The Conscientious Carnivore: Eating Sustainably Farmed Meat in The Era of Industrialized Agriculture
I love meat. Meat beckons like my first crush, a gastronomic memory so primal I swear it began in the womb. The aroma of meat cooked over an open flame reminds me of barbecues, and sunshine, and green grass and joy.
The image of fat, happy herbivores loitering on gentle hills studded with daffodils has been reinforced over decades of mainstream media exposure, which advertisers for the meat and dairy industry effortlessly exploit.
Meat for me and most Americans is, quite simply, the flavor of being alive.
This is the unconscious paradox of the Western eater: We take life to sustain our own. It is unconscious because very few of us ever contemplate this as we liberate beef from its cellophane container. The neatly packaged product hides the process by which that meat came to be—and, just as important, how it came to be so cheap.
How are we able to sustain so many people in this country of ours on something that many poor people in the developing world see rarely, if ever? How can we have available to us so much packaged meat at such absurdly low prices? And if you believe, as I do, in the basic and infallible premise that nothing comes cheap, then the question becomes not whether we are paying for it but rather how.
Ever since Herbert Hoover promised to put a chicken in every pot, it seems, Americans have undertaken the consumption of animal protein like a Divine Right, a demand that Corporate America has eagerly striven to meet. It has done so by industrializing the once-natural process of breeding, raising and processing animal protein.
Mega-production facilities called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) house, feed and process animals into food, bypassing the natural laws of land-space. Invariably, this means they have had to write laws of their own. Without the prerequisite land needed to feed and range the animals or absorb their waste, producers have established systems of animal husbandry and waste disposal that have contributed to some of the worst environmental conditions this country has ever seen. Household brand-name products have been behind some of the worst violators of environmental protection laws, something few of us not living close to these operations have ever heard about.
Experts agree that, if you sum up the health and environmental costs as well as land depreciation, that two-for-one special on New York strip doesn’t even come close to balancing out the real price paid.
So what is a conscientious carnivore like myself to do? The juggernaut of Big Ag in this country all but wiped out small-time meat producers. But, like the timber wolf and the bald eagle, these resilient creatures are making a comeback. Fueled by the resurgence of conscientious eating and the locavore movement, small-scale growers of animals for eggs, dairy and meat have started whittling out local niches for themselves in various states, including Louisiana. My quest for such a place brought me to the wooden porch steps of the Blanchet family homestead, Brookshire Farm.
Spread modestly over 70 acres of steamy South Louisiana flatlands near Abbeville, the charming plaster and wood frame cottage is fanned by the majestic branches of 300-year-old oak trees while in the background a motley assortment of cattle feast on thick green pasture. The place has been in the family since the first settlers arrived over two centuries ago. Before that it had been the seasonal grazing land of Great Plains bison which were adroitly exploited by the local Indians before both the hunted and the hunters were systematically expunged from the scene to make room for our Manifest Destiny. It seems only fitting that the place continue the process of feeding large herbivores, now under the wise stewardship of the Blanchets.
It all started in 1991 when Ben Blanchet, a successful attorney, inherited the farmland along with 13 head of cattle from his grandmother. After they agreed to try and maintain a functional farm, the Blanchets considered their options and had trouble finding a realistic, viable alternative for a couple without any formal agricultural training. Enlightenment came one day as Ben’s wife, Anne, read a copy of Wine Spectator, which featured grass-fed beef and referenced a publication called the Stockman Grass Farmer. Anne recognized a potential solution to the farm conundrum. Here was the introduction to the world of raising beef cattle in a manner that suited the family’s economic and moral goals.
“Cattle farming is all about the grass,” said Anne as she led me around to the back of the farmhouse to look at the tree-studded pastures. “I take care of the feed, and the cattle take care of themselves.” Anne has managed to establish one of the few grass-fed and grass-finished beef-cattle productions in the country. Careful research and patience allowed Anne to repopulate the land with the rich feed upon which such an endeavor depends. She developed a rotating “paddock system” which is supplemented by patches of turnips, oat and rye grass on which these animals are allowed to gorge to their hearts’ content during their “finishing” period.
It was a crisp, cloudless December afternoon when I visited the Blanchets first. Cat, the Blanchet’s daughter and co-manager of the farm, took me on a tour of the neat little farmstead dotted with shade trees which glowed in the setting sun, the simple splendor of rural existence and the perfect metaphor for the animal protein I so love to consume. We came upon a small herd of “ethnically diverse” cattle. This was the “mama herd” as Cat called it, the breeding stock from which the market cattle will … ahem… emerge?
Cat explained that the herd was a calculated mix of breeds that would work for the region they lived in and their ultimate purpose. They are a Charolais base, an appropriately French stock favored for its ability to tolerate heat well and put on thick, lean muscle mass even with suboptimal grazing. These have been mixed with Shorthorn, Hereford and Beefmaster so that, looking at it more closely, this herd seemed less the United Nations in bovine form and more like the modern Cajuns who inhabit this part of the world: French-based with a peu de ce … peu de cette.
From this first pasture we could look three fences over and see the current herd of beef cattle readying themselves for market. The paddock system of Anne’s is a tightly choreographed affair in which the cattle are passed to a fresh paddock on a finely tuned schedule that allows them to eat the richest, healthiest pasture and at the same time allow the fed-upon land to regenerate quickly. Thus, in a relatively small area, the cattle consume enough grass and pasture greens to meet the tough Brookshire standards of packing on at least a quarter inch of fat so that the meat can be dry-aged for optimal flavor.
Furthermore, unlike most beef production operations, even organic ones, the young cattle are kept through two winters instead of one. It is expensive to keep and feed these animals through a second winter when these animals aren’t actually adding any more meat to their frames, but the Blanchets have found that their meat achieves a level of richness, depth and complexity of flavor not found in a younger animal. This is a unique if not downright controversial manner of raising beef cattle, and it results in a truly artisanal cut of meat.
But is it a viable business model? Well, progress since my last visit to the farm certainly suggests so. It seems viable enough to the Blanchets’ son, Bob, who returned home to run the farm. Bob is overseeing the expansion of the herd and the addition of another 100 acres of improved pasture. They’ve also dedicated 50 acres to native prairie restoration using only seed collected in Louisiana and incorporating grazing as well as burning into the project to try to emulate the bison migrations of yesteryear. Anne is still quite involved, however, and hopes to slowly transition to “consultant-in-residence” status over the next few years.
You can visit their website and reserve your share of an animal to be harvested but the meat can only be purchased by the quarter, half or whole carcass. That means you’d better have a pretty sizable freezer or a sizable group of friends to share it with. At harvest, the animal is processed using clean, humane methods at a local abattoir under the careful eye of Anne Blanchet herself, who oversees every step of production, from the moment the animal enters the facility to the moment the flash-frozen, vacuum-sealed cuts are shipped back to Brookshire for distribution. From here, consumers can pick up their reserved cuts and take them home to wonder why anyone would eat any other kind of meat.
“We wouldn’t have cattle if we didn’t eat them,” said Temple Grandin, as played by Claire Danes in the HBO film by that name. “We have them for us. That means we owe them something. Nature is cruel, but that doesn’t mean we have to be.”
The revolutionary guru of animal husbandry and slaughterhouse design recognized that modern dependence on animal protein has gradually led us into dependence on a system that is so far from the natural origins of our food that it no longer resembles anything in nature. This system has ramifications nobody intended or predicted that extend far beyond the edges of our dinner plate, where most people’s thoughts of food end.
Small operations like Brookshire Farm are fighting an uphill battle to remain alive and prosperous but, like so many other cottage industries, they face the double threat of big industry and lack of public awareness. Average Americans are largely oblivious to the impact of their consumption tendencies on even their own lives and health, let alone their communities and natural resources. Raising and processing meat in this way means losing the cost-effectiveness of mass operations. It is more sustainable, but we have to be willing to pay for it on the front end.
But this is not disingenuous neo-hippie rhetoric or some vegan fantasy. It is not too farfetched to suggest that meat has for too long remained a staple in our diet and that, in order to supply that demand, as we have with so many other things, we as a society have strayed into unsustainable waters. We consume far too much and produce far too much to supply that consumption, fueling one of the mega industries in this country that command far more attention of our elected representatives than we citizens do.
Neither am I suggesting meat become once again the staple of the privileged class, which is a favorite argument of supporters of the industrialization of food production. Rather I would hope that we each take the time to understand where our meals are coming from and, therefore, where our money is going. That we value the artisan and pay tribute to their craft, and recognize the inherent worth of something well-made.
And so a visit to Brookshire Farm or one of the other local distributors of naturally produced edibles is more than an exercise in conscientious eating. It is a way of shaping an industry that for too long has been running amok. You may just find, as I have, that really good meat is even more palatable on a clear conscience.
Online Resource of Grass-fed products in Louisiana
Reference for mega-food production and the CAFO controversy: Kirby, Stephen. Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy, and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment. Saint Martin’s Press, NY, 2010