Hey, all! I hope everyone is enjoying these sweet summer days. I made it through my first full week at work with Firsthand Foods, and man, have I learned a lot. Though I’ve been working with local food systems for the past year, focusing on community building and sustainable practices, my experience has mainly been allocated to produce. During that time, I was a vegetarian because I was not in a position to easily access sustainable local meat – meat that I knew where it was sourced from, what it was made out of, how it impacted the environment, and how it was produced. In other words, there just wasn’t much meat around that I could trust. As a result, my health took a turn for the worse due to lack of protein (which, by the way, increases cravings for sugar – not a fun cycle). So, I sought out information about alternative meat sources that positively feed consumers, support farmers, steward the environment, and build up the local food economy (Disclaimer: there are not many meat supply chains that fulfill this criteria). Through this search, I happened upon the North Carolina Growing Together initiative’s (NCGT) Local Food Supply Chain Apprenticeship, which connected me with Firsthand Foods.
With this being my first week on the job, I’ve been completely immersed into the world of pasture-raised local beef and pork. This week’s agenda was filled with orienting myself with our co-working office space at the Eco Hub, cattle farm visits, farmer interviews and photographs, watching cattle pregnancy checks, a visit to a halal slaughter plant, working a tasting table at one of our customer’s events, and figuring out all the relationships and jargon associated with the world of meat. There’s a beefy amount of knowledge to know, and even more puns to spice up the learning process.
Though I’m ecstatic about all the knowledge I’m gaining about cattle and hog farming, it has become quite apparent how little I actually know about meat production, processing, and sourcing – and, let me tell you, there’s a lot to know. Smaller scale producers have a hard time coming up against massive food aggregators operating on a nation-wide scale, decreasing product costs and increasing the distancing effects on knowledge, environmental implications, and fairness of wage. Fortunately, there are businesses like Firsthand Foods who operate as local aggregators and marketers for smaller scale meat producers, helping them to tell their stories and supporting their efforts to produce pasture-raised, hormone and antibiotic free meats, in a way that enriches the soil, is more humane for the animals, educates the system, supports the local economy, and tastes better for the consumers.
While working into my mind the differences between “Fat Cows” (cattle exclusively bred and raised for meat production) and “Market Cows” (cows raised for breeding, who are then used for meat), and dispelling the notion that the red liquid in and around meat is blood, it’s not – it’s just a happy mixture of moisture and muscle cells, I began to think about the ways that I and most consumers have interacted with meat. Think about the last time you ran to the grocery store for a steak or some pork loin. The likelihood was that it was already pre-cut, pre-weighed, and prepackaged, quite nicely on a styrofoam plate wrapped in seran wrap. It may have said “All-Natural”, “Pasture-raised”, “Grass-fed”, “Organic”, or something of that sort. These labels are quite helpful in navigating our choices as consumers, but still there is so much left out of the story. We may understand that the animal was raised on a pasture rather than in confinement, but what about the type of animal it was, the actual diet that it ate, what were the principles of the farmer, and what was that farmer’s relationship with the buyer, processor, and vendor of the final product?
These questions are complex and hard to answer, and not many of us have the time or interest in finding out these answers. Admittedly, these questions didn’t occur to me until I started actively seeking out meat that I felt good about eating.
Since then, I’ve felt good about a lot of other things. Among them are the awesome family histories associated with many of the cattle farmers I’ve met, the dedication of local co-operative markets to serving their community and supporting smaller scale farmers and producers, and about how hard it is to be a small local and sustainable fish in a pond of powerful corporate scale sharks. In no way do I think that larger food corporations are better or worse, but the climate in which both the small and little fish exist makes it quite hard for difference and alternatives to be successful. So, kudos to all those out there supporting the local, the sustainable, and the transparent, because it’ll take a lot of probing, questioning, and supporting to garner the necessary support that local food endeavors so deserve. Keep on (m)eating on!