knowing what the questions are
on our food - part one
When we first started farming, I was informed by a deep seated desire to raise animals the way I thought they should be raised. I’m stubborn like that. I had wonderful farming mentors (still do) and deeply respected their approaches, but one thing you learn quickly is that no two farms are alike. Each is their own ecosystem with land that is able to give and needs to be given to. I would have a hundred head of cattle if I could, but with the terrain we have and with just under 100 acres, I would be taking more than the land has to give and that serves no one.
There were endless reasons that drove us to farming. When we bought our first farm it was to sell grass fed beef and organic, pastured pork. We wanted to live in the country. We wanted to be sovereign and take on the responsibility of feeding ourselves. We wanted good water and physical work. But if I had to boil it all down to the biggest driving factor, it would have been my desire to have control over the nutrient density of our food. That’s what it all boils down to - the food.
Before farming I worked as a sport and holistic nutritionist. We had been buying food directly from farmers for years. And because I had spent a great deal of time working on farms, I came to know the varied practices and approaches to animal welfare and soil health. The more I learned, the better I got at asking questions. When I learned that certain farms in certain locales could be more susceptible to animal diseases, I started asking farmers what medications or vaccines their cattle were given. When I learned that the vast majority of dairy cattle are fed grain, I began asking what type and how much. When I learned that certain feedstuffs could result in the infertility of said dairy cows, a condition remedied by various hormonal and pharmaceutical interventions, I got even more selective and targeted with my queries.
What this time working with and for farmers of all ilk taught me was what I wanted to do on our farm. My paramount desire, to raise and grow the healthiest food I can informs all of my choices in what to feed and how to raise our animals. I see no point in doing the bare minimum. So what if feeding my meat rabbits the kibble on offer keeps them alive for just a few years? What does it matter if the chicken feed my layers are on keeps the eggs coming if the eggs are deficient in what I want to be there and loaded with things I don’t want to put in my body?
To that end, we do things differently here. There is a cycle and a wholeness to our farm that’s necessary. I need beef cattle for their manure that feeds our soil and our gardens and our old, craggy apple trees. But I can’t have too many of those cattle and those cattle have to be moved all summer long. I can have chickens, but if I feed and raise my chickens with what’s on offer, their eggs will be overloaded with omega 6 fats and glyphosate-rich, genetically engineered bits, something I don’t want in my body. If we bring our animals to an abattoir to be slaughtered, we lose the guts of the ruminants, essential for the feeding of our birds and the myriad nose to tail bits, essential for the feeding of us.
It’s nice when studies vindicate my choices. But to be honest, I don’t really care much either way. My answers are the feedback I receive from our animals and our land. Still, it’s a nice little pat on the back when science catches up to us. Like this study which showed how dramatically we can alter the nutrients in a simple egg by ensuring the nutrition of the animal meets the design of the animal. Whoa, radical stuff. In the study, chickens were fed a soy and corn free diet that was augmented with grass fed beef liver and suet. Here’s a little synopsis of what they found:
There is increasing interest in using grass-fed beef (GFB) by-products to augment the nutrient profile of eggs among local pasture-raising systems in the US. The objective of this study was to characterize egg yolk fatty acid and antioxidant profiles using eggs from pasture-raised hens fed a corn- and soy-free diet and supplemented with GFB suet and liver compared to eggs from pasture-raised hens fed a corn and soy layer hen feed and commercially obtained cage-free eggs. The egg yolk vitamin and mineral profile was also assessed by a commercial laboratory. Both pasture-raised groups had twice as much carotenoid content, three times as much omega-3 fatty acid content, and a 5−10 times lower omega-6:omega-3 fatty acid ratio compared to the cage-free eggs (p < 0.001). Eggs from hens fed a corn- and soy-free feed and GFB by-products had half as much omega-6 fatty acid content and five times more conjugated linoleic acid, three times more odd-chain fatty acid, and 6−70 times more branched-chain fatty acid content (p < 0.001). Feeding pasture-raised hens GFB suet and liver reduces agricultural waste while producing improved egg products for consumers, but further research is needed to quantify optimal supplementation levels and the efficacy of corn- and soy-free diets.
Less harmful omega-6 fats, a better omega 6 to 3 ratio, significantly more carotenoids, and more of the wonderful conjugated linoleic acid and branched chain fatty acids that keep our brains and bodies sharp. More nutrition in alignment with the natural eating patterns of an animal - that’s exactly why we’ve been feeding our chickens ruminant byproducts which, in turn, is exactly why we have to butcher our own animals (one of many, many reasons). I didn’t read this in a study or have someone tell me what to do. I observed birds when they are at their prime. I understand nutrition. I was humble to the design of nature, not the marketing of man. And you know what? We have some pretty incredible eggs you can’t buy anywhere. Our birds are robust and healthy and raise their own young. It can be simple if we stop looking for ways to make things complicated.
The more in alignment with nature we are ourselves, the healthier we will be. And the more in alignment we allow our animals to be, the healthier they are which has definite and dramatic effects on our health. It’s as simple as that. How can we expect to use subpar nutrition from weakened creatures and soils and expect robust health in our own bodies?
When I was a young kid, I remember my mom getting fired up over a conversation she had with her doctor. The doctor, in response to a question she had about food possibly causing her health condition, told her that “food has no impact on such things.” My mom thought it an outrageous statement. I don’t know if we’ve come much further since then. There’s talk of macros and one diet touts this, and that diet touts that, but there is very little attention paid to the quality of our food beyond snappy labels like “grass fed” or “organic”. But the nutrients in our food are dwindling. The animals, like us, are getting sicker the more they’re treated like commodities, raised for efficiencies and profit instead of health and joy.
The more animals are raised as commodities, the less interested the people with the dollars are in doing the studies to show us what happens to a cow when she’s held in endless lactation loops. What is the quality of the milk? Is it the same as it would be in summer when she’s on fresh grasses? We know it’s not and yet we continue on. Because we want milk in winter. Because cheese and other fermented dairy foods just don’t cut it. Because industry needs the raw ingredients to powder and pulverise. But is the cow better for it? And if she’s not, are you? And can you even separate the two - honestly? That animal, very literally, becomes a part of you. A part of your offspring and theirs. There is no separation.
In sitting down to write this, I wanted to list out some of the things to consider and discuss with your farmer. If you buy your food from a grocery store, I have little to offer other than insights into how labels are a poor substitute for conversations with a flesh and blood human. Every single one of those labels, handy and convenient, can be, and are, manipulated. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
“Grass fed”. Every ruminant on planet earth is grass fed. Grass fed does not mean solely grass fed. It means at some point in its life that animal was fed grass. It’s the equivalent of me putting a sticker on your forehead that says, “water fed”. You have to be given some water or you’d die, right? But what is that water? From the tap? Mixed with kool-aid? From the toilet? Cans of coca-cola? And how much? A teaspoon? A few cups? A gallon of fluoride/chemical tap water or the water of a babbling, clean water brook? Can we recognize that these distinctions dramatically change the way our bodies function? And if we can, then let’s consider taking into our bodies the bodies of animals. What messages, beyond the rudimentary that can be measured, does that nourishment relay?
“GMO free”. I’ll admit, this one really gets me fired up. Okay, great, there’s no GMOs, but everything else is still in there. The pesticides and herbicides are there. The glyphosate used to desiccate the grain when pulling it off the field is still there. If this label is on animal foods, you should understand that the feed of these animals may have been “GMO free”, but that’s meaningless given the above contaminants in the feed. I often see the “GMO free” label on processed foods and it is even used by some farmers who claim to be “beyond organic”. That too, is misleading so let’s talk about it.
“Beyond organic” is often used by some farmers to delineate themselves from “big organic”. Unfortunately, big industry players infiltrated the organic farming movement years ago to get their share of the pie from consumers trying to make healthier food choices. So the mega-corporations took on the letter of the organic law and left out the spirit. Often, they don’t even get the letter right. So what we’ve seen are battery hen houses loaded with birds crammed together and simply fed organic feed so they can be sold as organic. The same thing is happening with dairy cows.
In response to this, some smaller farmers who raise their animals outside with space to roam, who are following the spirit of the organic law (maybe) but not the letter of it, started calling themselves “beyond organic”. I’ve worked on REAL “beyond organic” farms. They’re called “biodynamic farms”. That is truly a farming ethos that is beyond organic in its principles and execution. I’ve also worked on farms that call themselves “beyond organic” that were nothing of the sort. Their animals were fed conventional grains, still saturated in herbicides/pesticides, and given pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and other treatments disallowed in organic farming. But they sold themselves to consumers as something better because they didn’t confine their animals. That’s a bit of marketing juggling going on there and proposes a binary that isn’t factual. “It’s either big organic or me using conventional feed but free range animals.” No, that’s not right. There’s a lot of nuance within.
“Grain free”. We need to be aware of this one. I know of a farmer in our local area who raises “pastured, heritage, grain-free pork on pasture”. Sounds good, huh? But when you drill down into the situation with the right questions, you find out that the pigs are being fed restaurant waste. A truck makes its rounds twice a week to local restaurants and picks up their rancid seed oil, GMO rich refuse and feeds them to the pigs that humans then eat. We need only look at the health of humans that consistently rely on restaurants for their food to see what that does to an animal. But a pig need only live a year or so to get it to our plate. What could go wrong?
“Hormone/antibiotic free”. This one is rich and, I think, truly diabolical. If we’ve learning anything in this world of 2023, it’s that words are being used to mean things they never traditionally meant. Words that would have been classified as a lie in days gone by now only need be washed with a glaze of morphing definitions to be successfully used today. There’s a snazzy new term, “ionophore” that’s being used in livestock production now. It’s a fuzzy word that came in when heightened pressure to get antibiotics out of the livestock feed system grew. Understand that antibiotics, now called ‘ionophores’, are not drugs given when an animal is sick (I mean, yes, they are but that’s not the biggest source). These drugs are given to promote growth. They’re given continuously as a component of the overall nutrition program. Yes, yes, there’s antibiotic resistance concerns and so we mustn’t use these drugs to make animals grow bigger, faster, but we aren’t using those drugs anymore. We’re using “ionophores” and everyone knows that’s good.
Heaven forbid we change our farming model. We just need to pivot. And that’s what they’ve done. They classified some drugs as okay to use, gave them a new name and classification, and continue what they’re doing. And the hormones? Well, an ear tag or implant when they’re young and growing to speed things up is considered harmless if, when they’re slaughtered, there’s no measurable difference in the their blood values from that of an animal not receiving the hormones. So it’s safe. No worries, couldn’t possibly be a concern outside that which they decide to measure.
Of course, these variables need to be measured against what’s in the grocery store. That same pig, sold at the grocery store was insane by the time it was killed, a few short months after it was born. It was raised on concrete, under fluorescent lights, with the hum of fans that needed to be run continuously lest the ammonia build up in the huge hog barn and kill all of the pigs in a few hours. I know of a man, a strong, capable farm-raised man, that had to drag rotting pig corpses out of a pig barn for a family member of his. There was an accident and the owner of the barn was hospitalized. Nobody checked to make sure the fans were running while he was away. There was a problem with the power source and the fans shut off. When they opened the doors a couple of days later, they were met with the smell of hundreds of rotting pigs. Every one of them had died. Poisoned by ammonia gas from their own waste. Hundreds of pigs pulled out in pieces and buried in the night.
Those pigs, raised so cruelly, fed genetically engineered foods and pharmaceuticals and growth promoters and hormones then go on to receive shots of ractopamine a few weeks before they die. Ractopamine does a little metabolic sorcery by changing fat into muscle. I’ve been sounding the alarm on ractopamine since I first learned of it fifteen years ago. A drug outlawed in most of the world, but still used in North America. Err, let me be more concise here. It’s used domestically for domestic sale only. For our North American pork heading to China and other locales, they avoid the use of ractopamine. Communist China doesn’t want to poison their people. At least not using the same methods we do.
In part two of this essay, we’ll look at moving beyond grocery stores. We’ll discuss questions we can ask our farmers and things we can do individually to broaden our understanding of how our bodies are truly nourished. I promise it doesn’t involve studying a nutrition course or finding your guru. You got everything you need in that beautiful noggin’ and pounding heart of yours.