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Field Work

Intergenerational cooperation guides the Rosenbaums of Winddrift Farms

Not long ago, David ’70 and Janice Archer Rosenbaum ’70 set out on a drive to northwest Iowa to buy some refurbished hog feeders. They traveled through a thousand miles of farm country, past operations cultivating many of the same products—hogs, corn, soybeans, barley, chickens—as their own Olathe, Colo.-based Winddrift Farms.

No strangers to industrialized agribusiness, the Rosenbaums have competed with grocery-store pork for more than three decades.

Still, the sterile, rural landscapes they observed from the road unsettled them.

“When I was a kid, farms would have a pen for a few cows, some pigs, and a chicken house,” says Jan, who grew up in Ohio and northeastern Connecticut.

“Now, you still see the old house sitting up on the hill, but all the outbuildings are gone, and in some places it’s just a 3-acre lawn with a huge machine shop. That’s it, for acres and acres.”

It can be tempting to conclude that the economics of family farming don’t add up these days. Markets tend to favor bigger operations that use industrial, extractive methods, like feeding antibiotics to pigs in indoor confinement pens, or spraying crops with soil-harming anhydrous ammonia to maximize yields when the market price is high.

But the Rosenbaums believe there is a better way of assigning value when it comes to food production. For decades, they have demonstrated that sustainable approaches and alternative economic models can pay off. Those values put into practice over the past 30 years reflect the family’s Quaker leanings and deep roots in the Swarthmore intellectual tradition.

“I guess we’re the ‘small is beautiful’ kind of idea: Know your producer, and know your customer,” Jan says. “It’s an encouraging sign that we can make a living doing that.”

A Crash Course in Farm Economics

The Rosenbaums’ first foray into farming, in the late 1970s, ended in financial distress.

Young, freewheeling, and just a few years removed from Swarthmore, the couple moved to Colorado after the birth of their first two children, Nancy ’96 and Betsy ’98.

One day while out driving, they met Mrs. Grett, a dairy farmer’s wife who was looking for some help because her father-in-law was slowing down, Jan says. They started working for the family, milking cows.

After gaining a few years of invaluable-—and unexpected—farm experience, the Rosenbaums were able to buy their own farm in 1977, opting for hog farming because it was cheaper than dairy. (Though their time around cows was short, their relationship with the Gretts was for the long haul: Jan and Dave bought additional farmland from the family just a few years ago, calling it “JOG” for “Jewel of Grettdom.”)

The pair put together an operation of about 110 sows in Olathe. But after a few years, much of the U.S. agricultural industry entered a crisis of skyrocketing interest rates and debt, while commodity prices and land values fell. Soon, the Rosenbaums found themselves on the wrong end of a variable-rate mortgage and washed out of farming.

“It took them 10 years or so to pay everything back from that venture,” says son George ’01, who grew up under the shadow of that debt. “So now, the impetus on Winddrift Farms is much more of a locally sourced, locally consumed business model.”

A Case Study in Sustainability

Even more than his sisters, Nancy and Betsy, who arrived in Colorado as small children, George Rosenbaum was born into farming. As kids, he and his siblings brought home from a friend’s house the incredible sow Agnes, who delivered 12 litters—inspiring the elder Rosenbaums to seriously pursue farming again.

These days, Winddrift Farms produces about 500 pigs per year for markets in local Montrose County, Durango, and Grand Junction. They also keep a few cows and raise about 100 chickens per year. All are raised with access to the outdoors, and antibiotics are used only sparingly. At an industrial confinement farm, pig waste might be washed into an anaerobic lagoon with the potential to pollute local watersheds; at Winddrift, it’s instead incorporated into the agricultural cycle, stored in dry piles, and spread onto fields once a year as compost.

Since George joined his parents as a partner in the farm in 2012, Winddrift has also focused on vertical integration.

“If we’re growing our own feed, we have a constant market for the grain that we produce, and we have fixed feed costs,” George explains. “That allows us to then fix our costs to our customers—if we’re selling a pig a year to a family, they can budget.”

George didn’t originally intend to pursue farming full time, but after studying biology at Swarthmore and then spending several years in Hawaii’s construction industry, he decided to return to his rural roots.

“What I’m doing now at the farm,” he says, “is much more satisfying.”

With the assurance that Winddrift will persist into the next generation, Jan and David have reinvested in the farm, particularly in the feed-growing operation, where George brought a passion for soil health as a new frontier of sustainability. He introduced a crop rotation system that minimizes tillage, which can harm soil microbial activity, and presented on his experience at the Western Colorado Soil Health Conference, encouraging other farmers in their community to give the system a try.

“Every decision that we make,” George says, “our most important priority is: Is this going to benefit our soil health?”

More than Just Production

Community is key for the Rosenbaums and Winddrift. Jan and George both credit David with developing a marketing strategy that allows their product to reach the sorts of customers who are interested in healthy, sustainable, local food—it’s one of the trickiest factors to master for idealistic farmers.

“Hogs grow so fast that your marketing window is maybe three weeks,” Jan says. “So it takes a lot of arranging to get everybody satisfied.”

Though they have earned a “natural” affidavit for their pork, the Rosenbaums haven’t pursued an “organic” designation for their products.

“With that label, there’s a lot of abuse,” Jan says. “The idea of ‘organic’ produce in plastic bags shipped 1,600 miles is not something we’re looking to do.”

Instead, they’re focused on developing and maintaining relationships with customers nearby. George’s next big idea that he hopes will catch on regionally is the “just price” model. In this centuries-old, ethics-based theory of economic relations, values are set not by a commodities exchange, but by reasonable agreements between customer and producer, neighbor and neighbor.

To the Rosenbaums, the validity of just pricing is obvious.

After all, they were nearly ruined financially decades ago by volatility in the national commodities market, and they’ve seen neighbors damage their soil for years to come, trying to make the most of a single harvest.

The model also fits neatly with the tradition handed down from David’s Quaker mother, and from the College experience that the whole family shares.

“We try to see that of God in everyone,” says Jan. “We’re not meeting-attenders; we just try to value and do right by everyone.”

“I would say, ‘Do all the good you can to all the people you can in all the ways you can as long as you can,’ pretty much sums up my religious beliefs,” George says.

That shared ethical compass is at the heart of what makes the family farm successful.

“Even though there might be some differences in terms of how we’re getting there, we’re all pushing in the same direction,” George says. “It takes work, but Swarthmore’s definitely helped in our ability to communicate openly and honestly.”

Farming is Constant Learning

Each of us—Jan, Dave, and George—was interested in agriculture prior to our college experiences.

Farming is a constant learning experience. Particularly in a vertically integrated farm, the number of variables is great: soil health, genetics, herd health, feeds and feeding, product quality, marketing, and sales.

A large part of our success is in creating successful situations for others, from suppliers to buyers. Having a broader background helps us live with others’ political views with mutual respect. Dave has used the biology of animal communities idea that the bee colony is the individual in his approach to herd health; I, Jan, started re-reading M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus on our first farm with kids when it seemed all the neighbors wanted to talk about was the Denver Broncos.

—JANICE ARCHER ROSENBAUM ’70, an art history major at Swarthmore