I come from a family of dedicated meat lovers, so naturally at age 13 I decided to become a vegetarian. A budding Indiaphile, I was already reading Gandhi and learning to meditate, so the renunciation of meat was inevitable. I believed eating animals was immoral and unhealthy.
Adolescent ethical certainties faded, and I drifted away from vegetarianism in my 20s, but later resumed it during a serious illness. I was convinced that a foul diet was part of my problem, and the answer was to get pure. Of course, that meant shunning all flesh foods.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. After years as a vegan, I found myself still sick and discouraged. I decided to start listening to all the people telling me I needed to eat meat. The good news: It worked, I got better. The bad news: I felt deep shame every time I put a package of drumsticks in my shopping cart.
I don't think anybody acquainted with the horrors of modern meat production can eat the result without some pang of conscience. Cows are kept knee-deep in feedlot filth, stuffed with an unnatural diet that makes them (and us) sick. Pigs are confined to tiny stalls, too small for them even to turn around. Chickens are de-beaked and...well, I won't go on. Check out www.factoryfarm.org for the whole sad story.
I looked for alternatives. First stop: the meat counter at our local health foods superstore, Wild Oats. There I found lots of pretty, expensive beef and chicken, but not much info on where it came from, or how the animals were cared for. I tried asking a nice guy behind the counter if he could tell me more about the meat.
"It's all-natural, it's the best you can buy," he said.
Did he know how it was raised?
Since he clearly regarded that as a sufficient answer for any reasonable person, I took my pricey steaks and moved on.
I heard about Peaceful Pastures, a local farm that sold humanely raised meat direct to the consumer. I contacted them for details, but it seemed kind of overwhelming to a conflicted carnivore like me: I'd have to drive at least 45 minutes to pick up my orders; I'd need to buy a small freezer; I wouldn't have year-round choice of products; and it wasn't cheap.
So I went back to the supermarket, with its unnatural but convenient array of factory meat.
I felt bad about the animals, but I have to admit that I'd probably still be shopping in the glow of the special rosy lights over Kroger's meat counter if my own self-interest had not come into play. I began to learn more about the nutritional superiority of pasture-raised meat. (Remember, I was doing this for my health.)
I also started to notice that much of the meat at all the markets was prepackaged and injected (or, as the label coyly states, "enhanced") with a sodium phosphate solution. This seemed both unhealthy and dishonest. One day, I went into my favorite store and couldn't find a single un-enhanced package of chicken. I asked another nice guy what was up.
"We've tried to order the natural. Distributor can't get it."
"Don't people complain about being asked to pay $3.99 a pound for salt water?" I asked.
He looked down his nose at me.
"No, you're the first."
My concern for livestock is genuine, but it doesn't hold a candle to my rage at feeling ripped-off. I went shopping for a freezer that day and called up Peaceful Pastures.
Jenny and Darrin Drake of Peaceful Pastures are among a small, ferociously enterprising group of farmers trying to restore some sanity to American food production. They are both idealists and entrepreneurs, seeking to farm in harmony with nature and make a decent living at the same time.
Darrin grew up raising pastured beef cattle and wanted to pursue it without being at the mercy of commodity pricing. Jenny, a former restaurant inspector, suggested he let her try selling their beef by the half, direct to the consumer. Darrin was dubious. "He sort of patted me on the head and said, 'Sure, honey,' " Jenny laughs. "We had four to sell. By noon, I had sold six."
They moved from Indiana to Virginia to Tennessee, adding dairy goats, chickens, sheep and finally pigs to their operation. Four years ago, they started selling meat by the retail cut to spoiled consumers like me. They also market meat and raw dairy for pets, and Jenny has a line of bath products.
Business ambitions aside, the Drakes are motivated primarily by a love of farming and a strong Christian faith. Jenny is herself a former vegetarian who learned from Darrin that meat production does not have to mean a life of misery for the animals. They breed their own stock, and all their animals spend their lives in a pastured environment, free to roam, scratch, root and graze. By contrast, the USDA allows chickens to be labeled "free range" if their housing has any access to the outdoors, which can be nothing more than a manure-filled yard. Many such birds never actually see the light of day.
Farms like the Drakes' are dotted here and there across the country, outposts of common sense and respect for nature in a corporate-dominated industry that has little use for either.
Charles and Laura Ritch own Goose Pond Farm in Hartselle, Ala., where they raise pastured poultry, along with beef and lamb. Charles came to farming later in life, looking for a healthy environment in which to raise his two daughters. He started out assuming he would operate fairly conventionally. Soon disillusioned by the prescribed overuse of chemicals and the casual cruelty of the sale barns, he educated himself in more natural, humane methods and is now their eloquent proponent. Making life better for his animals, he says, is his "number-one criterion" in farming.
A deeply religious man, he shares the Drakes' belief that farming in accord with nature is a stewardship of God's creation. Such spiritual commitment seems to be the rule among these farmers, nearly all of whom are either devout Christians or what Ritch calls "New Agers." There is a mutual, if slightly uneasy, respect between the two groups. Their theologies may be worlds apart, but they are united in the belief that "nature bats last."
It's not surprising that farming in this way is an act of faith. Any reasonable person would advise against it. The labyrinthine state and federal regulations are devised for large, conventional producers. It's very difficult for a family operation to afford the facilities the government demands for a meat or dairy producer who wants to retail his or her own product.
Health threats such as E. coli and BSE (mad cow disease) are products of factory farming, virtually unknown among pastured animals; yet farmers like the Drakes and the Ritches are subject to the costly rules devised to control them. For example, the new slaughterhouse procedures intended to prevent the spread of BSE to humans also prevent the harvest of many popular retail cuts from cattle that are more than 30 months old. This is doubly unfair to grass-fed beef producers, because pastured cattle mature more slowly than their hormone-dosed feedlot counterparts.
Added pressure comes from large retailers and their relentless pursuit of health-conscious but passive consumerslike me, for instancewho often value convenience over quality and rarely look past the label. "Sooner or later," says Ritch, "Wal-Mart is going to figure out how to sell pastured poultry." He knows he can't hope to compete with mega-retailers on their terms. But he has a vision of his own, of food produced on a human scale that continues to bind people together as it has for millennia. "I can offer a name, a place, a face.... I have to hope there are enough people who care about that to keep me in business."
I hope so, too. Things aren't getting any better at the factory farm. The latest innovation is the genetic modification of livestockFrankensteak, appearing soon at a market near you. Personally, I'll take my meat grass-fed and unimproved. It's humane, it's healthy and it tastes great. n
Where to find humanely raised meat
Jenny and Darrin Drake
Peaceful Pastures All Natural Meats
Beef, lamb, pork, poultry, raw pet dairy and pet meats
Regular local deliveries; nationwide shipping
Annual open house and farm tour, June 12, 2004
Laura and Charles Ritch
Goose Pond Farm
Pastured poultry, wholesale beef and lamb
Call for sales info
Julie and Jim Vaughn
Rocky Glade Farm
Beef, pork, lamb and chicken
On-farm sales; deliveries to the Farmers Market at The Factory at Franklin, May-October
Kimberlie and Ralph Cole
West Wind Farms
Deer Lodge, Tenn.
Certified organic grass-fed meat and poultry
On-farm sales; deliveries to the Farmers Market at The Factory at Franklin; nationwide shipping
For more information on pastured meat and a comprehensive list of producers, go to www.eatwild.com.
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