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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