(Or: What Kind of “-arian” Is That Guy??)
For no reason other than I never really felt the need to explain my philosophy on eating to anyone, I never have. Based on a few recent events, though (and because eating is kind of a big deal), I think the time has come to get it out there.
First, a little background:
At our farm, we raise grassfed beef & lamb who live on pasture 100% of the time. On those same pastures (often at the same time), we raise nonGMO-fed poultry (laying hens, broilers, and turkeys). Sometimes in the pastures, we run some hogs, but most often, the pigs are in the woods, feasting on apples, acorns, hickory nuts, hazelnuts and doing what pigs do (which also clears understory while allowing them to express their “pigness”, thereby creating more grazable silvopasture for the beef and lamb & poultry). At the center of our farming philosophy is the idea of allowing the animals we raise to live as nearly to how they evolved to live as possible, and eat as nearly to how they evolved to eat. We do this in order to raise very happy, healthy animals, provide superior meat to our family, friends and customers, and harness the power of grazing animals to improve our soils, and therefore next year’s pastures. We love what we do, we love the products we produce, and we love the results we’ve seen over the last 9 years. It’s not the most inexpensive way to raise meat, but we think it’s the most responsible. And, if the true costs of cheap meat are factored in, we know our way would be MUCH cheaper than the “conventional” methods that predominate in the US — and, increasingly (unfortunately), throughout the rest of world.
Because these methods are slower (and for a variety of other reasons — among them: cheap, plentiful corn and soy, ubiquitous vertical integration in our food system, scale, and a society much more engaged in what food costs—or how easy it is to prepare/eat— than how it is produced), sustainably/regeneratively raised (or organic) food costs more. Our customers get that, and I think many (if not most) of them believe — the same way we do — that the way we eat has the potential to make or break us. Economically, socially, and environmentally, the mindlessly disconnected way we have fed ourselves for the past century or so has wrought an extractive, destructive, unhealthy system of food production, and along the way killed many thousands of the family farms which had historically been the backbone — and arguably the greatest strength of — our country. In the current farm crisis, many more caught up in producing for the current paradigm will be lost.
So, that’s the background. On to why I’m a pain in the ass to eat with.
Some time ago, I heard the phrase “Vote with your fork”, and it resonated with me. (I can’t recall whether it was Salatin or Pollan who I heard or read it from first, but suffice to say, it was someone who’d been thinking about stuff like this long before I did). Even before we started farming (and even before I heard that phrase), I started to become more conscious of the true costs of eating food produced in the industrial system that prevails in the US (I think the revelation may have come over a couple of the 2/.99 gas station hot dogs I used to indulge in so frequently. Or maybe it was in one of the drive thrus of which I was so enamored). It seemed like the problem was so impossibly big that there was no way I could make any kind of difference as one person. Then I heard the phrase elaborated in a way that really resonated with me, a relatively new (at the time) father (this time, it was definitely Salatin)
“You, as a food consumer, have the privilege of actively participating in shaping the world your children will inherit.” —Joel Salatin
After I heard that (Or read that?) I took the decision to make a conscious effort to “vote with my fork” every time I ate for the type of food system I want to support. I guess it’s no mystery that the system I chose to support with my “votes” was not one that included point-source feedlots crowded with beef standing in their own feces, eating grains they didn’t evolve 4 chambered stomachs to subsist on. Or crowded chicken factories where $1.29/lb boneless/skinless breasts are churned out in 3 shifts. Or animals are born in Argentina, fed in Mexico, slaughtered in Texas, and shipped all over the country (and world) legally labeled “Product of the USA”. I won’t support that system. Not intentionally.
The other part is integrity. As I said at the beginning of what’s become a long & winding dissertation: I raise and sell meat raised in these more time consuming, expensive (but also restorative and sustainable in the long term) ways. How big a hypocrite would I be if I asked our customers to pay the premiums our products command (or products from others like us—there are more of us all the time—because, thankfully demand is growing!), and then went out and stocked up on pork from Smithfield when it was on sale? Hypocrisy is lame. Integrity is dope. (I’m trying to talk younger—how am I doing?)
But, it’s not as easy as that. Without a lengthy explanation (or sometimes even after a lengthy explanation), I am very often viewed as or considered to be everything from some kind of elitist or snob to some kind of crackpot or uber hippie. (Whether out loud, or in the judge’s mind) I assure you, I am neither (though, if I had to pick one, it would be the latter, I guess!). Even worse, some folks sometimes take great offense when I don’t order meat, or politely decline when it’s offered. Even people who know me. (That may be the worst of it, in fact). So, I guess this explanation was long overdue. Maybe it will help folks understand why I don’t often eat out, and when I do, it’s often vegetarian (which is understandably confusing since I RAISE MEAT!)
Summary: I don’t hate your cooking. I’m not some kind of elitist “meat snob”. I don’t think less of you for participating in the system we’ve built by buying meat on sale, or eating what’s on the menu. Nor do I fault the producers raising meat to sell into that system. It’s the system that’s broken. Not the consumer or farmer. I simply choose not to support that system with my buying dollars. I choose to support the type of system I’d like to see more of. I choose to vote with my fork. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?
Last week, I had a rare week away from the farm. Time off to relax with family is always a great thing, and I relish it. This was not that. Or like that. But it was a very rewarding week, and warrants writing about, if for no other reason than to remind myself what it’s like the next time I feel tempted to pack an almost overwhelming number of tasks into a single week.
The week started like most, with the exception of scrambling to get a few things done ahead of the aforementioned impending din. And scrambling to pack nicer clothes than I wear for most funerals and weddings. And a second bag with clothes closer to what I usually wear.
The nice clothes were for a trip to Washington to represent Pennsylvania Farmers Union at National Farmers Union’s annual legislative Fly-In. Beginning Tuesday, the fly-in included 270 Farmers Union members from all over the US. Having been to a similar event in May, it was nice to see some of the same faces I’d met that first go-around. The week included briefings by high-level officials from the USDA (including the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture) and members of the Senate Agriculture committee, as well as days full of visits to various Congressional offices to lobby for things important to family farmers. In this case, in favor of country of origin labeling (COOL) and opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), among other things.
Friday, I had an early flight back that got me back to the farm around 1pm. It felt as though I’d been gone a very long time, and I wanted to spend the rest of the day just being here. But that’s not how it works with masochists. Drop one bag, pick up another. Then load band equipment. My favorite distraction is playing music. Even when I’ve got too much on my plate, it’s my “happy place”. So, off I go to play a gig from 9-12 Friday. (Which means 1-1:30 by the time we’re packed out). Lots of fun, in a great venue, with a special guest sitting in whom I hold in very high esteem. Good stuff. Exhausting, but good stuff. Dangerously tired, 40 minutes from the farm, and heading the same direction the next day, I crashed in a hotel up the street from the gig.
In the meantime, the girls had headed for the Mother Earth News Fair at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, my next stop. I met them there the next day (after a solid 5 hour sleep & 2 hour drive). They took in some of the Fair while I retired to our room for a nice nap. Wait. Forgot about the masochist thing. I retired to our room to finish up the slides I’d started at least a dozen times for a talk I was to give at 5:30 that afternoon. Got them done in plenty of time (~4), and the talk went well enough that I may sleep-deprive myself prior and basically “wing it” every time from now on. (Not really, but the talk did go well, so maybe there’s something to that idea). A lovely reception for the speakers Saturday night, and all I wanted to do was to get back to the room and crash. A repeat of the same talk on Sunday (with the aid of plenty of coffee), followed by the opportunity to take in the keynote by my hero Joel Salatin, and it was back on the road for the 2 1/2 hour trip home.
Now I’m paying the price with a stuffy head and post nasal drip from a sinus something or other, and wishing I was better at biting off enough to chew, but not more. “All things considered, a great week!” said the admitted masochist. Recognizing that there exists a problem is the first step, right?
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t feel alone in that quandary. Seems like that’s what farmers do. At least until they either figure it out better than I have to this point, or talk themselves into toeing the line and raising commodities rather than food. When we started, I was thinking 200 laying hens was a good goal. Seven plus years hence, we hover somewhere around 6-800 most of the year. Fifty turkeys and 100 broilers in a year seemed like what we oughtta shoot for. We run 240 of the former, and 800-1000 of the latter now (more happy thanksgivings = more better, after all!) A dozen feeder beef was once a dream I wasn’t sure I could manage. Now that we have that many brood cows at any given time — and twice as many feeders — it doesnt seem like we’re quite there yet. There was also a time I said I would never run pigs. Now they are some of my favorite critters (most of the time!). I think what I’ve figured out so far is that if you’re going to engage in this profession/lifestyle, you’d better buckle up. Just about the time you think you’ve got it figured out, you’ll add more to the din and wind up wondering if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. On a good note: another thing I’ve figured out is that —with good help, and encouraging sales—I can chew a lot more than I ever would have guessed. And I recommend it.
What is “Grass-fed”?
Grass fed is the term that we use to describe our small (but growing!) beef & lamb feeding operation here at the farm. In the context of our operation, it means our ruminants eat GRASS ONLY, for the ENTIRETY of their life. (Some add the term “grass-finished” to describe what we do, and I’m thinking that may be worth considering in light of what I’m about to talk about).
It seems that over the past few years, the term “grass fed” (as well as many other terms suggestive of a more sustainable approach to raising food — or just plain healthier food. “All natural” is a great example) has been widely hijacked by folks who graze calves on pasture, then “finish” them on grain. Technically, they are not lying. At some point, EVERY cow eats grass. Thus, by that logic, EVERY BEEF could be considered “grass fed”. Much like every tree could likely be considered “seed fed” and every mammal “milk fed”. This has always been the case (ie: beef could have been called “grass fed” even when “grain fed” was the term that brought a higher price at market). Truly grass fed (and “finished”) beef take between 24 & 36 months to get to “finished” weight (that’s why grass fed costs more). Grain fed (whether in a pasture or a feedlot) gets there in as few as 12-14 months. There are many operators out there who think nothing of charging you the premium earned by the extra work and time involved in raising a grass fed animal, even though they did not earn it. This is theft by deception, in my book.
The term that’s been coined to describe this (and similar) unscrupulously deceptive marketing technique(s) is “GREENWASHING”.
(In this case, the greenwashing is meant to take advantage of the fact that Americans are finally waking to the health & taste advantages of grass fed beef). This, coupled with the USDA’s refusal to allow the term “Grass Finished” on labeling can lead to a LOT of confusion among a nation struggling to reconnect with our food…
Buyer beware! If you’re looking for “grass fed” or “free range” (don’t even get me started on that one!), PLEASE make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for!
KNOW YOUR FARMER!