Day 307–Six Questions to Ask About Sustainable Meat

If you’ve been following the blog, you know how I feel about factory farmed meat. Not everyone has access to fresh, sustainable meat, but if you do, give it a try. Here is a nice article by the Sierra Club about questions to ask your local farmer about their meat products. Since we’re heading into turkey season, this seemed like a timely piece!

Sustainable Meat: 6 Questions to Ask a Farmer

6 Questions to Ask a FarmerLet’s face it, there’s nothing eco-friendly about factory farms. When servings of eggs, dairy, and meat come packaged with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, groundwater contamination, animal cruelty, and hormones, we wouldn’t blame you for losing your appetite. But there are still ways to eat meat without unduly burdening the earth. This week, we’ll offer hints for finding a “greener” pork roast or Thanksgiving turkey.

6 Questions to Ask a Farmer

One big advantage of getting your meat, eggs, and dairy from a local farm as opposed to a giant, faceless corporation, is that you can actually talk to the farmer. Visit your local farmers’ market or check out Eat Wild’s farm directory to find free-range livestock farmers in your state, many of whom sell shares in meat CSAs. You can ask them questions to find a farm that matches your own standards for land and livestock stewardship.

Here are six good questions to get the conversation started:

     1.) Are your animals fed with organic feed?

     2.) Are your animals raised on pasture?

All livestock will eat grass, and not only are they healthier for it, but their meat, milk, and eggs have been found to contain more omega-3s than animals that eat no grass. Pastured animals will also spread their manure out on fields, where it can decompose naturally.

     3.)  Are your cows and lambs “grass finished”?

“Finishing” is also known as “fattening up,” and grain is a healthy part of the diet of poultry and pigs, but wreaks havoc on the digestive systems of cows and sheep. “Corn-finished” or “grain-finished” meat comes from livestock that ate little but grain and other processed supplements for the last six months of their lives, while “grass-finished” animals were fattened up on the pasture. Even pastured dairy cows usually eat some grain for extra nutrients, but should still eat mostly grass.

     4.) How do you handle your animals’ manure?

Manure is a huge pollutant in feedlots, where it seeps into groundwater and rivers. If your farmer tells you that the manure is left in “lagoons,” then it means they’re leaving it untreated, where it can pollute local water systems.

     5.) Do you give antibiotics to healthy animals?

Often, antibiotics are used to keep farm animals healthy when they’re too overcrowded and stressed to fight off disease. This has caused a widespread rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If farmers only use antibiotics on animals that are actually sick, you know that they’ll have been raised in a healthier environment.

     6.) Do you use heritage breeds?

Many “modern” livestock breeds can’t even survive outside of climate-controlled cages, but ‘heritage” livestock are bred to live outside, and are healthier, heartier animals overall.

Feel free to ask about whatever other concerns you might have. The more we demand answers from our food providers, the better choices we’ll be able to make.

–Image credit iStockphoto/jabiru.

Rachael Monosson is an editorial intern for Sierra and a recent graduate of Stanford University, where she studied Earth Systems. She lives in San Mateo.

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Day 5–No Local Veggies at the Local Grocery

Example of an American grocery store aisle.

Although the area of North Carolina where we live is primarily high-tech and business/government oriented, most of our state remains agricultural. It makes me happy that I can drive 20 minutes outside of Cary and find family run farms that still produce vegetables and livestock. In fact, North Carolina is a primary regional producer of sweet potatoes, strawberries, peaches, corn and tomatoes. North Carolina is also home to two regional grocery store chains–Lowe’s Foods and Harris Teeter. It’s not a huge leap to think that our NC grocery stores would carry NC products, right?  

With our new dietary challenges in mind, I recently visited our local Lowe’s Foods grocery store to see if in fact I could find locally produced vegetables, meat and agricultural products. I was hoping to find that I could purchase at least some local food products at my local grocery.

As I wandered through the produce section I wondered why Lowes sells collard greens from South Carolina when we produce them here? Same for sweet potatoes. In the produce aisle, I did not find one item produced in our state, but I found several produced in Mexico or Peru. I gave up on the meat section, which has no source information at all. I did find some agricultural products (grits, corn meal) and processed food products (barbecue sauce, hot sauce), but other than that, I came up empty-handed.

So, I asked a Lowes employee who looked official (wearing a tie and carrying a clipboard), why that is. He explained that the company as a whole has contracts with specific producers that ensure they have a “good selection at an affordable price.” So where do all the products we produce go? He also mentioned that some stores, including one in a nearby town, have displays of locally produced products, but that the manager of my particular Lowes had not chosen to do that. Then, very interestingly, he also mentioned that his family doesn’t buy their vegetables at Lowes or any other grocery store. They use a produce co-op hybrid called The Produce Box, which sources only from NC farms that use sustainable and/or organic farming practices. Hmmmm. Curious.

My plan this week is to write to Lowes and ask them to consider contracting with local, sustainable farms or to at least put a state symbol or some other marking so consumers can find what local products there are more easily. For a grocery chain that plays up its home town roots in advertising, this shouldn’t be a huge stretch. We’ll see…

Day 3–Finding New Sources for Sustainable Food

Salers Cow. Milk and meat from cows and other ...

We are big believers in shopping our local farmer’s markets and we are lucky to have 3 to choose from. Unfortunately, two of them only operate April-November and the one that is still open doesn’t have a lot to choose from this time of year. So, on the positive side, we are beginning our journey at the most challenging time of year and it can only get better from here. On the down side, we are starting our journey at the most challenging time of year!

I’ve found some bright spots though, and one is a relatively new group in Durham, NC, called Farmhand Foods. They connect North Carolina pasture-based livestock producers with individuals, restaurants and retailers. They source only from farmers who raise their animals humanely, on pasture, without antibiotics, added hormones or animal by-products.

Best of all, they are offering a Winter Meat Box for January, February and March with pickup locations around the Triangle area. Each box contains three different cuts of meat (2 beef, 1 pork), with a total box weight of about 7 lbs.

Doing the math, each box is $45 and at 7 lbs. we’re paying about $6.50 per pound of meat. A lot compared to the grocery store, mass-produced meat, but a lot less than the average price at Whole Foods.

So, we signed up, and will pick up our first box on January 19. I’ll work the cost into our weekly budget and report back on the quality and overall value of the meat we get. If you are interested in Farmhand Foods, I’ll add a link to the sidebar.

What do you think? Is it a ridiculous amount to pay for sustainable, locally produced meat? Or would you think it’s worth it? I do believe we will be eating less meat as a result, which is not a bad thing either. Would love to hear your thoughts!