The consumer demand for grassfed, pasture-raised, and antibiotic-free meats is on the rise, putting farmers and ranchers in a unique position to make a decent living on meat that is produced ethically. But, how exactly do you turn meat into money without resorting to the large-scale industrial techniques of today’s confinement-operations?
Look no further than Rebecca Thistlethwaite (Farms with a Future) and Jim Dunlop’s latest book The New Livestock Farmer which presents a comprehensive guide to raising and selling ethical meat. Whether you are sheep rancher in New Mexico, a grass farmer in Minnesota, or just starting out and trying to decide which animals to raise on your land, Thistlethwaite and Dunlop’s book will help you navigate the sometimes daunting terrain of livestock farming.
The New Livestock Farmer aims to transform the meat supply chain by making it easier for meat producers to raise healthy animals and get them to market in a way that achieves four equally important objectives:
Keeping farmers in business and ensuring them a fair living
Treating animals humanely;
Using natural resources wisely and sustainably; and
Providing nutritious and tasty food.
For more thoughts from the authors on the consumer demand for pasture-raised meat and how they hope farmers will use this book, check out the interview below.
A Conversation with Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop
Why do you think consumer demand for pasture-raised meat has increased so much in the past several years? What are the benefits of this type of grass-fed, ethically raised livestock?
RT & JD: There are a lot of factors that have driven consumers towards grassfed and pastured meats. The main factor has been food safety scares, such as the Jack In the Box E. Coli incident in the 1990s, salmonella laden poultry, the pink slime debacle, and many others. Consumers are justifiably concerned about the safety of the meat they eat. We also think that consumers are becoming more interested in knowing who produces their meat, where it comes from, and what the environmental impacts of that animal production may be. People are eating more in line with their values. We hope to see them more concerned about the people involved in agriculture—the family farms and the workers at all levels of the meat supply too. We want to see farmers and rural economies thrive as well, which was part of our impetus for writing this book.
Grassfed and pastured livestock produce healthier meat and animal products (numerous scientific articles have demonstrated this with higher Omega 3 fatty acids profiles, higher levels of beta-carotene, Vitamin E, lower saturated fats, etc) and seem to have fewer issues with pathogens such as e.coli and salmonella. So from a purely selfish standpoint, they are healthier to put into your body (or the bodies of your family members). This obviously drives the most consumer behavior. Other benefits are for the welfare of the animals—animals thrive in the conditions and on the diet they have evolved to consume. So grass-eating ruminants get to eat grass; omnivorous poultry and pigs get to eat bugs, worms, seeds, nuts, grass, etc. The animals get to be in the sun and are provided shade. They get to move around and exercise. They are visibly less stressed and arrive at the slaughterhouse in good shape. If humans are going to eat animal products, we should at least assure that the animals are given a good life while they are alive. We like to say that the animals only had “one bad day” or really “one bad minute” in which they are slaughtered for consumption. The rest of their life is relatively stress-free.
Chelsea Green recently published a book titled Defending Beef by Nicolette Hahn Niman, who also wrote the foreword for your book. She is a practicing vegetarian and you two swore off meat for more than a decade—seems like unusual behavior for people in the ranching business. What do you attribute to your change in lifestyle and current meat enthusiasm?
RT & JD: Both of us were vegetarians for primarily environmental and animal welfare reasons, not because we don’t believe humans should be consuming animal products. Our big brains did not come from consuming just plants afterall. Once we understood that animals could be raised in harmony with their landscape and in a relatively stress-free and natural way (mimicking their wild counterparts to a large extent) then we felt comfortable consuming meat again. We still do not buy meat from grocery stores and rarely consume meat when we eat out at restaurants. We like to either raise it ourselves or at least know who and how the animal was raised. We feel pretty strongly about not consuming ‘anonymous’ meat.
Also, both of us have backgrounds in biology and ecology, so we have come to understand the unique and important role that livestock play in maintaining and restoring our landscapes. We believe there cannot be a sustainable agriculture without animals playing various roles.
Your book covers a number of animals including pig, poultry, cattle, sheep, goat, and less common livestock animals like rabbit, deer, elk, and bison. How do you decide which breeds best complement the geography of your land?
RT & JD: We believe that farmers should pick the animal species and breeds that best complement their landscapes, climates, and markets. Sometimes it takes many years of experimentation and also selective breeding to get the best fit. For example, where we are in Oregon is primarily oak savanna with some pine/fir forests. We believe a smaller pig that thrives on acorns is a good fit with our land base, so we are experimenting with the American Guinea Hog. However, this pig breed is a very fatty lard-type pig. It may not work for our customer base unless we can better connect with butchers/chefs doing charcuterie that prize all that fat. On smaller acreages, smaller animals are a better fit, or at least those that don’t require extensive vegetation to grow out. Species like rabbits, ducks, chickens, small-frame pigs, or some sheep/goats might be good ones to select.
You write in the introduction that this book is meant to be just as useful for a sheep rancher in New Mexico as for a grass farmer in Minnesota. Sounds like it will appeal to a relatively wide audience. Who do you think will benefit the most from reading The New Livestock Farmer?
RT & JD: Probably those that are new to or just dabbling in raising animals but haven’t quite figured out how to turn it into a business. There seems to be more and more people with small homesteads that try out a bunch of different ventures before settling in on a few that they enjoy and that are profitable. This book would be perfect for them to help decide which mix of animals makes the most sense for them and how they can best profit from that venture.
The next big audience we believe will benefit from this book are those in their first 10 years of commercial animal production who are still working out the kinks and trying to scale up to a full-time venture. Long-time farmers who sell most of their animals at auction or on contract but have thought about direct marketing their meat (or other animal products) would also find a lot of useful information in this book, particularly about finishing their animals for flavor and quality and also how to get their animals processed in a way that makes the most use of the whole animal and is the most profitable.
Because we don’t focus on one way to raise animals or one geography, the best practices covered in the book can be useful for folks all over the country (and other countries too). I think the readers of our book will appreciate hearing about how farmers have adapted their production and marketing systems to different conditions. Jim and I like to pick and choose practices from a wide variety of models—we are not diehards about anything. Plus, sustainable agriculture is a journey, not a destination. We should always be striving for continuous improvement which requires constant learning, observation, and adaptation.