Today, I want to write about the tension between local, small-scale agriculture and consumer expectations. As small-scale, animal focused farmers, HPP (and farms like ours) design production systems around the needs of the animal, instead of forcing the animal to adhere to the needs of an efficiency driven production system.
The industrialization and centralization of our modern food system is a marvel of science and ingenuity, and creates food at a scale and cost that makes it accessible for everyone. Affordable, abundant protein is not an inherent evil, and the massive meat industry arguably “feeds the world” in a way that small local farms cannot.
Despite these advantages, the obvious losers in this system are the animals, the workers, and the environment. The consumer, in most cases, is blissfully unaware of these externalities as they cruise through a fast food line, dine at a high end restaurant, or swing by the grocery store. The 4 or 5 companies that own 75% of the beef and pork market share in the US are really invested in keeping it that way.
Local farmers are frustrated by these large brands’ use of misleading images and label claims to give the consumer abundantly available and cheap product while lending an image of bucolic farm life/ freshness. Vague, empty language and claims are your tell-tale here, and that damn silo/ barn between two green hills that's ubiquitous on commodity meat/ dairy labels.
Unfortunately, to give the consumer what they truly want (the reality of grass covered hills littered with animals contentedly grazing) ain't cheap or convenient, and it’s extremely difficult to scale. Recently, a friend sent me an article* that summarizes this situation: “The question is what Americans really want, and how easy it will be for them to get it. There is a deep ambivalence in our relationship to the food that ends up on our plates: We want food from small farms, where workers and animals are treated well, where the land is respected, and we want it all to be incredibly cheap and absurdly plentiful.”
On the ground, HPP deals with this tension everyday. When someone drives 30 minutes to our little farm store to support their local farmer, only to discover that we’re sold out of filets, they are understandably frustrated. When we are sold out of bacon for 2 weeks straight, my friends and family call saying, “I want to support you, but you’re always sold out of what I want!” I had a recent customer, after receiving to their doorstep a slightly thawed shipment of our retail packed, frozen meat with “freeze by” dates from 3 to 4 weeks earlier, ask, “Have you no meats fresher than this!?”
That one was really hard to swallow. The animal that this customer was about to eat was walking around this farm a couple days prior to being slaughtered, processed, and immediately frozen to preserve freshness and quality, 3 or 4 weeks prior to him eating it. This is unprecedented “freshness” compared to the meat industry (more on this later), but obviously fell short of this customer’s expectations. I called and tried to explain, but I got the feeling my explanations were interpreted as excuses.
A major challenge lies in the fact that we only assess the quality of our food at the very end of the line- at the point a customer opens up the pack. Aside from the immediate quality difference of local product, it’s impossible to know the full story of the differences in these products and commodity products from this limited vantage point at the end of line. Food companies understand this and have been very successful at actively disconnecting consumers from everything that happened before the product is presented to them. They understand that price and appearance are all the consumer, at this final sale point, care about. These companies further disconnect the food from its journey and origins through intentionally misleading marketing. (I’m sorry to take a direct shot here, but if you’d like a first class lesson in vague, empty language, check out butcher box’s sourcing page: https://www.butcherbox.com/sourcing/). For a much deeper dive into the fascinating world of freshness and the perceived quality of our food, please read “Fresh: A Perishable History” by my old college professor Susanne Freidberg.
Please don’t think I’m a hunkered down anti-industry guy, consumed by self righteous, impractical idealism, screaming at the world from my little Mississippi dirt patch. I am from a commercial agriculture background, understand the implications and benefits of scale, and do not believe that profit is an evil scheme. I want to succeed for my family, but also to provide a profitable example of this style of vertically integrated farming to draw others into the space (as I was inspired by Will Harris and Joel Salatin). Local and regional food systems represent a dynamic world of entrepreneurship, not just exhausted farmers driving the farm truck 2 hours to the farmers market to gross $400 on a saturday. There is still so much work and innovation needed to 1) connect the consumer to the full story so there’s a better understanding of the value of our food, and 2) design platforms, distribution systems, and supply chains to increase the access and convenience to this type of food. The farmers cannot expect the consumers to sacrifice all convenience and expectations to buy local, and the consumer cannot expect the farmer to compete with the likes of Smithfield and Tyson and the convenience of Kroger and Amazon. Herein lies the tension… and the opportunity.
So, in an attempt to fully illustrate the difference in local food, raised with principles, and commodity food, raised efficiently, we give you a quick lifespan of bacon. Below is a brief cradle to grave narrative of the bacon we may have shipped you this week (or were sold out of), from the moment the piglet hit the ground to when you held the package in your hand. This does not include daily feeding, mixing feed, managing sows, fence and waterline repair, adding bedding and moving huts, seasonal differences in chores, equipment maintenance and repair, etc.
Day 1: A sow at Home Place, or a nearby producer farm, gives birth on pasture to a litter of 7 piglets
Day 3: The farmer risks his life (not an exaggeration) to hold the sow at bay while her litter is gathered up from her hut in open pasture. We take this risk to allow the sow open access to the pasture and her piglets, vs confining her in a crate. The males are castrated, the litter and sow ID are documented, and the piglets are returned to their furious mother.
Day 56: The piglet, his litter mates, and about 50 other piglets from litters in the same pasture, are worked by one or two farmers into a smaller weaning area and separated from their mothers. This is a very tricky process- getting pigs from open pastures into smaller areas and controlling/ separating them. They are put on full feed, vaccinated, and given a dewormer. The separated mothers are reintroduced to boars to be rebred.
Day 84: The weaned pig and its litter group (around 60 pigs) are moved from the weaning area to a large wooded or pasture paddock with shelter, shade, wallows, and constant access to cool (or not frozen) water. The pigs have no nose rings and root/ forage to their hearts’ content.
Day 112: The pigs are rotated to a larger, fresh pasture paddock. The pasture shares the same amenities as the previous paddock.
Day 140: The 180 to 200 lb pig is now moved to rotated to another, fresh paddock, as part of their ongoing rotational to new pasture.
Day 180: The pig is rotated into its final paddock with all of its 60 litter group mates, again a shaded open pasture where it can exhibit all its natural behaviors.
Day 210: The now 280 lb pig is loaded into a stock trailer (for the first time in 6 months; all other handling has been done by walking the pigs on hoof) with roughly 20 other litter group members, and driven about 80 feet to our abattoir.
Day 211: This pig and the 20 others with it are slaughtered by 3 Home Place kill floor employees in a large, well ventilated room with 4 massive skylights, under the inspection of at least one USDA inspector, sometimes as many as 4.
Day 212: The hog is railed into our butcher room, and dropped onto a butcher table, butchered into its various components, packed, labeled and stored in our walk-in, or immediately frozen for retail shipments. This is all done by 3 to 4 people, who can handle butchering about 20 hogs in a day, also under the watchful eye of the USDA.
Day 213: The bellies, which were put in lugs after being removed from the carcass the day before, are hand rubbed with our bacon cure and set in our production cooler to dry cure (as opposed to injecting them with a brine curing solution) for 2 weeks.
Day 227: The bellies of this pig and about 10 other pigs (22 total bellies) are smoked in our one truck smokehouse for 6 hours, and then returned to the cooler for cooling.
Day 228: A member of our butcher crew removes the skin and hand slices these bellies with a deli slicer. She then carefully lays out the slices by hand in 12 oz portions and vacuum seals and labels them. This process takes 2 people almost a full 8 hour shift to slice and package 20 to 25 bellies, and yields about 150 packs, or 10 cases of sliced bacon and a lot of bacon ends, which are also portioned and packed.
Day 229 to 240: This lot of bacon is packed by one of two Home Place employees from our freezer into a cooler and shipped to your door.
The point: this product takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to grow, process, and ship to you, and in our case it’s all done by one company (3 companies if you include a producer farm and fedex for shipping).
I will spare you a day by day comparison lifespan, but think of the same bacon journey back through the commodity meat industry. The pig would be born in a small concrete pen, its mother confined by a crate so that she cannot turn around to prevent her from crushing the piglets. After weaning at 3 weeks, the pig would spend its days all on concrete, never seeing the sun, except from stock trailers. It would share its homes with up to 80,000 other pigs, all living in various concrete floored buildings designed to maximize gain at each stage of growth. These facilities have fans and constant water flushing systems to keep the air from poisoning the animals and to flush out all the manure, which pools in nearby lagoons. It would receive daily doses of antibiotics and be under constant stress. Some of its teeth and its tail would be removed so that it could not maul or be mauled by other pigs as a result of this stress. It would be hauled and sold a few times during its life, to different specialized producers in the supply chain, and mixed over and over with new pigs. It would be slaughtered with 10 thousand other pigs in one day, with a similar number of inspectors present as at our tiny plant. The bellies would be shipped to another facility, which only makes bacon, and would be vacuum cured or injected and smoked within 48 hours, packaged the next day, along with 84,000 lbs of bacon in huge mechanized production lines, largely staffed by underpaid and undocumented workers, and then shipped around, inventoried, and sold through various brands and distributors for months before making it to kroger. Here, you grab it and check out the “all natural claim” and the “best by” claim 3 weeks from the present day and think, “this stuff is cheap it looks pretty good!” To be honest, it probably is “good”. It’s safe, tastes reasonably good, looks attractive, and has a ridiculously long shelf life bc of additives and packaging technologies.
To you, the consumer, the difference between my bacon and the above bacon, is just the price, and what we hope is a noticeable quality difference. But, as I mentioned earlier, this experience at the very end of the line cannot begin to convey the differences between these two types of bacon, starting from the day the hog was born.
To conclude, I want to say that this is a live, on-going struggle that we farmers and you consumers are in together. We cannot give up or become addicts of convenience. Consumers want better quality, ethical, local food. We want to make a living and dedicate our lives to producing it. The key is that we keep talking and understanding each other. My staff and I refuse to get worn down by the challenges, and instead embrace them. We will be out here chasing hogs, packing bacon, and yelling at fedex customer service until we croak. Hell, we’re about to start delivering all of our local online shipments ourselves.
The journey and the challenges are vital, and if we continue to succeed, we can change our food system. The goal is not endless growth to mimic the current giants, but rather to grow enough to supply a region with a viable alternative to the 4 giant companies that collectively control the meat we eat. To do this we have to engage with tons of customers and on board lots of like-minded farmers to help us raise the animals. Along the way we will add value to family farms, create lots of good jobs, circulate money in our local communities, and of course turn a profit. I believe to my core that if this style of agriculture proliferates and we decentralize our food system, the world will be a better place. I’ll conclude my conclusion with a paraphrased quote from a **Vermont based meat company a friend pointed me towards recently: “We want to be big enough to matter, and small enough to care!”
Enjoy your weekend friends, and we’ll talk to you next week!