There’s a lot that can be said about the local food movement, and there are certainly a lot of opinions on it. “Local” is how you define it, just as “natural” is how you define it. For me, recognizing the food movement in America means there is a growing awareness of our the food system processes we have in place, and using this knowledge to alter our relationships with food. To me, it’s about being conscious and then making decisions about your consumption from the knowledge. Simply put though, there is no right blanket answer for everyone because every single one of us has different values and ethics.
This post is not about what’s “right” or what’s “wrong”. This post is to explain why we buy what we buy, especially when it comes to meat, and my personal journey to where I am—as best I can. My conclusions given the information I have (and am always learning) will not necessarily be the same as everyone’s choice, and I don’t expect it to be. This is a journey, like everything else in life and it’s ever changing and developing. Take from this what you will, and leave the rest, this is a long post.
I feel once you start paying attention to your food, I mean really paying attention, you start to form a mentality of now that you know, you can’t look back. You can’t shut your eyes to what you’ve seen and you can’t shut your mind to what you’ve learned, just as your mouth can’t understand a tomato grown half way around the world as the same thing that grows in your backyard. It’s not to say I don’t buy produce from the store, or eat things from the current production system (or that our current production system is all bad). I’ve realized though the more I learn about our current food production system and the more I taste what comes from my own garden, the more I want to only eat what comes from my garden and local surrounding farms who believe in humane animal husbandry, pasture raising their animals, paying attention to the earth and limiting antibiotics. In other words, I just want a farmer that is good with my ethics and in general I like.
Growing up we ate meat, but we also ate a lot of vegetarian and vegan dishes. While I knew meat came from animals it was very easy to be disconnected. I saw the meat in the store. I knew it was shipped from other places. I didn’t think of the consumables it took to do that. I also assumed in my naivety that people treated animals right, why wouldn’t they? The American picture of farms was quaint. I grew up in a suburban town with a few ties left to it’s rural roots so I saw a couple small farms with horses, beef cattle and dairy. We also had a vegetable garden growing up. I can’t remember a time in my life we didn’t. While I wasn’t all that involved in it (looking back down I wish I had been) I always knew I liked the vegetables better in the garden than in the store. I knew homemade tomatillo salsa beat canned stuff from the store any day of the week. All of this didn’t stop me though from putting it “out of sight out of mind” when it came to buying anything from the store. I remember though having waves of an uneasy feeling about meat. A twinge of “how was this really produced?” but I ignored it and ate.
Over the years the uneasy feeling turned into a quest for information, a little at a time. I don’t remember exactly when it happened because I think it happened slow. As a teenager I learned how veal was made, and I refused to eat it. I stopped eating pork chops for a long time because the idea of eating something off another animals bone bothered me. It bothered me more that I knew nothing about that animal. Years passed, I met Andy, and I met his brother.
Casey, being a hunter, was my first real exposure to the whole process of meat. He came home with a deer he hit one day and hung it in the garage at his mom’s house. I was in shock. That’s an animal! It was an animal, not much unlike the cows, pigs, chickens and fish I ate except for one big difference – it was entirely free until the moment it wasn’t. I sat there and said to myself, “if you’re going to eat meat, you need to accept where it comes from.” I would have this same feeling years later when I went fishing. So I sat there as he dressed it (took the innards out). I gagged. I went in the house. I forced myself to go back out. It was a warm smell. It was an acceptance of life unto death. It was sad, it was eye opening and it wasn’t easy to look your food in the face. Multiple times I had to leave and go in the house as my brain tried to process the visual, the smell of a still warm animal, and the fact that life goes to death just like that. I started thinking about the animals in the store. They weren’t free. They weren’t probably treated all that great. They certainly didn’t have a free quality of life that this deer did. I sat there contemplating it and helped package up the meat.
The next day we had venison and eggs for breakfast. I didn’t think much of where the eggs came from besides “a chicken” but the venison was different. It was the first time in my life I had seen an animal turned into the food on my plate. While I still don’t love venison to this day, I can say the meat tasted entirely different and not just because it was literally a different animal.
Years passed, I learned more, I taught myself more, I moved to a house that’s on a beef cattle farm, I helped at the beef cattle farm, we planted our own garden which we’ve expanded on every year, I started realizing how many more chemicals and pesticides were used in treating produce, I started not being so okay with that nagging feeling I had every time I bought meat from the store, we started going to farmers markets more, we started eating vegan more, I started my own soap company to battle all the chemicals in body products, we started canning our own food and this last year it all came to a head when last spring I announced I didn’t want to buy anymore meat unless it was local. I struggled throughout the spring and summer with it. Would I still eat meat someone else bought from the store? Where could I get the meat and could I really even afford it? I knew something had to change.
Around New Years we both wanted beef tacos but we had no source for the beef. I thought maybe we could use venison my brother in law hunted, but there wasn’t any thawed. I needed to pick up other items anyway. I figured I could at least get organic beef, for whatever that means. I got to the store and there was no organic beef. I stood there staring at the meat. That same nagging feeling from years before came bubbling up stronger than ever. I ignored it once again, pushed it down, and bought the beef from the grocery store, for what will hopefully be the last time.
That day was the day where my ethics took over. Where I couldn’t take all of the knowledge I had amassed and ignored it. I tried being one of those people who, because of cost, could just be okay “knowing” it and limiting my purchase. Truth is, I can’t be one of those people. It feels innately wrong to me. If it doesn’t feel wrong to you, that’s okay. Really, honestly. For me though, it wasn’t what I could live with. I saw the cows that were going to slaughter this past fall. I came home in tears. I knew their faces. I knew what their future was. I also knew what they were raised for. I was in tears because I was sad, I was in tears because I was confused about how I felt, and I was in tears because I was happy to know these animals at least lived a really, really good life. I had the chance to pet them, to say thank you, to give them those last scratches behind the ears they loved, and to feed them some apples from the pasture tree. A lot of people don’t want this connection because it’s hard to have. I won’t deny it, it really is hard. I bet it’s part of the reason a lot of people go fully vegan. For me though, it’s important to have that connection. I would rather eat meat where I know the name, age, and face of the animal any day over some animal that I know lived a bad life, or that I know nothing about. Does it make it harder? Absolutely, but it’s worth it. Maybe that’s hard to understand if you’ve never been through it, but it’s both calming to know the animal had a fantastic life, and a little sad.
I decided I was okay with the price of buying meat from a farmer, because ethically there was a lot higher non-monetary price to not buying it from a local farmer. While I wouldn’t know which animal it was on the farm, I would know the farms ethics. I would know the animals were treated kindly. I talked to my neighbor the cattle farmer but we didn’t need an entire side of beef. We still don’t eat a lot of meat. I started really researching it all, and then I did something about it.
Now, I have my local suppliers and farms I work with, which I’ll link to below.
As far as produce and other items, my thoughts and actions are still evolving. I’m still weighing the cost versus the benefit. I still prefer to support local farmers and get my food from Maine sources. I prefer this for a few reasons: I like my food made close to home. This is exactly why over the next few years we’ll be expanding our garden to include a green house so we can do winter root vegetable growing and keep greens growing late into the season (and get an earlier start the next season). I like supporting small farmers. My issue with meat wasn’t just the animal welfare, it was supporting conglomerate farms. Maine is a highly agricultural state in it’s roots and I see it being lost. I can battle both my issue with factory farmed meat, and my desire to see agriculture and small business thrive in Maine by buying my meat locally.
While I prefer to buy at a farmers market if I can (when our garden isn’t in production), I’ll still buy produce at the larger grocery stores. I try to go to the smaller grocery stores that carry local items, like eggs. Just this week I bought duck eggs from a woman a few towns over, and bacon from a farm a few hours from me since neither of the places I now get meat from were open. I knew this small store would have local bacon though, so I called and the shipment had just come in that day from pigs that were processed very recently. It was my first time buying local bacon and I can tell you it was the best bacon I’ve ever had in my life.
The long (and oh has this been long) and short of it is this: I’m not going to ask what the source, destination, and process of everything I eat is at a restaurant (though I do look for origin on my food when I’m shopping). I can however do my part to try and support small farms in Maine and New England as much as possible. Just this week I found out there’s a farm in Maine that grows their own grains and mills them into flour. So, the next time I need flour I’ll buy it from them. Then again I know King Arthur flour is grown and milled entirely in the USA so I’m not going to kick myself or really think twice about it if I buy it, at least not at this time in my journey.
Life is about being true to yourself, and while my awareness of food has increased exponentially over the last year especially, it’s not going to stop me from being balanced. I certainly know the way I live isn’t for everyone and while it admittedly absolutely baffles me when people don’t want to know where their food comes from, I can accept that is their choice. The most I can do is try and do what works best for me. My theory is, if it can grow here I should see about getting it from a Maine producer. It if can’t grow here, I’m not beating myself up. I also won’t deny myself some treats in life. Sometimes I really want that chocolate cake I’m being offered. I’m not going to deny myself it, or sit there and grill it’s origins. Come on now, sometimes you just want cake. My whole thing is about just having knowledge. Don’t sit around and purposely plug your ears to what’s going on. Once you have the knowledge though, eat that cake if you want to and don’t feel bad. Do what works best for you, and your family. Lord knows our house isn’t only filled with fresh local veggies and meat. We have other items, I buy my dried beans at the store (though I just learned I could get them locally, so I probably will from now on). I eat at restaurants. I like chips. I just watch how much I buy those things, try and look where they are from, and weigh it all out in my own head.
It’s all about knowledge. Inform yourself. Take that knowledge, and make your decisions. A relationship with, and an understanding of, your food is a good thing. I promise.
My Maine Food & Research Sources
Farmers Gate Market (www.farmersgatemarket.com) – “Farmers’ Gate Market is a full scale butcher shop that specializes in grass fed beef, pastured pork, pastured lamb, and range poultry. Our products are local, healthy and very tasty.” They are my source for chicken and pork. I also like that they have MOFGA certified chicken, but given their ethics I would eat any of it. Their beef and pork are processed at Bissons, while chickens are processed at their small shop.
L & P Bissons and Sons (Facebook only) – They have good beef raised at their farms, at pretty affordable prices. Just know that because of popularity they source a lot of their pork products from Canada while a few they raise. They are one of the most well known and respected small processors here in Maine. They also sell their own raw milk and butter. They sell chicken too but I prefer Farmers Gate Market.
Fort Andross Mill Winter Farmers Market – This is a farmers market that is newer to me, but is by far one of the best winter farmers markets I’ve ever been too. It’s located in the big mill in Brunswick, and is fantastic. There is some seriously good produce there along with dairy products, different kinds of meats, seafood, and all sorts of delicious treats. The prices on the produce is really great too. While you’re there take some time to check out the giant (and very cool) flea market next door, or walk through the other side of the market into the large (and very cool) antique store! You can very easily spend hours there between all three, or just run in and grab some produce!
MOFGA (Find Local Foods) – MOFGA is the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association. While I don’t demand my food be organic they are a good starting point. They also run the Commonground Fair every year where items can only be grown/made/processed in Maine. It’s pretty awesome.
Get Real Maine (www.getrealmaine.com) – This is a site I highly recommend for finding local farms, local foods, agricultural events around the state, and farmers markets. You’ll need to talk to each farm in regards to it’s ethics, etc. to see if it’s in line with yours. Unlike Farmers Gate Market there’s no assurance that every farm has pasture raised animals that are treated well. With rare exception, most Maine farms are open to people coming to visit and to answering any questions you have.