As a Niman Ranch farmer, Shalen DeBrower is raising livestock humanely and responsibly. He follows these sustainable farming practices not just because it is what Niman Ranch customers expect, but because it is what he believes in.
“The biggest reason to farm sustainably is to limit waste and to take care of water, resources and land. Farmers have nothing without their land, water or animals.” DeBrower tells Food Tank.
The DeBrower family has been farming for three generations, but in the late 1980s DeBrower’s father left the business. He gave his remaining land to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), where it remains today. In 2002, DeBrower started farming as a hobby but became more serious about it in 2014 when he joined Niman Ranch. He currently operates Windy Acres Farm with his two children, his girlfriend, and her family.
The community that Niman Ranch provides initially drew DeBrower in. “They have endless resources and information if you need assistance,” DeBrower tells Food Tank. “You always have someone to lean on.”
Within this network of small family farmers, Niman Ranch farmers can help one another grow their sustainable practices. In contrast, on nearby farms, DeBrower notices that bigger producers are pushing small farmers out of business.
“Money talks,” says DeBrower. Most local people cannot afford a high price per acre. “It is extremely risky for someone still building [their farm] to get their foot in the door.” As big corporations narrow opportunities for beginner farmers, scaling up with large, expensive equipment may appear to be the only option, DeBrower says; however, farmer networks such as Niman Ranch provide a practical support system for beginner farmers and those who want to have a small or mid-size farm.
Despite the difficulties, stimulating interest in sustainable food and agriculture, especially in young farmers, is crucial. In his community, DeBrower strives to offer new farmers the same support and mentorship that Niman Ranch provided for him.
As concerns about food chain disruptions grow during the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes more important to support local food systems. But DeBrower is optimistic that the relationship between people and farming may shift during this crisis. “I think people have gotten so far from agriculture, they have no clue what really goes on,” says DeBrower. “Recent events might bring this back in the simplest form of backyard gardening.”
DeBrower hopes that these new home gardens will also make consumers more appreciative of the farmers who produce their food. “In today’s world of uncertainty, I would like to get the message out to support American farmers. Know where your meat, vegetables, and fruits are coming from. Do some research on the businesses selling the products.”