A Visit to the Farmer’s Market

This is a story I did earlier in the semester, but I thought why not put it on here since it’s the semester crunch and I’m not going to have time to pitch it anymore…

I’ve never been one to believe in the idea of eating healthy. If something looks good I’ll taste it, and probably engulf the whole thing regardless of perceived future consequences. Perhaps this comes in to play more than ever when it comes to meat. A succulent steak, a perfectly crisp piece of bacon, or even a juicy breast of chicken will tempt me no matter the producer, just like many other consumers.

My curiosity about the natural and healthier food craze peaked, leading to my latest voyage through the Madison farmer’s market. I went to the Wednesday edition, opposed to Saturday’s market where a giant square suddenly feels miniscule as people bump your shoulder scouring tents for the most vibrant green in a green pepper. I had one goal in mind; seek out a meat vendor to talk about the craze revolving around “healthy” meat.

A giant “No Hormones! No Antibiotics!” sign caught my attention, but I scoped out a few more vendors just to be sure. It quickly became obvious that on Wednesdays, only one-meat producer sets up shop on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Pecatonica Valley Meat.

For over 30 years, the Carr family has been involved in meat production. They advertise purity in their meats and in the other items they sell. On this day, Amy and her husband Todd man the tent standing in front of a trailer full of dead animal parts. Amy stands with a warm smile waiting for the next consumer to step up.

I’ve always found it tough to trust people selling products in any form when asked to discuss why theirs is better, especially when it comes to food. Taste buds vary, metabolism constantly differs, and lifestyle choices play into health and pricing concerns.

The Pecatonica story can be seen as a mirror image of how the meat industry has fluctuated and the mentality of the buyer has shifted. In the 1980s, the Carr family found themselves on the outside of farming looking in. Prices in stores dropped significantly, larger meat producers dominated the market, and any chance of profits disappeared. “As my brother always said, the country is used to cheap food. And to farm commercially, back in those days you just couldn’t make anything,” Todd told me.

And that’s where the large-scale meat industry started drawing praise and scrutiny all at the same time. The ability to offer affordable food was, and still is, the key to many consumers’ hearts. At a farmer’s market or in the world of raising natural animals, you’re not going to find the cheap meat. In order to create inexpensive meats simple steps are taken. Feeding antibiotics to keep an animal healthy before they ever get sick, throwing in various hormones to speed growth rates, and constantly feeding them in a sheltered environment to prevent weight loss is part of the game.

For the Carr’s, that lifestyle didn’t fit their views for how an animal should be raised.

“When you raise animals naturally and you keep where they live clean, you won’t need to use a lot of antibiotics or hormones,” said Amy. “They’re outside getting fresh air and sunshine, that also helps contribute to a healthy animal.”

Approximately seven years after leaving the industry, the Carr family found a way to reenter full-fledged farming. It was what they knew and loved. Plus, many consumers started backtracking on the whole cheap meat concept. Pecatonica reestablished itself and could promote this “No Antibiotics, No Hormones” lifestyle without a problem. Enough people became willing to spend a bit more for cleaner and leaner meat.

While I chatted with the Carrs, I watched customers buy $1.00 beef sticks for a quick snack and the occasional piece of meat well above grocery store costs. Nobody questioned the prices or where the animal came from. They didn’t ask about the environmental effects of large-scale meat production or long-term health effects of eating red meat.

That’s when it became more obvious of the choice these people make. Instead of buying eight ground beef patties totaling $4.25, they buy one pound for the same price from the stand. The reasons might not make sense at first glance and may even seem elitist, especially to those struggling to make ends meet.

The choices can be broken down into three facets. People could simply be eating less red meat. If the product is higher quality and you’re willing to eat less of it, why not spend more. By buying massive quantities of commercialized meats, in the end you’re setting yourself up to eat massive quantities. Cheaper food can be enjoyed more often than stuff that can’t fit into a budget.

And as time has shown, if you eat a lot of red meat no matter what kind, health effects will eventually creep in.

Additionally, the carbon footprint of buying local is astronomically smaller than from most stores. Time magazine once said the meat industry generates over 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases. While this may be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind looking to feed their family, think about the future costs. Manure has to constantly be destroyed (and it’s piling up). Add in some unused offal meats that might be needed one day to help the world sustain enough food for all and there are some troubles.

And finally, think of the animal lifestyle. I’ve talked to people who want to know the animal they’re eating was happy. It might sound slightly sadistic because the animal ultimately died to be on your plate. Can that ever be a happy lifestyle? But, to them they’d rather eat an animal who got to see the sun, than locked in a sheltered room.

But, it circles back to how you eat the meat. And that’s what so many people miss in the healthy meat craze. A place like Pecatonica Valley has been around long enough to build customer relationships full of trust. They have no desire to become the largest farm and they’re happy working with local restaurants and on the farmer’s market circuit. And that’s okay because it leaves more options for those looking beyond price and quantity.

There are choices like happy cows and environment they can help you with, but the ultimate decider is you. If you’re looking for the cheapest and most meat, a farmer’s market isn’t the place to look. If you want to enjoy meals every day involving pig, cow, or chicken, it really doesn’t matter where the meat comes from because it will still clog your arteries.

But, if you’re looking for an alternative, the Carr’s method might not be so bad.

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Antibiotics and the Meat We Eat

Cattle Production courtesy of USDA website

We all get sick and animals are no different. Many people take vitamins, supplements, or even antibiotics to try to prevent their own health from degrading. If you feel a cold might be coming on or the change of season leaves you vulnerable, why not pop a few pills.

But, what about for the delicious animals who many of us enjoy from time of time?

Right now, commercial farms all around the country are in a heated debate with the Food and Drug Administration over antibiotics being administered to animals. Many of these producers give antibiotics before any signs of disease, but to stifle the opportunistic diseases that may emerge. And it doesn’t hurt that certain antibiotics can make the animals a bit more on the plumper side without feeding them as much.

The New York Times recently looked at the issue and what the FDA is attempting to do about it. While these new “guidelines” may not lead to full-out banishments on using drugs, it might help prevent some from feeding these animals drugs, especially when unnecessary. A sick animal is one thing and a large part of the issue we’ll dive into shortly, but giving antibiotics to produce a larger product is where we’ll start.

The saying has been around for years, but rings true in many forms of life… quality over quantity. For starters, pigs and cows haven’t traditionally been small animals. It might cost a bit more to feed them the truly appropriate amount of food, but if the situation were somehow reversed (in a magical world where animals ruled over humans), wouldn’t you prefer food over drugs before being slaughtered? Health is one thing, but this is one version of antibiotic treatment that shouldn’t even be up for discussion.

So, now we come to health. Antibiotics used to prevent illnesses before they ever have a chance to think about emerging in the animals. The largest concern with this seems to be drug-resistance for both animals and humans to diseases as the animals and future generations are placed on the same regiment. Scientists and researchers have seen an increase in potential links according to PBS frontline. The PBS frontline episode debuted April 18, 2002, and eight years later the debate rages on.

With so many foodborne illnesses still a potential problem like e-coli and salmonella, do you really want to be eating the meat that might get you sick and prevent an easier solution of recovery. The New York times article mentioned above spoke with a variety of doctors, including Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Speaking to a meat producer, Todd Carr from Pecatonica Valley Farm in Hollandale, Wisconsin, he said no sub-therapeutic drugs are used at the farm he shares with his wife Amy. And while all animals have the potential to get sick, such as cows getting pneumonia, once the penicillin or other drugs are administered they are no longer used in meat production. Depending on the situation, the cows can still be used to help raise their calves.

Of course, the real issue for farmers and even those buying their products is simple, money. If a product costs more to produce, it will cost more to buy. And if it means more labor for farmers, having to monitor their animals a bit closer, that too might cost more money. But, in 2006 when the European Union banned antibiotics for growth, after a ban in 1998 of specific drugs, they were able to adjust. Even if it were to cost both sides more at the time of production and purposes, the long-term costs of mystery health issues might add up to more in the end.

In June 2010, the FDA released these guidelines. And by the end of 2010, we’ll see if guidelines turn into regulations.