Community-supported agriculture at Jonai Farms

[This was originally posted over on our farm blog – The Farmer & the Butcher]

My interest in community-supported agriculture started in early 2000 as an eater in search of local, organic vegetables for my dear little family of three, soon to be pregnant with the fourth of ultimately five Jonai. We were living in Santa Cruz, California, pursuing the granola, earth-mama lifestyle so prevalent in that part of the world in spite of the exorbitant cost of living. Living on just $35,000 per annum with a rent of $1600 per month, we didn’t have cash to spare.

I was a vegetarian at the time, which helped keep food costs down, but I was also determined to feed the little people I had grown inside my own body organic produce only. And so after many months of joyful shopping at Santa Cruz’s excellent twice-weekly farmer’s markets, we stumbled across the CSA farm run by the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Even now, the UCSC CSA vegie box is a mere $25/week, payable as $560 in advance of the 22-week season. It was a struggle to find the money up front, but UCSC offers low-income households a few options to improve access, and we were able to pay in two instalments instead of one.

The bounty was incredible – a box of seasonal fruit and veg plucked from the farm each morning before collection time. Interacting with the student farmers and hearing about the harvest – successes & failures – was a highlight of the week, often helping us understand better what was and wasn’t working in our own little garden a mile away from campus.

A decade later we found ourselves setting up our own farm in the central highlands of Victoria, Australia. From the beginning we were keen to run the farm as a CSA, but until we tested our supply of ethically-raised rare-breed pork and beef, we didn’t feel confident asking people to commit. It seemed wrong to ask the community to share our risk when we weren’t even sure what the risks were, and had no production data to know what our average litter sizes or carcass yields would be.

The first year of meat sales (second year on the farm) affirmed our caution in waiting to start the CSA. We had a lot to learn about farming and butchering, and were pleased with the way demand for our produce grew rather organically as supply grew, without placing undue pressure on us to produce more.

Halfway through that first year of selling meat, we crowdfunded a $30,000 boning room and I trained as a butcher while Stuart built it, and we see the crowdfunding as our first foray into community-supported agriculture, because that’s just what it was. People pledged an up-front payment for a reward of fresh pork we delivered once we had a licensed boning room. And that’s how it works – people take a risk with you and you deliver, and so we did.

The same month we got our licence for the boning room was also the month we launched our CSA. It was also just a few months before we reached peak production – an average of eight pigs and a side of beef per fortnight. We’d watched our land carefully over the previous two years as we went from our original single boar and five breeding sows until we reached two boars and 12 sows on our 69 acres in addition to an average of 18 cattle.

We have sufficient demand to grow more animals for meat, but our land would suffer, so we reached the limit set by our soil and climate. We’d set out to be an ethically-viable no-growth model, and two years in, we found the limit of our start-up growth. It also just happens to be a very full and fulfilling schedule, and the workload, while sometimes quite intense, is sustainable for a small family farm.

So with those three variables – taking over our supply chain with the boning room, reaching peak production, and launching the CSA – in January 2014 we went from running a small loss to making our first profit, and we’ve been profitable since.

The first month, we had eight subscribers, which gave us an assured income of just over $12,000 for the year. Six months into the CSA, we had 25 members, and by the start of the second year our community had grown to 40, with about two-thirds based in Melbourne and one-third spread around our region. As we enter the third year, we have 74 members and a waiting list for Melbourne, with room for about 15 more members in the region.

In exchange for 6 or 12 months payment up front, or a monthly payment, subscribers get 3, 5, 6 or 10kg bags of pork only or mixed pork and beef cuts, including our range of smallgoods. The bags now may also contain pet treats, bone broths, air-dried muscles such as coppa, lonza and pancetta, and charcuterie such as our popular pâté de tête made from the heads.

The CSA currently guarantees us an income of just under $100,000 out of a total revenue of approximately $170,000 projected for 2015-16. The remainder is about $50,000 in ad hoc sales in the region and through farm gate, and approximately $20,000 from our monthly workshops. Our profit margin is around 30%, giving us an income of just over $50,000 after all farm expenses are covered.

Our cost of living here is so low as we grow and barter for the majority of our food and live a low-consumption lifestyle that we find this income meets all our needs, and will actually increase slightly as we improve certain processes and eventually stop building new structures!

Aside from a secure income, there are too many benefits to the farmers and the eaters in community-supported agriculture to possibly quantify, but I’ll mention a few. For us, getting to know our members, their preferences, and their appreciation for our efforts and the uncommonly delicious results is invaluable. The emails, texts, and photos on social media sharing how people have cooked our meat, or how their children will no longer eat any sausages but ours are salve to knuckle-weary farmers at the end of a day of what must otherwise be thankless toil for those working in a disconnected, windowless industrial boning room or cavernous sheds full of shrieking, stinking, miserable pigs.

Since joining your csa our monthly spend on meat has reduced by heaps. Also the meat you provide is so nourishing that we often have some left over by the time the new bag arrives (usually bacon so i freeze it). We get the small pack and it is enough for three full size women who eat well! (One is 12 but she is the middle size person). AND of course the taste is sensational. All three of us were unable to stomach pork prior to trying yours! You are awesome!  Thank you. (CSA member Tani Jakins, 2015)

Even the critical feedback – not enough meat on the ribs, too much fat on the bacon, uncertainty about the grey colour of our nitrite-free bacon – is so much easier to hear from people with whom we have an ongoing and genuine relationship. This feedback has helped me improve my butchering skills as members have guided me with their desires, just as it has taught many of them that fat is delicious and nitrites are the only reason most bacon is lurid pink.

Logistically, running a CSA with bags of mixed cuts enables me to ensure every carcass is fully utilised, and makes packing day a much simpler exercise than when I was cutting and filling bags to custom requirements. And the standard CSA set box model teaches eaters to be better, more resourceful cooks attached to seasons and the reality of just 28 ribs and two tenderloins per pig. It also means automated repeating invoices, instead of endless documentation of weights after packing followed by 100 tailored invoices into the night before delivering 400kg of meat.

Having attended the Urgenci: International Network for Community-Supported Agriculture conference in China in November, we’ve come back full of ideas from our CSA farming comrades around the globe, including plans to share our budget with members (starting with sharing the financial data here right now!), and preparation to host a members-only Open Day on the farm, with butchery & cooking demos, music, and of course a long lunch of Jonai Farms pork and beef surrounded with organic bounty from other growers in our beautiful region.

At Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths, we say we don’t need to scale, we need to multiply. In our region and across Australia we see this happening rapidly, and we’re delighted to be amongst at least half a dozen small-scale free-range pig farms within 100km of us. There’s room for many more if our waiting list is anything to go by, and imagine a land re-populated with families caring for the land, sending our kids to the local schools, and re-creating vibrant rural communities. You won’t get that with scale – quite the opposite in fact.

Community-supported agriculture comes from an ethics of connectedness, care, and solidarity. It ensures accountability at both the farmer and the eater end of the equation, provides a viable living for farmers, and helps everyone learn more about the hows and whys of food production. As we enter our third year of running our farm as a CSA, we’d like to thank our members – those who’ve been with us since the beginning and those recently arrived – we couldn’t do this without you.

If you’re interested in reading further about CSAs around the world, have a look at the Urgenci website, and especially the Principles of Teikei, developed in Japan, the birthplace of CSAs in the 1970s.

Viva la revolución!

 

Principles of Teikei

Principle of mutual assistance

Principle of accepting the produce

Principle of mutual concession in the price decision

Principle of deepening friendly relationships

Principle of self-distribution

Principle of democratic management

Principle of learning among each group

Principle of maintaining the appropriate group scale

Principle of steady development

The Regulation Diaries (5): ‘Folks, This Ain’t Normal’ – the fight for free-range farming

I met a beautiful farmer yesterday whose story I’ve been following with dismay for the last couple months. We walked around her paddocks admiring groups of healthy, happy pigs as she described her system for breeding, weaning, and feeding.

Jo’s farm smells of nothing but fresh air, sounds of birdsong and the occasional curious grunt from a well-fed pig with nothing to fear, and is in a rolling green valley well covered in lush spring grass.

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In 2014, Jo Stritch of Happy Valley Free Range won Livestock Farmer of the Year.

In 2015, Jo was ordered by her local council to cease farming.

How could this happen? Because the Victorian planning scheme deems her operation ‘intensive’ due to more than 50% of the pigs’ nutritional needs being met by feed Jo imports onto the farm, and the Yarra Ranges has a ban on intensive production.

A ban on intensive agriculture is surely a welcome reflection of community sentiments that are turning against intensive animal agriculture. But when a small pastured pig farm is defined as intensive, something is wrong.

Let me unpack the issues.

‘Intensive animal husbandry’ is defined in the Victorian planning scheme as ‘Land used to keep or breed farm animals, including birds, by importing most food from outside the enclosures.

Clearly this applies to nearly all pig and poultry operations, no matter whether the animals are confined in sheds or out on the pastures. No matter whether the pastured pigs are on bare dirt or well-covered paddocks. It therefore also applies to many equestrian and dairy farms that import a lot of their animals’ feed. Oh, and cattle farms, even just those who feed hay to their cattle in the leanest months of winter and the dry end of summer.

And to what purpose do we want to define these operations as ‘intensive’? In common parlance, most people consider animals that are confined and quite restricted in the extent to which they can move to be raised ‘intensively’. Pigs like Jo grows are not what the public thinks of as ‘intensive’.

What does bringing in feed do in reality? It builds fertility. What happens if you bring in feed for more animals than the land can sustain? It sours. If you concentrate stock numbers, such as in intensive animal agriculture, you can overly nutrify and indeed toxify the soils.

The ‘outdoor bred: raised indoors on straw’ production system for pigs have a practice of moving the ‘eco-sheds’ every two years and then not returning to that same spot for another two years to deal with the issues of souring.

A system like Jo’s, where the pigs are rotated regularly and stocking densities are vastly lower, shouldn’t actually encounter this souring of the soil. The regenerative farming movement is constantly grappling not with letting soured soil recover, but rather how to continually regenerate and build fertility in the soil.

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One thing the neighbours who testified against Happy Valley commented on was ‘the condition of the paddocks’, which had improved since Jo decreased her stock numbers in November 2014. Free-range pig farmers talk a lot amongst ourselves about soil health and good coverage. And yet in the potato-growing region I’m in the paddocks are bare for months at a time, sprayed heavily with herbicide and fungicide so that nothing grows while they lay fallow.

Jo admits that in the first couple years of farming pigs her paddocks had less coverage than they do now. She says, ‘I did have stocking issues last winter with the grower pigs and I did lease extra land to solve that problem. I keep banging my head against the wall in wondering why they don’t see our business just like any other business, that has to bend and manoeuvre and restructure to suit its operating and functioning challenges!’

The so-called expert who gave evidence in the VCAT case against Happy Valley is an expert in intensive agriculture. ‘APL submitted that based on science it is not feasible for pigs to obtain most of their dietary requirements from pasture/forages alone.’ Right. Except for in nature.

Pigs also don’t build houses anywhere except in fairy tales but the intensive industry would have you believe that it is difficult for pigs to survive outdoors.

We’re not on a level playing field. While the government endorses high chemical inputs, barren vegetable-growing paddocks, thousands of animals confined in the stench of industrial sheds, and an increasing focus on exporting Australia’s bounty, Jo Stritch and other small-scale farmers are facing a fight to raise happy animals out on the paddocks to feed our communities. As one of our farming heroes Joel Salatin says, ‘folks, this ain’t normal.’

The Regulation Diaries (4): PrimeSafe’s War on Fat

‘Bone stocks, pâté de tête, rillettes, and of course I want to render lard…’ I listed the products for The Auditor that I was planning to make once the new commercial kitchen was approved.

‘Oh, yes, I have a few butchers who want to render lard. You have to do clostridium testing, you know,’ she informed me.

‘Really? Is there any reason why? You know it’s just melting fat, right? It’s pretty much the same thing as making rillettes but with no meat, just fat…’

‘But it’s rendering, so you have to follow the rendering standard,’ she enunciated slowly for me.

‘The rendering standard? Is that in the Standard for the Hygienic Processing of Meat and Meat Products?’ I asked.

‘No, it’s a different standard for rendering products,’ and The Auditor showed it to me on her computer.

Further investigation revealed that PrimeSafe treats the simple process of rendering fat from a wholesome carcass into lard in a retail butcher’s shop the same as rendering the fat off a condemned carcass at a rendering plant.

In the Australian Standard for the Hygienic Rendering of Animals and Animal Products (AS5008:2007), the definition of rendering is: ‘The process of heat treating raw materials to remove moisture and/or liberate fat.’

Now that’s a pretty broad definition, and taken to its logical conclusion, could potentially apply to any cooking process of meat. Bacon, for example, is ‘heat treated’ to remove moisture, and while not seeking to liberate fat, I see the freedom-loving slick of it at the bottom of my smoker each fortnight when I make our uncommonly delicious bacon…

Speaking with my colleagues in New South Wales, I quickly learned that this is another area where it’s a bummer to be a Victorian butcher. The New South Wales Food Safety Authority does not interpret rendering lard in a butcher’s shop under the standard written for rendering plants, and no clostridium testing is required for them to make the product. And yet they can sell their lard here in Victoria…

I rang a microbiologist at one of Melbourne’s most respected testing laboratories and had a good chat about the science. He was in firm agreement that there is no higher risk of the presence of clostridium perfringens in rendered lard from a wholesome carcass than there is in bacon, ham, pate de tete or rillettes.

So I pulled a Joel Salatin and submitted my product descriptions (on 27 May), but I didn’t call it ‘rendered lard’, I called it ‘melted fat’. Heh. They were onto me, and I was knocked back on melting fat. I said I’d discuss it with the manager at a later date.

I went to America on an #epicfairfoodtour and asked many other butchers, food scientists, and food safety experts their views on the safety of rendering lard. All agreed that the PrimeSafe interpretation was inappropriate.

The Inspector responded to Stuart’s query while I was overseas (24 June) to say there were issues with the product descriptions but she needed to tell me about them as I am the licensed operator of our boning room. He asked whether she could put it in writing as I was away, but she said she needed to speak with me by phone.

Upon my return, nearly a month after submitting the product descriptions, I emailed The Inspector (26 June) to ask why such a delay in giving feedback on the products. She rang me back shortly after I sent the email and said she tried to ring me while I was in America.

‘But you knew I was in America, Inspector, and I don’t answer my phone over there because it’s expensive,’ I said. ‘Couldn’t you have given me the feedback in writing so we could progress this?’

‘I tried to ring you twice and it hasn’t been a month, Tammi. It’s complicated so I needed to talk to you on the phone about it,’ she said forcefully.

‘But surely if it’s complicated you should give it to me in writing so I can understand the requirements and comply?’

‘Look, you were away and I tried to contact you. And it has not been a month, it’s been…’

‘Right, Inspector, I don’t need your excuses on why you couldn’t respond in a timely fashion. Please just tell me what’s wrong with the product descriptions,’ I blurted out, totally exasperated.

‘So you submitted these products but you can’t render lard unless you’re going to do clostridium testing…

‘I took the lard off the list, Inspector, as you told me that before I left. I’d like to speak to your manager about it, but not right now, so go on…’

‘Right, but you didn’t take out two other products… I can’t pronounce them…’

‘You mean rillettes and pâté de tête? Those aren’t rendered products, they’re cooked, like any other cooked product. I accept that I have to discuss the rendered lard interpretation, but rillettes and pâté de tête are different.’

‘I’ve spoken with my manager and she agrees, they’re rendered products as well and cannot be approved without submitting them for testing.’

‘Inspector, are you seriously telling me that when I get my carcasses back from the abattoir that PrimeSafe licenses, that the meat on those carcasses is wholesome but the fat no longer is?!’ I tried logic.

‘Tammi, you’ve had your answer.’

‘No, I haven’t, actually. Are you saying that the fat on my carcasses is not wholesome when they come back from an abattoir that you licence? And why is bacon okay but not rillettes?’

‘Bacon is a cooked product. It goes to 65C for a minimum of 10 minutes.’

‘Inspector, rillettes go much higher than 65C for much longer than 10 minutes. They’re also a cooked product.’

‘Tammi, you’ve had your answer.’

Gah. Lost that round, but not to logic or science, to pedantry and power.

‘What else, Inspector?’

‘Well, I’m not clear on your single-muscle cures about the acceptable range for humidity. You’ve put 65 to 85% relative humidity but what’s the allowance? How far below 65% is allowed?’

‘There’s no allowance below 65%, Inspector. That’s the range – 65 to 85%.’

‘Well, it’s not clear. I need you to write that as 75% plus or minus 10%.’

‘You realize that’s the same thing, right, Inspector? 65 to 85% is 75 plus or minus 10.’

‘But it’s not clear, Tammi. You need to write it as 75 plus or minus 10.’

Gah. ‘Okay, Inspector, if I must write it that way to get these products approved I will.’

When I submitted the minor revisions to our product descriptions (I also needed to include more detail on the weights of my single-muscle cures in the batch sheets), I took rillettes off the list, but left pâté de tête. In my covering email I wrote:

‘Note that I have deleted rillette from the products until such time as I can discuss the rendering standard and its application to a cooked product such as rillette with The Manager. However, I have left pâté de tête included as it is a boiled product not unlike a stock, not something anyone would define as ‘rendered’. I will await further advice before commencing production of this product.’

We received the following approval a week later (23 July):

‘Following conformation the humidifier has been installed as per the requirements of AS4696:2007, and the submission of the HACCP based procedures submitted 3 July 2015, PrimeSafe approves the manufacture of the following products at Jonai Farms & Meatsmith

1)       Uncooked Cured Meat Products,

2)       Pâté de Tête

3)       Stocks

4)       Trotters and Ears

Compliance of these procedures will be reviewed at your next scheduled audit with SGS.’

And so there it is. We can’t make rillettes or render lard without expensive testing our colleagues elsewhere don’t have to conduct, and given how small our operation is, it’s not financially viable for us to make those products. So if you want liberated fat, Victoria, you’ll need to get it from Big Food or from interstate.

Read more of The Regulation Diaries…

Part 1: PrimeSafe’s War on Salami Days

Part 2: PrimeSafe’s War on Farm Gate Shops

Part 3: PrimeSafe’s War on Meat

The Regulation Diaries (3): PrimeSafe’s War on Meat 

Our first regularly scheduled audit after The Salami Wars was just a few weeks after we returned from our research trip to France and Italy. (NB Audits are undertaken by private third-party auditors, who submit their reports to PrimeSafe, which is a statutory authority.)

I was determined to give The Auditor nothing to worry about – I would show that we had understood our mistake in letting salamis leave the property, and that I keep an exemplary boning room.

The Auditor seemed quite solicitous as she commenced the audit – she of course knew of The Salami Wars and appeared to have some sympathy for how we felt at the destruction of our food. The Audit was going very smoothly, paperwork all in order, the place spotless… and then she looked to the bottom of the display fridge.

‘Why are those smoked hocks in cryovac?’ she asked.

‘Um, because they keep better?’ I answered nervously.

‘But they’re ready-to-eat products, and you don’t have a Listeria Management Plan,’ she declared.

Ah, crap. Bugger and gah! So they farking are.

Or are they? Let’s examine the evidence…

Ready-to-eat products are ‘ordinarily consumed in the same state as that in which they are sold’ according to the Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production and Transportation of Meat and Meat Products (AS 4696:2007).

But PrimeSafe treats all products that have gone through a cook process (to a minimum of 65C for a minimum of 10 minutes) as RTE. And you can’t cryovac RTE products in Victoria without a Listeria Management Plan in place. Such a plan requires monthly listeria testing and quarterly testing of every product in its package exactly as it will be sold.

What does that mean in practice? Say we sell whole hams at Christmas, and sliced and half hams the rest of the year (in addition to sliced pastrami and other RTE products). We have to send off five whole packages per quarter of each product: five whole hams, five half hams, and five packages of sliced ham. The lab tests for listeria and then throws the meat away.

We only do whole hams at Christmas, and we only do about 40 of them. But this requirement would mean I would have to send five of those to be tested and disposed of. That’s 12.5% of our hams thrown away. Or about $1000 in product, just for the whole hams. So to vac pack our RTE products would, we’ve estimated, cost us around $5000 per annum in testing and sacrificed product.

Cost aside, we cannot stomach the idea of all that wasted food, especially from animals we’ve raised so mindfully and whose lives we’ve taken for the sole purpose of food. What total disrespect to simply throw that meat away. And so we’ve opted not to pursue vac packing our RTE products. It means we have to run a tighter production model (we glad wrap our hams and hocks), but if that’s what it takes to respect the lives we take then it’s what we will continue to do.

PrimeSafe considers smoked hocks to be RTE products, meaning we can’t vac pack them. Bacon, interestingly, has an exemption from the RTE rule – you are allowed to vac pack bacon because, as both The Auditor and The Inspector have told me, ‘culturally, Australians cook bacon’. Smoked hocks don’t have this exemption for reasons beyond me, in spite of the clear cultural evidence that Australians cook smoked hocks (ham & pea soup, anyone?).

And so when The Auditor asked why I’d vac packed my hocks, it was because she was about to slap me with a ‘critical’, my first.

Following procedure when a ‘critical’ is identified during an audit, The Auditor rang PrimeSafe. She spoke with The Inspector, and then handed the phone to me. The Inspector explained that The Auditor was going to have to condemn my smoked hocks – that is, make me pull them out of their plastic, put them into a bin, and pour poison over them. Déjà vu?

I asked whether we could have them tested?

‘No.’

I asked whether I could take them into my house for us to use?

‘No.’

I asked whether I could feed them to our dogs?

‘No.’

And so, weeping quietly, I pulled around 15 smoked hocks out of the fridge, cut the plastic off them, and put them into the same bin our salamis were poisoned in just a couple months earlier. The Auditor asked me to get the disinfectant I clean the floor with and poured it over the top of the hocks.

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She then explained to me that PrimeSafe would put us on an Intensified Audit Schedule. Typically after a ‘critical’ a shop will go on intensified audits for a minimum of four audits. That means an audit per week for a minimum of four weeks, at our expense (our audits average $350-$550 per audit).

Apparently the perverse incentive of this cost-recovery model to find a critical is lost on PrimeSafe and indeed the Victorian government?

Some clear questions remain:

  • Who decides what is and isn’t treated as a RTE product?
  • Is there really a need to put a shop on intensified audits for a mistake such as mine? The rest of the audit found absolutely nothing wrong.
  • Is there a cheaper and less onerous way to control the risk of listeria in RTE products? (eg you could pasteurize product in the vac pack to eliminate the risk without expensive, wasteful testing)

But now it’s time to share another voice from Victoria’s beleaguered meat industry…

Felix Gamze of Gamze Smokehouse in Wangaratta has been a great mentor and friend to us as we’ve navigated Victoria’s difficult regulatory terrain. He’s been a butcher for nearly 30 years, and has had his own negative experiences with PrimeSafe. Felix shared the story below with me for The Regulation Diaries as he’s as committed as we are to seeking changes in the current situation to make it better for Victoria’s meat industry to do what we do.

In 2008 the Listeria guidelines came into place, effectively introducing guidelines and restrictions that forced 90% of butchers to stop making ham, bacon and smallgoods in their retail butcher shops in Victoria (something they had been doing for ever). I was one of the very few to persist with making my own smallgoods due to the passion I have for charcuterie.

Having been making smallgoods from my retail butcher shop for over 25 years I was determined to keep going due to the encouragement of my loyal customers. I thought, ‘well it can’t be too hard to comply with the guidelines as I have been safely making product for a long time and have never had a food safety issue.’

Not long after the new guidelines came into place our industry body put on an information evening in the local area and all the butchers from the region who were interested in continuing to make smallgoods attended. Now let’s be honest, the room consisted of middle-aged butchers whose formal academic education averaged about form 4. This group of people were trained and very experienced in butchery, smallgoods making, food safety and running a small business.

The information session took about 2 hours and at the end we were all expected to fully understand and implement the new guidelines in our businesses! This was not the case and many of us left not fully understanding our new responsibilities. The new guidelines just put another job on the ever-growing requirements of a small business owner. The larger manufacturers didn’t have the same concern as they would now just employ another staff member to cover the area full time.

A lot of the guidelines focused on food safety, something we were all very aware of and complied with for many years without a formal set of guidelines. But another large part was the introduction was copious amounts of paperwork, laboratory testing, and bureaucracy all of which were poorly explained, implemented and set out, not to mention very costly. It was clear that what Prime Safe was looking to do was to stop the small local butcher making and selling smallgoods, something that the big guys in the industry were obviously very happy about.

Soon after the information evening I had my first audit under the new guidelines and it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. At my first attempt I didn’t correctly complete the paper work required and the auditor failed me. I had a visit from Prime Safe the next day. During the visit from Prime Safe they destroyed all my products buy pouring bleach on it and took my cooking licence off me for 2 years!

Now, this was not due to any food safety issues, it was purely a paperwork non-compliance issue. From that point I could have easily given up and stopped what I loved doing, but that’s what they wanted me and every other butcher in Victoria to do.

After two years of jumping through every hoop they put in front of me I managed to get my licence back and start making smallgoods again.

I was then asked to give evidence in the 2013 State Government Inquiry into the Impact of Food Safety Regulation on Farms and Other Businesses where I shared my experience with Prime Safe and offered suggestions on cutting red tape. Since this enquiry there has been no recommendations taken up by Prime Safe from the Inquiry and now 2 years later they are having another review… I wonder what this will achieve.

Recently we decided to run Smallgoods and Butchery Masterclasses at our new facility where I would instruct a hands-on day of butchery and salami making. Once Prime Safe got wind of this they contacted me, instructing me that I was not allowed to conduct such a class. If I wanted to continue with the classes we would need to change it to making a fresh sausage and not a salami.

Each year I sell 100’s of kg of pork mince to local customers for them to make salami at home in June and July with some people having many years of experience and family heritage and others no idea at all. The families that have been making it for generations I have no worries about, but the average Joe that is interested in the art of charcuterie without access to a family with generations of experience I worry about. So I thought it would be a good idea to teach these people how to make salami safely and give them the knowledge to pass onto their family and start their own traditions. Obviously Prime Safe didn’t see it that way.

We have run a number of these classes and the days have been a great success with butchery, smallgoods information and fresh sausage making taking place but unfortunately no salami.

Maybe one day we will be able to work with our regulator and not have them trying to trip us up. I will say one thing in addition to this and that is that I am always very concerned when speaking up with regards to past experiences with Prime Safe that my licence will be put in jeopardy.

Read Part 1 of The Regulation Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War on Salami Days

Read Part 2 of The Regulation Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War on Farm Gate Shops

The Regulation Diaries (Part 2): PrimeSafe’s War on Farm Gate Shops

My first meeting with The Inspector back in early 2013 was inauspicious to say the least.

It was my first visit to PrimeSafe, but we had a month or two prior been granted a Class 3 Food Premises registration under the Food Act 1984 by our local Environmental Health Officer, which allowed us to refrigerate and sell our pre-packaged meat from the farm. We raised our pigs out on the paddocks and transported them to the abattoir an hour away. Then the carcasses were delivered to our PrimeSafe-licensed butcher, and when everything was cut and packed, we understood from our Council and our reading of the legislation that we could store and sell our meat directly from a registered premises here on the farm.

It was all going swimmingly, so it was time to get our Meat Transport Vehicle (MTV) licence from PrimeSafe in order to commence deliveries to customers in the city. I was skeptical when a pig-farming mate told me my 12-volt esky would pass muster for an MTV (so long as it’s under cover and strapped to the vehicle), but upon ringing PrimeSafe they confirmed this to be the case. And so with some confidence I strode into their offices in South Melbourne to obtain my MTV licence.

A rather blank young man starts to process my paperwork, and it’s all going quite well. Then I, trying to reassure him, say, ‘and don’t worry, I understand about the temperature monitoring requirements because I’ve been doing that under my Class 3 for a little while now at the farm.’ I smile reassuringly and nod.

Blank young man: ‘you’ve been selling meat from your farm?’

Me: ‘sure, under a Class 3 Premises registration from our council.’

Blank young man: ‘please just wait here,’ and uses a security card to disappear behind the glass door. Uh oh.

Out comes The Inspector.

‘You can’t sell meat from your farm without a licence from PrimeSafe.’

I what?!

The Inspector directs me into a meeting room behind the glass door I subsequently describe as the ‘swinging lightbulb’ room, because the interrogation that ensues is aggressive and punitive. I am cited sections of the Meat Industry Act 1993, told I have breached the Act, and that it is a ‘very serious offence’ and that we ‘could be prosecuted.’

I explain that my council was very happy to give us a registration, and that they had inspected the premises and found them to meet their standards for the storage and sale of pre-packaged meat. That we have paid some $250 for this registration.

The Inspector sighs dramatically at what she infers is the incompetence of councils, and wants to know ‘which council’ so she can set them straight. I ask her not to make things difficult between us and our council as we’re pioneering some new ground and they’ve been remarkably supportive.

‘I’m going to need you to write out an undertaking that you will not store or sell meat from your property without a licence,’ commands The Inspector.

I’m pretty sure this is a terrible idea and I say so. I invoke my father-in-law who is a retired solicitor and say I’m pretty sure he would advise me not to do this, but that I don’t wish to seem non-compliant. So I write out the damned undertaking and sign it, still quite convinced this is a terrible idea.

At one point in the interaction I gain control of my trembling voice (I have been so blindsided by this interaction I am penduluming wildly between confusion, anger and fear) to say to The Inspector, ‘wait. Can we stop for a moment and remember that I am here because I came here to comply?! I am not and was not trying to get away with anything wrong. We want to comply, and we just need you to help us understand how best to do that, and I don’t need to be treated like I’m trying to get away with doing the wrong thing.’

The Inspector takes her own deep breath and assumes a slightly less aggressive tone, makes a bit of small talk even (at which I bridle). She gathers up my undertaking and we go outside for the vehicle inspection that was the reason for my visit. Inspects the vehicle. Approves it. Shakes my hand and wishes me a good day.

So now I have a licensed MTV but can no longer sell meat from my farm.

Thank goodness we’d already commenced plans to build the butcher’s shop so that we could be PrimeSafe licensees, right?

Right?!

NB: I am currently personally aware of at least three cases of other farms who would like to sell their meat pre-packaged from a farm gate shop, but who have been told they cannot by PrimeSafe. I know of another three who are selling from farm gate shops under Class 3 Premises registrations.

Importantly, we all know of hundreds of supermarkets, delis and corner shops that are selling pre-packaged meat without the requirement for a meat processing licence (even in the cases where they process meat, such as supermarkets).

Explain how this is about food safety?

(PS I’ll talk further of this in later entries, but you should always get the regulator to give you any orders, instructions or demands in writing.)

Read Part 1 of The Regulations Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War on Salami Days

The Regulation Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War Against Salami Days

 

This is the first of what I aim to be a series on the negative impacts of food safety regulation on small-scale production and freedom of choice in Australia.

This first instalment details the story of how Victorian meat regulator PrimeSafe destroyed all our salamis last year. I will seek permission from other salami day hosts to share some more stories of PrimeSafe actively shutting down salami workshops across Victoria (of which I know at least three in addition to us).

Future posts will explain the minutiae of regulation and compliance for small-scale meat, dairy, & egg producers, as well as butchers, providores & chefs with a story to tell – if you have one, I’m happy to host guest posts on this topic.

* * *

The late-model government vehicle rolled up the driveway just before 3pm the day before an early-morning flight to France.

As The Inspector stepped out of the car to approach us, she jutted her hand out in greeting, pronouncing, ‘Hi Tammi, Stuart. I understand you’re heading for France tomorrow?’

Taken aback, I answered that yes, we were going to research traditional methods of charcuterie and salumi making in France and Italy. It was obvious that neither PrimeSafe’s surprise visit nor their knowledge of our travel plans boded well for us.

The Inspector asked whether we had allowed participants in our recent salami day to take home salamis from the workshop and we replied that yes, we had. She told us this was a ‘very serious breach of the Act’, to which we confessed our ignorance and apologized for the mistake.

The Inspector then explained that she had a complaint from an attendee at our salami day a fortnight earlier. According to the complaint:

  • our salami shed was ‘not a good environment for making salami’;
  • we took a vote with the 45 attendees and opted not to use nitrates;
  • there were dogs around during the workshop; and
  • ‘there appeared to be a bullet hole in the pig’s head’. (This last we responded was clearly false and that the pig had been slaughtered at our usual abattoir, so apparently we were dealing with a vexatious complaint.)

NB: we never received written notice of the complaint – all of this was delivered verbally to us by The Inspector.

The Inspector told us that it appeared that there was ‘somebody in the industry who doesn’t like you very much,’ judging by the complaint.

She asked to be taken to the salamis hanging just behind us in the salami shed in plain view from the driveway, and whether they could take some photos. I laughingly responded that there were photos all over the internet, and that they were in fact our Facebook cover photo at the moment. That’s the last time I laughed.

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She then asked to see our licensed retail butcher’s shop here on the farm. We complied and they found nothing of concern. The Inspector then asked to be taken back to the salamis, noting on the way there that she needed to tell us something ‘we would not be happy about’ – that an outcome of their visit may be that they would have to destroy all our salami hanging in the shed. We asked why that would be when it is not part of our commercial business and is solely for our own consumption. She said we shouldn’t talk more about it now, but that she simply wanted us to be prepared for something that might happen that we wouldn’t like.

We offered to email all participants and ask them to dispose of the salamis they had taken home and apologise, telling them we had made a mistake and that we were not legally allowed to let them take the salami home. The Inspector said she would tell the CEO of PrimeSafe that we had offered to do this, and that it would reflect favourably on us that we had offered.

The Inspector rang the CEO for advice on whether the salami hanging in the shed had to be destroyed. She asked us to move away while she had this conversation. When she got off the phone she conferred with her colleague. They then waved us back to the shed.

The Inspector said ‘you’re not going to like this’ and proceeded to tell us that we were going to have to destroy all the salami. She said we had two choices, one was to cooperate and help take all the salami down to be condemned, and the other was to refuse to cooperate, in which case she and her colleague would go and wait at the bottom of our driveway for the police, who would forcibly return and destroy the salami with them.

She suggested it would not go as well for us if we opted for the latter, and that she had pleaded our case to the CEO and ‘kept the boning room out of it’. She asked us to cooperate on the basis that she was trying to help us, and that she believed that we were being honest, but that if we didn’t comply, she couldn’t promise she would continue to help us.

At this stage I burst into tears, and said ‘you don’t understand how important it is to us not to waste anything’ and that it was disrespectful to take an animal’s life and then destroy the meat. We reiterated that the salamis were for our own personal use, and that we had no intention of selling them, and that we would be more than willing to sign an undertaking to that effect. The Inspector asked me to compose myself, saying it ‘bothered her’ to see me upset. I said this whole event was upsetting.

I asked to see the relevant part of the Act that gave them the power to destroy our salamis. The Inspector showed me the section (section 72 of the Meat Industry Act 1993), which states that they have power to seize and condemn meat and even live animals. (We have subsequently received legal advice that The Inspector’s powers to destroy meat under these circumstances is ‘arguable’.)

I queried whether the shed was arguably actually a residence as it’s not part of our licensed premises, and The Inspector said ‘no, it’s land’. She said she could go anywhere on our land because we are PrimeSafe’s licensee.

Another 20 minutes of discussion and phone calls to the CEO resulted in nothing except reminders that if we were cooperative it was likely to ‘go better’ for us.

Our children returned from school and were standing nearby. The Inspector asked whether we could send the children into the house as they appeared distressed and shouldn’t see me upset. I replied that of course they were distressed as they hate waste as much as we do, but that we would not send them away as we share everything with our children and want them to understand the world in which they live.

We also had our four WWOOFers working on a pump about 15m away, and The Inspector said ‘there’s a crowd drawing, and this is when inspectors get hurt’, to which I replied that it was outrageous to suggest we were being in any way threatening. She agreed, but asked us to ‘understand her position’.

She also asked us to be calm and go in to destroy the salami ‘in a civilised manner’. I replied that there is nothing civilised about coming to our home and destroying meat from animals we raise with such care on our farm and kill purely for food, in a world where people are hungry.

Before the destruction began, we asked whether we could just take the meat inside and eat it ourselves, feed it to our dogs, or have it tested, but the answer was ‘no’.

The Inspector instructed Stuart to get a bin, preferably something the dogs couldn’t get into and that wasn’t a food safe bin as the ‘condemnation ink’ was toxic and might kill our dogs or contaminate food bins. He complied and got a large barrel.

I climbed a ladder and removed all of the salamis while my boys filmed me doing so. The Inspector got back on the phone with the CEO while I took the salamis down and asked her colleague to stay near us.

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The Inspector said it was good we were going away for three weeks the next day to give time for PrimeSafe to decide what to do so that it was less likely to affect our day to day business. She said our next planned workshop upon our return in July may not be allowed to proceed. I asked what jurisdiction PrimeSafe has over our workshops if it doesn’t involve any meat for consumption or sale. She said the shed is a ‘meat processing facility’ because we are PrimeSafe licensees.

NB: subsequent legal advice identified no prohibitions in the Meat Industry Act on operating the workshops in the salami shed.

We asked again whether we should email all attendees and ask them to dispose of their salamis. The Inspector replied that that was up to us, and there was no requirement to do so.

As The Inspector and her colleague started to leave, I stopped her and said, ‘you know how you said you receive death threats and aren’t well liked?’ The Inspector pulled her shoulders back and her eyes widened slightly. I said, ‘well, people do like us, and they’re going to be really sad and angry when they learn what you did today.’

And so we’re telling you now, world. We’ve turned our own sadness and anger into action, and we’re ready to fight. We want to and we do produce safe food, but we produce something so much more than just safe. We produce food that nourishes our land, our family, and our community. We produce food in ways that value connection, flavour, and regeneration.

This regulator has been left unchecked for too long. It’s time you let your government know what kind of world you want to live in and what kind of food you want to eat. If you’re happy with imported, frozen meat manufactured into pale imitations of traditional smallgoods by Big Food, so be it. If not, this fight is your fight too.

With all the pressure PrimeSafe are under now that the Minister has announced the review, the cynical side of me is waiting for someone to manufacture or highly dramatise a food safety incident to regain the public’s sympathy and fear. So here’s me putting it on the public record to stave off that possibility or at least date stamp our awareness of that particular tactic.

And here’s hoping my cynicism is misplaced and that our government wants fair and consistent regulation just like we do.

Read Part 2 of The Regulation Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War on Farm Gate Shops

Read Part 3 of The Regulation Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War on Meat

Read Part 4 of The Regulation Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War on Fat

AFSA forges links with US Food Sovereignty movement – my #epicfairfoodtour

[This was originally posted on the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) blog]

I’ve been home five days from my three-week Epic Fair Food Tour of America and my mind has only just stopped spinning long enough to let the pieces fall into place. The trip spanned coast-to-coast – eight states in three weeks – and included daily conversations with some of America’s leading thinkers and daily creators of alternative food systems.

Saying goodbye to the lovely Joel & Theresa Salatin.
Saying goodbye to the lovely Joel & Theresa Salatin.

I was delighted to spend time with farmers such as the irascible Joel Salatin of Polyface, the fiery and generous Mike Callicrate of Ranch Foods Direct, the irreverent and determined Greg Gunthorp of Gunthorp Farms, the earnest and warm Guido Frosini of True Grass Farms, the focused and incisive Marina of Circle B Ranch, and the fierce and friendly Julia Smith of Urban Digs Farm.

With Ryan Fibiger of Fleisher's Pastured Meats
With Ryan Fibiger of Fleisher’s Pastured Meats

I was also privileged to break bread and talk food ethics with many of those I think of as the connectors in our food system – the butchers, providores, and chefs – such as Kate & Josh at Western Daughters butcher shop in Denver, Rachael of Brooklyn Bouillon, Jake of Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, Ryan of Fleisher’s Pasture-Raised Meats, and Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York (whose book The Third Plate is a must read).

Love.
Love.
First course at Dan Barber's Blue Hill
First course at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill

And of course I was also fortunate to spend time and learn from others who write, speak, teach, and lobby to transform the system, including John Moody of Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, Bob Perry of the University of Kentucky, Temple Grandin, Jahi Chappell of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Michael Pollan, and Neil Thapar of the Sustainable Economies Law Center.

Lunch with Michael Pollan.
Lunch with Michael Pollan.

So after spending time with that line up, surely I’ve got all the answers now, right? No, but I do have a clearer picture of where the food sovereignty movement is up to in the States, some ideas about how best to focus our efforts together, and what seem to me some of the weaknesses and gaps in the current movement.

What remains clear is that we must support the farmers who are building an alternative food system.

And we must also support the connectors who help them get their produce to market in a way that doesn’t simply build a new system that looks exactly like the old one. But I’ll return to that dilemma in a moment.

As for the farmers building the new system like those listed above and across Australia and the rest of the world – we need these fair food farms to be ready as the old system crumbles.

The combined pressures of climate change and epidemics sweeping through intensive animal agriculture such as H5N2 avian flu and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) are growing challenges for industrial agriculture, and workers organizing to demand fair pay and conditions combined with increasing consumer pressure for greater transparency and better treatment of land, animals, and workers are having an effect.

Promising signs include popular American fast food chain Chipotle’s animal welfare sourcing policy and recent announcement that it would no longer use GMO ingredients in its products, while McDonalds announced the closure of hundreds of its outlets amidst major drops in profits.

In less promising news, Chinese giant Shuanghui purchased America’s biggest pork producer Smithfield in 2013, narrowing control of the global meat industry even further. (For more on the meat industry, see my earlier post on my time at Slow Meat in Denver.)

Mike Callicrate flew me over this JBS feedlot in eastern CO - 130,000 cattle in that lot.
Mike Callicrate flew me over this JBS feedlot in eastern CO – 130,000 cattle in that lot.

And so as the Polyfaces, White Oaks, Gunthorps, Jonai, Buena Vistas, and Old Mill farms of the world toil to grow food deeply embedded in our local communities and imbued with their values of respect for people and animals and care for the land, we must support them/us, just as we must find ways to help others get onto the land to grow more food in small-scale agroecological systems.

As we say at Jonai Farms, we don’t need to scale, we need to multiply.

One of the most obvious issues the movement must grapple with is the question of scale. What’s the right size to be viable, and when is big too big? There are no easy answers to these questions, but viability must always be considered holistically – as well as being financially viable, are we maintaining viable soils, viable animals grown in healthy systems resilient to disease without constant application of antibiotics?

On size and sovereignty, I would argue that it’s a question of connectedness. Scale typically decreases the connectedness of the producer to the eater. Polyface challenged my thinking on scale as I saw that Joel has fostered the growth of new farmers in his area by taking them on as sub-contractors while mentoring them on their journey. Ultimately most move onto their own independent farms, which can be a tricky model for the Salatins as they must regularly train up new farmers to maintain their production, but Joel is committed to it. He says he never intended to grow to the size they are now, ‘it just happened’, but he’s unapologetic about it, and I could see why. What I witnessed was a healthy example of a bigger scale, employing dozens of people in a thriving regenerative system.

The Polyface community enjoying dinner together
The Polyface community enjoying dinner together

But if the Salatins, like the Tysons before them, opted to continue to scale and to buy up every feed operation, every hatchery, and every slaughterhouse their profits enabled them to, we’d be back to what we’re trying to end. None of today’s fair food farmers would seek to reproduce the horrendous production model of intensive poultry that Tyson introduced back in the 1930s. But vertical integration is increasingly common in this movement – Polyface, Gunthorp, and we Jonai are all working to control more of the supply chain to ensure our own viability as well as control and connectedness.

And we must be vigilant against our own cultural impulse to grow grow grow simply because we can, and because there’s demand for our product. We must know when to stop and hand over surplus demand to our comrades on the farms multiplying all around us. If we command (and pay our workers) a fair price to start with, we need not continue to grow. We can grow less for more rather than more for less, which will grow more farmers.

So that’s production sorted.

What about the connectors? How do we ensure they do their important work to process and package primary produce and get it to market in the many instances where it still won’t be suitable or possible for the farmers to do that work themselves without re-creating the old system where the middleman takes all (or too much anyway)? And in a way where they are paid fairly as well – think of abattoir workers, food manufacturing workers, and all the other workers in the food chain. (And then think of the companies who own abattoirs, and companies like Kraft or Coles or Woolworths and what their shareholders and executives earn…)

Aldo working magic at Dickson's Farmstand Meats
Aldo working magic at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats

What’s the right organizational structure for these connectors? Surely the many independent butchers I spent time with overseas and that many Australians frequent here are a good example of a fair business model, as are the small, independent grocers (who are pretty rare these days as the supermarkets drive them out), though many struggle to remain viable in a world where food’s cheapness is valued well above its fairness. And those sorts of businesses that have direct relationships with their producers are clearly going to be better for the eaters as they serve as a kind of conduit between the two, rather than a brick wall like the current system (I’m looking at you, ColesWorths).

Shareholders, sales targets, and growth models should probably be eschewed in favour of cooperatives, not-for-profits, and mindfully remaining small and local. And connectedness, one would hope, will help the average eater understand better why they must value food more highly and pay its real cost.

The last pillars of food system reform I’d like to briefly address are regulation, policy, and the role of lobbying and advocacy.

Current regulatory frameworks were developed over time to protect the public from things it cannot see, as well as from visible unscrupulous or negligent practices. They regulate long, industrial supply chains in a world where a frozen pizza product can contain 35 different ingredients that have passed through 60 countries and carry the label ‘country of origin Ireland’, and a packet of mince can contain meat from 17 animals from an unknown number of farms. (See Swallow This for a detailed exploration of the global processed food industry.)

Regulation is therefore in many cases inappropriate to the scale and connectedness of small production systems, and we must seek to redress this if we are to support the growth of small farms with greater control of their supply chains. The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund in America is one body doing that, initially through a focus on litigation, but increasingly on support for compliance and lobbying for legal reform. AFSA is working with the Regrarians and others to establish something similar here to support farmers working to build regenerative and fair local food economies.

The Sustainable Economies Law Centre in Oakland, California is another example of an organization committed to supporting producers, consumers and everyone in between in developing sustainable models through independent advice as well as their regular ‘Resilient Communities Legal Café’, freely available to all. As they help their clients develop new templates for innovative models of people trying to build more resilient local economies, they make them available to others to grow this movement. I love these people.

On policy, Michael Pollan collaborated with Ricardo Salvador, Olivier de Schutter, and Mark Bittman recently on a column calling for a National Food Policy in the US. I shared AFSA’s People’s Food Plan that was the genesis of our Alliance with Michael to show what can be done when the people take the lead.

Of course North America has a flourishing movement of Food Policy Councils, but these are predominantly local movements. My passionate and knowledgeable comrade Nick Rose, Secretary and National Coordinator for AFSA, is currently establishing a new body in Australia called Sustain: The Australian Food Network, which aims to do similar work to support and connect local government authorities and other food systems stakeholders across the country. He will provide more detail on Sustain’s aims and progress as it develops, with the strong support of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance.

I can’t write a post about major food systems reform without addressing access to not just fair food, but all food. It’s an essential question for our society to address – how do we ensure the most basic human right of access to (safe, nutritious) food is secured for everyone, everywhere? And when people like me say we need to pay more for food to be fair to producers and chain workers and animals, what about those who can’t even afford the food when it’s not fair to the rest?

The short answer to that is that the food movement alone cannot possibly solve structural and systemic poverty, whether here or in the US or elsewhere. We can apply loads of bandaids – I’m grateful for the work of excellent bodies like Foodbank, Secondbite, Spade & Barrow, and local food rescues everywhere. And little farms like ours can offer discounts to provide better access to our community periodically. But that won’t solve poverty – egalitarian, living wages and strong social support systems will.

My excellent colleague and AFSA Communications Officer Alana Mann has addressed the problem of hunger in a recent post where she reminded us that ‘hidden hunger is a public problem for which we are all responsible.’

In the US this problem is so entrenched it’s hard to fully grasp in Australia. I know of waiters in the US earning $2.50/hour because their tips are expected to bring them up to the minimum wage (which may be as low as $7.50/hour). And in America this is legal. The cities of Los Angeles and Seattle have recently introduced $15/hour minimum wages – a major breakthrough in that country. As Jose Oliva of the Food Chain Workers Alliance told us at the Slow Meat symposium in Denver, the food chain sector is both the largest and the lowest paid sector of the US economy. That is a national disgrace.

The context in Australia is certainly different to that, but as the Four Corners expose on the pay and conditions for itinerant farm workers here demonstrated, we are not innocent of treating workers unfairly, and the food movement must work in solidarity to remedy these wrongs.

And yet we must also acknowledge that systemic poverty is simply much bigger than the food movement. We can be part of the solution, but we cannot solve poverty here or in the US on our own, and we cannot ask farmers to bear the brunt of the cost equation to solve this serious social problem.

An important thing I learned during my time in America is that although the movement there gained momentum earlier than it did here, we are not behind. Our smallness is a strength, and provides a capacity for more rapid meaningful change that the monolith of America can only dream of. And the movement there seems to have already progressed to levels of cooption and greenwashing that we are just beginning to get glimmers of, and once again, our smallness will serve us well in combating those who would deceive the ever-awakening public who want a fair food system.

Three weeks of bearing witness to America’s movement gave me hope, and strengthened AFSA’s links to those really making a difference for food sovereignty, the growers, connectors, eaters, teachers, and amplifiers. Together with our comrades in the US and across the globe I believe we can stand and demand our right to collectively determine our own food and agriculture systems, because you only have to look around you to see that we are legion.

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Slow Meat 2015

While at Slow Meat in Denver I picked up a copy of The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. This critical book details the history and current oligarchical state of the meat industry in America in no uncertain terms – an industry built entirely on unfairness to animals, land, and people. I’m planning to write more about the book and what I saw in America’s heartland in a later post, but I’d like to here foreground my account of Slow Meat with some key issues raised by author Christopher Leonard.

Leonard has this to say about Tyson Foods, one of the biggest multinational food corporations in the world:

…the company has swallowed up all the businesses that used to make up a small-town economy. It owns the feed mill, the slaughterhouse, and the hatchery. It owns the trucking line and the food-processing plant where raw meat is packaged and cooked into ready-to-eat meals. While Tyson doesn’t directly own most of the farms that supply it with animals, it controls them through the use of restrictive contracts. It’s as if the broad-based network of small businesses that were once the backbone of rural America had been sucked into a single, towering silo called Tyson Foods. The company owns everything that happens inside it. There is no competition among the various entities, no free market to determine the price at which baby chicks are sold to farmers or at what price grown chickens are sold back to a slaughterhouse. It all happens within the walls of Tyson’s corporate structure. (p.5)

There are just four meatpacking companies that control 85% of the meat industry in the US. When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906 and exposed the seedy, dangerous underworld of meatpacking, the uproar led to the passing of the Meat Inspection Act and the precursor to the current Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Workers’ unions were formed, farmers flocked to foreclosure auctions with guns and ‘ensured that the original owner of the farm could buy it back for a bid of one dollar’ (p.57). The dollar auctions became a part of American history.

And yet now this wonderful country that once stood up against tyranny and fought for the rights of the oppressed is one of the most brainwashed and worst fed in the industrialised world. These are hard truths, evident in every Walmart aisle and on every fast food menu across the nation.

With this background, and as a long time advocate for fair food, and fair meat especially, you can imagine my excitement when I learned of the second Slow Meat symposium to be held in Denver, hosted by Slow Food USA. Described as a gathering of global thought leaders on the need for radical food systems change, focused particularly around meat, Slow Meat sounded like something I simply could not miss.

It was pitched as a competitive application process – I don’t know whether it was in truth competitive selection, but the 217 delegates were most definitely changemakers in their respective communities and many on the broader stage. The diversity and depth of the people I met over the three days I spent with them was stimulating, inspiring, and challenging. These are people who understand the food system, are well aware of its worst failings, and are working hard to both fix the old system and in many cases, to build new, alternative food economies.

And then the conference started.

A strong opening from the admirable Edie Mukiibi, Vice-president of Slow Food International and one of the leaders of 10,000 Gardens in Africa put me on the edge of my seat. Edie is a vocal and passionate advocate for ‘good, clean, fair food,’ asserting that ‘Africans can feed Africa, not a single multinational company.’ He offered insights into the negative impacts of aid on African communities, and spoke at some length on the flooding of African agriculture with exotic species, such as the Friesian cattle brought in for high milk production. Edie told us that every animal given to a family comes with a payout and a long list of chemicals because they can’t cope with the environment. The list of chemical suppliers follows. The new breeds are burdened with inhumane practices as well. For example, in Uganda a male calf was once celebrated, and raised to a bull or beef steer. Now Friesian bull calves are killed on birth because Friesians are milk machines. Edie finished by reminding us that Slow Meat is a fight for fairness and responsibility, and a fight against industrial agriculture, which he calls ‘careless production’.IMG_7656

With that global perspective at the commencement, things were looking great. Edie offered us global insights, authentic experience, and challenging ideas.

While I have a strong regard for most of the speakers on the panels that ran over the rest of the day, I feel like they were given the wrong brief. They were preaching to the converted (not to mention knowledgeable), and the promised collective brainstorming and challenging of each other’s assumptions was largely absent from the sessions.

The opening panel had a number of members on it who confessed they don’t agree with Slow Meat’s mantra, ‘eat better meat, less,’ and the floor was given no opportunity to respond. In fact, at no stage was the floor opened up for comment after the received wisdom from those on the stage (though one session took questions via Twitter). Even most of the breakout sessions posited as the smaller for a for discussion and debate ran essentially as lectures.

The first panel, Beef, included Nicolette Hahn-Niman (author of Defending Beef & Righteous Pork Chop), Will Harris (White Oak Pastures), Caroline McCann (Braeside Meat Market, South Africa), Gary Nabhan (author of Stitching the West Back Together). On the question of ‘eat better meat, less’ – the panelists expressed concern that this message might hurt the small farmer who needs people to buy their produce. Others were concerned that it lumps pastured livestock farmers with the intensives, suggesting that eating less meat across the board is what’s needed, when really people just need to stop eating factory-farmed meat. None that I heard defended the position to eat better, less.

Well, I’m a small farmer and we say clearly on our website that we want people to eat less meat – just because you found meat that’s raised properly doesn’t mean you should eat it with abandon. We cannot export America & Australia’s (or indeed the global north’s) meat consumption without utterly destroying the planet and ruining our children’s hope for a future. Meat raised responsibly is a delicious and nutritious part of any diet, but too much will still over tax the planet’s metabolism.

I will share the highlights of the event:

The farm to table tour of Black Cat Farm near Boulder, Colorado, a vibrant, vertically integrated mixed livestock and vegetable farm practicing what they preach. Eric and Jill Skokan have developed a thriving agroecological system that supplies their two restaurants and multiple farmers’ markets in their region. As Eric took us through the polenta he’d ground from their corn crop for the corn bread using his grandmother’s recipe, served alongside a lovely roast pork leg from one of his rare breed Mulefoot pigs and an array of other dishes grown and cooked within 20 metres of the table, his passion and satisfaction were visceral. This is Slow Meat.

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On the Beef panel, Will Harris of White Oak Pastures shared with us that in his system, beef adds 30% to costs over industrial beef, whereas poultry adds 300%. He pointed out that the smaller animals too easily lend themselves to more industrialised systems. He left us with a little bon mot over the biggest meat company in the world, Brazilian JBS’ recent acquisition of a grassfed company– ‘I hope they don’t fuck that up’, said Will. Right.

Another highlight was the presence of Craig Watts, Perdue whistleblower, on the Chicken panel. Craig shared his experience as a contract grower for the huge intensive chicken company with a frank fearlessness to be much admired. He told us how the company lures people in to grow for them, telling them, ‘you’re going to be out of debt in 10 years and you’ll always have a market.’ And then he asked, ‘is the food coming out of these huge operations: sub-standard, making people sick, and causing superbugs?’

Craig told us that in rural communities Perdue (and others like them) have a monopoly – Craig can only sell to them, & Craig gets all his inputs from them. Remember that description of Tyson with which I opened? Craig finished by reminding us that just days before we gathered North Carolina (where he lives) passed an ag-gag law, making his important whistleblowing activity potentially illegal.

Craig’s honesty and earnest engagement with the delegation was heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time. And again delivered the authentic voice we were gathered to hear and address, I thought.

The final major highlight was easily Temple Grandin, who spoke at the Slow Meat Fair the day after the symposium. Temple held the floor rapt with her long, deep knowledge of the meat industry and focused efforts to improve animal welfare pre and during slaughter. She stated without hesitation that ‘you cannot overwork and understaff’ and expect good outcomes. She said she now sees more problems coming into slaughter such as leg confirmation and lice than she used to as systems have intensified, and single traits have been overselected with their attendant undesirable traits (eg a large loin on a pig may be linked to higher aggression). On overly burdensome regulation, she asserted ‘don’t dictate stun box floor area, measure outcomes’. Amen.

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With the day structured by three species – Cow, Chicken, Pig – I thought we would methodically canvass the major issues facing the production, processing and consumption of each. On beef, I wanted to debate the role of supplementary feed, be it hay, sileage or grain, and what is a truly regenerative practice. On chickens, I wanted to hear others’ thoughts on what a truly regenerative pastured chicken operation looks like – including a debate about breeds – and grapple with the question of how much chicken is possible if it’s only grown in truly regenerative systems? On pigs, I wanted to talk about soil – it’s great that we all have our pigs out on the paddocks now, but are we moonscaping it? Does it matter if we are?

And while we ate plenty of food cooked by great chefs with care, I must have a word on the catering. Seafood in Denver is not Slow Meat. It might be tasty, it might be excusable as a ‘sometimes food’, it might be that most of you really don’t care, but it is not Slow Meat. And frankly, nor is pork from New York… in Denver.

Will I go back to Slow Meat in 2017? Probably. Do I hope they get the programming right and deliver on the promise to bring us together to work collectively for radical food system change next time? Definitely. Do I feel enriched by the people who did attend, and am I grateful to Slow Meat for bringing us together? Absolutely.

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Don’t eat chicken unless its name was Colin

I often shock people when I say ‘don’t eat chicken unless its name was Colin‘. My rationale is that if all chooks were raised properly on the paddocks, we actually wouldn’t eat very many of them – our grandparents typically ate chicken once a year – and most chooks are not raised this way in Australia. And even those that are are typically breeds of chicken that struggle to walk with their over-sized breasts, and are more susceptible to heart attacks. I don’t personally believe that respects the ‘chickenness of the chicken’, hence the only chicken we eat are surplus roosters and spent hens from our own small house flock.

So imagine my delight by the introduction in Australia of the Sommerlad breed of chicken, a heritage hybrid that is vigorous and healthy and able to display all its natural behaviours out on the paddocks. We have the inspiring couple Bruce and Roz Burton of Milking Yard Farm growing them outside Trentham near us, and my friend and Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) vice-president Jeff Pow and his wife Michelle McManus of Southampton Homestead in WA also include Sommerlads in their system.

And then equally delightfully, the wonderful Laura Dalrymple of ethical meatsmiths Feather & Bone up in Sydney wrote in detail about the meat chicken industry in Australia, and has graciously allowed me to re-post her excellent description here for your edification.

So read on – hopefully this will help you in your own journey to eat better meat, less.

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THE TRIBULATIONS OF SUSTAINABLE FARMING: SOMMERLAD HERITAGE CHOOKS ARE BACK! 
Last time we wrote to you we featured Buena Vista Farm in a sad tale about the trials of sustainable farming. Mr not-at-all-fantastic Fox got in and slaughtered 100 chooks and caused great distress all round. Today, you’ll be pleased to hear, we’re doing the tribulation story.

We’ve carried on in an embarrassingly demonstrative way about these chooks before so we’ll try to keep it a bit more cool and collected this time round. Essentially, the Sommerlad Heritage chook represents a revolution in the meat chicken industry in Australia. Here’s a brief explanation of why we’re so excited.

This is how most meat chickens in Australia are raised.

Pictures of broiler chooks from the Australian Meat Chicken Federation site

1. Breed
All meat chickens available in Australia are white feathered ‘broiler’ chooks from two main strains, Ross and Cobb. Over the last 60 years, these birds have been selected and bred for specific traits – disproportionately large breasts and the capacity to grow inside sheds at exponential rates so they’re ‘market ready’ by five weeks.

 Buena Vista Farm, December 2014: chick transport boxes, newly-arrived chicks.

2. Day-old chicks
The business of raising and distributing commercially viable volumes of day-old chicks for farmers across the country to grow out to market size is dominated by a small number of big, well-resourced poultry businesses. Breeding chickens are kept in large sheds with a standard ration of one male to every ten hens, their eggs are collected and incubated and then the day-old chicks are shipped out to farms to be grown out to market rates.

 Picture of a free range farm from the Australian Meat Chicken Federation site
3. Free range 
While these chicks are mostly raised in sheds, 20% of Australian farmers practice free range and pastured farming. This number is growing as consumer demand increases and this is a good thing because it means that birds have access to open land outside the shed during daylight hours. However, it’s important to understand the difference between ‘Free Range’ and ‘Pasture Raised’.

The majority of commercially available free range chicken brands in Australia, such as Lilydale, Willowton, Mt Barker, Macro and Bannockburn are certified by the Free Range Egg and Poultry (FREPA) organisation – 100 plus farms. FREPA’s standards stipulate a much lower stocking density than the conventional system and require access to range land outside the shed that provides shade and vegetation.  

In all other key respects including housing, equipment, ventilation, temperature, health practices, age at processing and slaughter practices, the FREPA standard defaults to the standard conventional code. Among other things, this means that FREPA accredited chickens follow the conventional standard which allows for birds to be ‘harvested’ as early as 30-35 days (4-5 weeks). Access to outdoor areas is given to fully feathered birds of approximately 21 days or three weeks of age. Given that they are generally harvested between five and six weeks that’s not a long time. 

 Pastured broiler chooks at Buena Vista enclosed by mobile electric fencing.

4. Pasture raised
The growers we work with practice ‘pasture raised’ farming. So they receive day-old broiler chooks and raise them exclusively outside on pasture at very low stocking densities and with access to shelter rather than the other way around. The key differences between pasture raised and FREPA free range birds are these.

  • Smaller groups of birds in lower stocking densities with permanent access to range lands – mostly moved to fresh pasture every few days using mobile electric fencing.
  • The freedom to graze on fresh green pick, bugs etc providing additional nutrition and protein.
  • Greater capacity to express instinctive behaviour due to lower stocking densities. 
  • Life spans of eight to nine weeks, almost double the conventional standard.
  • More muscular, robust, deeply-flavoured product 

5. Feather and Bone chooks
Buena Vista Farm: groups of about 100 birds with very low stocking densities rotated onto fresh pasture every few days using mobile electric fencing – broiler and Sommerlad flocks.

Hillside Farm: small groups of about 50 broiler birds rotated onto fresh pasture daily and contained in Joel Salatin-style chook tractors.

Inglewood organic: ACO certified – broiler birds kept in sheds at night, the sides of which are raised during the day to provide access to pasture. Fed certified organic feed and processed at eight to nine weeks. 

 Sommerlad Heritage chooks at Buena Vista, 15/12/14

6. Sommerlad Heritage pasture raised chook
The Sommerlad Heritage chook, however, is something altogether new. After many years of research working with different breeds, bird nutritionist and chook experts Michael and Kathryn Sommerlad have developed a new breed of chicken with strong bones and even distribution of meat specifically designed to thrive as a pasture raised bird in Australian conditions. This is a bird that retains many of the behavioural characteristics that have been intentionally bred out of the broiler which is designed to become relatively immobile in order to quickly fatten to market size. Among other behaviours, the Sommerlad birds have well-developed survival instincts and seek appropriate shelter at night so predation from foxes and hunting birds is reduced. They graze enthusiastically, take pleasure from playing and
respond vigorously to a life lived literally running around outside on pasture. They look pretty good too, particularly the very bizarre Transylvanian Naked Neck which is included in the programme because of its capacity to deal with hot Australian summers.

The Sommerlads have authorised a handful of farmers with demonstrated expertise in pasture raising chickens to grow these birds and, after we introduced them about a year ago, Adam and Fiona at Buena Vista Farm became part of that group. 

About half of the batch we’re receiving on Wednesday are pre-sold so, if you’re interested, please get your orders in quickly. Or don’t, because then there might be one left for us.

Sommerlad Heritage chooks including the Transylvanian Naked neck at Buena Vista, 15/12/14

Free-range eggs & sad bacon

Last time you ate out for breakfast, did your menu have free-range eggs, fair trade coffee, and organic milk on it? What about the bacon – was it free range? Probably not.

In fact, 70% of pork smallgoods in this country are made from frozen imported pork from pigs grown in even worse conditions overseas.

On the very minor chance that the menu said ‘free range’, did you ask where from? Because of course we all know a lot of ‘bred free range’ bacon is sold as free range, so it’s worth knowing the difference and which farms are which.

I’m not going to name names of cafes, providores, butchers and indeed producers who may be misleading you or failing to provide free-range bacon. You can work out who they are for yourself – just ask. Ask every time you buy pork, every time you eat out. Only if you keep asking (and saying no to everything except pork from pigs grown out on the paddocks) will things change.

Here’s a list of genuine free-range pig farmers around Australia to help you decode the answer.

But just what is it with the hypocrisy of ‘free-range eggs & bacon’ – that is, free-range eggs served with sad bacon – and our general willingness to accept it?

While coffee is the new black – one restaurateur was quoted saying, “While they’re at it, we’d love to know where the beans are from and where they were roasted. Heck, we even want to know who roasted them!” I want to know – what about the bacon?

On wine, I read: “The wine list is motivated by the notion of terroir and regionality – the idea that a wine can reflect, not only the grape variety and winemaker, but the soil and site from which it’s grown and nurtured. In the same manner a dish may transport you to a specific place, a wine with terroir can carry you to a far away vineyard.”

So what about the pigs? If they’re raised in sheds, I guess there is no terroir, and in sheds they’re all roughly the same breed (mostly Landrace, aka ‘pink pigs’), so no breed variety to taste there. And you won’t usually find intensive growers standing up and telling you all about their pigs – this is not an industry that favours publicity.

To be honest, I’m over it. If I’m eating out, I ask about the provenance of the pigs. If they can’t tell me, I don’t eat pork.

If you feel like you just can’t make it without bacon that morning, substitute feta.

I’m really glad that free-range eggs are so prevalent, but until free-range bacon is in all the cafes, I prefer my breakfast at home, thanks.