4.24.2008

searching for solar-powered beef

In the personal-is-political department, I've taken a big step towards a change I've been planning.

In the warmer months, Allan and I eat dinner outside almost every night. After 20+ years of apartment life, we are mad for sitting in our backyard. I can't even express what joy and inner contentment this simple act brings me, and Allan seems to feel the same way.

We grill dinner, and that usually means chicken, salmon or steak. From reading about factory farming, and especially from reading Michael Pollan, I decided I wanted to buy and eat pasture-raised, more naturally fed, meat. Some history of my thoughts is here, and here. I also asked readers about local vs organic vs industrial food.

I spent some time online looking for where pasture-raised animal products are available in our area. The excellent website Eat Wild can direct you to local, organic, grass-powered farms all over the US and Canada.

I was very pleased to learn that there are plenty of these farms in Ontario. But it quickly became apparent that the missing link is distribution. These farms, by definition, must operate on a small scale. They can't produce the massive quantities that would attract large supermarket distribution. Most of these brands aren't even sold in farmers' markets (although, for me, the farmers' market isn't an option anyway).

With most of the organic farms, you can place a large order, then pick it up at the farm itself. I know at least one friend of wmtc does this. It sounds like a great idea to try once, but being realistic, Allan and I are not going to shop that way on a regular basis. So, whittling the list down to what is available in our area, there are a few choices.

The "big" brands (big for the smalls, but still tiny compared to the industrials) are Beretta Organic Farms, Rowe Farms and Cumbrae Farms. All three are available at two or three places not far from where we live. (If we still lived in Port Credit, they would be literally down the street.) But to my knowledge, none are available at Loblaws, where we do our grocery shopping.

Beretta will also deliver a large order. They tell you when they are in your area, and you place the order two days ahead. They've recently added a $5.00 fuel charge, which I think you would more than return by buying direct with no retail mark-up. This seems like a nice option.

I haven't yet figured out how I'll do this. Do we want to make a separate trip to one of these better stores - in our area, Cousins or Elmwood Meats - to buy for the week? Do we want to place a large order with Beretta directly? It will be trial and error at first as we figure out a system. And I do want to visit the farm at least once. It seems like something fun and interesting we should do.

This meat will be much more expensive than we are accustomed to, as well. Our money is pretty tight right now, and that's not likely to change soon. (We have never gotten back to where we were before my unemployment, and we're about to take a vacation we can't afford.) I'm not sure how price will figure in. But this is something I really want to do, so I think I can figure out a way to do it.

During my research, I also made another compromise. Animals that are raised for meat are, towards the end of their lives, fattened up with a different diet than they normally eat. This is called "finishing," I already knew about this from my earlier reading. In this round of research, I learned that even on organic farms, with pasture-raised cattle, the cattle eats grass for most of its life, then is finished on other grain.

One-hundred percent grass-fed beef is very difficult to find. (I started writing "...is rare". My usual unconscious punning.) Beretta Organics does produce and sell completely grass-fed beef. But, I learned, grass-only beef is not good for grilling, and in general requires different cooking that probably wouldn't work for us. What's more, I could only order this directly; the few retail outlets I found that sell Beretta products don't carry the grass-only beef.

But I realized that Beretta Farms' standard, certified organic beef very much accomplishes what I set out to do. It comes from cattle that is pasture-raised and eats grass for most of its life. Even during finishing, the cow still eats organic grain, not industrial corn. It doesn't live in a filthy feedlot, it isn't being injected with antibiotics. In general, it still lives a cow life, not a factory life. In light of my objectives, this works for me.

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, this won't be a perfect system. It won't account for anything we eat in restaurants, and I'm not sure we will sustain it in winter. But working on the assumption that any positive change is good, and one needn't do something 100% in order to do it at all (relatively new insights for me!), it seems like a very good step.

42 comments:

L-girl said...

No vegetarian proseltyzing please! I've tried. It doesn't work for me. Thanks for your understanding.

James said...

What about In Vitro Meat? :)

L-girl said...

Bleh!

and

*shudder*

I'll just quote this from the Wiki link:

Consumers whose preference is whole and unprocessed food may find such a high-technology approach to food production distasteful

I'm looking for less processing, not more. More real animal, who led a real animal life.

:-)

James said...

Ah, but consider the benefits: since fewer animals are needed, less land gets cleared and less energy spent for beef agriculture.

I recently listened to an interview with a researcher in the field. They can only produce a ground beef replacement, since they can't grow actual muscles, just tissue, but since 50% of the world beef market is ground beef, that opens up a lot of room for phasing out all those farms build on cleared Amazon rain forest &c.

Some friends and I were discussing this over a vegetarian dinner a couple of weeks back. The conversation soon devolved into trying to come up with product names, though, like "I Can't Believe It's Not Beef". The favourite was "Beeftitute".

L-girl said...

Hey, knock yourself out. No thanks for me.

By the way, I almost never (rarely?) eat ground beef. We had you guys over for burgers last summer, and that was probably the last time I ate ground beef, and the time before that were those wildly delicious In-N-Out Burgers in California. It's not very good for you, and I generally avoid it.

But that's beside the point to me. The last thing I want to see is more human-engineered food.

Sarah Gates said...

I feel your grass-fed pain. I'm eating much less beef these days because I decided a while back that I could either afford to eat it often and have food guilt, or I could eat it less frequently and feel better about the cattle involved. It's a shame, as steak is one of my favorites (we grill on a mini grill on the fire escape -we're going to catch the building on fire one day, the irony of which is not lost on me.)

I was really hoping to join a CSA this year as well, but I just don't have the available funds to plunk down for a share, much as I would like to.

L-girl said...

We are steak-lovers too. The organic, pasture-fed variety costs a lot more, which means eating it less, as you said. But I am glad to alleviate some of that factory-farm-induced guilt!

FatLady said...

I think maybe I've seen Rowe chicken at Highland Farms....not sure about the beef...

L-girl said...

According to the farms, their products aren't found at Highland Farms.

It's HF's huge meat department and great prices that got us eating steak so often in the first place! But I am trying to wean myself off them. :)

Ryan said...

See my last post on the lab-produced "beef."

*shudder*

You think the corporatization of food is bad now?

Anyway, if you're really into the local ag thing like me, you might consider starting a CSA (community supported agriculture) project. I'm trying to get one started at my church, so I'm in the research phase right now. I'm going out to a clydesdale-powered CSA project next month to talk to the farmer and gather info.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_supported_agriculture

Barbara Kingsolver will be on tour this summer, and her book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" got me interested in local production. She'll probably be in your area sometime soon!

L-girl said...

Thanks, Ryan!

Good luck with your venture. That's terrific.

I'm not a candidate to start a CSA, not even really a candidate to belong to one. Just trying to make some small changes I can live with that will contribute less to animal cruelty. (And lessen my environmental impact, too, eat healthfully. But my primary concern with this is animal welfare.)

impudent strumpet said...

I wonder if anyone's ever studied whether cows like the taste of grass or grain better. Like I know grass is healthier, but maybe the grain's like eating potato chips even though you have a fridge full of fresh produce. And it is their last meal, after all.

FatLady said...

It's HF's huge meat department and great prices that got us eating steak so often in the first place! But I am trying to wean myself off them. :)

Us too. Tell the truth though, didn't that mile-long meat counter make your hear skip a beat first time you saw it? ...or was mine threatening a massive MI?!

I'm just trying to eat less meat in general. It isn't easy. I come from the land of Red Meat and Hard Liquor! Turns out the latter was much easier to back away from than the former.

Ryan said...

Well, animal welfare and community supported agriculture go hand-in-hand.

The more we support local farmers, the more local farmers we will have to humanely raise livestock.

Also, joining a CSA could be a relatively simple (and small footprint reducing thing). Depends on the project.

L-girl said...

I wonder if anyone's ever studied whether cows like the taste of grass or grain better.

Taste, I don't know. But a cow's body is (according to what I have read) perfectly designed to digest grass. And completely not designed to digest corn. The corn makes them sick, so feedlot cows get shot with antibiotics... and on it goes.

I hope they like their last meal. Supposedly on these farms the last weeks of meals won't make them sick either.

L-girl said...

Well, animal welfare and community supported agriculture go hand-in-hand.

Oh yes, I know. I have nothing against CSAs. It's a wonderful idea.

I am just not the person to start one, and I doubt my lifestyle would ever fit in with joining one.

L-girl said...

Tell the truth though, didn't that mile-long meat counter make your hear skip a beat first time you saw it?

The whole store amazed me - and somewhat repulsed me. The sheer size of it is astounding. I kept telling Allan how big this place was. He thought I was exaggerating... until he saw it himself. In the parking lot, he said, "This is all one store??"

I actually took my mother there to show her the store, and especially that mile-long meat counter. Insane.

We call HF "The Hangar" - as in airplane hangar. :)

Nancy said...

Have you been to the Organic Garage on Kerr Street in Oakville? They are a family run organic grocery that carries locally produced produce and, I believe, grassfed beef and buffalo.
They even sell elk and other game.
I've joined, and will check the place out in person when I move to Oakville in a few weeks' time.

Nancy said...

Oh, and there are no membership fees for the Organic Garage.
I'll be joining a group in Toronto to purchase other products if necessary. If you live nearby, we can perhaps do a tradeoff: You help me when I occasionally need a car ride, and I provide access to the cooperative through my membership.
I've been doing this for my neighbours for two years; we call this the World's Smallest Cooperative, only two apartments, but it works.
Oakville is HUGE though, and since I'm violently anti-private-car, and don't drive any more, I have to live in the old part of town where there is good transportation.

L-girl said...

Nancy, I have a similar type of store in Mississauga, called Elmwood Meats, that carries these products. Also a small, family run butcher shop.

I think you might not realize how far Oakville is from Mississauga. Oakville is the next town over from Mississauga, but both are huge and sprawling. We are neighbours in the sense that we are both near Toronto, but not in practical terms for ride-sharing and things of that nature.

Amy said...

This sounds like a good compromise for you---you can still eat beef but you know that at least no animal suffered in order to provide you with food. I admire you for making such an effort to find a source that allows you to do this.

Although I don't eat beef, I wish I could find a kosher free range chicken source and a source for fish where I didn't have to worry about overfished waters or farm-grown fish. Eating with a clear conscience is just so hard.

L-girl said...

Thank you, Amy. I appreciate the affirmation. The reason I posted that first comment (re prseltyzing) is I am so tired of absolutists who do not see the value in this kind of compromise. Veganism is just not a viable option for many or most humans.

Although I don't eat beef, I wish I could find a kosher free range chicken source and a source for fish where I didn't have to worry about overfished waters or farm-grown fish.

You might be able to on the chicken. Of course I don't know what's available in your area or what is reasonably convenient.

The fish is a really bad issue, as I recently blogged about. I won't eat farmed salmon anymore, it's just too unhealthy and the toll to the environment is too great. I fear where the Pacific salmon is headed... yet continue to eat it. *sigh*

Amy said...

I think I will research the chicken issue. Right now we have a hard time finding kosher chicken at all in our area, so free range kosher chicken is a real real long shot. But what the hell---worth looking into.

Canada Calling said...

We bought a quarter cow from one of the touted organic grass-fed farms here in BC. We just hate the taste! We are happy with the chickens but the beef flavor is not to our liking. It has made us eat much less beef which I guess is a good thing in the long run.

L-girl said...

Canada Calling, good for you for not returning to the corn-fed beef. The one pasture-raised steak we have had so far was delicious. It was a slightly different taste than the other, but still very yummy. As I mentioned, this was "finished" with organic grain, but not industrial corn.

A lot of people are eating bison as a grass-fed alternative. I don't care for it at all.

Ferdzy said...

A few random notes.

One of the reasons corn-fed cows are slaughtered young is that they digest corn so badly that the race is on between them making it to slaughter and dying of what is essentially malnutrition.

I haven't heard of problems finishing them with oats and barley (which is what they use around here). I think they are close enough to "grass" not to cause immediate problems.

James, it's not particularly a benefit to mixed farms to have fewer animals. If you are growing veggies, you can use nasty "chemical" fertilizers, or manure. Manure is better. One of the major points in The Omnivore's Dilemma was that in agriculture, plants and animals need each other's waste products to thrive. Once you separate the two streams, the waste products convert from assets to pollution.

Canada Calling; one of the things I understand about grass-fed beef is that it is more variable than corn-fed beef. Different grasses have different compositions (minerals, type of grass, seasonal variations, etc.) We get our beef from one place, and I notice a real difference between beef slaughtered in the spring versus in the fall. It generally does require slightly different cooking techniques than commercial beef. I love ours, and find regular beef extremely tasteless in comparison. Of course, if you are used to very bland commercial beef the fact that it "has a flavour" as they say on LolCats, may be part of the problem. Perhaps you will adjust to it, but if not, keep checking around (in smaller quantities); you may find some you like.

L-girl said...

Thank you Ferdzy! I was hoping you would weigh in, since you are the "friend of wmtc" mentioned in this post.

I haven't heard of problems finishing them with oats and barley (which is what they use around here). I think they are close enough to "grass" not to cause immediate problems.

This is very good news for me. It further validates my decision and the compromise of not going 100% grass fed. The farm websites did say finished on organically grown oats and barley.

One of the major points in The Omnivore's Dilemma was that in agriculture, plants and animals need each other's waste products to thrive.

That was the most fascinating part of the book - Joel Salatin's beautiful farm. (That and those freaky fungi!)

I can't say I found commercial beef bland, but we've only had one grass-fed steak so far. My opinion is likely to change over time.

Scott M. said...

Amy...

Depending on your reasoning for getting Kosher products, perhaps some of the Halal meat producers might meet your needs? I remember there's an Aliston Halal Meat Packers on Hwy 89...

L-girl said...

I remember there's an Aliston Halal Meat Packers on Hwy 89...

Hwy 89 where? Amy doesn't live in Ontario. :)

Scott M. said...

OK, that's a good point. :P

Amy said...

Thanks, Scott, but the only Rte 89 I know starts in White River Junction, VT, and goes up to Burlington, VT. Not anywhere near me!

I did find an online source and emailed them for delivery estimates. We eat so little chicken anyway that if we made one large order, it would last quite a while. But cost may be a factor. We'll see.

kim_in_to said...

This whole discussion reminded me of the McDonald's game. It's a computer simulation amd parody of McDonald's by a company in Italy. It requires you to get involved in all aspects of running the business, from buying land and raising cattle, to deciding whether to risk disease by adding certain things to their feed, to using praise or reprimand to motivate employees in the restaurants, to paying off experts and placating activists to avoid bad publicity.

If nothing else, scroll through the tutorial (turn the sound off first) and read all the instructions. The graphics are cute but the commentary is funny and very frank.

I can't understand why they haven't been sued by McDonald's.

http://www.mcvideogame.com/game-eng.html

L-girl said...

Kim, that is awesome! I'd never seen it.

I can't understand why they haven't been sued by McDonald's.

Maybe they have been. Or maybe they've received the "cease and desist" letter, the step before litigation, but ignored it.

McD's wouldn't want to help publicize the website with a lot of attention, so that's in their favour.

It's very gutsy of them to use the actual logo. It's one thing to make a parody website, but using the logo is definitely infringement, so they're kind of asking for it!

Great site, thank you.

Scott M. said...

It's hard! No matter how much industrial waste and hormones I feed my cows, I can't seem to keep enough patties in the restaurant.

Erin said...

It's sad that you feel that way about vegans and vegetarians! If we really do all agree that animals should suffer as little as possible, then discussions of vegetarianism should not be taboo, even if ultimately everyone ends up drawing the line at a different place. I, as a vegan, am continually struggling to open people’s eyes to the terrible abuse and exploitation that goes on in our food production system, but I always try to do so without alienating or judging people. Educating without being seen to be proselytizing is walking a thin line, though, as food has such intense personal meaning for people. But when something is wrong in society, should we really be afraid to step up and tell the truth because people like Michael Pollan consider it “bad manners” to do so? Pollan’s work is otherwise excellent, but his ideas about vegetarianism are ill-informed at best and disingenuous at worst: citing statistics that have since been discredited, taking pot shots at vegetarians’ supposedly morally superior personalities, and using straw man arguments like Peter Singer’s crazy ideas—none of which discredit any of vegetarianism’s fundamental arguments—are truly irresponsible for someone with such influence. I can never understand why Pollan and his followers waste time trying to cast negative light on vegetarianism when all of us who wish to lessen the suffering and environmental degradation that are the foundation of our food system should be working together.

If you really believe that how people treat animals while they are alive is “no more personal choice than child abuse or rape,” then I’ll accept the risk of proselytizing to point out (as respectfully as possible) how much dairy cows and egg-laying hens—even those in supposed “humane” conditions—suffer; that the veal industry would not exist but for the dairy industry, where male cows have no commercial value; and that even the most “humanely” raised livestock end up in conventional slaughterhouses, where atrocious abuses are rampant (cf. Slaughterhouse by Gail Eisnitz). (When you say that “Killing for sustenance can be distinguished from killing for commerce and fashion,” you are in murky territory; food is commerce, too.) I accept that some people simply want to eat meat, but let’s be up-front about it: the “happy meat” ideal that Pollan so vigorously promotes is simply unrealistic, because it could never meet current consumption patterns. For those who truly do care about animal welfare, I would suggest listening to Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s excellent podcast, “Vegetarian Food for Thought,” which talks about animal exploitation from many angles. Though she does promote veganism, she also accepts that people should do what they feel they can, rather than all or nothing.

Finally, re an older post, I’d just like to add that the idea that Hitler was a vegetarian is a myth that has been debunked by historian Rynn Berry: “Hitler would occasionally go on vegetarian binges to cure himself of excessive sweatiness and flatulence, but his main diet was meat-centered. [...] Robert Payne, Albert Speer, and other well-known Hitler biographers ... mentioned Hitler's predilection for such non-vegetarian foods as Bavarian sausages, ham, liver, and game.”

I hope this doesn’t sound like the usual angry message-board invective that tends to pop up on this issue; I was just disappointed to see anti-vegetarian sentiments on what is usually such a thoughtful blog.

James said...

BTW, this episode of Science Friday discusses how the greenhouse gas contribution of raising beef is actually far greater than the transportation contribution for the same beef. IIRC, the researcher interviewed claims that cutting out one day of beef a week reduces your carbon/methane/nitrous footprint by as much as going completely local in your diet.

L-girl said...

It's sad that you feel that way about vegans and vegetarians!

Where do you see how "feel about vegans and vegetarians"? What exactly are you responding to?

I know that vegetarianism is not for me - having lived that way for a few years - and I don't enjoy people trying to tell me how I should eat. But I didn't say anything negative about vegans or vegetarians or any other people, nor would I. It's a personal decision and each to her own.

If we really do all agree that animals should suffer as little as possible, then discussions of vegetarianism should not be taboo

Taboo? It's not taboo. I just don't want to be preached to on my own blog, when I've already considered the question and tried several different choices along the spectrum, and am very comfortable with where I ended up.

L-girl said...

I hope this doesn’t sound like the usual angry message-board invective that tends to pop up on this issue;

It sounds like what it is: a lecture. I don't appreciate it and I hope you don't do it again.

I was just disappointed to see anti-vegetarian sentiments on what is usually such a thoughtful blog.

Show me where you see anti-vegetarian sentiments on this blog, written by me, not a commenter. Please give some examples.

I do not want to be a vegetarian, but I have never expressed anti-vegetarian sentiments. I have the greatest respect for vegetarians, and in general I do not denigrate anyone's food choices.

Examples, please?

L-girl said...

No vegetarian proseltyzing please! I've tried. It doesn't work for me. Thanks for your understanding.

You saw this, right? But you just couldn't help yourself?

L-girl said...

James, thanks for the info, that's interesting. I'm glad to be buying my meat locally now, but I'm glad to know that my meatless days (which are frequent) are helping too.

James said...

The basic takeaway from the SciFri interview was, reduce red meat to reduce greenhouse gas impact. To a lesser extent, reduce dairy (dairy production does not involve as much off-gassing from cows and manure as beef production).

Chicken and fish are good substitutes, as they produce much less methane and nitrous oxide.

And local beef is still better than distant beef -- but only by a small margin. Local chicken is much better than distant chicken.

Also good are some new beef farms which catch and trap the methane produced by their manure ponds, then burn that methane for heating the farm -- but that still leaves the cows' own methane output.

I expect pork probably has the same manure-methane problem as beef; pigs farms are notorious for their manure ponds.

One interesting side-note: grass-fed cows produce more methane than grain-fed, so they're worse for carbon footprint.

L-girl said...

One interesting side-note: grass-fed cows produce more methane than grain-fed, so they're worse for carbon footprint.

Having read a lot about industrial meat production (corn-fed cows) and healthy meat production, I find this incredibly hard to believe.

The grass-powered farms use no fossil fuels, or only the tiniest amounts. Industrial meat production uses enormous amounts of fossil fuel.

I wonder if this equation (grass-fed is greater carbon footprint) is not accounting for enough variables.