mistrust between people and their food for some reason. [Social media] creates a complete open door.”

Using social media not only helps Iverstine promote his products, but it helps him to educate his consumers. Creating a smarter consumer who will support local agriculture means teaching people to eat seasonally, Iverstine said.

Often, that can mean convincing customers to cook something they've never looked before.

"It’s about people gaining confidence in cooking real food and different cuts of meat," Iverstine said. "That's what it takes: an open-minded consumer who’s flexible in the kitchen.”

Iverstine said once people taste "real food," it's a game changer.

Currently, Iverstine Family Farm products are available at the Red Stick Farmer's Market and through IndiePlate, and local restaurants including Nino's Italian, Table Kitchen & Bar, City Pork, Houmas House, and Velvet Cactus put Iverstine products on their menus.

“There’s a larger call to keeping your local economy booming by supporting people who are circulating their dollars into the local economy," Iverstine said. "Just like our animals work together on the pasture, there is defintiely this produce-consumer symbiotic relationship that has to happen.”

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