Eating sustainably-farmed meat in the era of industrialized agriculture
I love meat. Meat beckons like my first crush, a gastronomic memory so primal I swear it began in the womb. The aroma of meat cooked over an open flame reminds me of barbecues, and sunshine, and green grass, and joy. The image of fat, happy herbivores loitering on gentle hills studded with tufts of clover is reinforced over decades of mainstream media. Meat for me and most Americans is, quite simply, the flavor of being alive.
This is the unconscious paradox of the Western eater: we take life to sustain our own. Few of us ever contemplate this as we liberate that cut of beef from its cellophane and prepare it for the grill. The package hides the process by which that meat came to be and how it came to be so cheap. How are we able to overfeed people in our country on something that some people in the developing world see rarely, if ever? If you believe, as I do, in the basic premise that nothing comes cheap, then the question becomes not whether we are paying for it—but rather how?
Ever since Herbert Hoover promised to put a chicken in every pot, Americans have undertaken the consumption of animal protein like a Divine Right, a demand that Corporate America has eagerly strove to meet. They did so by industrializing the breeding, raising, and processing of animal protein. Mega-production facilities called CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) house, feed and process animals for food, eggs, or milk and bypass the natural laws of land-space and animal numbers. Invariably, this means they have to write laws of their own. To avoid the prerequisite land needed to feed the animals and recycle their waste, Agri-business has established systems of animal husbandry and waste disposal that have created truly alarming environmental conditions.
Experts agree that after summing up the health and environmental costs, the two-for-one special at the grocery store doesn’t even come close to balancing out the real price paid. So what is a conscientious carnivore to do? The juggernaut of big-Ag in this country all but wiped out small-time meat producers. But, like the timber wolf and the bald eagle, these resilient creatures are making a comeback.
Fueled by the resurgence of conscientious eating and the “locavore” movement, small-scale growers of animals for consumption have started whittling out niches for themselves all over the country. My quest for such a place brought me to the wooden porch steps of the Blanchet family homestead, Brookshire Farm.
Spread modestly over seventy acres of south-Louisiana flatlands near Abbeville, the charming plaster and wood frame cottage is fanned by majestic 300-year-old oak trees skirted by acres of thick green pasture. The place has been in the family since the first settlers arrived over two centuries ago. Before that it had been the seasonal grazing land of Great Plains bison which were adroitly exploited by the local Native Americans before both were systematically expunged from the scene to make room for our Manifest Destiny. The place continues feeding large herbivores, now under wise stewardship of the Blanchets.
It started in 1991 when Ben Blanchet, a local attorney, inherited the farmland along with thirteen head of cattle. The Blanchets considered their options for a realistic, viable way to restore the land by a couple without any formal agricultural training.
Enlightenment came one day as Ben’s wife, Anne, read a copy of Wine Spectator magazine, which featured grass-fed beef and referenced a publication called the Stockman Grass Farmer. Anne recognized a potential solution to the farm conundrum. Here was the introduction to the world of raising beef cattle in a manner that suited the family’s aesthetic, economic, and moral goals.
It was a crisp December afternoon when I visited the Blanchets. The neat little farmstead dotted with shade trees glowing in the setting sun, the simple splendor of rural. We came upon a small herd of ethnically diverse cattle, with various shapes and sizes, coat colors and textures, the horned and hornless. This was the “mama herd”—the breeding stock from which the market cattle will…ahem…emerge.
Anne explained that the herd is a calculated mix of breeds that would work for the region they live in and their ultimate purpose. They are a Charolais base, an appropriately French stock favored for its ability to tolerate heat well and put on thick, lean muscle. These have been mixed with Shorthorn, Hereford, and Beefmaster so that—looking at it more closely—this herd seemed less the United Nations and more like the modern Cajuns who inhabit this part of the world: French-based with un peu de ce…peu de cette.
“Cattle farming is all about the grass,” Anne told me. “I take care of the pastures and the cattle take care of themselves.” The paddock system Anne developed is a tightly choreographed affair where the cattle are passed to a fresh paddock on a finely-tuned schedule that allows them to eat the richest, healthiest pasture and at the same time allows the land to regenerate quickly.
Planted forages—like rye grass, turnips, oats, sorghum and clover—supplement the grasses and forbs in the pastures. Thus, in a relatively small area, the cattle consume enough grass and pasture greens to meet the tough Brookshire standards of packing on at least a quarter inch of fat prior to being butchered.
Furthermore, unlike most beef production operations, the young cattle are kept through two winters instead of one. It is expensive to feed and grow these animals through a second winter, but the Blanchets have found that their meat achieves a level of richness, depth, and complexity of flavor not found in a younger animal. This is a unique if not downright controversial manner of raising beef cattle, and it results in a truly artisanal cut of meat.
Since my last visit to the farm, the Blanchets are now selling retail cuts in farmers markets and have dedicated fifty acres to native prairie restoration, using only seed collected in Louisiana and incorporating grazing as well as burning into the project to try to emulate the bison migration south on the prairies.
At harvest, the animal is processed using clean, humane methods at a local abattoir under the careful eye of Anne Blanchet herself who oversees every step of production, from the moment the animal enters the facility to the moment the vacuum-sealed cuts are carried back to Brookshire for distribution. From here, consumers can pick up their reserved cuts and take them home to wonder why anyone should eat any other kind of meat.
At last the day has come—Anne and her family have invited me to share in their not insignificant bounty. Perched regally on my dinner plate is a grilled slice of Brookshire Farm ribeye, char and natural grease glistening and the rich, unadulterated fragrance of the noble animal from whence it came drifts teasingly to my nostrils. The first bite is like a dream, full of grass and greens and the earth itself in a dashing flicker of images as I chew the tender bite. The craft of the meat is evident in its flavor, and I struggle not to wolf it down so that I can experience that first bite again, and again, and again…
“We wouldn’t have cattle if we didn’t eat them,” said Temple Grandin. “We have them for us. That means we owe them something. Nature is cruel, but that doesn’t mean we have to be.”
The revolutionary guru of animal husbandry and slaughterhouse design recognized that modern dependence on animal protein has gradually led us into dependence on a system that is so far from the natural origins of our food that it no longer resembles anything in nature. This system has ramifications nobody intended or predicted that extend far beyond the edges of our dinner plate, where most people’s thoughts of food end. Small operations like Brookshire Farms work hard to remain alive and prosperous. Such cottage industries face the double threats of big industry and lack of public awareness. Average Americans are largely oblivious to the impact of their consumption tendencies on even their own lives and health, let alone their communities and natural resources. Raising and processing meat in this way means losing the cost-effectiveness of mass operations. It is more sustainable, but we have to be willing to pay for it on the front end.
This is not disingenuous neo-hippie rhetoric or some Vega-nazi fantasy. It is not far-fetched to suggest that in order to supply the demand that meat remain a staple in our diet, we as a society have strayed into unsustainable waters. We consume too much, fueling one of the mega-industries in this country that commands far more attention of our elected representatives than we citizens do.
Neither am I suggesting meat be only for the privileged class, a favorite argument of supporters of big-Ag and the industrialization of food production. Rather I would hope that we each take time to understand where our meals come from and where our money is going. That we value the artisan and pay tribute to his or her craft, and recognize the inherent worth of something well-made and time well spent. And so a visit to Brookshire Farm and other local sources of naturally-produced edibles is more than an exercise in conscientious eating, it is a way of shaping an industry that has been run amok. You may just find, as I have, that really good meat is even more palatable on a clear conscience.
Details. Details. Details. www.brookshirefarm.com
You can reserve your share of an animal to be harvested by logging on to their website and filling out the order form. The meat can only be purchased, however, by either the quarter, half, or whole carcass. That means you’d better have a pretty sizable freezer or a sizable group of friends to share it with.
www.eatwild.com/products/louisiana.html is an online resource of grass-fed products in Louisiana.
Reference for Mega-Food production and the CAFO controversy:
Kirby, Stephen. Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to humans and the environment. St. Martin’s Press, NY. 2010