Meet Your Meat

Story & photos by Montana Jones—originally published in Watershed Magazine.

Meet Your Meat / Story and photos by Montana JonesLife as a carnivore these days is just not as ‘meat and potatoes’ as it used to be. Meat eaters have invited reverence and responsibility to join them at the table, for a much more considered meal. Neatly packaged supermarket steaks and roasts used to be thought of as real and basic food, but we never reflected on the question of how it got there, or what the term “industrial meat” actually meant. A growing number now consider that takeout bucket of fried chicken a bit of a risk, not a reward, and big burgers with special sauce have turned from big treat to big threat.

Shopping for groceries often used to mean filling the cart with pre-made convenient meals to suit a fast paced schedule. Frozen chicken potpie, ready-made TV dinners, pre-formed hamburger patties and the ever-present hot dog. How our seemingly advanced race came so far for so long putting such strange things into our mouths, and passing it off as food, is a curious phenomenon. In our collective focus on future and convenience, good old-fashioned basic sustenance and good taste was, well….put on the back burner.

The long dormant hunter-gatherer in us is awakening now, slowly coming around to the reality that we truly are what we eat. Our increasing awareness of health concerns and the environmental impact that our food choices have upon us personally and on the planet, are only just being realized.

Some of the “99 billion” served no longer wish to ingest cardboard ammonia burgers, and mechanically separated meat nuggets are losing their appeal. We eat food to nourish our bodies, yet the incongruent effect of our contradictory diet has resulted in exploding rates of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, dementia and obesity. Not the expected outcome when the very act of eating is intended to keep us alive.

This new hunt for unspoiled, authentic provisions has unearthed the answer on home ground, literally at our feet. Local food. It’s on our lips, in the paper, on the news, over the airwaves and increasingly, on our plates. Sourcing locally is a rising trend whose time has not just come, it’s come back, so what was old is new again. Finding local ingredients came as naturally to our predecessors as breathing, while they popped out to the garden to pick lunch, or the hen house to pluck dinner.

Unbeknownst to them, our great-grandparents were the original locovores—those who sought local as their primary food standard. The term “locavore” is a fairly new term describing the practice of eating a diet of food harvested nearby, generally within a 100-mile radius.

Eaters nowadays are educating themselves about intensive industrial farming practices and confinement agriculture. They’re thinking more about the provenance and sacredness of food; whether to trust giant supermarkets with their food security; and supporting small local farmers rather than corporate-owned factory farms. Buying locally ensures superior freshness, quality, and supports earth-friendly practices, as well as the local economy.

Despite an entire region rich in agriculture, it’s not been easy to access a steady supply of food that is fresh and naturally raised. Our supermarkets commonly stock items that have travelled thousands of miles before they get to our plate. As food awareness grows, consumers are no longer accepting without question the standard items that have been conventionally offered in the grocery aisle. More people are turning to the producers themselves, dealing directly with growers through farmers’ markets and farm gate sales. Now, they are also insisting on really knowing their meat—where it came from, how it lived and how it was slaughtered.

Today’s meat-eaters are hearkening back to a primal time. Graduating as a re-born carnivore means coming face-to-literally-face with the fact that to eat meat, an animal must die. That’s not always an easy feat for those faint of heart accustomed to picking up their fare wrapped in plastic, on a stark white Styrofoam tray. A great benefit to buying local is that it comes with a better understanding of the connection between field to plate, especially if it means picking up your steaks and chops at the farm, or chatting at the farmers’ market with the rancher who raised the roast. You’ll soon discover something that those who grow their own food have quietly known all along. It just tastes better. Wine, coffee and tea enthusiasts know all about the influence of terroir on the flavour and characteristics of wine. Terroir comes from the word “terre” or land, and refers to the unique elements of the soil, the landscape, and the climate that influence flavour. The same is true of grass fed local foods. In relation to local food, how fitting that loosely translated it means “a sense of place”. 

Serving a pasture-raised pork roast to your favourite senior will surely bring on a delighted, “Now THAT tastes just like the pork we had when I was growing up!” That olde-fashioned flavour comes from using olde-fashioned methods, and pastured pork stands out in juicy, clear contrast to the often dry and fairly tasteless meat of factory-farmed pigs. Hardy heritage breeds are particularly well suited to the outdoor life, and have more intramuscular marbling of fat, which makes for a moist, tasty barbecued chop. Pigs raised outdoors in a field are free to root, play, wallow and explore which means happier, healthier animals. They grow more slowly, more naturally and are not subject to the crowding, depression and boredom endured by commercial pigs raised in modern, intensive housing. Happy critters make happy diners.

Cheerful chickens are equally appetizing. Don Litz of Campbellcroft is the third generation of his family to raise a few chickens every year for friends and neighbours. “We have a reputation around here, we’ve been doing it so long, they really like them, and they keep coming back. Some folks that got chickens from my grandparents now get them from me,” says Don. He holds a full time job off-farm but still devotes each spring and summer to the work of raising meat birds on pasture, tending them and making sure they are penned in a protective shelter at night. With the price of grain and hydro still rising, it’s impossible for small producers like him to offer the discounted prices that supermarkets do. The customers that have been coming to his farm, and to his father and his grandfather before him, know that his pastured chicken will taste nothing like the assembly line birds turned around in a short few weeks. Pasturing chicken takes more time and money to grow the birds to full size because they are also expending energy and burning calories while they scratch about pecking for seeds and bugs. In that time, they also grow a flavour and texture that is unmatched.

Those accustomed to supermarket chicken will find noticeable differences in pastured natural poultry. Free-ranging and grass fed birds have less fat due to the fact they have had more exercise wandering outside, and the varied natural diet produces denser quality meat, with firmer texture and superior taste. Because the birds are older, the flavour has more time to develop. Commercially raised chickens are slaughtered at just 4 to 6 weeks of age, whereas small farms raising meat birds will often let them grow out a little larger to 10 or 12 weeks, or longer depending on the breed. The health benefits of grass based meat is also greater, with 21% less total fat, 30% less saturated fat and 28% fewer calories in pastured chicken compared to their factory farmed cousins.

However, finding a local farmer who can supply you directly with pastured, organic or naturally raised chicken is a bit of a challenge. Quota restrictions prevent small farmers from making their poultry widely available by limiting each farm to growing only 300 meat birds for personal consumption, and not permitting any at all to be sold at farmers’ market. So if a farming family wants to keep 100 chickens per year for themselves, that only leaves enough for another two families to enjoy ‘real’ chicken as it was meant to taste. Until the regulations are changed, small poultry producers are in short supply. This makes most households dependent on getting their fryers, broilers and roasters from grocery stores, who get them from corporately owned commercial operations. Supply management is indeed a successful and necessary marketing regime for Ontario’s 1,100 commercial chicken farmers, who raise 220 million chickens each year. Many argue that there is still room for the alternative production methods and direct marketing approach of small flock farmers, and quota exemptions greater than 300 need to be passed so consumers have a choice.

It’s much easier to find farm gate beef, and some of the tastiest in the area fattens in a good-looking, glossy black herd on John and Connie Moelker 160 acre farm in Wooler, Ontario. Born and raised on a dairy farm, John stayed with it until he changed agricultural directions in the late ‘90s and got into poultry. He really missed the cows, so he and Connie started up with Black Angus beef.  Together they provide custom freezer beef orders to locals who buy their beef by the quarter, half or whole, and know exactly what they’re getting. Their 20-odd head of mature cows produce stockers that are grass-fed and grain finished for 60 days on certified organic grains that the Moelkers grow themselves on an additional leased 100 acres. Their ration is a mix of oats, barley, peas, wheat and rye. John doesn’t feed the cattle corn, as he points out, “It takes so much from the earth that it won’t give back.”

Natural grass-fed beef is leaner, and has a much bolder, fuller flavour than grain-fed feedlot cattle. Aging time also affects the final product, and since taste preferences vary, a buyer can custom order and specify their liking for a 7-day or 21-day hanging period to age their beef for a darker, richer result.

The Moelkers patronize a local butcher to process all their beef. Hays Custom Cutting has been wrapping up what local livestock farmers have been starting for the past 35 years. The abattoir is located on a farm near Hoard’s Station, tucked back in a quiet stretch of rolling rural hills. Derek Hays, who runs the family business along with his father and uncle, have seen a shift in the type of producer that brings in livestock for processing. He estimates about one third of their customers now are small farmers raising beef, lamb or pork to sell locally, as well as hobby farmers who have made the move to country living, and are growing their own.

Wendy Pullan and Bruce Whyte are living-on-the-land proof of that. They left Vancouver 15 years ago and found an old abandoned farm north of Shannonville. “Ever since I was a kid I dreamed of growing my own vegetables, and now I have this really nice vegetable garden. We grow pretty much everything on our dinner plates—I love that.” Their Thistle Dew Farm is now also growing dinner for a small group of dedicated customers who enjoy their Corriedale cross and Tunis lamb. “They don’t like the fact that supermarket meat is from great big feedlots. We’re not organic but we have happy healthy animals on pasture, and our regulars like the idea that they are naturally raised.”

Raised and cooked properly, grass-fed lamb typically has a much richer and more savoury flavour. In fact some folks who have tried frozen imported New Zealand cuts and disliked its “lambiness”, have discovered a new appreciation for the local grass-fed version.

The enhanced flavour of pastured animals is only one of the reasons that Jeremy Taft of Trenton prefers to buy from small local farmers. Jeremy is chef de Cuisine and Charcutier of hâute Caribou, a local foodsmith specializing in catering, canning, curing, lactic fermentation and food preservation. Charcuterie is a style of cooking devoted to prepared meat products such as bacon, ham, sausage, terrines, pates and confit, primarily using pork. He hires out his services smoking, brining, dehydrating and creating unique taste experiences for food lovers.

Jeremy is keen on preserving more than meats—he is passionate about preserving traditional farming relationships in the community, between consumers and producers. His motivation for buying local? “It’s the face of the farm,” says Jeremy, “It’s more to do with my relationship with the people—the producers are my friends and I’m investing in them. These farmers have every cent invested into building their family business, and I want to support that.”

“I like bridging the gap between eaters, farmers and chefs. When I’m catering a dinner the guests are always interested to know where it came from, more about the farm and how I smoked or brined or cured it. After a taste they want to know how they can order ten pounds of bacon or two dozen sausages, so I’ll link them to the producers.”

In addition to charcuterie, one of his specialties is local food marketing and education. “I’m happy to empower people to do this themselves. Education is a big part of it for me, teaching how to preserve these techniques to enrich the lives of people consuming the animals,” he explains.

In the quest for the best, healthiest, tastiest meats, consumers still have to do their homework.  Buying food as locally as possible is still not necessarily a guarantee. Pesticides, chemical fertilizers, confinement agriculture and non-therapeutic use of antibiotics can all be involved in local food production, so it is key to ensure that the local food you buy is indeed from farmers and producers using methods you support.

One example is the routine practice in the commercial poultry industry to give antibiotics from day one, despite the absence of illness in newly hatched chicks. A medicated chick starter containing Amprolium is typically used to help prevent coccidiosis, which thrives in the intensive conditions associated with mass broiler production. Continuous antibiotic use is giving rise to public concerns that these methods promote the growth of anti-biotic resistant bacteria entering into our food chain, therefore entering us.

Even small farmers intent on raising their meat birds “naturally” may inadvertently give their healthy chicks laced feed if they are not careful to specify ‘non-medicated’ from their feed store. The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies.  It’s a commonly held misconception that the young birds won’t thrive without it. In a well-ventilated, clean environment where the flock is being moved to fresh grass daily, there is no need for concern. If you prefer antibiotic-free chicken, it’s important to ask your source if they feed only non-medicated chick starter from day one.

Local farmers offering meats for your table are very proud of their products and happy to talk about their management systems, and encourage farm visits for their customers.  Retailers and restaurants offering local food on the menu should also be glad to share the names of their local suppliers.

So feel free to openly query your farmer, market vendor and retailer. While it is difficult to look a check out clerk in the eye and question the background of an item, you can with a farmer. Find out how their animals are raised, do they pasture or confine them to feedlots, indoors or outdoors, what are they fed, the method of transport to slaughter…all important considerations in finding clean, ethically raised meat for your table. Is their livestock naturally, organically or conventionally raised? Are the animals antibiotic free?  Do they feed medicated starter? Are they free ranging, on pasture or housed? Is the beef grass-fed, corn-fed or grass-fed and grain finished? Are their pigs housed or on pasture, do they use farrowing crates or let the sows birth naturally? Sample around and see which tastes you prefer…various farms have different breeds and management and the flavours will vary.

In her book The Compassionate Carnivore, Catherine Friend advocates for local meat saying, “Carnivores speak most loudly not through their words, but by how they spend their food dollars. People who support sustainable, responsible and humane agriculture by purchasing meat from local farmers are sending a message to those farmers: “Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t stop. We’ll buy your product.”

Buying meat directly from a farmer instead of a grocery store will make you a little different, and that’s okay. It might just be that the best way to make a difference is to be different. What you’ll receive in return will be so much more than the ingredients for a great meal. You’ll no doubt discover that making room for mindfulness to join in the feast around your dinner table makes for a much more savoury affair.