Here’s what perfection looks like:
It’s a beautiful day, and bright rays of sunshine are glistening on the still damp grass of a farmer’s field in the early morning. The grass greedily soaks up these rays, using photosynthesis to grow big and strong. Along comes a cow, chewing up the grass, and all the while spreading more seed with hooves and manure. The cow turns the grass into delicious protein, which we happily eat. As long as the farmer looks after his animals and doesn’t over-graze his fields, it’s a sustainable system. It can run forever.
And then we screw it up.
There’s a great deal of debate and hand-wringing going on these days about words like “organic” and “environment.” We are big fans of organic, and we like a healthy environment. The farmers that we work with like the green fields and sunny days depicted above. That’s why we like to create cured meats made with pork from pigs raised on family-owned sustainable farms.
So here’s how modern farming techniques screwed it up:
What we have long referred to as a “farm” has now taken on a host of other innocuous sounding names. A “farm” has connotations of corn, tomatoes, pigs, cows, chickens, etc. Most farmers raising crops these days practice something called “monoculture.” Vast tracts of land are given over to a single crop, and in America that’s most often corn. That practice is not sustainable. It eventually robs the soil of the nutrients needed to grow good food, and a few years down the road, the earth will no longer support plants. So we have to use tons of chemical fertilizers to mimic the nutrients that would be there if you rotated crops and allowed the land a period of rest every few years. That’s what a “farmer” would do. Further, very little of that corn actually ends up on our table. It ends up in someone’s gas tank or is used as livestock feed.
Now, about that livestock…
The folks who raise our pigs are “farmers” who tend to a “farm.” The folks who raise the livestock for frozen beef patties and shaped chicken parts tend to something called a “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation,” or “CAFO.” This is hundreds, and often thousands of animals conveniently housed in a cramped building or lot. And some of them are huge. These CAFOs also create a ton of waste. There is a CAFO raising pigs in Oklahoma with 800,000 animals. While not the average size, and by no means the largest, each year it produces more waste than the city of Philadelphia. These operations also use a ton of water. Every day in America, we pour through 2 billion gallons of water to quench the thirst of these beasts and move their manure around. And it all goes somewhere.
For several years, the State of California has experienced significant drought. California is also the #1 Dairy producing State in America. Bet you thought it was Wisconsin. Do you know what occupied the lush dairy pastures of California before the cows moved in? Desert. But not only is this practice making things worse for people in California who want to take a shower, run-off from these massive operations are polluting what water they do have. Our home is not far from the Chesapeake Bay. Each year, it develops a “Dead Zone” during the warm summer months due to blooms of algae. Each year, this zone seems to get a little bit larger, and it kills more fish, oysters, and crabs. Over a quarter of the pollution in the bay – nitrogen and phosphorus that stimulate the algae growth – comes from run-off created by CAFO operations around the East Coast.
Here’s the best part: Much of what ends up in our streams and rivers (and often times, us) is antibiotic and steroid in nature. When our grandparents were around, it took a chicken about 16 weeks to get to a nice 2-pound fryer size. A cow was prime in about 2 ½ years. Chickens now get to 5 pounds in less than 2 months and cows are ready for slaughter in a year or less. Juiced. Over 70% of all the antibiotics manufactured in America today are given to animals. And it’s not because they have the sniffles.
One last thing, and then we’ll get back to curing meats. If, for the sake of comparison, you converted all energy to calories – toil, fuel, seed, etc. – it takes 10 times as many calories to make a single calorie of beef. It’s slightly less for pork, and just a bit less still for poultry. It’s like spending $9 to make a buck. And animals live better in natural settings, feasting on sunshine.
That’s why we like to buy pork from family-owned sustainable farms.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Mahatma Gandhi