The Real Cost of Meat

This past weekend at the Farmers' Market, a long-time customer of ours came to tell me a story. This customer's sibling had recently been out to our farm to buy pork, very excited to get such high-quality meat and see the breeding sows and boar. This new customer's spouse, a moderately well-educated person in their mid-60s, was disgusted at the thought of eating meat that "came from a farm" and refused to partake. 



You won't eat meat that comes from a farm? You're not a vegetarian ... so where is your meat coming from? Isn't a place that raises animals by *definition* a farm? What else would you call it?

Every time I think about this conversation, I get upset. I get upset that this person is probably not even an outlier in terms of their level of knowledge about our food system, or in terms of their comfort with the processes that turn sunshine and grass into the meat on our dinner tables. I comfort myself that the customer who told me this story was equally as taken aback as I.

I want to delve a little deeper into this ignorance of the food system.

One of the foundation blocks of our farm is transparency, and the treating of our farm as a place for community and education. If you have questions about any aspect of how the food we sell you is produced, we encourage you to ask it, and we will likely take the time to have you out to the farm to see for yourself.

This openness is a double-edged sword.

A deeper understanding of their food frequently brings about a positive change in the lives of those who are open to it, bringing appreciation for the amount of work required on the part of the farmers, and the complexity of the ecological processes on the part of the soil, plants, and animals.

The other side of this is that those who are unprepared for the real costs of their food frequently throw up a wall between themselves and the food system. Their response is not to learn more and to care more deeply about the impacts of their eating, but rather to blind themselves to anything besides the end product, the food on the plate. This means that they do not even want to think about their meat as ever having been a living animal.

This willful blindness allows them to continue to participate in the industrial food system. If they cannot acknowledge that their hamburger has ever been a cow, then why would they care whether that cow had ever eaten grass or gotten to wade through a verdant pasture? Why would they care how that cow died? Why would they care whether the slaughterhouse workers were given adequate breaks, safety gear, or physical therapy if they experienced repetitive stress injuries? Why would they care what happens to the manure produced by that cow and its millions of brethren?

The pigs on our farm are born on our farm. They live out their days on pasture, no matter the season. This means they may be cold and wet sometimes, but they have mud to wallow in, soil to root around in, the companionship of their siblings, and fresh air to breathe. They have their ears and tails entire. The hogs that are pre-sold by halves and quarters never even have to board a livestock trailer; their lives begin and end here on the farm. The chickens on our farm arrive as day-old chicks. They live indoors, under heat lamps, for the first three weeks of their lives, until their feathers come in. Then they are moved out to movable coops with no floors, and are moved onto fresh pasture every morning. They are protected from rain and predators, and enjoy sunshine, clover, crickets, and the freedom to stretch their legs and waddle about (because they do waddle. Not great walkers, these chickens). At the end of their brief lives, they are loaded in crates and travel as far as our barn, where we have our own poultry slaughterhouse. Our slaughterhouse workers are us. We enjoy a communal meal at the end of our work. We acknowledge the contributions of the animals, and savor the meat that they provide.

It isn't exactly happy work, raising animals to kill them. We protect them when they are vulnerable tiny babies, and marvel at their cuteness, and never name them. We do our best to provide them with the space to act as their instincts drive them, and to make them content and comfortable. We strive to fit them into our farm ecosystem so that the manure they produce is captured as the valuable resource that it is. It isn't exactly clean work, raising animals. They make mud, they make manure, there is spilled grain and spilled water. Ending their lives is messy. But life is dirty, life is messy. We cannot live in a sterile environment. We strive to minimize and eliminate the harmful "dirt" of pathogens, but we are certainly not afraid of dirt. 

In the end, we try to be consumers whose eyes and hearts are open. We strive to see and acknowledge all of the costs that go into our food - the ecological costs, the human costs in labor, in emotion, the costs to the animal. Knowing what I know now, I cannot imagine eating meat that came from anywhere except a farm that I know. Now I walk right by the coolers full of meat at the grocery store. The meat, eggs, and dairy that I feed my family come from our own farm or from farmers I know. The vegetables we eat come from our own farm or farmers that we know. I am moving towards getting a greater and greater proportion of our food from farms that I know, at least by reputation or by doing research.

Real food security lies in knowing the producers, in supporting those producers so that they can continue to do their job to the best of their ability. Real food security lies in accepting the messy, expensive process required to produce your food, and in making sure that you can understand each step of the process.