Tuesday, April 9, 2013

5 Steps to Select a Farmer

Spring is here, which means farmers and farmers markets are back in full swing with their meat and dairy offerings. If you haven’t made the switch yet from conventionally farmed to humanely farmed meats and other animal products, now is the best time of year to make that transition. Read more about how I made that switch here.

But where to start? How do you know which meat is the best or which farmer is using the best practices?

Through my own trial and error of locating farmers, both in Seattle and in Nashville, I’ve developed my own method for how I select who I purchase my meat from. Yes, it does take some time. And yes, it does require some research. But if you’re going to make the switch, don’t you want to be sure you’re spending your hard-earned money supporting the best farmer and eating the best quality meat?

Here are the five steps for finding the right farmer for you:

1. Visit EatWild.com

This website is a wealth of information about animal welfare and provides a comprehensive directory of more than 1,300 pasture-based farms across the U.S. and Canada that must adhere to an extensive list of production standards to be included on the website.

Use the search function to locate farms in your state, then narrow it down by your region, the types of products you want to buy, etc. For example, I wanted to work with one farmer who offered a range of meats instead of several specialized farmers. And I wanted a farmer who I could buy from online and have products delivered, or who had a stand at a local farmers market so I could easily pick up my meats. Convenience and variety was key for me.

2 Ask Questions – LOTS of Questions
Once I find a few farmers who meet my initial criteria of location, products, etc., I check out their websites (if available) and email them with questions. I ask A LOT of questions, and I expect good answers. My farmer in Seattle told me that any farmer who is proud of how he/she farms animals and has nothing to hide is going to be 100% transparent, and that any farmer who doesn’t want to answer a question is one I wouldn’t want to work with.

I’ll be honest in saying that slaughter methods are a big sticking point for me and I ask a lot of questions about their methods and request graphic answers. I believe it’s imperative that if I’m not slaughtering the animal myself, that I understand exactly what is happening to that animal so I have a comfort level of how humanely that animal was treated. It’s not comfortable information to hear, but I implore you to become educated – it’s because of sweeping this stuff under the rug that we’re in the conventional farming conundrum that we’re now in.

Here are some of the questions I ask:
Are your animals 100% grass-fed and finished? If not, why not?
How much time do they spend out on pasture/open land? How much time do they spend inside?
When inside, how much space do they have to walk, lie down, etc?
Do you use any antibiotics, hormones or other medicines?
How are the animals transported to slaughter?
Are they slaughtered and processed with other groups of animals from other farms?
What are the exact methods of slaughter? Why do you use this method?

I won’t go into the answers I’m looking for because some are graphic, but if you want to know what you should be looking for or why I ask a particular question, please email me at thecontemplativecarnivore@gmail.com.

3. Meet the Farmer
Once you’ve satisfied your curiosities via email, visit the farmer in-person either at the farmers market or at his/her farm. Every farmer I’ve worked with has been so transparent that I’ve been invited to his/her farm to see what’s going on there. The Tyson’s and Perdue’s of the world would NEVER do this!

Introduce yourself, explain what you’re looking for in a farmer, and ask some more questions. Just like the start of any business relationship, meeting someone face-to-face is important to build a basic foundation and some common ground. I usually ask them to tell me about their farm, why they got into the business, and just some basic small talk. Plus, it gives me a chance to check out how they run their business and work with their customers.  

4. Sample the Product
Once you’ve asked all the questions and feel good about what they have to say, try some of their product. Even amongst humane, grass-fed animals, you’d be amazed at how drastically different the meat can taste from farm to farm, processor to processor.

We’ve sampled a lot of meat over the years, and for us the biggest indicator of whether we will choose to buy long-term is the taste of the pork products. Bacon and pork chops are a dead giveaway for quality. We also try their beef and their chicken – though the specific cuts aren’t as critical for these.

If you’ve never tasted humanely-raised, grass-fed meat, prepare for it to taste different than conventional, grocery store meat. People often describe it as gamey. I grew up eating wild game, so it tastes fantastic to me, but it can be a bit of a shock for someone who has never eaten it. Also, it’s flavorful. Chicken really tastes like chicken, beef really tastes like beef. And it cooks up fast because it’s lower in fat and doesn’t have water pumped into it (yes, conventional farms do this to make more money off of you).

5. Build a Relationship
If everything checks out and you like the meat, start buying from your farmer regularly and getting to know him/her.

I know my farmer and his wife by name and they know me. They know which products I typically buy and how frequently I buy. They check in regularly to see how things are tasting, and know exactly when something isn’t quite right.

For example, one time I handed them my list for the month and they forgot to put an item in my bag. I never said a word about it, but when I came back the following month, not only did my farmer remember exactly what he forgot to put in my bag, he gave it to me for free. That’s amazing service!

I love knowing the people who help me put food on the table, and feel great about supporting the great things they are doing for our animals and for our community. Start taking the steps now to make this change in your life this year. Not only will you enjoy better quality food, you will be contributing to the welfare and humane treatment of God's creatures and the environment.

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