Buying Local: How to Find the Healthiest Products
"Natural," "sustainable," and so many other food product labels have become the norm. You can find the label "natural" on a product that has a chemical storm the size of Texas, and many of us are still fooled by its use - myself included.
Natural, organic, regenerative farming practices vary widely. Most farmers are not farming even their ideal way, but some are cashing in on our lack of knowledge of what a regenerative product really looks like. So, I am writing this to give you an idea of what to look for when you visit a farm and what questions to ask, or at least to know if you are getting the bang you want for the buck you're spending.
Cost of Regenerative Farming
When a farmer is just starting out, the switch from conventional or the start to regenerative agriculture is expensive. They will likely have years of losses. So while you may miss the $2.50 extra money to buy pastured versus feedlot ground beef, keep that in mind. Let’s talk about that cost briefly.
Conventional farmers are subsidized - they simply get money from the government to monocrop. That is the only way they stay in business and the only way the business can be profitable. The government knows that, and they want our land and our farmers to be growing their business interests (which somehow correlate to the business interests of big Ag and dairy), and thus the conventional way of farming is subsidized. Regenerative farmers are not subsidized. In fact, if they opt to get the organic certification to appease their customers, they are paying for that yearly. The cost of farming moves from the taxpayer to the food purchaser. So, conventional and regenerative products really do cost the same - the payer is just different (well, not really. It's both you - yay, government!).
Of course, there are payments later with conventional products in the form of medical bills, but I know you get that.
Aside from organic, which means the livestock are fed an organic feed, you see the buzz world label "grassfed" thrown out there. This simply means that the animal has access to grass - possibly only in the form of dried hay. This doesn't mean that the animal is only fed grass, that's what grass-fed and and grass-finished means.
But there's more to consider. A product labeled "grass-fed and finished" may have eaten dried hay all its life and had very little pasture. Even if it has enough pasture to reach a good trot once in awhile, that doesn't mean the animal was eating optimally. Livestock should be moved to fresh pasture often - at least once a week but ideally daily or so. This not only gives the animal optimal nutrition - the greenest (chlorophyll rich) top part of the grass, herb, or forb, but it also ensures the soil and roots get a rest. That translates into less soil erosion, more topsoil growth, and more plant growth for the next time the animal comes around to munch.
Consider also the stress of the environment. Stress hormones stay in the meat long after it's consumed by you. Is the animal moved on roadways often? Was it born and raised on the farm? Was it allowed to be with his or her mama long enough? Are the managers kind? Happy animals truly do make "happy" - err, healthy, meat.
Poultry & Eggs
Poultry and eggs have been more faux labels than livestock. You will see "cage-free," "natural," and "free range" everywhere. But, what do they mean?
The cage free label simply means that the chickens were not in cages, but not that they ever were outdoors nor saw the sunlight, or grass. "Natural" labeled eggs are nothing more than a marketing gimmick, all eggs are natural. "Free range" eggs does not mean that the birds were on a pasture, but simply that they had access to the outdoors -which could even be a slab of concrete. This label also does not regulate the feed at all. The "pastured" label is not regulated, but typically means that the birds have access to their natural habitat to scratch and peck the ground. You want to know that your eggs have access to not just grass, but fresh grass often, and not just fresh dirt.
Poultry birds should be moved to fresh grass, too - at least daily. This happens in large chicken tractors that are movable and provide partially sunlight and partially a coop for them to roost and feel protected, or open movable fencing.
You want to find poultry and eggs that have organic, or at least non-GMO feed. You should see a difference between non-GMO and organic-fed poultry and eggs, because the price difference of feed is almost double. You also want that feed to be supplemented with either, ideally both, compost materials and fresh pasture daily. This doesn't mean that they have access to pasture, because, like the livestock, poultry will overuse one area and erode the soil, and eat out all the buggies. They also should be moved to fresh pasture often.
I tried to keep this short, but provide you with a mini "mental checklist" to find the healthiest and best value products at the farms you frequent. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to e-mail us (or check out every single Joel Salatin Youtube video!).