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Published Again: How We Are Helping To Create A Resilient Food Supply Chain

I was interview by Martitia Mestey for Authority Magazine / Medium. Link to the article here

Offer farmers reduced rates for healthcare insurance, disability, vision, and dental. Small farmers don’t have the same accessibility to affordable healthcare. This industry is strategically important and a a physically dangerous profession. It’s important our farmers don’t lose their farms due to medical bills. And today, that happens. It’s shameful.

The cascading logistical problems caused by the pandemic and the war in Eastern Europe have made securing a reliable supply chain a national imperative. What must agriculture companies and policymakers do to ensure secure and resilient food supply chains? In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders who can share insights from their experiences about how we can address these challenges. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Judith Horvath, owner of Fair Hill Farm in Central Ohio This business executive was busted for illegal backyard chickens, bought a farm, and today she teaches aspiring farmers how to get started like she did, but without the missteps. Through a career of executive operations management, Judith simultaneously maintained a “second life” in the growing movements of sustainable agriculture and farm-to-table eating. She is the founder and owner of Fair Hill Farm, a working farm in central Ohio where she and her family raises hair sheep, dairy goats, and other heritage breed livestock. When global events laid bare our food supply chain fragility, Judith left corporate life to concentrate solely on helping launch a new modern generation of small farmers and resilient local food supply chains.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up? Hi, and thanks for having me here. I grew up in the mid-atlantic East coast USA, When I was small, my parents were barely making ends meet. I remember one Christmas, a family member gave my parents 5 pounds of sugar and a pack of Oscar Mayer bacon. It was such a luxury! Food was a big part of my upbringing. We couldn’t afford to buy bottled pancake syrup so my mom added water to a maple flavor packet thickened with cornstarch to mix… she tried to stretch it, so sometimes it was runny. We did the same thing for spaghetti sauce. I don’t even know if they sell these products in the store anymore — do they? Maybe they should! (laughs) I had NO idea we were living on the edge. I had a warm bed, clean clothes, and homemade food. Growing up, mom emphasized the importance of education. Dad personified work-as-hard-as-you-can work ethic. When my parents finally owned their first house, my mom planted a HUGE garden. I loved eating sugar snap peas. My grandmother played a huge part in my love of gardening. She taught me about compost, tomatoes, and saving seeds. I was regarded as an animal lover and a serious bookworm.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career? When my husband and I first bought our farm we could afford our farm because it was neglected for 15 years. The house was in disrepair. The pastures were overgrown and full of debris. A girlfriend and her partner came over to help us and our 2 kids to pull T-posts out of the ground and collect broken electric wire fencing. The posts were particularly tough to pull- it took a good 10 minutes to loosen and pull each post and there were so many! Well as the 6 of us were sweating and despairing, bitten by bugs and miserable in the heat… and a farmer rolls up with two farmhands hanging off the back of a big John Deere tractor. “Hi, I’m Bart your neighbor. Welcome to the valley!” he smiled. I hadn’t met him before. He looked around and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “We are removing the T-posts and all this wire so we can mow this brush and see what we have here.” The scrub was a 6-foot high mess. Bart nodded, unsmiling, looking around, and said “M-HMM…Yeah…But what are you going to actually DO… with the land afterwards?” I felt him staring into my soul. I saw a seasoned local farmer who was sizing us up. “I’m putting sheep in here.” Bart sat upright and smiled broadly and said “I’ll help!” He barked orders at his two farmhands and they immediately jumped off the tractor, attached a chain, started locating T-posts in the high brush and popping them out of the ground sequentially. I stood there dumbfounded as they pulled hundreds out with surgical precision and efficiency. And just like that, a neighbor farmer saved us a week of work because he wanted to see us make the land produce and was willing to bet on us. “This place has looked terrible for over a decade. I’m so happy to help if you’re going to be producing something!” He said before he left. That was a huge lesson. It showed me how much farmer neighbors are willing to help others. It was all about productivity and respecting the land.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each? Here in this space talking about food chain resilience, the first trait is courage. We are in a tough spot as a nation right now and let’s just say my message isn’t popular at parties. <laughing> On the other hand, it is important to educate kids, colleagues, and clients when it comes to effort necessary to produce food. It’s critical to offer the greater context, and that takes some courage in the willingness to be candid with the current situation and help people understand the magnitude of this issue, as well as helping to paint a picture of a successful path forward through individual action, different choices, and a change in our lives.

Second is grit. Farming is not something where you can just leave a position and get a new one. It takes dedication over decades. This is a bigger issue that’s going to take a lot of education, work, and patience to solve. Meanwhile I’m outside at least twice daily 365 days a year caring for my livestock and running my own farm. From answering questions to webinars and classes or meeting up with customers, working with other farmers or attending sales and events — there aren’t enough hours in the week to do it all.

Third is gratitude. I firmly believe it’s possible to draw one’s future to yourself through gratitude. Since I’ve started farming full time, this has grown inside me continually. I’m increasingly grateful for the experiences I’ve had in this farm life, the amazing people who I meet, and the seemingly endless set of ‘coincidences’ and synchronicities that have been blessings on my family.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people? Right now I’m working on increasing the productivity of my pastures through rotational grazing my sheep. It might not sound sexy, but it means moving animals every day as soon as the grass growth starts. Not only will it keep my animals healthier, but it means that I’ll be able to produce more food on the same amount of land, as well as increase organic matter and build soil. This helps people because every 1% of organic matter that you add to your topsoil enables it to capture and hold 12,600 gallons of water per acre! Now that’s drought resilience and replenishing our aquifer. It’s also a model for others to see and learn from in drought years. I’m also working on raising dairy goats in milk so farmers can purchase top-notch quality production animals when they’re ready to make that investment and jump-start their own food resilience.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. To ensure that we are all on the same page let’s begin with some simple definitions. What does the term “supply chain” encompass? In my understanding, it encompasses all the stages and components from farm to consumer table when we are talking about food. As soon as a food item leaves the farm where it’s grown, it’s in the supply chain until it reaches the end customer/consumer. It’s even more complex when there are assembled foods as the final product, like frozen lasagna for example. So just think about all the steps from farm to factories to stores to consumers and the dozens of ingredients. It’s a long distance and a lot of steps!

Can you help articulate the weaknesses in our current food supply chain systems? Today’s systems are so highly complex and efficient that they’re inflexible, even brittle. Just-in-time processing and packaging of food is complicated and heavily reliant on inputs from all over the world, making it prone to failure when a specific packaging component or ingredient is not available. From single-use plastic packaging, or additive ingredients sourced from all over the world — prepackaged food production is a complex process. It’s also predicated upon cheap energy. Finally, it’s fairly inelastic, only varying 4–6% volume fluctuation from year to year. That means that as the era of plentiful oil ends, our food supply chains will be challenged even more. Due to reduced energy availability and increased prices, the costs for food will continue to rise. Chemical fertilizers are sourced from all over the globe and are a huge part of per-acre crop yields the cost of which have doubled in the past couple years. This means that in the coming years, we will see more disruptions and higher prices.

Can you help define what a nationally secure and resilient food supply chain would look like? It would look reminiscent of a bygone era. It would look like seasonal eating at restaurants using ingredients sourced within an hour’s drive. It would be networks of small farmers serving a local set of customers, and more local local grocers, butchers shoppes, farmers markets, and farm-to-table sales. At the individual family level, it would also mean that most suburban homes have a small garden, maybe a couple fruit trees, some herbs, and backyard chickens. In short, it’s people knowing deeply and personally exactly where their food comes from, the farm or neighbor that grew it, how it’s raised, and how far it had to travel to get to their table. It also means healthier habits — eating less junk and processed food, with people cooking meals starting with whole raw ingredients. It also results in a lot less waste of food because people understand what it takes to grow food.

Can you share with our readers a few of the things that your organization is doing to help create a more secure food supply chain? We are increasing our production a little bit every year. We’ve increased diversity of products, expanding into new areas. Finallly, we are actively partnering with other farmers, enrolling in local markets, and applying to new local outlets to help ensure a physical presence of our foods in actual local stores. We’re not just online anymore. We are reaching out to customers as well as other farmers within our area and state to build these lasting relationships and partnering on projects.

What are a few threats over the horizon that might disrupt our food supply chain that we should take action now to correct? Can you please explain? Quite simply, it is the structure of the system itself. Extreme centralization of the USA food supply chain means that one single event has a huge ripple effect. Illness, contamination, drought, fire, blight, and other weather events all pose threats to our national system. Most of all, however, is the volatile cost of fuel/petroleum upon which most of our system depends as it is the source of fertilizers, packaging, and transportation for food. This energy uncertainty paired with global materials and manufacturing disruptions (e.g. aluminum, glass, steel, plastics, etc.) also due to energy supply issues — mean hiccups in this highly tuned, precise system. This chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and at present, many links are weakening.

The USA is not alone in this, either. In the UK, at the time of this writing, vegetables are in severely short supply and rationed in WWII-style in stores due to a myriad of labor shortages, weather, bird flu, soaring energy costs, and supply chain issues brought on by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

This didn’t happen overnight. In the early 1970s US Dept of Agriculture secretary Earl Butz told US farmers to “get big or get out.” And since that time, small family vegetable farms have continued to disappear, supplanted by monoculture factory farms. Livestock farms have dwindled with the rise of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). Little guys got out.

Today over 98% of all meats in grocery stores are factory farmed. 80% of it passes through just 4 meat processing and distribution plants. This extreme centralization creates single points of failure in this highly efficient, but effectively brittle system. When meat packing plants were shut down during Covid, there were animals that were euthanized because there was nowhere for them to go and everything was backed up. This is because our food supply is rather inelastic, only fluctuating 4–6% year over year. This is why the food plant shutdowns during Covid laid bare the fragility already present — and we felt the ripple effects from shutdowns. High-speed high-efficiency high-throughput processing breaks bad. The same phenomena is being seen today in egg production as the Bird Flu (Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenze H5N1) is ripping through egg-laying mega-farms, necessitating massive culls and skyrocketing egg prices.

At the writing of this article, approximately 15 cents of every dollar spent in the grocery store goes to the farmer who grew or raised that product. The rest — or 85% of your grocery bill — goes to the system. Meahwhile, small farmers struggle to make ends meet as return-to-the-land movement is growing and billionaires and celebrities are buying up farmland at a rapid clip. People are no longer bound to live in one geographic area to make an online living. At the same time, our tech sectors continue to shed jobs and we are facing layoffs and falling wages. Lots of moving parts!

Meanwhile, back on the farms… just 2% of the population are full time farmers. 1/3 of them farmers are over 65 years old. The median age of farmers is 56. We are facing a demographic cliff and it’s coming up fast. At the same time, the cost to entry for young people is so high as to be prohibitive.

The solution is right in front of us: we can build resilience through developing decentralized, local food systems reminiscent of decades ago. We are going to need a whole lot of farmers to do this over the next decade. We need people from all different backgrounds and ages, with inventive open minds and dedication to do things in a way that blends today’s technology with understanding of regenerative agriculture, heritage breed livestock, heirloom produce, working with mother nature, and rebuilding soil while eschewing energy-hungry synthetic inputs. It’s a tall order, I know, but we can do this. We have to. The world has changed a lot in the last 50 years. I will modernize Earl Butz’s quote in what may seem a strong statement today but it’s mine: “By 2033, get regenerative, sustainable, local and low energy, or go hungry.” I’m a small farmer, and I know this article will age well as even more disruptions continue to strain our system. It’s why I farm and why I do what I do. We need more small farmers, and we need them jumping in now, because it takes a good amount of time to learn how to farm. Every year, more teachers — farmers from pre 1970s- are dying off.

Ok, thank you. Here is the main question of our interview. What are the “5 Things We Must Do To Create Nationally Secure And Resilient Food Supply Chains” and why?

1 . Federal level incentives: start farms and get into farming, and increase production. This should aim to lower thresholds to entry and encouraging growth on existing farms. Some examples are federal spending for more grants to not just young, but first-generation small-size farmers and meat processors. Start a Federal Unemployment program that is available on an extended basis for those people who have decided to enter agriculture would be a great help as well to bridge the gap between a desk job and a farm job.

2 . Community Support: Set up promotional campaigns, food hubs, buying programs, co-ops, CSAs (Community Shared Agriculture), and incentives to restaurants buying from local farms. Today, many food pantries will not accept donations directly from farmers and grocery stores won’t buy direct from small farmers in that same town. This is nonsense and it needs to stop. Finally, big box grocery stores are not permitted to donate spoiled or damaged produce. This is

tremendous waste that could be otherwise diverted to livestock feed for local farmers, compost for community gardens, or other purposes rather than filling local landfills. This is where the magic happens from an awareness standpoint.

3 . Lower barriers between customers and the farmers/products that they wish to patronize. The big classic example is dairy products and private butchering. In many states, it takes years, exorbitant cost and hurculean effort to meet the government standards of opening a dairy or an inspected butcher. One facility closes, and it takes a replacement years to start up. Meanwhile, the gap in production capacity casues other issues. This can be modernized with advice from farmers and packers in the industry to suggest best ways to achieve this without sacrificing safety and quality.

4 . Level the playing field between little farmers and big corporations. For instance — one inspector can inspect an enormous high speed high volume facility, or a small one — size doesn’t matter and the cost is the same. But it is the smaller facility who pays proportionally more of their income for that one inspector. There should be a proportional burden for assuming regulatory costs within a state. In other words, the bigger your production, the bigger your portion of the safety and compliance inspection bill within that state. If your company processes 90% of all the beef in the state, that company should be charged for 90% of all the meat inspections too.

5 . Offer farmers reduced rates for healthcare insurance, disability, vision, and dental. Small farmers don’t have the same accessibility to affordable healthcare. This industry is strategically important and a a physically dangerous profession. It’s important our farmers don’t lose their farms due to medical bills. And today, that happens. It’s shameful.

Are there other ideas or considerations that should encourage us to reimagine our food supply chain? Think back to the statistic mentioned earlier: that 15 cents on the dollar goes to a farmer when you buy a product at the grocery store. Consider this: you can save money and a farmer can get a significant raise and be paid a living wage, when you buy directly from a local farmer. As a direct consumer you get to voice your opinion over the quality of a product and provide input to that farmer. When store shelves are empty, you’ll still have your CSA box coming. Imagine only needed to go to the grocery store for dry goods and limited items. Imagine meeting up at the local town square and stopping at different stalls as farmers bring your order to meetup on the weekends. Totally achievable. It’s how our family operates 8 months a year and we live 30 minutes outside of Columbus Ohio, the 14th largest city in the USA.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-) Take responsibility for sourcing as much of your food as you can through your own efforts. Seek out your local farmer who raises livestock and sells directly to consumers. Be willing to try lamb and goat; if you haven’t tried them, please do. Meanwhile, get some backyard chickens. Grow herbs in a windowbox and some green beans in a flowerpot, and plant swiss chard as an edible ornamental vegetable in your flowerbed. You can make a difference. Seize that power. Wield it. Reconnect with where your food comes from and taste the difference.

How can our readers further follow your work online? You can find me at If you’re interested in learning more about getting started in farming, sign up for my newsletter. I also have a podcast, Fair Hill Farmstead Life on Spotify and Podbean, where I talk to people who have gotten started in small farming. Their storeis are inspiration, education, and entertainment.

This was very inspiring and informative. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this interview! I really appreciate this opportunity to discuss this important topic. I’ll be watching your further work for more in this area.

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