Where DOES your food come from?
Two years ago I considered myself an educated food consumer. I was aware of the atrocious practices of factory farms and factory processing facilities. I had read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, watched all the food documentaries, and Joel Salatin was my favorite celebrity. I shopped at Wholefoods and turned my nose down at others for their food choices that included Tyson chicken and conventionally farmed beef.
It took me about five days of farming at Polyface to realize my purchases at Wholefoods meant almost nothing. Those pastured, grass-fed, free range, and cage-free labels have more to do with marketing than the actual welfare of the animal. I have seen a USDA pastured chicken processing facility, where the vast majority of chickens sold in grocery stores are processed, which was frankly horrifying to me. (Yes, the acid baths are real.) I have observed other farms in the area that raise cows on pasture. Their animals are constantly loose and there is plastic and garbage littered about on their farm. Yet the animals are still technically grass fed, pastured, free-range, and any other fancy food label you could imagine. Without visiting or knowing of the exact farm your meat comes from, there is actually no way of knowing how it has been raised.
Heather, a former Polyface apprentice and current Polyface contract farmer, also gives Grass Stains tours to groups at Polyface Farm. This week she gave a tour to a group of conventional agriculture students and they really put her through the ringer with their questions. One woman asked how we market our broiler chickens, claiming they are not actually free range because they are in broiler pens that are moved every day. When Heather answered that we market them as pastured she was then asked how the consumer was supposed to know exactly what we meant by that. Heather said, “They can visit us.” And that is the difference between Polyface and large industrial farms and facilities with closed-door policies. Our doors are wide open. In fact we don’t even have doors! Our chickens are processed outside. Visitors come to the farm and watch it. Sometimes they even join in. Last week a family from Utah came and filmed the entire process and the father joined in on every single step.
One fellow intern, Joe, came from working in an industrial laying house. The company had regular eggs and eggs they marketed as free range. Joe told me the “free range”-laying laying hens had almost a worse life than the conventional ones. The chickens live in a windowless building with no bedding. They live straight in their own feces so if it gets wet enough they can literally have their feet burned. Their beaks are still cut off to prevent them from eating each other.
The point here is that consumers have to have some level of responsibility. The government and large companies are not telling the truth about the food we’re eating and if we want to know that our food is good and healthy we need to start putting a little more effort into it. Find a farm near you to buy food from. Build a relationship with your farmer and your food. It’s a decision you will likely not regret!