Posted by: beyonddinner | January 24, 2009

Farmer presentations

This week at MIT my awesome colleague Ryan organized an event on campus called: “Organic? All-natural? Grass-fed? What Does It All MEAN??”.  He invited a few farmers from small, sustainable farms to come to campus (I work at MIT) and talk about their lives and what all those terms mean.

I love hearing presentations from people who love what they do!  The speakers were Kim Denney from Chestnut Farms and Kevin McCarthy from Signal Rock Farm and they shared a lot of great information about livestock farming.  While I don’t eat much meat, I truly appreciate what they are doing.  I liked hearing how on Chestnut Farms there aren’t many ticks or mosquitos because their chickens and turkeys eat them.  I enjoyed thinking about the ingenuity of using an old school bus as a chicken coop – it can be moved around the farm very easily, ventilates well when needed, protects the chickens from predators and is simple to clean.  Llamas as guard animals for sheep is a new concept to me – who knew that they would be so effective at keeping coyotes away!  It was a treat to hear the stories and have farm living come to life.

I learned about what organic means and doesn’t mean – I was surprised to learn that certified organic produce can be fertilized with manure from cows that have been treated any which way.  There have been cases of antibiotic uptake into organic spinach, for instance, as a result.  The message was that you are best off knowing where your food comes from and getting to know your local farmers.  They also answered questions about “naturally raised” meat – which doesn’t seem to mean what I think of as naturally raised.  I found this article at Treehugger yesterday that talks about that kind of label.  It’s not as strict as certified organic labeling and is a voluntary USDA standard that means that the meat hasn’t been given antibiotics, growth hormones or been fed animal byproducts.  It doesn’t say anything about how the animal was raised at all – did it ever get out of the barn, for instance?

I also learned about how some processing plants work.  These farmers seem to have found a very good local processing plant (which they are obligated to use to conform to USDA rules in order to sell their meat).  They spoke about how the plant tries to minimize the stress of the process on the animal and this particular plant does that by accepting the animals by appointment, not intermingling them with other animals, and completing the slaughtering process quickly and as humanely as possible.  As you can imagine if this is a good plant that other processing plants might not be very thoughtful of the animals.  It’s also a small enough place that an inspector can keep tabs on the whole operation.

The economics of these small scale farms are pretty startling.  Neither of these farms support the whole families that live on them.  At least one of the adults has an off-farm job.  One number shared is that it takes more than $1M to get started in livestock farming in Massachusetts, in part because the land is so expensive.  Another set of numbers shared is about turkeys.  It costs about $5 to purchase a baby turkey chick and about $12 to slaughter and process – so the farmer is in it for $17 before feeding the bird at all.  No wonder these well-raised turkeys cost so much!

Now that I’ve written this up, I appreciate afresh how much I learned and how much I enjoyed the session.  I’ll have to keep my eyes open for more opportunities like this, especially for vegetable farmers.

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