November 15th, 2013 by Nina Macdonald
How should we apply good, clean, fair – the watchwords of the Slow Food movement – to meat? Meat is at the center of much good food and many cherished food traditions. At the same time, meat raises real ethical dilemmas for many people. Much of the meat that is commonly available comes from a system that maximizes production and efficiency but often seems to abandon common sense, animal husbandry traditions, land and water stewardship, and animal welfare not to mention nutrition and taste. At the national level, in June 2014, Slow Food USA will assemble an array of policy experts, food system practitioners, and Slow Food leaders in Denver to identify practical points of intervention for local communities to adopt from field to fork. The resulting menu of actions will be field tested in Slow Food communities across the USA in 2014-2015; the experiences from these experiments will inform wider deployment in 2015-16. However, for now, those of us who eat meat are faced with the question of where to get meat that is good to eat and has been raised and slaughtered in a clean and fair manner.
For example, one widely trusted source for chicken, turkey and duck is Mary’s Chicken (http://www.maryschickens.com/), which has donated chicken for several Slow Food Orange County BBQs and is available through Whole Foods. However Mary’s, located several hundred miles to the north of Orange County, might not be considered local. Trader Joe’s also offers a line of organic, free-range chickens and other meats that are lower in price and taste good, but come from undisclosed sources. This is an important issue because labeling such as “free range” is not standardized. Recently Nina and I decided to explore Da-Le Ranch (http://www.da-le-ranch.com/) as a more local source.
Da-Le Ranch, a family-run cooperative based north of Lake Elsinore, sells in several local farmers markets: Escondido, Palm Desert, North Park, Anza Borrego, Little Italy, Palm Springs, SoCo (Costa Mesa), Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach, and Newport Beach. Although not a certified organic producer, they sell a full range of “humanely raised” meats: grass-fed, beef and lamb, pork, chicken and other fowl (and eggs), as well as rabbit.
I have been favorably impressed by the quality of the beef, pork, and chicken that I purchased from Da-Le Ranch, so, when I heard about the regular tours they conduct, I was happy to have the opportunity to personally inspect their operations. What I saw differed in a way that, in hindsight was predictable, from the ideal of grass-fed or free-range meat production. Visiting Polyface Farm (owned by Joel Salatin and famously profiled by Michael Pollan in Omnivore’s Dilemma) in July 2012 (photo below left) or looking at the photos on the Mary’s Chicken website, what you see is animals being raised in fields of lush green grass. By contrast, the land near Lake Elsinore (and almost anywhere else near Orange County where land is cheap enough for grazing) is semi-arid at best and, without benefit of costly irrigation, brown and grass free in September (photo below right). This is the challenge faced by Dave Heafner and Leslie Pesic, the owners and operators of Da-Le Ranch. They are passionate about raising their stock humanely; however, for at least 8 months of the year, the free-range enjoyed by those animals is constrained by the limits of the shade protecting them and the grass they eat was, of necessity, cut and stored earlier.
Of course, there are also parts of the year in Virginia or Northern California, when grass grows poorly and meat producers must pull their stock in and rely on grass produced earlier. What is different in our area is that these conditions last longer and are associated with hot rather than cold weather.
Each of us must decide how to act on information such as this. While I might prefer the idea of meat animals raised in green meadows, it would be hard to argue that the chickens, pigs, lambs (or the guard llama) are mistreated or that their lives on the Da-Le Ranch were in any sense unnatural. The climate of Southern California being what it is, one must choose between animals raised locally and humanely, in the desert, versus those raised hundreds of miles from here. Although Slow Meat 2014 undoubtedly will not resolve this dilemma, I would hope that it can help clarify our thinking about these choices.