“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” - Mahatma Gandhi
In Search of a New Way to Eat
If you've seen the recent documentary Food Inc., a film exposing the dirty secrets of environmental degradation, animal cruelty, and consumer ignorance inherent in our current food system, you might be wondering what your options are. Is it even possible to buy food, meat especially, where you can be confident that animals were treated humanely; where the watershed is untainted with run-off from sewage lagoons; and where workers are treated fairly?
In Food Inc., Joel Salatin is held up as a model of the new American farmer, prioritizing humane and sustainable farming methods and also managing to make a decent living. The good news is, right here in our little corner of Michigan we have our own versions of this new American farmer. One example is Kris Hirth of Old Pine Farm.
A Centennial Farm and Its Lady Farmer
Surrounded by acres of cornfields, Old Pine Farm sits just off an old Native American trail outside of Grass Lake, in southeastern Michigan. Looking south from the hilltop perch of the farm’s red barn is a gorgeous vista encompassing the 11 pastured acres of the farm with its bucolic swimming hole and a woods beyond. Inside the silent hall of the barn, triangular rays of sunlight filter through the soaring cathedral space, lighting up dust-motes and enormous hand-hewn rafters. The stone foundation is built into the hilltop in such a way that the earth-insulated stalls for the animals underneath would be considered a “walk-out basement” if it were a house.
In one of those stalls, three tiny black and white puffballs, orphaned March lambs Lucy, Extra, and “little boy,” bleat insistently that they’re hungry. At three weeks old, they’re knee-deep in straw under the wide planked floor of that 100 year old barn, in a stall where Kris Hirth bottle feeds each of them three times a day.
The lambs are starting to nibble on grain and hay, but Kris will be feeding them milk from a bottle for at least another three weeks. It’s the first thing she does in the morning, and her last chore around nine in the evening. One of the lambs, called Extra for the white X on her little black face, won’t eat if the milk is cold, so Kris warms the bottle for her.
Kris says that a lot of farmers wouldn’t be doing this, that lambs generally are born outside and at other farms these three babies, abandoned at birth, would most certainly be dead by now. The general thinking is that lamb meat is too cheap to care much about individual lambs.
But Kris is running a new kind of business – a humane, mostly heritage breed and organic meat CSA where members get a box of around 15 pounds of a variety of frozen meats each month. Describing herself as a lifelong “animal person,” providing the best possible care for her animals, from the beginning of their lives until the very end, is why Kris has put herself in debt and why she loves running this farm.
CAFO or No CAFO - Government Policy and Eaters Decide
Like Joel Salatin, she could probably make more profit running a factory operation with hundreds of cows and pigs. Indeed, many Concentrated (or Confined) Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) have located in Michigan from other countries. The leniency of Michigan’s water and air quality regulations help make CAFOs profitable for the large corporate interests who own them, although it’s well known that they frequently wreck local watersheds (with run-off from huge sewage lagoons) and pay workers minimally for dangerous and difficult jobs. Much to the chagrin of neighbors and groups like the Sierra Club, as of May 2009, Michigan had 176 livestock CAFOs spread across the state.
Although grocery stores, restaurants and consumers depend on the CAFO model for cheaply available meat, the New York Times argues that results from 2008 reports from both the Pew Charitable Trust and the Union of Concerned Scientists show that:
“The astonishing increase in the number and size of confined animal operations has been spawned largely by the very structure of American farm supports, which always has been skewed in a way that concentrates farming in fewer and fewer hands. As both of these reports make clear, the so-called efficiency of industrial animal production is an illusion, made possible by cheap grain, cheap water and prisonlike confinement systems.
In short, animal husbandry has been turned into animal abuse. Manure — traditionally a source of fertilizer — has been turned into toxic waste that fouls the air and adjacent water bodies. Crowding creates health problems, resulting in the chronic overuse of antibiotics.
And, because the modest profits in confinement operations require the lowest possible labor costs, including automated feeding, watering and manure-handling systems, these operations have helped empty and impoverish rural America.”
And as Food Inc. graphically demonstrates, our current policies, regulation, and distribution systems support the CAFO model exclusively. The massive government subsidies that make industrial feed cheap and the taxpayer-supported infrastructure for inspection and processing are non-existent for Kris’ small business. Her experience has been that running an entrepreneurial venture providing meat raised in a humane, organic way on an actual small family farm is close to impossible.
Hatching a New Farm
So why is she doing it? She has to work much harder to find organic feed growers and small batch meat processors, and her high-quality product is more expensive, at an average of $6-$8 per pound. Her main goal is, she says, “to produce as high-quality product as possible, knowing that the care for the animals is the top priority.”
The idea for an animal-centered farm began with the three chicken eggs her sons, then age eight and five years old, hatched for a 4-H project. That was eleven years ago and two of those chickens, Ruffles and her brother, are still pecking around the barnyard. After the chickens, the family fell in love with six-horned heritage-breed sheep. And eventually came cows, pigs, goats and emu.
Five years ago Kris moved with her sons to this 11 acre piece of land outside Chelsea, Michigan and started the Old Pine Farm meat CSA (one of only a very few meat CSAs in the country), with mainly heritage breed animals and the goal of some day being certified organic.
According to a 2005 MSU report on Organic Meat Processing in Michigan, to be labeled certified organic, meat “must be organic throughout the entire supply chain, including production and processing.” So to be certified, not only would the farm have to follow regulations for the origin of organic livestock, organic feed, access to outdoors, and no hormones, parasiticides, or antibiotics (even if the animal becomes ill), but also no banned substances can be used on the farm – including chemically treated fence posts – and then Kris would have to use a certified organic meat processor. Although there were once dozens of regional meat processors in Michigan, among the four USDA abbatoirs remaining, the only certified organic processor is several hours drive away.
A New Idea – Meat CSA and Heritage Breeds
Noticing the success of the organic produce CSAs nearby, selling directly to their members, she realized she could start a meat CSA with customers subscribing for a season, usually November through October. Using the CSA model, the members would pay an upfront fee to get a box of about 15 pounds of humanely raised, pastured, frozen meat every month. A regular share in the meat CSA starts at about $300.
Although they don’t make a big deal about it, Kris and her sons have been drawn to the rare and heritage breed livestock animals (some of which are included in the American Livestock Breed Conservancy or Slow Food Ark of Taste). These are often historic or ancient breeds that have been developed for qualities like calm and gentle barnyard behavior, adaptation to extreme weather conditions, nurturing mother instincts – rather than speedy growth or huge milk production. A Field Guide to Heritage Cattle says:
“The industrialization of agriculture has definitely kept down the price of food, but with an unexpected consequence: the extinction of many breeds of livestock. In the United States today, 83 percent of all dairy cattle are Holsteins, and 60 percent of beef cattle are of the Angus, Hereford or Simmental breeds. It’s estimated that 190 livestock breeds have become extinct in the past 15 years alone, and 1,500 more are at risk.”
Some of the heritage and registered breeds at Old Pine Farm include: Scottish Highlander, Belted Galloway, Texas Longhorn, and Registered Shorthorn cattle; Berkshire pigs; Navajo-Churro and Registered Romney sheep; Kashmir goats; and Jersey Giant chickens.
The Quest for Organic
At Old Pine Farm they also don’t make a big deal about their heroic efforts to incorporate organic practice. Kris has tried hard to move in the direction of becoming a certified organic farm, but she’s found that under current conditions it’s all but impossible.
Even if she’s not able to become certified organic, her own conscience guides her to providing the best food and care she can for her animals. Kris’ dad grows hay for the animals (who eat 1 of the large round bales, at $50 each, every day). Kris also tries to buy certified organic feed for her animals.
In the wintertime when the pastures are covered with snow, her animals still consume 500 pounds of hay and grain per week. So Kris has a gravity box trailer with a 3 ton capacity that she drives 30 miles from home at 25 miles per hour empty, to meet her GMO-free corn supplier. When the box is full, she can’t go faster than 10 miles per hour. Her most recent trip took her half a day. Last fall she paid $1500 for 5600 pounds of certified organic corn to get her animals through most of the winter. For the first couple of weeks it seemed fine, but then she started seeing clumps coming out of the shoot. The corn hadn’t been dried properly and it was fermenting and molding. Not only could she not feed it to her animals and was out $1500, but she also had to find another supply of feed fast. Filled with frustration, the best she could do was buy her neighbor’s industrially farmed non-GMO corn. She says “trying to do certified organic is close to impossible. I spent so much time on research trying to do organic, I just gave up.”
One the main problems is that there isn’t a supply of certified organic grain in our area. Kris says that there’s only one person selling certified organic corn in her county and she bought all 50 bags of it last fall. Most of the growers belong to one of only 2 or 3 co-operatives statewide and they are contracted to sell all of their supply to those membership alliances. Kris says “costwise, I lost money on pigs last year. You just can’t do it in this day and age. I hope it’s coming. I just don’t like the pesticides they put on corn. I try to work with farmers and say I’ll buy everything you’ve got.” Forming her personal network of support and resources seems to be one key to making the farm successful.
In addition to finding someone to grow certified organic grain for her, Kris has managed to pull together some other support resources for her farm. She recently met with Mike Score of the MSU extension office to re-frame her business plan. She says Mike told her: “You’re not charging enough to even cover your own costs, much less your time. You need to change the way the CSA works so that it’s more streamlined and easier to manage.”
Kris also consulted with Deb Lentz, one of the owners and the organizational mastermind of the successful 320-member Tantré Farm produce CSA. Deb helped Kris think through some of ways for members to connect to the farm – like organizing farm tours and work party days, cooking classes on bringing out the best qualities of lean, pastured meat, and having a swap box available for people who would rather trade certain items or types of meat.
Although it’s still a struggle to find people willing go outside the grocery store paradigm to buy their meat, and she has openings for this year’s season starting in November, Kris must be doing something right at Old Pine Farm judging from the strong praise she gets from some of her happy customers:
“For the past year or so, my family has gotten ALL the meat we eat from Old Pine Farm - beef, pork, chicken, and a little emu. We started doing this because eating the "factory farmed" meat one gets in grocery stores is absolutely untenable - for the earth, for your health, and for your soul. Old Pine Farms treats their animals with love and respect, pastures them, and lets them live a good life until they are put down with the same love and respect with which they were raised. The meat tastes great, it comes from a lovely farm 30 miles from my house instead of some horrible feedlot hundreds or thousands of miles away. They have a meat CSA which lets you purchase a large quantity of meat and pick it up in smaller quantities throughout the year; this is both convenient and cost effective. Plus, the people who own the farm are really wonderful and getting to know them a little bit has been really good.”
And from another:
“I visited Old Pine Farm before joining their CSA so that I could see for myself whether the animals were happy and well looked after, and I was thrilled by what I saw. Kris Hirth and her sons love and respect their animals, and take great care to ensure that they lead happy, healthy, comfortable lives, and are slaughtered humanely. The meat and eggs are delicious (the eggs are all different colors - a true sign that they come from happy, diverse hens!) and extremely cheap given the time, energy, effort and love that went into producing them. It has been such a pleasure getting to know Kris and Casey. They are fantastic people. I feel so lucky to live near Old Pine Farm - it makes my life immeasurably better.”