With demand for healthier and more naturally sourced meat increasing, farmers have responded by turning back the clock.
by Brendan Christie
More and more, consumers and restaurants want to know what’s in their food these days. It’s about simpler ingredients, less processing and sourcing from suppliers who are closer. And it isn’t surprising. Not only is naturally and locally sourced food better for you, as it can travel from farm to table without requiring additional preservatives, it also just tastes better. It’s a trend that’s seeing farms return to the way things were before volume was everything.
Show, don’t tell
“We really try to provide complete transparency now,” says Thornbury-based Grandview Farms’ Matthew von Teichman. “We number every cut of every animal. We can tell the consumer who the mother and father were, how long the animal was on the farm, which fields it rotated into, and everything else about it. That kind of transparency is really several steps ahead of what the consumer is looking for right now, but it’s where the consumer is going. They want to know if they eat a rib eye that the animal was treated properly, whether it was grass-fed, and if it was ever inoculated.
“It was a big cost to set up,” he admits, “but it’s the way I want to eat.”
Grandview houses all of that information on its website. But do consumers really follow up? Every customer is different, von Teichman says, but they want to know that the farm knows. “Our focus is on trying to have every available answer.”
Von Teichman says Grandview takes a much different approach to care and feeding than is currently the industry standard—and for a good reason. “If an animal has been in the feedlot and they have been eating concentrated corn,” he says, “you get an omega ratio that is completely out of whack. It’s contrary to what nature intended. Feedlot animals have way too much Omega-6 and way too little Omega-3. You really want those numbers more in balance—it makes for more digestible and better tasting beef, and it generally gives it way more nutrients. So, grass-fed animals like at Grandview and Rolling Meadow—our dairy company—have an omega profile that is off-the-charts good.” (As an added benefit, von Teichman, who previously thought he was lactose-intolerant, found he could drink milk from the cows at Rolling Meadow without any problems.)
But it’s also about the way the animals are treated throughout their lives—right up to the final moments. “Often in industrial meat, the animal is very stressed at slaughter,” he says. “The solution is to pump additional hormones into their systems. But they’re all revved up, and scared, and often you can taste that. It’s off—it has an almost liver-like taste—and that’s the additional hormones.” Von Teichman says at Grandview cattle handlers walk the animals in, keeping them calm and feeding them so they are content.
A holistic approach
Prince Edward Island’s Food Island Partnership and Cattle Producers have created a similar environment for the care and wellbeing of its animals. When it comes to beef, the Food Island Partnership works with cattle producers, processors and the provincial government to set high standards for what is called Certified Island Beef. There are about 90 participants in the program, which dictates how the animals live, how they’re treated, what they eat, where they are born and raised, and how much they can travel in their lifetime.
The cows might be PEI-born and bred, but it’s more than having an unused passport. It’s about being a true product of the land, and living symbiotically with it.
Not only do they graze on grass swept by clean ocean air, they also get grains and—of course—PEI potatoes. “There is a great holistic connection between cattle farming on PEI and the potato industry,” says Food Island Partnership Program Officer Greg Pearce. The cows are fed potatoes and are grazed on the lands those potatoes are grown on.
“They fertilize the fields,” he says. “They tread on it, they work it, and then in a few years time you end up putting a rotation of potatoes back into the area where the cattle have been grazing and you get these incredible crops. So, there is a symbiosis between the two industries that I would say is it is fairly unique to Canada.”
Although it was a massive project to get off the ground, Pearce says it was a little easier to do it in PEI than it would have been in other provinces. “We could never keep up in commoditized beef,” he says. “We could never have been the lowest cost provider. So what we have to do is make it better. We add value by growing and raising better beef and charging a little more for it.”
Pearce says part of that small premium is a built-in ‘fair trade’ element—everyone who touches the animal, from birth to processing, gets a small percentage of the sale. “It’s a sustainable farming model—but then there is this added element ensuring that the people who take the care and put the time and effort into raising a better product make a small amount more money.
“I’d love to see 200 programs like ours in Canada, because then you would have a true national impact and farm in a more sustainable manner.”
The one problem Island Beef and Grandview Farms have in common is supply. For PEI, it’s about keeping the supply of provincial cattle growing. In Ontario, it’s about sourcing enough cattle that meet the high standards of the program. It’s a slow building process.
“You can’t feed the world on organic or grass-fed at the moment,” says von Teichman. “But as we move towards utilizing our agricultural resources better, and stopping our reliance on fossil fuels and letting animals graze more, we’ll find that the land is better used—you can put more animals on it, and you can utilize your resources better. But that takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.
“It’s a de-evolution, really, because it’s the way it used to be. It took quite a long time to get into this industrial farm system, but I don’t think it is going to take that long to get off it and back to a little sanity—and impose some ethics when it comes to the way animals are treated.”
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