Steve Normanton grew up in South Africa, working on a farm that raised antelope, giraffe, rhinoceros, buffalo, and other African game, in addition to cattle, before moving to the states in 2003. Now a New Hampshire resident, he raises pastured beef cattle, pork, lamb, and chickens for meat and eggs, and grows mixed vegetables on 120 acres in Litchfield. His perspective on farming, shaped across the globe, emphasizes holistic and organic practices.
Normanton sells to customers in southern New Hampshire and northern central Massachusetts, and aggregates some product from neighboring farms. He has a farm store on site, and arranges sales of sides of grass-fed beef (and smaller packages) on his website, stevenormanton.com, along with sales of pastured pork, chicken, and lamb, and a mixed vegetable CSA.
He also makes time to be active in education and policy development, as the president of the board of the Granite State Graziers — an advisory group of New Hampshire farmers that plans educational activities about grazing and pasture management — and as an engaged member of New England Farmers Union who has served on the Policy Committee since 2014 and attended an National Farmers Union Legislative Fly-In in 2013.
During a recent telephone interview, Normanton spoke thoughtfully about agriculture and society’s role in supporting farmers. Asked how farming in New England differs from where he grew up, he described South Africa as an established agrarian society, not unlike the American Midwest or Texas, where farmers are held in high regard and can earn a decent wage for their work. There, he said, professionals consider farming a viable career. “It’s not a subsistence form of living,” he said, where a spouse has to work off-farm to earn a regular salary with health insurance, as it often is in New England. However, he has seen New Englanders gain awareness about local agriculture and the stature of farmers rise, he said. “People get where their food’s coming from when they buy from me. [As a farmer,] you want hero status.”
But it’s not always easy. As he works to build his brand of organic meat, he faces challenges, such as a processing bottleneck at slaughter time. Zooming out, he also pointed to barriers farmers region-wide face in getting up to the right scale so that their products can reach consumers. He said he is pleased to see demand for local food rising, but more farmers are needed to produce desirable meat, and agriculture policies and programs must be in place to draw them in. He would like growers and retailers to be able to experience direct feedback from customers, so that there would be an innate pressure to ensure high quality.
Climate change offers another challenge. Long dry spells have affected his operation. He said farmers need to respond to these changes instead of ignoring them. “We’re not acknowledging that climate change is happening. A black animal [such as Angus, commonly used for beef in the U.S.] can’t handle the heat and will be unproductive.”
On his farm, he is working on developing silvopasture, where animals graze among trees, providing them shade at the hottest time of day. “It is happening,” he said of the growing awareness of these practices, “between NRCS [the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service] and different organizations, such as Green Start and Granite State Graziers.”
On the state level, he said he’d like to see an aggressive pro-farm agenda that might ask, “Where do we see agriculture in 2020, 2025, 2030?” Likewise, he asks, what can we be doing as a region to increase food production? “Can we produce 100,000 head of beef a year in New England?”
It’s part of what he appreciates about New England Farmers Union’s regional approach to federal policy work. “I absolutely do feel there is a value to NEFU at the policy level,” he said. “It’s nice to know our needs are being heard at one level at least. I don’t worry about policy on a federal level because I know NEFU’s got my back there.”
Trade is a federal issue that could potentially disrupt the local beef industry. “TPP [the Trans-Pacific Partnership] is a huge concern to me,” Normanton said. While it may not affect his niche market, it would “hit this region pretty hard if we’re not innovative enough to circumnavigate it.” For example, if beef imports from Australia don’t have to list the country of origin on the label, it’s “a huge concern,” for New England growers.
“What bothers me even more, whether we’re importing or exporting, is farmers being paid to grow something that doesn’t have value,” he said, referring to the ingredients that make up processed foods. “Subsidization of food is a way to impoverish civilization,” he added. “It doesn’t make people pay for the real cost of food and the fuel to grow it.”
On the other hand, conservation subsidies reward farmers for the good work they do. “They are an investment in the future, not supporting the dinosaur,” of an industrialized food system.
All in all, Normanton sees his business prospects in a positive light. “I sit on the doorstep of a really great market.” He said, adding he sometimes doesn’t have enough product to meet the growing demand. And that’s good news for small to mid-scale operations like his, and for the future of agriculture in our region.