As a small livestock producer in the Midwest, it is difficult to find a market share in the sea of big agriculture. It is often confusing to hear folks state that they want local, healthy food, raised to the highest standard, but they can’t afford it. When the average consumer sees a sign that advertises eggs for $0.99 a dozen, and then they go to the farmers markets and see eggs for $5.00 and upwards, how do they reconcile the vast pricing difference? The simple answer is becoming knowledge about farming practices and requesting transparency from the people who grow your food. Growing good food, I mean really good food, costs money, and is a lot of hard work. So ask yourself the question, do you really want to know where your food comes from and whether or not it’s truly healthy, or does it even matter when you’re looking at price? Here’s why it matters…
Many farm practices that can enhance the nutritional profile of the foods you eat are not easy to accomplish on a large scale. Things like rotationally grazing sheep or cows takes more time than free-range, but is both better for the soil and better for the health of the animals. This practice of rotating is even more challenging for chickens and pigs, as you also have to rotate shelter, feed, and water sources. But it is a fact that animals raised on grass have healthier fatty acid profiles than those that are not, with better ratios of omega-3:6 and also have more vitamin E and beta-carotene. Omega-3 fatty acids are known to decrease the risk of cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases by lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol. Grass-fed animal fats contain higher proportions of omega-3 fatty acids. Meat bought from a grass-centric producer will contain 2 to 10 times more omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised food bought at the grocery store.
Practices for animal health are also about the overall well-being of the animals and their quality of life. These are the areas that get tricky for big scale agriculture, and not all small farms can afford to certify with Animal Welfare Approved, or Humanely Raised, and being Certified Organic does not always ensure best practice either. You can only truly know how your food is being grown/raised by having conversations with the farmer or going to see for yourself.
Animals have a big impact on the soils they are living on, both positively and negatively. This creates a need to move the animals to fresh areas frequently. This is called intensive rotational grazing. By moving the animals frequently, they receive the benefit of fresh grass, forbes, weeds, roots, and beneficial bugs. The soil receives the benefit of fertilization from the animals’ elimination. Both of these benefits create the need for frequent moves to keep the animals from eating the plants too low to the ground, and to keep the animals from picking up parasites from their own feces. This keeps the soil healthy and nutrient dense by keeping living organisms present and producing a healthy microbial balance. Fresh pasture offers hundreds of times more nutrients than a feedlot diet.
Feed is another big factor that influences the cost of your food. Pigs and chickens need supplemental feed, though ruminants such as sheep and cattle do not need supplemental feed and are actually healthier raised without without grains of any kind. By knowing your farmer, you can ask what their supplemental feeds are and why they have chosen these feeds. Most of us understand why we want non-genetically-modified food, most of us who buy Certified Organic know why it’s worth the extra cost, and those of us who are looking to optimize our own health are always on the lookout for both good and bad fat choices. Feed combinations can be very diverse with small grains, legumes, minerals, and added fats, or they may just be Big Ag corn and soy which are the most genetically-modified species being used throughout the United States. High levels of corn and soy will impact the amounts of omega-6 fatty acids in the feed profile as well. So if you really want the most nutrient-dense food, look for truly pastured meats: either 100% grass-fed or with a supplemental feed when appropriate, that has a better ratio of omega-3’s to omega-6’s. In experiments with grass-fed pigs, 100% grain-fed pigs had a lower omega 6:3 ratio of 13.8 compared to store bought pork which had a ratio of 29.4. A pig raised on 50% grain has an omega 6:3 ratio of 9.88. Grain free animals have the least amount of saturated fats and the highest Omega-3 fatty acids.
If you have decided that you are a person that really cares about how your meat is raised and who is raising it, then you would benefit from getting to know your farmer and supporting the small farms that cannot compete with the prices of factory food and large scale agriculture. And the bottom line is you must be willing to pay more at the coop,and the mainstream grocery store for well-raised, healthier food. You will see, feel and taste the difference, and spending more on your food choices means you will spend less on your healthcare bills. Find us here at driftlesshillsfarm.com