The Farm Babe: An Ag Love Story

michelle miller, farm babe, doug sass

L.A. Girl Meets Iowa Farmer

Recently, the D2D team took a trip to Iowa to meet Michelle Miller and learn about her life on the farm. Did you know the Farm Babe once worked on the famed Rodeo Drive at Gucci? Hard to believe, right?! Not only that, but she ascribed to the “healthy” lifestyle of many Los Angelenos: was against GMOs; consumed lots of organic products; had a fear of hormones and antibiotics in her food and believed many other misconceptions about the U.S. food supply system.

Though her roots were in the Midwest, Michelle Miller’s love for travel has taken her near and far. After LA, she moved to Florida, where her fate as The Farm Babe began. While serving drinks one day in a local Pensacola beach tavern, her eyes connected with a handsome guy across the bar.

That guy’s name was Doug Sass, a 6th generation Iowa farm boy. While Doug loves the farm life and all that it brings, Iowan winters can be harsh! So Doug dodged the north winds and headed to his sister’s place in Florida for a few weeks. It was on that trip where Michelle met her “Prince Farming” and Doug his “Farm Babe”, and their lives haven’t been the same since.

After that chance encounter, there was no looking back. Michelle packed up her things and moved to Doug’s farm, where her real education in modern-day agriculture began. It started with a few blog posts about what she was seeing, smelling, caring for and living with on a real farm. Her early posts went viral, and the seeds for The Farm Babe were planted. Today, she is the voice behind the Farm Babe and works tirelessly as an “agvocate” for farmers and ranchers by tackling controversial issues and the facts behind our food.

“I just want consumers to be informed,” Miller says. “Nothing makes me happier than knowing I eased food fears for people about hot topics like GMOs, pesticides or ‘factory’ farming. If you want to talk about GMOs, talk to genetic scientists. If you want to talk about food production, talk to farmers. If you want to know about hormones, talk to a veterinarian. There’s this amazing science that happens in our industry that is something to be proud of. It kills me to know it’s drowned out by misinformation.”

New Life Experiences On The Farm

Case in point for fleeing Iowa for the winter: imagine it’s the early hours of dawn on a -50°F February morning. To make sure the newborn lambs stayed alive, Michelle brought them into her kitchen to keep them from freezing to death. Going the extra mile for her ‘babies’ is just one of many new joys of farming life.

And on another day, Michelle watched in jaw-dropping disbelief as a TV warned of a local tornado, which then ripped through their farm and decimated 50% of the buildings on the property. This is considered a normal weather hazard in this part of the country, but not something Michelle thought would ever happen to them.

But there are also the blessings of the 16th hour of the day in a combine during harvest, exhausted and proud of the long day’s work. Michelle and Doug bask in the spectacular light of a full moon in a perfectly clear sky. A take-your-breath away view that neither of them would trade for the world.

Doug’s philosophy: “A bad day on the farm is better than a good day in any other job.”

The Business of Farming

Doug and Michelle manage about 250 head of cattle every year. That means that they purchase weaned ”feeder” calves in the fall, care for them through the winter and following spring, and sell them at market late in the summer.

In addition to their cattle and row crop operations, they run BuckingLamb Palace, which is comprised of approximately 100 ewes that birth lambs every year. Michelle considers the sheep her “queens”, as they deserve a “palace” for being such gentle and kind animals that help feed us so well. Keeping the sheep business all in the family, Doug’s uncle mentored Michelle in the raising of sheep…lessons that she will always cherish. She was able to purchase her first few ewes from him and, thus, BuckingLamb Palace was born.

The ewes are impregnated by the on-site rams in late summer, and after a 5-month gestation period during the coldest part of the year, twins and even triplet lambs are born around Valentine’s Day. They are sold to market later in the summer, when they reach about 160 pounds.

The sheep are rotated through barns depending on their age, gradually introducing the lambs to a larger crowd. By the time warm spring air starts to reach the farm, the ewes are anxious to wean their young and get back out to the fields to graze until their next cycle.

Michelle took us to the barns for the fun experience of bottle-feeding the eight “orphan” lambs, as their mothers didn’t properly care for them. As sad as that might sound, taking care of these lambs is Michelle’s favorite part of the job! She has been the orphan mother for dozens of sweet baby lambs over the years.  She and Doug feed the lambs cow colostrum when they are first born, then move them to milk replacer, and then gradually to a diet of oats and grass.

Farming Through Volatility 

Though farming is a tough job with many economic ups and downs, Doug and Michelle believe their farm’s diverse operations of livestock and staple crops help them stay afloat during difficult times. For instance, while today’s price of soy and corn is down, sheep prices are up, offsetting the loss. He also mentioned that among most farmers he knows, at least one of the spouses has a job in town for additional income and health care insurance.

Furthermore, they maintain a small farm operation and haven’t over-invested in expensive technologies with no real potential for return on investment. Doug and Michelle are very hands-on with their labor, diligently adding to their workforce only during peak weeks in harvest season.  An impressive task that only dedicated farmers can achieve!

They also reduce expenses and increase yields through cover-cropping. Doug’s brother, Neil, is a soil scientist for the USDA, and twenty years ago started working with Doug and his parents to adopt this method. By rotating his cropping schedule and utilizing this method, Doug runs a no-till system wherein he plants the cash crop directly into the cover crop. This reduces emissions and leads to healthy soil, less erosion, reduces the need for expensive fertilizers, and ultimately increases yield.

Managing 2,200 acres and 400+ head of livestock as a single operator is quite a task. But by keeping the operations efficient, it is manageable, although at times even he wonders why there aren’t more hours in the day!

As for Michelle, if she isn’t tending to her flock of sheep one day, she may be off to Los Angeles to be a guest on the Dr. Drew Show or to Australia to talk about farming techniques to farmer groups.

As an advocate for farmers and ranchers, Michelle believes that our collective voice is stronger than our individual voices, which motivates her to work with blogs like Dirt-to-Dinner, whose missions are to educate consumers about myths surround our food!

My Nightmare Meal: A Personal Reflection of Our Food System

food fear

SPOILER ALERT: Your food is safe. We have one of the safest food systems in the world. But upon reflection, I can see why he made such a comment.  Indeed, there seems to be a constant avalanche of reports targeting a threat or cause for worry.  And if I don’t already fear the food, some people want me to feel guilty for not just what I eat, but almost for even eating at all.  

My So-Called Wrongdoings

Think I’m crazy?  Sit down in your local diner and order a meal.  Let’s go for comfort food:  meatloaf, mac and cheese, and a side salad with Thousand Island dressing.  Oh, and some apple pie with ice cream for dessert.  A glass of ice water with lemon, and maybe a nice cup of really good coffee to cap things off.

So what have I just done here?  How does this food get me into a maze of controversies about human, animal and environmental welfare?  Let’s look at it piece by piece, or bite by bite, if you prefer.

Let’s start with the meatloaf…

It’s hamburger, plus some breadcrumbs, some spices and maybe a few chunks of peppers or mushrooms.  Maybe I sprinkle some salt and pepper on it, and a touch of ketchup, just for flavor.

  • Should I be eating beef at all? It takes lots of water and feed grains to bring an animal to market.  It gave off a lot of greenhouse gas while it fattened up, too.  It may have been finished off for market confined in a feed lot, and maybe injected with antibiotics at some point.  It certainly didn’t enjoy the trip to the processing plant.  Dietitians tell me too much red meat will clog my arteries, or at least contribute to those extra pounds I seem to carry these days. And if I eat it more than five days a week, I might get Alzheimer’s.

  • I probably didn’t need all that salt, either. It could kick up my blood pressure.

  • And what was in those breadcrumbs? Were they from stale old bread they had lying around?  Was it made from GMO crops?  If so, should I worry?

  • What about those peppers and mushrooms? How do I know they were grown responsibly, without taking up too much water, or using too much fertilizer and pesticides?  And were the people who picked them paid fairly and treated well?

  • Did they add an egg to the meatloaf? My mom used to do that. But if they did, was that egg from a happy, free-range chicken? Was it fed antibiotics? How much cholesterol does the egg add?

  • Ketchup…organic tomatoes, or mass-produced in a hothouse or grown hydroponically in an indoor farm somewhere?  Picked by whom?  And using how much added sugar? What is ascorbic acid, or citric acid anyway, and why in the world is it in there?

Now I’m afraid to even think about the mac & cheese…

  • What grain did they use to make the macaroni? Is it also a GMO crop?

  • Is the cheese really cheese? What kinds of preservatives, colorings, flavorings and anti-coagulants are squirming around in there, just waiting for me to eat them up?

As for the salad…

  • Where in the heck did this Romaine lettuce come from? Should I worry about food poisoning? And what about the tomato, and the cucumber, and that reddish stuff that looks like an onion…is it local? How did it get here?  How many hands have actually touched the food I’m about to eat?  Who checked to make sure it’s clean, fresh and safe?

  • As for the dressing, did it come out of a bottle or a 20-gallon vat somewhere?

food fear

You know, I used to love my apple pie…

Now I’m feeling a little squeamish about it!

  • Who is this mysterious Mrs. Smith, and just where is this bucolic Pepperidge Farm, anyway? How do I know it wasn’t some team of minimum-wage newbies on an assembly line churning out my mass-produced pie?

  • Just where did these apples come from?  How much sugar is in there?  Or is it high fructose corn syrup?  Or maybe some alternative sweetener made from the leaves of a plant the Aztecs once used to smoke to get high?  Is the crust an actual food, or maybe some form of bio-degradable, flavor-enhanced cellulose?

  • The ice cream isn’t really helping, either. Did the cows who supplied the milk have drugs used on them to stimulate more milk production?  Were they treated humanely?  How was the milk handled?  How much sugar went into the mix in making this?  How much artificial flavor?

Maybe a sip of water will help calm me down…

But wait a minute.

  • Did this come out of the tap, or from a bottle? What kind of pipes are in the city’s water system?  Who checks the water for contamination, and for what kind, and when?

  • And what about that slice of lemon? Did anybody wash that lemon before they cut it up?  How long has it been lying around waiting to be plunked into somebody’s water, or iced tea, or finger bowl?  Where did it come from, anyway?

Let’s just forget about the coffee…and the sugar or artificial sweetener I put in it, or the milk.  I no longer care where the coffee beans came from, or who picked them, or much of anything else.  I certainly don’t care if the milk came from a cow or an almond.  I don’t even want to think about how much energy was needed to cook all this, or to heat the hot water they will use to wash up.

Wasteful Worries

Now my appetite is pretty much gone, thanks to all this thinking I’ve been doing.  So what do I do with all this left-over food on the plate?

  • If I don’t do something with it, they will just scrape it off into the garbage and send it to the local landfill. It will decompose slowly, I suppose.  But while it does, it will generate still more greenhouse gas.  Food waste in landfills already accounts for 7 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.  My contribution here could pollute the water table, if the landfill isn’t up to spec.  Am I more responsible for global warming if I eat this food, or if I throw it out?

  • Maybe the diner will call the local food bank and make sure the left-overs go to good use – you know, for a needy person, or a soup kitchen, or something like that.

Or maybe I just stop eating.

Phew. I just woke up from my nightmare.  But this sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?  However, this is just a superficial look at some of the issues that surround the food we eat these days.  Actually, there are a great many more than these to consider – real, serious issues that people in the food sector wrestle with every day in trying to satisfy the public demand for safe, sustainable food.

OK, Now Here’s the Good News…

Educating worried consumers on our food system is one of the big reasons why we created this blog, so you’re in luck.  People want to know more about our food system: where their food comes from, how it is produced, how it is delivered, how we keep it safe and make it as wholesome as possible, and more.  We all need to know, and, frankly, we should know.  And thankfully, farmers have a great story to tell.

There is no way to adequately describe the commitment, the resilience, the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of the men and women who produce, farm, ranch, and those who manufacture the food products, and those who prepare the food we need and want.  We look forward to continued innovation and advancement in our established food system. And what we hear is loud, clear and unequivocal faith in the future of food.

Secretary Perdue is correct: “This growing fear has the potential to sideline, deter, critical technologies that we already use, and derail technologies in the pipeline, that we already know how to achieve.”

Never underestimate our farmers and producers. When commitment, capability and capital converge – look out. All things are possible — including food that people don’t fear, and a food system that doesn’t induce guilt. If you want to learn more about how our food is grown, food safety, and food waste, take a look at these posts for more information:

Farming and production: Where do our fruits & veggies come from? | What is the Farm Bill | America’s salad bowlGMOs: a recipe for understanding

Food safety: There is no such thing as a dirty vegetable | CDC foodborne illness detection | Food safety at farmers’ markets

Food waste: Waste not, want not | Eat beer and drink sandwiches

Government resources: FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act | USDA’s Food & Nutrition page | EPA & Pesticides | FAO’s State of Food Security & Nutrition | WHO & Food Safety

Maybe our food system isn’t perfect yet. We need all the intelligence and technologies possible to feed a growing population while regenerating the land. We’re doing a better job today than we did yesterday, and we’ll do a better job tomorrow than we do today.

Indeed, it’s a great big world of possibilities — except maybe for a decent tasting diet cola.