My first meeting with The Inspector back in early 2013 was inauspicious to say the least.
It was my first visit to PrimeSafe, but we had a month or two prior been granted a Class 3 Food Premises registration under the Food Act 1984 by our local Environmental Health Officer, which allowed us to refrigerate and sell our pre-packaged meat from the farm. We raised our pigs out on the paddocks and transported them to the abattoir an hour away. Then the carcasses were delivered to our PrimeSafe-licensed butcher, and when everything was cut and packed, we understood from our Council and our reading of the legislation that we could store and sell our meat directly from a registered premises here on the farm.
It was all going swimmingly, so it was time to get our Meat Transport Vehicle (MTV) licence from PrimeSafe in order to commence deliveries to customers in the city. I was skeptical when a pig-farming mate told me my 12-volt esky would pass muster for an MTV (so long as it’s under cover and strapped to the vehicle), but upon ringing PrimeSafe they confirmed this to be the case. And so with some confidence I strode into their offices in South Melbourne to obtain my MTV licence.
A rather blank young man starts to process my paperwork, and it’s all going quite well. Then I, trying to reassure him, say, ‘and don’t worry, I understand about the temperature monitoring requirements because I’ve been doing that under my Class 3 for a little while now at the farm.’ I smile reassuringly and nod.
Blank young man: ‘you’ve been selling meat from your farm?’
Me: ‘sure, under a Class 3 Premises registration from our council.’
Blank young man: ‘please just wait here,’ and uses a security card to disappear behind the glass door. Uh oh.
Out comes The Inspector.
‘You can’t sell meat from your farm without a licence from PrimeSafe.’
The Inspector directs me into a meeting room behind the glass door I subsequently describe as the ‘swinging lightbulb’ room, because the interrogation that ensues is aggressive and punitive. I am cited sections of the Meat Industry Act 1993, told I have breached the Act, and that it is a ‘very serious offence’ and that we ‘could be prosecuted.’
I explain that my council was very happy to give us a registration, and that they had inspected the premises and found them to meet their standards for the storage and sale of pre-packaged meat. That we have paid some $250 for this registration.
The Inspector sighs dramatically at what she infers is the incompetence of councils, and wants to know ‘which council’ so she can set them straight. I ask her not to make things difficult between us and our council as we’re pioneering some new ground and they’ve been remarkably supportive.
‘I’m going to need you to write out an undertaking that you will not store or sell meat from your property without a licence,’ commands The Inspector.
I’m pretty sure this is a terrible idea and I say so. I invoke my father-in-law who is a retired solicitor and say I’m pretty sure he would advise me not to do this, but that I don’t wish to seem non-compliant. So I write out the damned undertaking and sign it, still quite convinced this is a terrible idea.
At one point in the interaction I gain control of my trembling voice (I have been so blindsided by this interaction I am penduluming wildly between confusion, anger and fear) to say to The Inspector, ‘wait. Can we stop for a moment and remember that I am here because I came here to comply?! I am not and was not trying to get away with anything wrong. We want to comply, and we just need you to help us understand how best to do that, and I don’t need to be treated like I’m trying to get away with doing the wrong thing.’
The Inspector takes her own deep breath and assumes a slightly less aggressive tone, makes a bit of small talk even (at which I bridle). She gathers up my undertaking and we go outside for the vehicle inspection that was the reason for my visit. Inspects the vehicle. Approves it. Shakes my hand and wishes me a good day.
So now I have a licensed MTV but can no longer sell meat from my farm.
Thank goodness we’d already commenced plans to build the butcher’s shop so that we could be PrimeSafe licensees, right?
NB: I am currently personally aware of at least three cases of other farms who would like to sell their meat pre-packaged from a farm gate shop, but who have been told they cannot by PrimeSafe. I know of another three who are selling from farm gate shops under Class 3 Premises registrations.
Importantly, we all know of hundreds of supermarkets, delis and corner shops that are selling pre-packaged meat without the requirement for a meat processing licence (even in the cases where they process meat, such as supermarkets).
Explain how this is about food safety?
(PS I’ll talk further of this in later entries, but you should always get the regulator to give you any orders, instructions or demands in writing.)
This first instalment details the story of how Victorian meat regulator PrimeSafe destroyed all our salamis last year. I will seek permission from other salami day hosts to share some more stories of PrimeSafe actively shutting down salami workshops across Victoria (of which I know at least three in addition to us).
Future posts will explain the minutiae of regulation and compliance for small-scale meat, dairy, & egg producers, as well as butchers, providores & chefs with a story to tell – if you have one, I’m happy to host guest posts on this topic.
* * *
The late-model government vehicle rolled up the driveway just before 3pm the day before an early-morning flight to France.
As The Inspector stepped out of the car to approach us, she jutted her hand out in greeting, pronouncing, ‘Hi Tammi, Stuart. I understand you’re heading for France tomorrow?’
Taken aback, I answered that yes, we were going to research traditional methods of charcuterie and salumi making in France and Italy. It was obvious that neither PrimeSafe’s surprise visit nor their knowledge of our travel plans boded well for us.
The Inspector asked whether we had allowed participants in our recent salami day to take home salamis from the workshop and we replied that yes, we had. She told us this was a ‘very serious breach of the Act’, to which we confessed our ignorance and apologized for the mistake.
The Inspector then explained that she had a complaint from an attendee at our salami day a fortnight earlier. According to the complaint:
our salami shed was ‘not a good environment for making salami’;
we took a vote with the 45 attendees and opted not to use nitrates;
there were dogs around during the workshop; and
‘there appeared to be a bullet hole in the pig’s head’. (This last we responded was clearly false and that the pig had been slaughtered at our usual abattoir, so apparently we were dealing with a vexatious complaint.)
NB: we never received written notice of the complaint – all of this was delivered verbally to us by The Inspector.
The Inspector told us that it appeared that there was ‘somebody in the industry who doesn’t like you very much,’ judging by the complaint.
She asked to be taken to the salamis hanging just behind us in the salami shed in plain view from the driveway, and whether they could take some photos. I laughingly responded that there were photos all over the internet, and that they were in fact our Facebook cover photo at the moment. That’s the last time I laughed.
She then asked to see our licensed retail butcher’s shop here on the farm. We complied and they found nothing of concern. The Inspector then asked to be taken back to the salamis, noting on the way there that she needed to tell us something ‘we would not be happy about’ – that an outcome of their visit may be that they would have to destroy all our salami hanging in the shed. We asked why that would be when it is not part of our commercial business and is solely for our own consumption. She said we shouldn’t talk more about it now, but that she simply wanted us to be prepared for something that might happen that we wouldn’t like.
We offered to email all participants and ask them to dispose of the salamis they had taken home and apologise, telling them we had made a mistake and that we were not legally allowed to let them take the salami home. The Inspector said she would tell the CEO of PrimeSafe that we had offered to do this, and that it would reflect favourably on us that we had offered.
The Inspector rang the CEO for advice on whether the salami hanging in the shed had to be destroyed. She asked us to move away while she had this conversation. When she got off the phone she conferred with her colleague. They then waved us back to the shed.
The Inspector said ‘you’re not going to like this’ and proceeded to tell us that we were going to have to destroy all the salami. She said we had two choices, one was to cooperate and help take all the salami down to be condemned, and the other was to refuse to cooperate, in which case she and her colleague would go and wait at the bottom of our driveway for the police, who would forcibly return and destroy the salami with them.
She suggested it would not go as well for us if we opted for the latter, and that she had pleaded our case to the CEO and ‘kept the boning room out of it’. She asked us to cooperate on the basis that she was trying to help us, and that she believed that we were being honest, but that if we didn’t comply, she couldn’t promise she would continue to help us.
At this stage I burst into tears, and said ‘you don’t understand how important it is to us not to waste anything’ and that it was disrespectful to take an animal’s life and then destroy the meat. We reiterated that the salamis were for our own personal use, and that we had no intention of selling them, and that we would be more than willing to sign an undertaking to that effect. The Inspector asked me to compose myself, saying it ‘bothered her’ to see me upset. I said this whole event was upsetting.
I asked to see the relevant part of the Act that gave them the power to destroy our salamis. The Inspector showed me the section (section 72 of the Meat Industry Act 1993), which states that they have power to seize and condemn meat and even live animals. (We have subsequently received legal advice that The Inspector’s powers to destroy meat under these circumstances is ‘arguable’.)
I queried whether the shed was arguably actually a residence as it’s not part of our licensed premises, and The Inspector said ‘no, it’s land’. She said she could go anywhere on our land because we are PrimeSafe’s licensee.
Another 20 minutes of discussion and phone calls to the CEO resulted in nothing except reminders that if we were cooperative it was likely to ‘go better’ for us.
Our children returned from school and were standing nearby. The Inspector asked whether we could send the children into the house as they appeared distressed and shouldn’t see me upset. I replied that of course they were distressed as they hate waste as much as we do, but that we would not send them away as we share everything with our children and want them to understand the world in which they live.
We also had our four WWOOFers working on a pump about 15m away, and The Inspector said ‘there’s a crowd drawing, and this is when inspectors get hurt’, to which I replied that it was outrageous to suggest we were being in any way threatening. She agreed, but asked us to ‘understand her position’.
She also asked us to be calm and go in to destroy the salami ‘in a civilised manner’. I replied that there is nothing civilised about coming to our home and destroying meat from animals we raise with such care on our farm and kill purely for food, in a world where people are hungry.
Before the destruction began, we asked whether we could just take the meat inside and eat it ourselves, feed it to our dogs, or have it tested, but the answer was ‘no’.
The Inspector instructed Stuart to get a bin, preferably something the dogs couldn’t get into and that wasn’t a food safe bin as the ‘condemnation ink’ was toxic and might kill our dogs or contaminate food bins. He complied and got a large barrel.
I climbed a ladder and removed all of the salamis while my boys filmed me doing so. The Inspector got back on the phone with the CEO while I took the salamis down and asked her colleague to stay near us.
The Inspector said it was good we were going away for three weeks the next day to give time for PrimeSafe to decide what to do so that it was less likely to affect our day to day business. She said our next planned workshop upon our return in July may not be allowed to proceed. I asked what jurisdiction PrimeSafe has over our workshops if it doesn’t involve any meat for consumption or sale. She said the shed is a ‘meat processing facility’ because we are PrimeSafe licensees.
NB: subsequent legal advice identified no prohibitions in the Meat Industry Act on operating the workshops in the salami shed.
We asked again whether we should email all attendees and ask them to dispose of their salamis. The Inspector replied that that was up to us, and there was no requirement to do so.
As The Inspector and her colleague started to leave, I stopped her and said, ‘you know how you said you receive death threats and aren’t well liked?’ The Inspector pulled her shoulders back and her eyes widened slightly. I said, ‘well, people do like us, and they’re going to be really sad and angry when they learn what you did today.’
And so we’re telling you now, world. We’ve turned our own sadness and anger into action, and we’re ready to fight. We want to and we do produce safe food, but we produce something so much more than just safe. We produce food that nourishes our land, our family, and our community. We produce food in ways that value connection, flavour, and regeneration.
This regulator has been left unchecked for too long. It’s time you let your government know what kind of world you want to live in and what kind of food you want to eat. If you’re happy with imported, frozen meat manufactured into pale imitations of traditional smallgoods by Big Food, so be it. If not, this fight is your fight too.
With all the pressure PrimeSafe are under now that the Minister has announced the review, the cynical side of me is waiting for someone to manufacture or highly dramatise a food safety incident to regain the public’s sympathy and fear. So here’s me putting it on the public record to stave off that possibility or at least date stamp our awareness of that particular tactic.
And here’s hoping my cynicism is misplaced and that our government wants fair and consistent regulation just like we do.
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.
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.
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.
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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’.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
When we promote ‘fair food’, ‘ethical farming’ or even the more watered-down ‘sustainable farming’, are we ergo suggesting some systems are not fair, ethical, or sustainable? Of course we are.
Food that is produced by a farmer who cannot earn a living even though she does it full time is not fair.
The number of farmers in Australia has been declining for many decades as small farmers sell up to large-scale farming operations, and fewer young people take over family farms. (Endnote 2) In fact, there were 19,700 fewer farmers in Australia in 2011 than in 2006, a fall of 11% over five years. ABS
Food that is produced by confining animals in cages and sheds for their entire lives is not fair.
Food that is produced by routinely pouring toxic pesticides and herbicides until soils and waterways are depleted and polluted for everyone is not fair.
Food that is produced by workers who are not paid a living wage is not fair.
Food that is produced but intentionally not available to hungry people is not fair.
Food-stuffs that cause health epidemics like diabetes & heart disease are not fair.
Fair is a simple word to capture what is generally meant by ethical, but there’s a spectrum of sorts. Intensive livestock farming advocates will disagree on at least one of my definitions of what constitutes fair food. It’s important to work out for yourself what you reckon is fair and then do what you can to help there be more of that in the world.
I’ve had some on twitter ask me if because we call ours an ethical farm, does that mean that others aren’t ethical? I’m answering you clearly now – by my ethical standards, some are not operating ethically.
I’m a free-range pig & cattle farmer, and well on the record here & elsewhere advocating to raise animals on pasture, not in sheds, because I think it’s unethical to confine animals in sheds or cages. If you’re not raising pigs or poultry in sheds, odds are my view of your farming system is less certain and more open to the complexities of what an ethical system might look like.
I don’t like to call anyone ‘unethical’ in total as I can’t really imagine anyone who is wholly unethical. But I am happy to refer to certain practices such as caging animals as unethical. (For the record I also abhor pet birds in cages – what could be more spiteful than taking away any living creature’s capacity to fly?) Trying to lead an ethical life doesn’t mean that you won’t sometimes make unethical choices, me included.
Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. There are complexities in dairy farming that I admire dairy farmers for grappling with every day. My lovely dairy-farming neighbor has worked for years to find better solutions for his bobby calves by raising a number of them as beef cattle to a year old, or selling them to locals to grow out for their own consumption. He rarely sends any off to the saleyards younger than six weeks because it bothers him knowing that they don’t transport well and therefore suffer.
He also follows most of the conventional practices of tilling, fertilizing, sowing & spraying his paddocks. While I disagree with some of his system, I certainly don’t judge him without perspective and nor would I accuse him of being unethical. What I’d love to see him do is be able to command a fair price for his milk so he could reduce his stocking levels and consequently his paddock inputs. So long as the processor continues to pay him 30-something-cents per litre that probably isn’t going to happen.
At Jonai Farms we’re in the relatively luxurious position of having set up a system outside of the traditional supply chain which means we’ve been price makers right since we started selling direct to the public. And our position improved markedly when we took on the butchering ourselves – supply chain control brought over 25% of our profit margin back to us. It means bucketloads more work, but we get paid a fair wage to do it.
Those who are trying to make a living in long supply chains like my neighbour are not in such a position, especially in Australia where market power is so unfairly concentrated in two major supermarkets. And so farmers are always being forced to look for more ‘efficiencies’, which usually means ‘produce more for less’. It seems to me that this is probably the primary reason many farmers are attracted to ‘sustainable intensification’ – they truly want to grow things in a sustainable way but are being forced to intensify their systems in order to make a living.
The notion that ‘sustainable intensification’ is going to solve the issue of food security around the world has been rigorously challenged by plenty of people far more qualified than me – hunger is predominantly a problem of governance and distribution, not inadequate production. We don’t actually need to double production by 2050 to feed a growing global population, we need to ensure we don’t waste what we grow and that we distribute it fairly. Even the UN is on the record saying that small-scale agroecological farms are the best way to feed the world. Let’s therefore shelve food security as a flawed argument for ‘sustainable intensification’.
So what’s really at stake is feeding Australian (and other) farmers and our families. That’s a worthy enough aim without clouding it with grand claims of achieving global food security. So how can farmers feed their families?
Don’t produce more for less, produce less for more.
By that I mean we must value the land, animals, and workers and ensure their health is paramount in every agricultural system and then ask eaters to pay a fair price for our efforts.
All of which is easier said from a farmer in a miniscule supply chain selling direct to eaters. The bigger challenge is for the majority who are under pressure from centralised market power and long supply chains…
What do you think? How can we address the serious structural imbalances between farmers, processors, distributors and supermarkets in Australia? How can we support all farmers to make a living growing food in the fairest ways possible?
While I personally am not an advocate for sustainable intensification, I am a big fan of farmers and respect everyone who is working hard to produce food fairly, even if we sometimes differ in how we think that will be achieved.
If you’re interested in fair food (which is pretty likely if you read my blog!) you should check out the many fabulous events being held all around Australia for Fair Food Week October 10-19!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.