I've been wanting to write a post for quite a while on how to be a better consumer, but it wasn't until talking with a friend around Thanksgiving that it became a more clear how to answer the question. She and her boyfriend are looking to buy a side or whole animal (both pork and beef) back in Colorado and she expressed hesitation over making such a commitment. " How do I know if it's the right farm and they are doing it right? " she asked. This is similar to the question we get asked a lot, having worked on, and now owning a farm; " How do I know if the meat I'm buying is raised well? " The simple answer is always, " Just go visit the farm! ".
There is a problem with that answer though— most people aren't farmers. They are, at most, educated consumers, but by no means are they farmers or even owners of anything resembling an animal they'd eat. So how would they know? It's the same way I wouldn't know what a nice guitar is, I'm not a musician. I know which ones "look" pretty, but that doesn't mean anything to the end product. The only way to really know is to research the "supposed to." What is a guitar "supposed to" sound and play like? What are animals "supposed to" be doing?
That begs the question then, " How am I 'supposed to' know? " By taking a little time learning about how an animal behaves. For instance, let's take pigs:
- They love to root around and turn up the soil
- They are social animals
- They are destructive as hell
- They are smart
- They can't sweat
- They don't do well in the heat
- They can drink up to 5 gallons of water in a day
What does this mean to a buyer though and how does it make you a better one. When you show up at a farm, see a lush green pasture and pigs roaming around. It looks just like a postcard, so it must be perfect right? Well, is there shade for the peak heat of the day? Where is their wallow to bath in water to cool down? What about drinking, where do they get their needed water? In reality, if the farmer is going through the trouble to put their pigs on pasture, then they probably have those things. Knowing that they need them though, allows you to better assess the quality of the end product before ever tasting it. Garbage in, garbage out, right? It's information that allows you to be a little deeper with your product knowledge and provides you with the right questions to ask.
An area where I see the most disconnect around natural behavior with what consumers want is pastured poultry. Turkeys for instance, love to graze and walk around, but they also very much love to roost in high places. They also don't scratch like chickens do. So if I showed up to a farm and the turkeys were all scratching around, I would be wondering if they are getting the right feed. If I didn't see a place for them to roost, I'd be curious what they did at night. There is a nuance there that I'd like to point out though. I'm curious and wondering, not judging and running. The farmer could have sprayed scratch grain on the ground for them, prompting them to dig around a bit more. There is even a hay bale over there because the two toms like to sit together and watch over their harem. They could be there only for the day time and go to a large roosting pen at night to be protected from predators. Again, information doesn't allow you to judge, just better understand the "supposed to" and what to ask. Because, in the above instances, they are not only allowing the essence of the animal to be there, but they are encouraging it by going above and beyond standard care.
Now the question most people would ask, is, where the hell do I find this stuff? Use the Google! There are so many resources out there now, some would say too many, but it's there. A few places to check:
- Your local Agricultural Extension
- Your local DNR ( Most domesticated animals are descendants of wild animals. You can find a lot of documented natural behaviors here. )
- Your local butcher
- Your local farmer
But— and there is always a but isn't there— these resources and the subsequent research does not a farmer make. No amount of reading or movie watching makes you a farmer. You only get that by doing, and by doing it for years. The consumer -must- respect that. The consumer has to respect the fact that on single digit winter days, they are most certainly not carrying buckets of warm water back and forth from their house to various pens. That they are not running electrical cords to heaters and breaking ice. That they are not dealing with the inevitable death that comes with animals on a farm. There is no farmer in their right mind that partakes in farming to get rich. Farming is a commitment and, for most, an immense source of pride. You, the consumer, doing research gives you the ability to understand the "why" behind the farm a bit better. Why a farmer has spools in the goat run. Why the farmer hides nuts under trees in the pig area. Why there are downed limbs and branches in the turkey pastures. Most farmer will appreciate the questions and be willing to talk to you about what and why they did something. We definitely do. At the end of the day, farmers do the best they can with what they have. This includes the information, equipment, animals and, most importantly, money. There is no such thing as the perfect farm. There is always something lacking, and if you don't believe me, just ask a farmer. Regardless of all of that though, we are proud of what we do and there is no greater reward than an informed consumer who recognizes that and is willing to support us.
That brings us full-circle back to being a better meat buyer. If you take the time to research and learn about the above mentioned things, I can promise you this, it will not be lost on any of us. With so many cheaper and more convenient options out there, we are thankful for every customer we have. We appreciate the effort being made to better understand what and why we do what we do. Being a better consumer is as much about "paying it forward" and explaining to others what the essence of a pig is, as it is knowing it yourself. It's a relationship built on trust and respect. Do the research and learn, but enter into the relationship with a farmer with an open mind and a willingness to listen. Share in the curiosity that is farming with a healthy, but respectful level of inquisition and even offer to help now and then. After all, if both sides uphold their end of the deal, it will be a long relationship and not just a transaction.
[Edit: I added local butcher here as that's an obvious choice. Butchers work hard to source the best product and are a natural option to learn more from. ]