If I were rich, I think I’d eat steak every other night for dinner. A big hunk of organic, grass-fed beef, cooked to medium-rare perfection, with an assortment of sides to complement. Veggies dripping in warm butter, a perfect green salad from the garden…
Droooooool. My favourite meal, for sure.
Like most people in our culture, until I began actively learning about our industrialized food supply and the misguided nature of modern nutritional advice, I was pretty disconnected from the realities of where my meat actually came from.
All I knew was the neat little packages at the grocery store, ready to be prepped for dinner.
I wasn’t obsessed with animal rights, and I didn’t have a particular agenda (other than good-tasting food!). But when I started reading about real/whole/traditional food, and started hearing terms like “grass-fed” tossed about, I started to wonder if I needed to be asking some questions.
Unfortunately, I had no idea what kind of questions I should ask, in order to be an informed consumer. I began realizing that there are some serious problems tangled up in our modern food supply (and particularly our meat supply).
But the solutions? Those weren’t easy to pinpoint. In many ways, the issue is still fairly complicated. There are experts who debate these things continuously and still do not agree.
The one big thing that I believe is of utmost importance for us, the average consumer, is to become informed to the best of our ability, and to not remain apathetic. It’s in our apathy that we most harm ourselves, our children’s future, and our earth.
So, pretty early on in my real food journey, I started googling for a better meat source than the grocery store. I googled “grass-fed beef + ____ (name of my area)”.
(Note: I will be publishing another post soon outlining the ethical and health-related problems with CAFO’s [concentrated animal feeding operations] as it’s far too complex of an issue to go into here.)
We were living out West at the time, in an area known for beef production, with a lot of CAFO’s. My google search led me to a ranch that raised beef, poultry, and pork with a different approach. Their methods were clearly outlined on their site. I called and spoke to the owner on the phone, and we chatted for close to an hour. I was satisfied with their transparency, their principles, and their procedures. They even delivered to my front door every few weeks!
In the years since, I’ve moved a few times, and have had to seek out a good source of meat each time. I’ve learned through experience which questions I should be asking. I’m not an expert on the details of the answers, but I do think I’ve gained a solid baseline for what I hope to hear from a potential farmer that we want to support.
The last thing I want to emphasize before I dive into the list of questions is that I am not writing this article with an elitist or perfectionist aim.
As many of my regular readers know, our family has had a low income for a number of years as we’ve trudged our way through my husband’s extremely costly aviation training. I’m so proud of his hard work in that, but it has meant some very big sacrifices for our budget. We are no strangers to barely making ends meet and mourning the fact that our limited budget cannot sustain our high nutritional ideals.
If that’s your position today as well, I just want to encourage you to do whatever it takes to get informed. That’s step one. And beyond that: do what it takes to move yourself forward financially to a point where sourcing high-quality, ethically-raised meat is feasible for you (need SAHM income-earning ideas?).
Don’t become apathetic, and don’t despair about not being able to afford it today. Focus on the small steps. Perhaps your best option is simply to include more meatless meals in your diet until you can afford the well-sourced options. Only you can decide what’s best for your family right now.
Above all, remember that our food system will never change if we simply refuse to engage in the conversation at all.
10 Questions to Ask Your Meat Supplier
1. Are the cows grass-fed?
As natural ruminants, cows were designed to eat grass, not grains. That’s something that everyone agrees on. I’ve heard grains described as being like cake and candy to cows. They like it, but it certainly wouldn’t be a good idea for their entire diet to include only that (which is sadly the case in most industrially-raised beef). If we were talking about humans, one might even describe a parent feeding their child literally nothing but candy as abusive and neglectful.
So ideally, cows should be grass-fed. This is one of the most important factors for high-quality, ethically raised meat. In addition to being grass-fed, they should also be grass-finished.
Sometimes, beef that is labeled grass-fed was raised on pasture, but “finished” with grains (ie. fed grains like GMO corn in the months before butchering) to bulk them up to fetch a higher price.
Ask if the cows are:
1. grass-fed and finished (this is the ideal)
2. grass-fed, grain-finished (second best)
3. fully grain-fed (almost all grocery store meat)
2. What’s in the chicken feed?
Typically commercially sold “chicken feed” is not healthy – it contains corn, soy, and a lot of nasty chemicals, additives, and fillers.
I want to raise backyard chickens one day, but unfortunately they’re not legal where I live. As such, I don’t know all of the fine details on what a chicken should eat (other than to know that they’re natural foragers and will eat plants and bugs, pecking around, if allowed to do so).
I do however know that I want my meat supplier to have an intelligent answer to this question. If all they say is “chicken feed that I buy” without any mention of the various considerations, it’s a red flag for me.
When I asked our last farmer (who recently sold their farm and got out of the business – sadly) I got a ten minute explanation of what they chickens ate, what they didn’t eat, and why. They let their chickens forage in a large movable coop to rotate land usage as well as protect from predators, and they supplemented with a corn-free, soy-free, organic chicken feed.
3. What is the animals’ water source?
Our previous farmer had a well that is 222 feet deep, which is excellent. However, often it’s just 12-15 feet deep, which means that it is easily contaminated by sewer run-off. Ask the farmer if they do regular water testing. If they get offended by the question, consider it to be a red flag. Transparency is key.
4. What do the pigs eat?
Pastured pork is healthier, containing higher ratios of Vitamin D and Omega 3’s. And again, pasture-fed pigs are enjoying their natural diet instead of a profit-driven, harmful one.
The pigs at our previous farm ate peas, oats, and barley – all grown organically on their own farm land. Unfortunately, the conventional modern approach is to give 1 lb grass, 2 lbs corn, which is genetically modified.
5. What happens to sick animals?
First of all, there shouldn’t be many sick animals, if the farming principles are sound. Our previous farm had to euthanize just one animal in thirteen years.
In other words, with proper farming technique, this isn’t a concern. In CAFO’s – antibiotic use is rampant, and sick animals are a concern, as is proper treatment, disposal of carcasses, and/or reintegration to the supply.
6. What do the cows eat?
To expand on the first question about being grass-fed, you should ask specifically how they’re fed. When I sat down with Farmer Jenny to interview her (at her dining room table!), she proudly told me about how they maintained one acre of grazing per cow, with their own organic hay for winter. They planted peas, barley, oats, and used a hammer mill to grind it.
Farmer Jenny was adamant that you should always question a farmer’s food sources if they have inadequate acreage to support the herd.
7. Do the chickens receive routine antibiotics?
In conventional modern meat production, chickens receive antibiotics in the first week as a standard course of action. More conscientious, sustainably-minded farmers say that this is unnecessary. Some use peroxide or apple cider vinegar in that first week to help reduce the risk of infections. No hormones should be used, either.
8. Price & affordability?
Ask the price, but know this: you should expect to pay more for pastured/grass-fed, ethically-raised animal products. There are many reasons why CAFO meat winds up being cheaper at the grocery store, including inhumane treatment, poor environmental practices, and unfair government subsidies for corn and soybean farmers (which the CAFO’s depend on).
Instead of making price your only factor (insofar as you are able), ask if there are any ways to save or be frugal with the selection that they offer. Do you get a discount for buying a quarter, half, or whole cow? (It usually would come packaged and frozen for you in a good selection of cuts.) Do they have any loyalty discounts?
In addition, be sure to ask if they sell bones to make homemade broth, which is the very best frugal source of quality protein that I can recommend! The first ranch we found years ago sold us chicken backs and necks, packaged together. They made the most delicious and rich golden broth!
You may also want to inquire about the availability of nutrient-dense organ meats, which have been highly-prized staples in traditional diets for generations.
9. Describe the chicken’s living conditions.
I was amazed at the extent of the answer I got from Farmer Jenny on this question. We had been walking around the farm, checking out the animals with the kids (see photo above), and I noticed that the chickens were in a large cage of sorts. I wondered why they weren’t roaming more freely. So I asked this question.
The chickens are in a portable coop. They get moved every 1-3 days without being on the same spot for an entire year. The roof and fencing protects them from the predators in the area, which include cooper hawks, foxes, and coyotes.
The coop itself is full of sunshine and has plenty of room for roaming (in stark contrast to the industrialized farming practices where chickens are confined to extremely crowded and virus-laden environments).
10. Can I come visit?
The answer should be yes, absolutely. If they’re proud of their practices and operation, they should welcome a visit.
And I would encourage you to do exactly that! It’s a joy to get to know a farmer who’s passionate about providing high-quality, ethically-raised meat products for your family.