French Farming: Small is beautiful

Would you rather sleep under a patchwork quilt made by your grandma and her friends or a synthetic bedspread from K-mart? It’s not a tough decision, right? So why do we accept what’s happened to our landscape more readily than our beds? (Maybe we don’t and you’re all sleeping under synthetic doonas, in which case my apologies.)

Driving through the French countryside over the past two weeks, I was constantly struck by the smallness of the farms. Having driven plenty of rural routes in Australia and America, I’ve seen what monolithic monocultures look like, and it’s a very different vista from the French farmlands we passed.

Where in America or some parts of Australia there might be hundreds or thousands of acres of the same crop blanketing the land (less a blanket than sheets of pesticide-laden plastic wrap robbing the very soil of its breath), in France each paddock is defined well before the next horizon. Patchworks of corn, sweetbeets and cheery sunflowers roll diversely amongst copses of forests old and new.

Sunflowers!

The patchworks are seamed together with kilometres of byways that run through countless small villages, the charming life-story embroidery of generations that warm the countryside.

Even the dairy herds are small – we regularly saw paddocks with 20-40 cattle in them attached to what we would consider a micro-dairy in Australia. Given the very different regulations around raw milk, it’s perhaps unsurprising how many of these small dairies are able to maintain control of their supply chains and sales.

The dairy paddocks are typically dotted with compost piles around the boundaries, as the most environmentally and economically sustainable means of fertilizing the paddocks is to collect the cattle’s manure and compost it on the farm. Happily I’ve seen some resurgence in these practices in Australia, with examples like Camperdown Compost helping dairy farms close the loop and reduce synthetic inputs.

The countryside is also dotted with pigeon towers (or dovecotes…), where pigeons were once grown for both their meat and their excellent fertilizer. While I don’t think many are still in operation, they tell a tale of a time before exploitation of the world’s finite phosphate supplies led to our current system of externalizing environmental costs.

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A great example of working in agro-ecological ways is the Chapolards’ farm near Nèrac – they call it short circuit, or full circle farming. We spent time with the wonderful Dominique & Christiane Chapolard, where along with Dom’s brothers and their families they run a ‘seed to sausage’ pig farm. They grow nearly all their own feed for the pigs on their 100 acres, where they have 30 sows. Effluence is stored in an on-farm lagoon before being applied to the fields growing maize, fava beans and grains in rotation. They do all their own butchering and charcuterie making on the farm and sell directly through their local farmers’ markets – and the enterprise supports five families.

Dom & Chris

We were fortunate enough to host the Chapolards at Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths along with Kate Hill of Kitchen-at-Camont just a few months ago. I’ll write in more detail about their farm in a further post…

The next generation of Chapolards is also involved in the business, and one of Dom’s nephews Roman Chapolard has added another enterprise on the farm – a full-circle dairy. He runs 40 head of dairy cattle and packages his milk on farm as well as doing some simple further processing such as yoghurt and crème fraiche to sell at the local markets.

Roman Chapolard's raw milk

The capacity to value add and sell directly obviously enables farmers to remain much smaller than if they’re forced into long supply chains where everyone gets a smaller cut of the dollar. I understand this not just from a fair food advocate’s perspective, but also from a successful small producer’s view.

And while France may have millennia on which to have grown these communities and sewn them together, a key point is that they still maintain them and enjoy the benefits of thriving rural communities as a result.

Dom and Christiane shared their concerns with us that the next generation is losing interest in manual labour, and leaving the land for white-collar professions, following a trend seen the world over. We all agreed that if people like them keep up their political work within and beyond their cooperative, and spreading the word at the markets, there is hope that the fair food revolution will gain strength in France just as it is growing in Australia, which started off skiing along in the wake of America’s food revolution (though I think we’re set to drive our own boat now).

When you lose family farms from the land, you lose families from communities. Australia’s farming statistics on the decline of the family farm mirror the decline of our rural communities. We should be very worried about this loss and its ramifications for not just the quality of life of rural Australians, but also the quality of food produced in large, intensive agriculture.

We need to value the many environmental and social benefits of families growing food for families, rather than corporations growing food for supermarkets where families happen to shop.

It’s time for a Local Food Act!

More on Transparency: Canaries in the Mine

I’ve already expressed my opposition to any proposed ag gag laws and related desire for more transparency, so today I’m going to be brief and blunt as I extend it.

Intensive livestock farming needs to stop. Here are a few reasons why:

  • it concentrates effluence, leading to water, air and soil pollution as well as loss of social amenity for those who live nearby;
  • it drives increased meat consumption (which in turn drives increased monoculture grain production to feed livestock instead of people, which in turn drives further deforestation, etc, ad nauseam) – the only reason chicken and pork are consumed in the vast quantities they are is due to growing numbers of these animals in sheds;
  • it forces you ‘to get big or get out’, which has meant a concentration of farming to fewer, bigger farms and the loss of regional livelihoods across Australia (and the global north). There were about 50,000 pig farmers in Australia in the 1960s – now there are just 660, and yet production is higher now;
  • it leads to a higher incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which makes human illnesses harder to treat (not to mention non-human illnesses);
  • it’s wrong to confine an animal in a cage for the entirety of its life.

The first four points are virtually indisputable, so I’ll say a couple of things about the last one.

Some people obviously believe it is not wrong to raise animals for meat in cages. Their ethical code differs from mine, just as a vegan abolitionist’s code differs from mine.

I say it’s unethical to cage animals. Vegan abolitionists say it’s unethical to kill and eat animals.

I have pursued a life as a free-range pig farmer because I believe so strongly that people should have the choice of genuine pastured meat to help them stop eating animals raised in sheds and cages.

I call myself an ethical farmer because we raise our animals on the paddocks in a way we believe is ethical. I do not say this to suggest all other farmers are unethical, however, as I’ve said, I do believe it is unethical to raise animals in cages.

If you call your produce ‘farm fresh’ or ‘natural’, are you suggesting everyone else’s produce is rotten and fake? No? I didn’t think so.

Some animal rights activists spend their lives trying to take footage of what happens in intensive farms because they believe so strongly that it is wrong to confine, kill, and eat animals.

These activists are targeting intensive livestock farms, as well as live export. If you’re not confining animals on land or on a ship, they’re not likely to sneak in and film your operation. And if you share your own story, open your doors, and crucially, do what you say you’re doing, it’s very hard for someone else to catch you out.

They are the canary in the mine, people, and if you don’t let the animals out you might get shafted.

I would genuinely like to see a gentle transition that supports family farmers as they move away from intensive animal farming, not a shutdown of the industry that ruins lives while trying to protect animal welfare. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but it does need to change.

Politicians may make more laws, but whistleblowers will find a way to uncover what they believe is an injustice, so why not just stop the injustice?

Let them eat grass!

PS Russ Patterson wrote a response to my original transparency post on Ann Britton’s blog. I’ve responded to his arguments there.

No need for ag-gag laws when there’s radical transparency

The debate is raging once again around animal welfare activists trespassing on private property to obtain footage of conditions in intensive livestock farming. The activists’ stated aim is to expose what they believe are unconscionable practices in the rearing of animals. It seems the debate recently was re-ignited by a column by a celebrity personal trainer.

A number of farmers have reacted with concerns about biosecurity on their farms and risks to their entire herd from disease and distress, as well as dismay at invasions of their privacy, and some have expressed support for so-called ‘ag-gag laws’ as introduced in the US. These laws make it illegal to film or photograph practices on farms without permission from the owner. There’s also been a mildly amusing open letter from ‘Bill the Farmer’ to the celebrity above asking her to live under constant video surveillance.

The hyperbole around factory farming and ag-gag laws includes allegations of activists as ‘terrorists’, factory farms as places of ‘horror’, and vegan ‘secret agendas’.

Calling people who trespass to film animals in cages ‘terrorists’ is rather puerile and misinformed. Call them trespassers – because they are. Call them activists – because they are. Hell, call them criminals – because for those found guilty of said alleged trespass, they are.

But ask a recently arrived asylum seeker from Afghanistan if they think animal welfare activists are terrorists and I suspect you might gain a little healthy perspective.

Inflammatory rhetoric aside, I’d like to consider what’s at stake in this debate. I’ll start by setting out some terms I’d like to use.

I usually steer away from the phrase ‘factory farming’ as I know it gets most intensive growers’ hackles up. To be clear, I don’t avoid it because I think it’s wrong (raising hundreds or thousands of animals in sheds in an industrial model is, in my view, rather accurately referred to as factory farming). But I want everyone in the discussion to be able to listen, so I try to avoid red flag phrases. I therefore use ‘intensive farming’ (and for the record, free-range farming is known as ‘extensive’).

Sow stall at a NSW piggery. Picture: Aussie Farms
Sow stall at a NSW piggery. Picture: Aussie Farms

I won’t refer to ‘animal rights activists’, instead I’ll use ‘animal welfare activists’, because the movement is a broad church, and not all people who believe it’s immoral to cage animals share the view that non-human animals have rights as such. I also know intensive farmers who consider themselves animal welfare activists. I’m a free-range pig farmer, and I’ve considered myself an animal welfare activist since I was 19, but a vegan abolitionist would say I am in fact a murderer. And yet I would say we’re both animal welfare activists.

I will use the label ‘ag-gag laws’, as I think they’re well understood now, and we don’t have a common alternative of which I’m aware. I appreciate that those who support these laws may take umbrage at the phrase, and ask that you bear with me.

As I see it, there are a number of stakeholders in this debate. There are the animals in intensive systems. There is the soil and water on and around the farms. There are the people who work on these farms, including those who own the farms. There are the families of the owners – I’m thinking particularly about the family farms where they live somewhere on the property. And then there is the local community, and the broader community of people (from vegan to omnivore) who have differing levels of concern about the ways animals are raised on farms, whether they eat meat or not.

Of course there are property rights, and trespass is illegal in Australia. So we already have a law that prohibits entering another’s property without permission to obtain footage of their practices.

I accept and share the concern about fear and feelings of violation at someone trespassing on your property with an intent that is contrary to your interest. Anyone who has had their home broken into knows the feelings of vulnerability that arise after a burglary or theft. If a vegan abolitionist entered our farm without our knowledge to film our pigs, I would be worried about their other possible motives, whether my children were out on the paddocks by themselves at the time, and  whether they took anything except images away with them.

But they have no need to do that on our farm, because we practice radical transparency. We have documented and outlined on national radio all of our farm management practices in great detail. And we invite the public in regularly – in fact people are welcome any day of the week that we’re here (which is most).

You’re welcome to photograph or film anything you see while you’re here, and when I find myself thinking, ‘oh, I hope they don’t take a photo of that mud patch where the pigs have turned the soil completely because we’ve been a bit slow in rotating them to another area,’

I reflect on how we really just need to move the pigs, not stop the visitor taking a photo.

What we need are not more laws that will stop people trying to expose what they believe is an injustice. We already have laws to protect your right to property and privacy.

Ag-gag laws must surely re-affirm the public’s concern that farmers have something to hide. Instead we should do as Australia Pork Limited (APL) did last year when footage was secretly filmed of an intensive piggery in NSW – APL got footage of the same piggery in daytime and stood by it.

I personally was still unhappy with what I saw, and so continue not to buy nor eat intensively-raised pork, but I applaud APL’s transparency to enable me to make an informed decision.

Bangalow Sweet Pork is another example of an intensive pig farm that has been prepared to be transparent about their farming practices. In 2009, they opened the doors for a Super Butcher video, and showed everything from their farrowing stalls to the group housing for growers. Again, seeing all those pigs confined in that fashion doesn’t sit well in my ethical code, but the information is there to empower the public to make ethical decisions.

The court of public opinion is real, and whether we like it or not, largely determines what is and is not acceptable. It’s a blunt jury, often led by a vocal minority, and yet when the minority exposes practices to the majority in a compelling way, the majority start to demand change.

Look at the growth of free-range eggs in Australia. Whatever issues there may be with the certification systems (and they are many), we didn’t have free-range eggs just 20 years ago unless you were a farmer or one of the rare suburbanites with chooks in your backyard. That movement has grown enormously, and we even have ‘caged eggs’ labeled as such.

How I would love to see ‘caged pork’ written on labels!

It is surely in nobody’s interest to criminalise those intent on exposing injustice, rather than welcoming greater scrutiny of industrial agriculture’s impact on animals?

The more farmers practice radical transparency, the more the public will trust us, and the more we will continue to improve our practices. And if we’re transparent about our practices, we can combat the invisibility and lower animal welfare standards of imported pork smallgoods in Australia (70% of the total).

Radical transparency is a powerful motivator to do your best, and I for one welcome it.

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Jonai Farmstead Salami – crowdfunding is community-supported agriculture!

Note: the following is cross-posted from our farm blog The Hedonist Life

Last year 166 wonderful people believed in us enough to support our Pozible campaign to build our own butcher’s shop right here on the farm. We raised $27,570 in 40 days, and six months later we were open for business! We’ve delivered over 400kg of ethical pork rewards, and welcomed nearly 30 of our supporters to last year’s Salami Day, and many became our first CSA members. We love this engaged community of ethical omnivores, and are grateful for the support.

Now it’s time to take our uncommonly delicious ethical pork to the next level and start curing at a commercial scale! To do that, we’re aiming to raise $30,000 in 30 days on Pozible, adding cured goods to our range of tasty rewards. We’re also offering the opportunity to join our CSA (community-support agriculture) via the campaign to raise the funds up front, then deliver to you over the course of a year.

After our success last year, plenty of other farmers have used crowdfunding to build major infrastructure as they develop their businesses, and I reckon it’s a fantastic emergent trend in community-supported agriculture. Rather than farmers going into debt and lining shareholders’ pockets, we’re feeding our communities – literally!

For other examples, check out the huge success of Madelaine’s Eggs last week – she raised over $60,000! And our mate Lauren Mathers of Bundarra Berkshires is nearing her target of just over $15,000 to build her own curing room up near the Murray. There are plenty of others around, and I think we’ll see more and more as farmers and their communities work out how to support each other to re-localise the food system and form deep connections between growers and eaters.

So check out our campaign and spread the word! There really is a Fair Food Revolution underway, and it’s in your hands!

Curing room cover

So long, & thanks for all the theory!

Eight years and still no degree.

Eight years, hundreds of texts, thousands of words, millilitres of tears, a handful of original ideas, hundreds of friends (made and lost), and so many poems – and still no degree.

Eight years, six good jobs, leadership of first a campus and then the national postgraduate association, where I fought long, hard, and loudly for everyone’s right to an excellent higher education experience, and still no degree.

Eight years, a deep understanding of cosmopolitan theory and the importance of food and foodways in society and politics, and an even deeper praxis from mindful eater to mindful farmer (and mindful meatsmith…)… and still no degree.

My PhD got me where I am today, but I don’t have a PhD, and I probably won’t because I’ve already arrived at my destination, and my work doesn’t require those letters at the end of my name.

I have loved my PhD for eight years, and today I’m letting it go.

When I switched disciplines from literature to cultural studies a decade ago it was a response to the latter’s explicitly articulated project to build public intellectuals – to be socially useful. 10 years immersed in cultural studies have aided me enormously in my desire to be socially useful.

While I have a very small regret not to pursue my agrarian intellectual life with a bonus three letters after my name, currently I’m shackled by them as I try to get on with doing my bit to transform Australia’s food systems.

I need hours each day to farm, butcher, deliver, and engage with eaters and fair food pioneers everywhere.  I need to do more of exactly what I am doing, not cloister myself to write something three people will read.  It’s a worthy project, but it’s no longer the right one for me.

Thank you to my long-suffering supervisor John Frow, those I’ve interviewed, and the many many colleagues and friends who have discussed, debated and nibbled at the edges of what our engagements with food really mean to any of us.  I wouldn’t be here today without your support, knowledge, critique and interest in this project.

I finally worked out how to savour the world while saving it, and it’s not in chapter three of my thesis, it’s here on the land, knife in one hand, pen in the other.

¡Viva la Revolución!

Kids on tramp

‘Bred free range’ is NOT ‘free range’

‘Do you have free-range pork?’

‘Yes, it’s all free range!’

‘Oh, excellent! Which farm is it from?’

‘Otway Pork.’

‘Otway’s not free range.’

*sadface*

This has become a regular occurrence for me. Next I school the butcher, providore, or waiter on the difference between ‘bred free range’ (aka ‘outdoor bred’) and ‘free range’ and suggest they have a look at Otway’s website, where they themselves clearly state that they are ‘bred free range’. Ditto Western Plains.

Confused yet? Fair enough. Fortunately, I’m here to help. 😉 Let me explain the three systems for raising pigs we have in Australia so you need not be confused anymore.

Indoor/Intensive

Pigs are kept indoors their entire lives on concrete or slatted floors. In some systems the breeders are kept in individual pens with limited movement. In others pigs are kept in groups. Some of these systems use both group and individual pens. The industry is moving away from gestation stalls (where sows are kept immobile for their entire gestation period of 3 months, 3 weeks & 3 days) due to consumer demand for higher welfare standards.

Outdoor Bred (aka ‘Bred Free Range’)

Breeding sows are kept outdoors, and farrow (give birth) in huts with access to the paddocks until they’re weaned, typically at 4 weeks. The weaners are then kept in groups in open-sided straw-based sheds, also called ‘eco-shelters’, where they spend the rest of their lives until slaughter.

Free Range

All pigs are raised entirely outdoors, with free access to shelter and wallows at all times.

Within these three systems for raising pigs in Australia, there is diversity amongst farm management strategies in regards to tail docking, castration, vaccinations, weaning, sub-therapeutic antibiotics in feed, sow management, age for slaughter, and stocking density.

The peak body for pig farmers Australia Pork Limited (APL) has clear definitions for each system, and sets (voluntary) standards through the Australia Pork Industry Quality Assurance Program (APIQ). There are standards for ‘APL Gestation Stall Free’, ‘Outdoor Bred’, and ‘Free Range’.  As I understand it, after much discussion within the industry, APL endorsed ‘outdoor bred’ and rejected ‘bred free range’ as a label as it was deemed confusing for consumers who are trying to choose free range.

Unfortunately, most outdoor bred growers are still using the term ‘bred free range’ on their marketing materials, and butchers and provedores just as much as consumers are often confused by the distinction (I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t intentionally misleading customers).

In three separate butcher’s shops over the past two months I have asked where their pork labeled free-range was from and been told either Otway Pork or Western Plains, which are outdoor bred systems, not free range. I know of others who have had the same experience. I always tell the butcher that they’re wrong, and they apologise and profess ignorance.

I’m not interested in critiquing butchers, nor intensive or outdoor bred systems here, but I am interested in eaters being able to make informed choices. As I’ve written before, ethical decision-making is deeply reliant on the availability of accurate information. If you understand the difference in the systems and which one is in front of you, you can decide for yourself whether you are happy with that animal welfare standard. But if you are misled about the system, someone is taking that choice away from you, and you shouldn’t stand for it.

I recommend that for those who truly want only free-range pork, you do a couple of simple things:

1) always ask whether the pork is free range, whether it’s on a menu, in a butcher’s shop, or in a deli;

2) if they say it’s free range, ask the name of the farm. If it’s Otway or Western Plains, it’s not free range (there are other outdoor bred growers as well, but these two are by far the largest in Victoria);

3) print this out and take it to your butcher, cafe, or deli if they tell you an outdoor bred farm is free range – they may simply not know the difference.

4) buy direct from farmers, either at farmer’s markets or online. I have a list of free-range pig farms in Australia, as does Flavour Crusader.

Choice is great. We can all choose how we want to eat, and what sort of farming we support, so long as we can rely on accurate information. You may choose intensively-raised or free-range pork, caged or pastured eggs, conventional or organic fruit and veg, or a wholly vegan diet, but not if those of us who produce and sell the food don’t tell you the truth of what’s in it.

Ethics of Scale

The following is what I had planned to say at last week’s Fair Food Future event at Fed Square, and while I may have deviated from the text, I think I managed to cover the key points below. A big thanks to the Locavore Edition and the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance for hosting this event and coordinating the first ever Fair Food Week in Australia!

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Last year my mum went through treatment for cancer. While I’d worried about her and Dad’s ‘convenience’ diet for years, when she got a blood cancer it dawned on me that a lifetime of fast food hadn’t been fair to her blood – her body’s building blocks. And the treatment – chemo – attacks blood cells – the very things it tries to rescue & I thought:

‘only humans would cure cancer with a carcinogen.’

So when I got to Oregon to look after her I fed her blood with whole foods. Her doctor and nutritionist told us it didn’t really matter what she ate and that the little plastic bottles of protein shake the pharmaceutical rep had sold them would be just great. We kept her blood counts mostly in the safe zone with eggs, nuts, loads of green leafies and endless berry yoghurt smoothies, but it was no easy task in the face of the fortnightly onslaughts from the life saving carcinogenic treatment for cancer.

And that’s what we’re doing to our food system –

we’re ‘saving’ soils with manufactured solutions to manufactured problems

& it’s time we stopped manufacturing and went back to farming.

We need to feed our soils & our souls with every agricultural act, with every bite we take.

We need an ethics of scale, not an economy of scale.

We need to eat less cows, not grow them in petri dishes.

Imagine if eaters everywhere scale up your ethics & demand fair food with your choices & your dollars, & farmers demand fair food with our choices & our prices – we charge you what it costs to grow animals out on the paddocks – there won’t be as many – we’ll need to eat more vegetables.

Farmers will pay workers fair wages – your tomatoes won’t be $1/kg & from Florida or Italy where labour conditions are regularly described as slavery – they’ve achieved economies of scale at the expense of their ethics.

Farmers will focus on building their soil holistically, because its health will be accounted for in this ethics of scale – the planet is on the ledger.

An ethics of scale doesn’t get mired in single issue concerns, it’s systems thinking – soils, vegetables, animals, citizens.

So when you say animal welfare is your biggest concern, and think of pigs and chickens in cages unable to move or express any of their natural behaviours for their short, miserable lives, I also think of how the economies of scale forced farmers to find ever cheaper ways to raise animals because eaters wouldn’t pay $25/kg for something that took six months to raise to eating size – six months of somebody’s labour, and the labour of those who grew the feed for those animals, and the labour of those who transport, slaughter, butcher, and transport again.

And of course the supermarkets take their cut, sometimes the biggest cut – and I wonder how on earth the middle man ended up in control of prices and systems? All supermarkets do is store and sell what others have produced – they are not producers, they are (rather expensive) storage facilities.

Small producers like us at Jonai Farms want nothing to do with them and their expensive shelf space that values economies of scale at the expense of ethics. And happily, we no longer have to rely on them – we have the new breed of connectors – like FoodOrbit here today, and Food Connect, and Eaterprises, and Feather and Bone… and the many other wonderful online technologies (blogs & twitter & Facebook, oh my!) that enable us to connect growers and eaters in a much shortened chain.

When we think about supply chains and Australia’s supermarket duopoly, it can get pretty depressing…

Regulation has failed us. Certification has failed us. We’ve lost faith. We don’t trust each other enough because everything is obfuscated in our rather unfair food system. Regulation & certification are supposed to be important safeguards when we can’t see & judge for ourselves whether the system is fair.

It’s time we make the entire chain transparent again, and farmers like Ben Falloon at Taranaki, and Stuart and I are doing just that, along with so many great producers in our regions like Greenvale, Warialda, Bundarra Berkshire, Plains Paddock… I could go on at length, but I do recommend having a look at FlavourCrusader’s lists of growers like us across Australia…

We are legion, and as Ben says, we are certified by the community.

We can’t just turn back the clock – the population is so big now it’s hard to make everything visible but ethics are hard & that’s okay. Democracy is hard too but we wouldn’t give that up, would we?

Access to food is a human right just like access to housing, yet we don’t demand to live in a mansion at the price of a shack.

So why do we demand to pay so little for our food?

Paying less than the cost of production is not a human right when you can afford to pay and it’s forcing farmers into economies of scale where ethics are compromised.

Just as you may choose factory-farmed pork or poultry when money is tight, so may farmers choose to farm them that way when the budget demands.

In an ethics of scale, everybody flourishes and nobody gets sick from their food, no apple farmers from years of pesticide exposure, no pigs fed sub-therapeutic antibiotics packed in tightly on concrete floors, & not my mum whose lifetime of meals has come out of boxes & tins, instead of soil & skins.

In an ethics of scale, fair food is everywhere. It’s fair for soil and for blood, for crops and for critters, for growers and for eaters.

Coles & Animals Australia: unlikely bedfellows?

I’ll start with something most of us can agree on – Coles are hypocrites. A partnership to sell bags for the Animals Australia ‘Make it Possible’ campaign to ‘end factory farming’ is a fairly brazen case of corporate whitewashing (or greenwashing, or whatever colour makes them look like ethical corporate citizens). If Coles supported the Make it Possible campaign by, say, refusing to sell pork and poultry from intensive production systems, that would constitute a meaningful ethical contribution. Selling bags aimed at ending ‘factory farming’ while intensively grown pork and poultry are on the shelves is, by definition, hypocritical.

But let’s put that aside for a moment. Surely any promotion of more ethical animal husbandry is a step in the right direction, even if it comes from one of the biggest sellers of what many deem unethical production systems? Meh, who knows. But what we do know is that most Coles supermarkets still don’t even offer free-range pork on their shelves, and their free-range poultry options, when they exist at all, are of dubious standards. So do these bags actually advocate that we don’t shop at Coles for pork and poultry? Ironically, it would seem so.

If you want to see an example of ethical meat retailers making a real difference, check out the wonderful folks at Feather and Bone, who endured some backlash for their support for the Voiceless Eyelevel project aimed at reducing Australians’ meat consumption. They have explained their intentions eloquently, while re-iterating their strong support and advocacy for free-range producers.

While we’re all in furious agreement over the gobsmacking hypocrisy of Coles, I’ll move on to a more vexed question – why are farmers so outraged at Coles’ support for a campaign to end intensive animal farming?

It seems that the root of their concerns is that Animals Australia is ‘anti-animal-farming’. I have had some reservations about the group, but most are probably groundless, and may actually just be an unfortunate association with the vegan abolitionist organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Even most vegans I know don’t agree with PETA’s tactics, such as these awful ads.

I’ve seen Animals Australia referred to as a ‘vegan front group’, with a ‘vegan agenda’ that wants us all to stop eating meat, wearing leather, or using any part of an animal or its labour for our own purposes. This agenda, which is more accurately referred to as a vegan abolitionist agenda such as that promoted by PETA, is quite obviously at serious odds with the agenda of a livestock farmer. It is also at odds with the agenda of Coles and any other purveyor or consumer of animal products. It is also a very very small minority of the population who support this agenda. (Note that not all vegans are abolitionists, and some actively fight alongside ethical omnivores to promote more ethical animal husbandry.) So why the outrage? What real threat is there to farmers?

Some (including Animals Australia) have said that farmers don’t want to move away from intensive production systems, and are afraid to let consumers see the realities of their systems for fear of backlash, and that’s why they don’t like the Make it Possible campaign. And for some intensive producers, I’m sure that must be true.

But for the many many more extensive growers – sheep and cattle farmers for example (the vast majority of which are pasture-based systems in Australia) I think you can take their word at face value – they’re sick of being attacked by vegan abolitionists, and rightly or wrongly believe Animals Australia shares that agenda ultimately. Having been on the receiving end of the abuse that comes from those quarters, I can fully empathise with their sensitivity.

Tactically, though, I think the National Farmers Federation (NFF) made a mistake in so vehemently opposing the Coles/Animals Australia cross-promotion. Everyone can see that Coles are hypocrites, and no friend to farmers and rural communities. So who cares if they sell bags for a campaign that wants to ‘end factory farming’ – some of these bags will even carry ‘factory farmed’ meat, I imagine?!

Opposing the partnership may have served merely to make the NFF and its supporters look ‘pro factory farming’. But as I’ve already posited, I suspect most who opposed it are in fact just fed up with attacks from vegan abolitionists and attempts to destroy their livelihood (about which, of course, intensive producers are also concerned – these are real people paying real bills too. One may have less sympathy for their position, but surely we cannot ignore the social costs of food systems in transition as part of our ethical considerations. More on this in a future post.).

The only farmers under direct threat from the campaign are the intensive producers, and they’ve been under pressure for years as consumers gained greater awareness of the conditions and started voting with their dollars, first for free-range eggs, then chicken, and now pork. There’s a long way to go before we see all animals raised in conditions that are truly acceptable to the majority of the population, and most people’s budget will still dictate their purchasing habits ahead of their ethics. Financial reality is a difficult stakeholder to overrule, and shopping ethically takes a certain level of knowledge, will and culinary competence, not to mention transparency in the supply chain.

But as I wrote recently, the real losers in this stoush are animals in intensive production systems. The myopic vitriol of the vegan abolitionists, the defensiveness of the NFF, and the stunning hypocrisy of Coles won’t improve animal welfare on Australian farms – growers and eaters will with our choices and through respectful dialogue.

I take my hat off to the many growers and eaters across the country who are working to be the changes they wish to see in the world. I reckon Coles and proselytising vegan abolitionists, on the other hand, need to learn some lessons from Gandhi.

If you want transparency, you’ll have to put up with reality

This was originally posted on our farm blog, The Hedonist Life, but is part of the broader discussion I try to host here on food ethics.
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In response to last week’s spot on Radio National Bush Telegraph, we had a lot of negative reaction online from people who don’t agree with eating meat. So a friend of mine and I wrote a response, which was posted on the RN site just before I went on air again to discuss the reaction and our decision to castrate in spite of a very close poll that voted against it. Unfortunately, RN edited out Nathan‘s part, which really is a shame because he’s wickedly smart and reflexive, and also happens to be a vegan.
Here’s the full text, unedited (you can see the RN version here):

Tammi:

Showing a vegan a photo of an adorable piglet and then asking them to help decide whether to castrate is undoubtedly a red flag to a bull. But it wasn’t vegans we were asking, it was omnivores. What some will call ill-considered (I did briefly), I will here defend as a serious exercise in transparency by farmers who want to educate the public about the realities of food production, and especially the raising of animals for meat. And my vegan friend Nathan and I will argue that vitriolic attacks on those of us committed to transparency create a perverse incentive to retreat to secrecy and obfuscation of regular food production management practices.

We’ve been farming free-range rare breed Large Black pigs for a year and a half now. We came from Melbourne with a clear vision to contribute to what we consider ethical farming – raising pigs on the paddocks who are free to root and wallow at will, and basically express what Joel Salatin calls ‘the pigness of the pig’ until they have ‘one bad day’, which they don’t even know is coming. We believe it’s morally right to eat meat, but not from animals who have suffered or been raised in close confinement their entire lives up until slaughter. Our views and farming practices are not especially controversial, and generally our efforts to raise animals for food humanely and with care and kindness are met with appreciation – both for our practices and for our openness.

So it seemed a great idea when Cameron Wilson of Radio National Bush Telegraph asked whether we were willing for them to do a series tracking one of our animals from piglet to Christmas ham. Too many people don’t know where their food comes from or how it’s raised, though the tide is hopefully turning as information is now more readily accessible and people are realising there’s a lot that happens from paddock to plate.

The idea is a monthly radio interview where we update listeners on what’s been happening with the pig, who we’ve called Wilbur 101 (we call all the boys Wilbur and all the girls Charlotte unless they’re our breeding stock, in which case they have individual names, such as Borg, Big Mama, Keen, Pink and Prudence…). Many people believe you shouldn’t name your food, but we take the view that we’d rather know the animal on our plate well than not at all.

Supplementary to each month’s interview, we agreed to allow a poll to be held to seek the public’s view on management decisions. It gives an opportunity to inform people of the multitude of issues and decisions farmers face daily, and we hoped that using a poll in addition to the podcast and information on the website would lead to more buy in from the public, and in turn more care about the type of system animals are raised in. The first question we posited (as it’s the first management decision we face with newborn boars) was whether or not to castrate.

Unfortunately, while the omnivorous public might have wanted to discuss the practicalities and ethics of castrating boars, a significant number of those opposed to eating meat joined the discussion and turned it into a rant against us, the ABC, farmers generally, and meat eaters specifically. We were called ‘sick freaks’, ‘Neanderthals’, and ‘animal abusers’, to name some of the milder insults.

Nathan:

There are a number of things worth considering here: namely, the ad hominem attacks, the issue of transparency, and the illusion that either veganism or vegetarianism are without their own set of complications, also linked to transparency.

The issue of ad hominem attacks, whether against Tammi and Stuart, the ABC, or meat eaters more generally, brings into question the motives of those willing to utter such comments as to what they are trying to achieve. Considered, respectful discussion is never going to be the effect, nor is any type of conversion from eating meat tenable if the basis of an antithetical argument is vitriolic abuse. Moreover, it lacks all credibility and illustrates a lack of knowledge and understanding not only of farming processes and practices, which is seemingly what this project is attempting to bring to light, but also appears to lack an understanding and knowledge of why people become vegans or vegetarians in the first place, or why people may ‘de-convert’ — a phenomenon equally present to the phenomenon of people becoming vegan or vegetarian.

All these considerations are not only deeply philosophical, but are also sociological, religious and political. If the conversion to veganism or vegtarianism is well considered, it would be charitable enough to expect that an argument against eating meat is equally considered; calling someone a ‘sick freak’ or ‘Neanderthal’ does not range in the category of a rationally considered argument.

Of course, the idea behind this project is transparency. While I as a vegan may disagree with the killing and exploitation of animals for various reasons, the kind of practices brought to light through this program are refreshing to see. In the wake of footage and articles that surround the practice of live export and animal abuse in abattoirs, the program undertaken here ought to be a welcome relief to vegans and vegetarians as we have farmers not only willing to transparently show how animals are treated, but also have public involvement. The outcome of transparency and public involvement is the basis of a descriptive set of guidelines and practices that can be adopted by all farmers. In effect, this program has the potential to become a national standard whereby consumers have the confidence to purchase animal products that have been treated in an ethical manner; whereby the ethical treatment of animals has been considered.

The issue of transparency and the ethical treatment of animals is also a problem for vegan and vegetarian foodways. The ethical treatment of animals is not just to be considered for the animals we can see, but also for the ones we don’t.  What consideration is there of the countless rodents and small marsupials that are killed through the processes of producing a loaf of bread? Are the numerous animals killed in the process of pest control of wheat crops, the storage of wheat and flour worthy of our moral consideration? What about the fish whose parts are used in the mass production of beer? Or what of the environmental cost of the global shipping of processed vegan and vegetarian food items? Is the environment also worthy of moral consideration to vegans and vegetarians?

Often the mistreatment and exploitation of animals and the environment is a symptom of a much larger problem. With the spread of global capitalism, the need to feed the starving, unemployed, underemployed and low waged is met with with cheap meat, dairy and eggs at the expense of animal well being. How does veganism approach the problem of starvation, unemployment, underemployment and low wage employment with highly priced soy products? While veganism can betray the maltreatment of animals through analytic critique, the sense in which veganism is able to confront issues of starvation, low wage, under and unemployment betrays itself as being unable to satisfactorily confront environmental and everyday living conditions; veganism requires a level of wealth and prosperity that isn’t afforded to the underprivileged. While it is important to analyse and critique the way animals are treated within the global economic market in which we live, it is equally important to engage with farmers and producers willing to be transparent about foodways and the way in which animals are treated in a respectful and considerate manner, as well as being aware of the issues of transparency within our own vegan and vegetarian foodways.

Tammi:

All issues and concerns around the ethics of food production and consumption are worthy of discussion and open scrutiny, but when one group restricts itself to shouting the loudest abuse, or refuses to engage even marginally with the topic at hand (and makes it very unpleasant for any who do engage), there can be no winners – especially not farm animals.

Surely we can all agree that a farming community unwilling to share its practices with the public due to sustained, personal attacks by so-called ‘animal rights activists’ is a very bad outcome. We here at Jonai Farms won’t be frightened away from the challenge of transparency – we understand why people choose veganism or vegetarianism (I was a vegetarian for seven years, and write frequently on my blog about these very questions), and we quite simply disagree with that decision while respecting one’s right to make it. Vegans have every right to disagree with our position, of course, but should think long and hard about what can happen to our food system when they so zealously shout farmers off the stage.

BIOS: Tammi Jonas is a free-range pig farmer with her husband Stuart and three children near Daylesford, Victoria. She is also a cultural theorist nearing completion of a PhD on the role of engagements with multicultural foodways on the development of a cosmopolitan, sustainable society. Tammi blogs atTammi Jonas: Food Ethics and on the farm blog, The Hedonist Life.

Nathan Everson is currently undertaking a Masters of Research degree through Macquarie University, Sydney, focusing on the structural intersections between humans and animals and how these intersections form the basis of our conceptions of politics, ethics, and law. He is a vegan working with his wife and two children on self-sustainable practices within a suburban environment.

 

Butchering a steer (Our meat is real, part 3)

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‘What’s this bit then?’ asked Bron. ‘Err, brisket? No, blade!’ I hazard to guess after scrutinising the MLA cut poster for the 107th time. This was on Saturday. By Monday, I was naming unidentified cuts ‘pirate fillet’. So. Much. Beef.

As you’ll recall, this year we’re only eating our own meat here on the farm, and so a couple weeks ago we butchered our first steer with only a poster, an English butchery book and an Australian video as our guides. Oh, and youtube, when the internet was fast enough. NBN anyone?

My butcher told me I was crazy, and I told him to be more optimistic. Turns out we were both right, I’m crazy, but optimism pays off. So do knife skills, perseverance, and a strong back.

The steer was hung for a week at the abattoir before Stuart brought it home in quarters. Our cattle are Lowlines, a breed stemmed from Angus, but short in stature with a high feed conversion ratio, so we got a 209kg carcass back. This sounds a lot (and trust me, it’s a lot to cut up), but compared with many other breeds, it’s pretty small. I hadn’t considered how grateful I would be for that smallness when it came time to butcher it! It still took us three nine-hour days…

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So following on from my growing experience of butchering pigs, I had an armoury of sharp knives at the ready, and a few buckets and bins for all the trim that would become mince or soap (seriously, we planned to make soap with the tallow we would render from the fat… sadly, we failed to do this. It’s on the list for next time though…), and for the glorious bones (I may have shouted ‘phở!’ when I boned out the first leg…). I didn’t think through the irritation of using a book from the UK and an Australian video, so that when I followed one initially, the subsequent cuts wouldn’t match the first ones… ‘live and learn’ was a bit of a mantra…

It wasn’t just me – I had Stuart, my dear friend Bronwyn, and 13-year-old amazing son Oscar to help on Saturday. Sunday was just me and Oscar while Stuart did pork deliveries and dropped Bron back at home.

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Monday was just me in the morning, with Stuart re-joining after farm chores for the final stretch that afternoon. I just want you to know these details so if anyone else reads this thinking a very inexperienced smallholder can just ‘cut up a cow in a day’ you’ll know you really really need more people, not to mention more skills! It’s a Very Big Job to cut up a cow*. (*Never say ‘cut up a cow’ to a farmer, who will make you feel a right idgit for appearing not to know the difference between a cow and a steer.)

So we started with a forequarter. No matter which way I looked at it, it a) wasn’t a pig, and b) didn’t look like any of my butchery instruction pictures.

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Sure, I made the first cut okay, but then it was all just ‘soooooo, I’ll just follow *that* muscle…’ Seriously, though, when Stuart cut the first osso buco, I was totally sold.

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If some brisket was mislabelled as chuck, or blade as brisket, I can live with that – we know it’s all muscle meat and will cook it accordingly. As the first cuts slid into the cryovac bags, the satisfaction of the 2013 Our Meat Is Real project hit full force. Not just pigs anymore, we’re now self sufficient in beef and pork, and soon we’ll be adding lamb to our repertoire – amazing!

As we moved along the first half of the beast, things got more exciting, if only because who can’t identify a rib eye when they see one?! And just as it is with the pigs, it’s very useful to learn just how little of this prime cut you get from one steer, and why it’s therefore so prized. I’ll be cooking these with reverent joy in the months to come – and I reckon each one can feed about four people!

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The flank was also easy to identify, but if you think this section of the carcass went more quickly, you might be wrong as sawing through beef bones (phở!’) is really hard work.

The first hindquarter was also rather daunting – it’s a lot bigger than a ham!

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And then there’s the matter of ‘top side’ or ‘top round’ and ‘bottom round’, as distinct from the rump, and which bit is silverside again? So, yeah, we have some lovely roasts that may not know their top from their bottom, but will surely all taste delicious. We brined three pieces – two for corned beef (we ate the first one last night, actually, and it was sensational cooked up in a pot with kohlrabi & celeriac, onion, garlic, peppercorns and cloves), and one that I’ll be smoking this week for pastrami, along with a streaky bacon… the joys of home butchery and curing! And then there was the second osso buco! Yessssssss…

We finished up around 6pm, washed our hands and faces, and dashed off to our mate Cait’s 40th with a bunch of freshly butchered ribs and the first tenderloin, which we barbecued very simply with salt, pepper and olive oil. It was fun to regale everyone with our amateur efforts, and the beef was as well received as the few pork chops we also brought along in a marinade of plum sauce, soy, and star anise.

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Day 2 dawned. Half a beast remained. Stuart and Bronwyn left Oscar and me with encouraging words…

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One thing I won’t do again, I think, is start at the middle on the second half. My brain is perhaps too linear, but I should have repeated the pattern I did the first time and started at the forequarter. As I was still trying to work all the cuts out, jumping around led to extra unnecessary confusion in an already confusing job!

Straight to the ribs we went, though, cutting out a scotch fillet roast this time instead of individual rib eye steaks. I left it intentionally big in anticipation of a lovely winter feast with a large group of friends… who don’t seem in short supply when they hear there’s Jonai meat on the menu!

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While it was much slower going with only two of us to cut, Oscar was a marvel of knife skills, and served diligently as Chief Trimmer all day. He can trim the silverskin off a cut with less waste than any of the rest of us, I’m proud to report.

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On this side, rather than pulling out the tenderloin (or eye fillet as we usually call it here in Oz), I cut out porterhouse and t-bone steaks – and without a bandsaw, I left them reaaaaallly thick – dinosaur steaks! Each one should easily feed our family, though I suspect there may be some competition for the tender eye…

The porterhouse end...
The porterhouse end…
The t-bone end...
The t-bone end…
Dinosaur steaks!
Dinosaur steaks!

This is also where I realised a mistake I was making all along – I trimmed off too much fat. 🙁 There are different sorts of fat on cattle, and without an experienced butcher to guide me, I sort of just fell into a habit of trimming most of it off, much to my later dismay when I sat back and thought about it. We love fat – fat is flavour! Nick Huggins was quick to point out the error of my ways on Facebook, and I’ll certainly do that differently next time.

When Stuart got back from doing deliveries all day in Melbourne, he found Oscar and I a mere halfway through the second side of beef, and pretty knackered at that… a very quick dinner of garlic and cashew stir fried Jonai beef served with sweet & sour vegies was our reward before an early night to bed…

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Day 3. For those still with me here, yes, I said ‘Day 3’. I woke to tight shoulders, a sore neck, and growing forearms, feeling pretty pleased with myself. Stuart of course thought this was an opportune time to juice 150kg of windfall apples with our lovely WWOOFer for the week, Arata, and the kids. Oh, how he loves to test me…

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For those wondering where we kept the carcass these three days, it was hanging in the shed. Temperatures were cool, but by the third day we were very conscious that this meat needed to get colder again! The pressure was on…

The two littlest Jonai made it home from a few days with their grandparents and cousins down the coast the night before, so were now ready to help with the home stretch. Atticus quickly discovered just how hard it is to saw through a leg bone…

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As we were cutting the final forequarter around 5pm on Monday night, I carved out a brisket roast, browned it off in my cast iron, chucked in an onion, some lovely Angelica organic garlic and rosemary plucked from the garden, and poured a bottle of Stuart’s homebrew dark IPA over it, then popped it in a low oven for three hours.

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Stuart sawed the fourth and final osso buco (have you noticed I quite like osso buco?), we washed everything down, and sank wearily but happily into our seats to feast on the most delicious roast I think I’ve ever eaten. Cutting up a whole beast has that effect on flavour, I reckon. 😉

I do look forward to the next steer, though it will be nearly a year before we need another one for our own consumption, we think. I also look forward to doing it with a coolroom at my disposal, and a fully fitted out boning room, including a bandsaw!

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If you’d like to support our efforts to become skilful, local butchers of our own meat, in a facility we’ll also make available to other smallholders like ourselves, check out our Pozible project to crowdfund a boning room here on the farm!