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.’

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.

* * *

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.

How to respond to vegan abolitionists

At a recent screening of Fair Food – the documentary, where I was to be on a panel after the film, a flyer was distributed at the door accusing me of being unethical for raising and killing animals for meat. It included a number of inaccurate descriptions of the stunning process and the usual highly emotive language I’ve come to expect from vegan abolitionists, and asserted that ‘going vegan is the only way.’

As you can imagine, the organisers of this event – the wonderful people who make up the Hills Food Frontier – were upset that the material was being distributed, and hurried to inform me so that I wasn’t caught unawares. After the initial sinking feeling in my gut passed, I said to Holly, ‘it’s okay, I’m used to vegan abolitionists. I’ve got this.’

When the panel took to the stage, I at first gazed deeply into the crowd of about 100 people to see whether the responsible party was out there taking aim. After a few questions it seemed that maybe they’d left or weren’t going to challenge me during the Q&A session, so I asked Holly if she minded if I raised the issue.

I asked the audience whether they had a copy of the flyer in question. Most nodded anxiously in my direction, a sea of worried eyes.

I said, ‘it seems that there is a vegan abolitionist here who feels they don’t have a voice and who disagrees with what we do at Jonai Farms. I’d like to invite them to join us on the stage for an open discussion about how we raise our animals – I’m happy to discuss all aspects of our system including the slaughter at our abattoir – you can ask me any question you like.’

Nobody stepped forward and some audience members said they believed that they had handed out flyers and left. I said that was a shame, and asked whether anyone else wanted to ask me about how we treat our pigs, and a thoughtful discussion ensued about the ethical rearing of animals for meat. A few vegetarians commented on how pleased they were that farmers like us are working to get animals back on the paddocks where they belong.

It was clear that the vegan abolitionist made no friends that night, and I didn’t suffer the all-too-common tarnishing that happens when livestock farmers react poorly to the abuse we cop from this particular subset of the animal rights movement. And that got me thinking that many other farmers would really benefit from a ‘how to deal with vegan abolitionists’ post. So here we are.

Let me preface this advice by highlighting that we promote principles of slow meat – eat better, less. Our society over-consumes meat to the detriment of the planet and animals grown in massive intensive systems. But that doesn’t mean the same as ‘all meat eating is bad’, hence disagreements with vegans…

So here’s the advice – first of all, in most cases it’s best not to engage with vegan abolitionists. They are the subset of vegans that not only think it’s immoral to eat meat, but that all meat eating (and use of any animal product) must be abolished. They draw comparisons with slavery and tell us that history will judge us harshly. I judiciously ignore or respond to initial attacks with ‘I respect your views, and I disagree with them.’

Online (it’s almost always online that they attack), I finish the interaction with ‘here’s something I prepared earlier‘ on how vegans & ethical omnivores should unite and ‘here’s another thing‘ on how if you want transparency in farming, you’ll have to put up with reality.

But in the rare case that it’s advisable to engage, I have a few thoughts as follows. First of all, don’t get defensive and don’t attack or make silly jokes about how they’re probably unable to think clearly due to lack of meat in their diet. They’ve heard it before and you mostly just look like an arse.

I would also suggest that you not posit the argument that many small mammals are killed in cropping systems and that’s blood on vegans’ hands. They clearly aren’t in favour of those deaths, we’re all implicated in those systems (vegan through to omnivore), and the scale of those deaths doesn’t compare with the number of animals killed purposefully in industrial animal agricultural systems. So sure, everyone has blood on their hands, but this is hardly a compelling argument for omnivorism.

Remember: these people think we’re all murderers, and that tends to colour their view, so principles of civility are often totally disregarded. But here goes:

 

There is no reason to eat meat – you can live without it.

The quick answer is: I agree. And you can also live without bananas, apples, and potatoes, but most people don’t.

The slightly longer answer: For many or even most people this is true at a personal health level. For some it is not and eating meat is important to maintaining optimal health.

But at a systems level, the planet can’t live without animals and plants don’t grow without phosphorous and nitrogen – both abundant in livestock manure. A healthy agroecological system incorporates animals and some of them are then available as food for humans. For more detailed information on this topic see some of my earlier posts on agroecology.

(One vegan actually proposed that superphosphates were the answer to taking animals out of agriculture. Um, yeah, mining can solve everything, right?)

And so incorporating meat into a balanced diet makes good ecological sense as well as nutritional, and properly raised and prepared meat is delicious.

 

You’re speciesist!

Yes, I am. I believe there is a hierarchy of species and I’m really happy to be at the top of that ladder.

 

Would you treat your own child in this way?

No, I don’t think it’s okay to eat children.

 

You wouldn’t kill your dog for a stir fry, there’s no reason you should kill a pig either.

It’s true, I wouldn’t kill our dogs for a stir fry, because I was culturally conditioned not to eat dogs so I have a kind of irrational ‘ick’ response. But I have no issues with other cultures who eat dogs, so long as the dogs are raised respectfully in a manner that allows them to express their natural behaviours.

 

How can you say you ‘love’ your animals and then kill them and eat them?

I don’t say I love my animals, actually. I feel affection for them, I find them quite amusing, charming, and sometimes annoying and quite a lot of work, and I know that we are growing them for food.

 

 

Questions & abuse I don’t respond to (but if I did here are some amusing possibilities):

 

Why are you so heartless?

I haven’t eaten enough heart.

 

You are ‘sick freaks’ / ‘Neanderthals’ / ‘animal abusers’ / ‘murderers’.

Sigh.

 

You have no compassion.

Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.

 

I’m more evolved than you.

One day you’ll be me.

 

Raw Milk in Victoria: A Letter to Minister Jane Garrett

Roman Chapolard's raw milk

I could write a really long post about Victoria’s current raw milk debate debacle, but I’m going to keep this short and to the point.

The facts of the case are that there has been a tragic death of a child some months ago from Haemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), which can potentially be caused by a strain of e coli that can sometimes be found in raw milk amongst other sources, such as undercooked beef mince or from contact with farm animals. Three or four (media reports have varied) other children also became ill but recovered. Some reports claimed all had consumed the same farm’s raw milk, others have claimed there were multiple brands.

What the media has not made at all clear is that these families all drank raw milk but there is no conclusion yet that raw milk caused their illness. And while that is still a possibility, the trial by media without a coroner’s report has been appalling.

Raw milk is legal and regulated in most countries in the world, including 30 states in the US and New Zealand, who are even regulated by the same body as Australia (Food Standards Australia New Zealand) but who have a different rule on raw milk. It’s sold in vending machines in Europe (and I recently heard in NZ as well?). As of 1 January 2015, Victoria requires the addition of a bittering agent (something used in anti-freeze?) to make so-called ‘bath milk’ (that people have been drinking for years here) too unpalatable to drink.

There are producers who are now unsure whether they can even sell their product – I can’t imagine the financial straits this Government’s rash decision may have put many into. I think it’s unconscionable for a government to make a decision that affects people’s livelihoods without public consultation or even waiting for evidence.

Here’s what I wrote to Jane Garrett, the Victorian Minister for Consumer Affairs. If you would like to write to Minister Garrett about your concerns regarding the new requirement, you can do so on jane.garrett@parliament.vic.gov.au


 

Dear Minister Garrett,

I am a free-range pig and cattle farmer at Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths in central Victoria. It is in this private and business owner capacity that I write to you. As farmers with an on-farm retail butcher’s shop, we are regulated by our local council, FSANZ, and PrimeSafe as well as DEPI and of course the Department of Health.

Taking control of the supply chain and doing our own further processing has made all the difference for us as small producers. It is the difference between running a loss or being a viable, ethical enterprise. And we are but one of many in the growing fair food movement – these innovations in local food production are everywhere and government must rethink legislative frameworks that were developed for long, industrial supply chains to protect consumers from invisible production and distribution systems.

We are currently building a curing room and commercial kitchen alongside our butcher’s shop in order to do more value adding of our pork and beef, and will soon seek our licence to make salami – classified as a high risk food. There are stringent regulations to ensure we and others in Australia manufacture, store and transport our produce safely, and as you know Australia performs very well on public health and food safety.

As have many others already, I write to urge you to reconsider your recent move to make the sale of raw milk illegal in Victoria. Prohibition has a long and demonstrated history of failing to meet its objective of protecting public health. And how far will you have to take the prohibition – will you ultimately ban smallholders and dairy farmers from drinking milk from their own cows? To what purpose?

Suppose you instead took food safety as seriously as you profess to and treated raw milk as carefully as other high-risk foods such as meat and eggs (and pasteurised dairy)? Just as it’s done in many other countries, where herds are tested, milk is batch tested and strict temperature controls are maintained. Some also have restrictions on the distance the raw milk can travel before sale in recognition that risk increases over time.

I would urge you to read the recent Johns Hopkins University report on raw milk. While they conclude that they can’t recommend drinking raw milk, the report paves a way for compromise to protect those who will continue to produce and consume it.

It is in nobody’s interest to force the production or consumption of it underground, which is a guaranteed outcome of prohibition whether you like it or not. History has much to teach us if only we pay attention.

Sincerely,

Tammi Jonas