The connection between the farmer, the land and the animal Imagine yourself sitting in front of one of the biggest, juiciest, most perfectly-cooked New York strips you’ve ever seen in your life and thinking suddenly to yourself: “I’m not sure if I really want to eat this.” It’s not because you don’t like steak: You love it. It’s not because you’re not hungry: You’re starving. It’s because you’ve just had an awkward encounter with what might, for want of a better word, be called your conscience, and you’re feeling uncomfortable. I first had this experience a few years ago at a steakhouse, and found it quite unnerving. It suddenly occurred to me one evening that I had no idea where my food was coming from, or how this huge piece of dead animal had wound up on my plate. It was an inconvenient feeling, because I love being a meat-eater and I enjoy life near the top of the food chain. From that moment on, however, I promised to try to be more responsible about my choice of meat and to be more respectful of its origins. Although it’s been something of a stretch to live up to my own goals, what I’ve learned about our daily meat in the intervening years has certainly been an eye opener. Our daily meat There’s a new breed of farmer out there. New, that is, if you were born in the past 20 years and can’t remember what farms were like when animals grazed on verdant pasture, and corn wasn’t the only crop to be seen from one horizon to the next. As a child who grew up close to his dairy-farming relatives, I used to believe that all cows were raised in this pastoral idyll, and was unduly shocked when I discovered to just what extent so many animals are confined these days in miserably hot and dirty feedlots, and how their treatment reflects not only their health and well-being, but ours, too. Following the massive success of Eric Schlosser’s dark and incisive Fast Food Nation in 2001, many Americans have begun to question seriously the origins of their daily meat. In recent years, things have begun to look up a little for farm animals, but only a little. Interestingly, the most effective lobbyists against agribusiness have been meat-eaters themselves: those who still want to enjoy their animal products, but with a clearer conscience and a better understanding. In the past year, for instance, McDonald’s has changed its regulations regarding the caging of chickens to allow the birds more room to move around. OK, so it’s a far from perfect state of affairs, but it’s the kind of change that would never have resulted from the efforts of extremist lobby groups or from glacier-slow federal intervention. Although a large and growing segment of society has been quick to embrace the organic movement, the average consumer’s interest in the subject is still largely self-serving: The health and welfare of the animals we eat on a daily basis has always taken second place to our own sense of worthiness and inner health. To slightly misquote George Bernard Shaw: “[Man] feels moral when he is merely uncomfortable.” Despite the importance of our own bodily welfare, it is no longer sufficient to worry simply about ourselves; there is a broader agenda at issue here. For a lengthy and agonizing description of the horrors of the cattle feedlot, I strongly recommend Michael Pollan’s excellent article “Power Steer” which appeared in the New York Times in March 2002. The life of the average corn-raised cow is not a happy or a healthy one, and the implications for our own health and well-being as a result of excessive antibiotic and hormone use, not to mention irradiation of cows’ carcasses, are far-reaching and, to many, scary. For those who are seriously concerned about not only what they put in their own body, but how their intended meals are treated until their slaughter, solace is at hand. There’s a nationwide movement to promote pasture-raised animal husbandry. The movement is still in its infancy, but gaining momentum. For this article, I decided to look at a few of Indiana’s farmstead producers, part of a growing trend that offers a modicum of relief from mass-produced, factory-raised, animal-based products. The farmstead As the language of quality and integrity becomes appropriated by the greater powers of agribusiness, small independent farmers strive to find new language to define what it is that they, and only they, do. Not so long ago, the term “organic” might have sufficed, but that is no longer the case (see below). “Artisan” came and was quickly gobbled up by distinctly non-artisan concerns. And so now we have “farmstead,” a term that embodies the intricate symbiosis between the farmer, the land and the animal, all combining to make a product of quality, integrity, flavor and, above all, of nature. For a variety of reasons, many farmstead producers do not seek organic certification, feeling that their own standards surpass those established by federal or state governments. Corn-fed vs. pastured It has become almost axiomatic amongst connoisseurs of beef that corn-fed cows produce the highest quality meat. The fact that the United States Department of Agriculture rewards meat produced in this way with its stamp of approval (Select, Choice or Prime, depending on the fat content, also known as “marbling”) only serves to add further weight to this conviction. What is frequently overlooked, however, is that Argentinian beef, widely considered to be the best in the world, is all pasture-raised. This fact seems to carry little weight with many aficionados. Corn-fed feedlot cattle are frequently sick animals, requiring regular doses (and even permanent implants) of antibiotics to keep them alive and fat. Millions are treated with growth hormones. Their internal organs are frequently diseased, rendering them unsaleable, and stress-related adrenalin surges often turn the meat brown and all but inedible. In addition, their feed is generally grown with the help of oil-based fertilizer, and is often combined with fish meal for extra protein. From the time that he is weaned at four months to his slaughter at 14 to 16 months of age, the average beef animal puts on about a ton in weight, and never sees a blade of grass. In addition to this intensive fattening regime, there’s the travel. Indiana farmstead producer Joe Phelps puts it this way: “Many of these animals have traveled more than we have. They might start off their lives in Texas, get shipped to Kansas as calves, then go to Illinois for slaughter. The stress involved is huge.” Pastured beef, on the other hand, although less marbled and therefore generally a bit less tender, has the considerable advantage of being produced from healthy, happy cattle raised without the additions of growth hormones or antibiotics. It seldom travels far to slaughter, and generally gets to live a lot longer. It also tastes so much better that you would hardly believe that it comes from the same animal as its corn-fed cousin. Big name producers, such as California’s Niman Ranch, may “finish” cattle on corn to plump them up and provide the desired level of marbling, but only after the cattle have already spent the vast majority of their lives on the range. For those who might believe that the economics of the feedlot make for greater profits, according to Cattle-Fax (as quoted by Michael Pollan), “The return on an animal coming out of a feedlot has averaged just $3 a head over the past 20 years.” For the most part, the farmstead producers I interviewed for this piece cited economics as a significant incentive for the return to a pasture-based system. In addition to questions of flavor, extensive research has shown that pasture-raised beef is higher in conjugated linoleic acids (by a factor of up to 5) and omega 3 fatty acids (by a factor of up to 3) than corn-fed. Both of these fats have been linked with a lower risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and immune disorders. Further information about Indiana’s pasture-based farms can be found at eatwild.com. The trouble with organic The reason that this article is not about Indiana’s organic producers is that there is a strong sentiment in the farmstead community that the term “organic” has lost many of its teeth since National Organic Program (NOP) guidelines passed into law last year. It is the belief of many “real” organic farmers that the federal laws were deliberately diluted to allow big agribusiness to stake its claim in a rapidly expanding market. Grocery store chains that promote organic produce (and charge accordingly) may make us feel inwardly better and more healthy, but in reality offer nothing different from the point of view of animal husbandry. To illustrate this point, organic milk is allowed to come from cows raised on corn in a feedlot. Although some organic farmers may well use alfalfa or hay in the feed mix, there is no legal stipulation that this should be the case. There is therefore good reason to suspect large name-brand producers of organic dairy products of such feedlot practices if they do not specifically make claims to the contrary. A quick look at the NOP’s question and answer Web site (www.ams.usda.gov/nop/Q&A.html) reveals some interesting and frankly disturbing contradictions that, from the layman’s point of view, at least, call into question the organization’s motivations. For example, it is stated that an organic farm does not have to use organic compost. Taken a bit further, this might suggest that an organic cattle farm can raise corn fertilized with manure containing antibiotics and growth hormones from a non-organic cattle ranch. In addition, “there is no restriction against organic livestock feed containing appropriate fish products.” As if fish were ever part of the natural diet of cows and chickens. Most disingenuous of all, and perhaps most revealing, is the statement on the same Web site that “USDA’s National Organic Program is a marketing program and makes no claims that organic farming is ‘better’ in any respect than conventional farming.” Who are they? The following represents a cross section of Indiana’s farmstead producers. Here you will find some of the finest meats, eggs, cheeses and dairy products anywhere in the country. See the sidebar for information about farmers’ markets, where you will find these producers represented. Alan & Mary Yegerlehner The Swiss Connection Grass-based Dairy Clay City “The mind is the biggest roadblock,” repeats Alan Yegerlehner, as if it were his own personal mantra. “There are a lot of big farmers out there who believe that the only viable use for land is for cash crops, that it’s the only kind of farming that carries any value. They believe that pasture land is less valuable, but I disagree. I’m certain there’s plenty of potential pasture land out there that would not only allow animals to be pasture-fed, but would also take a lot of grain off the market.” When Alan and his wife Mary converted their dairy farm to a natural, pasture-based system in the early 1990s, it was largely for economic reasons. Rather than grow and process cereal crops in order to raise their herd in a feedlot, the Yegerlehners eliminated all grain from the property and replanted their 258 acres to pasture. “It allowed us to get out of the production-based system of farming, and pay more attention to the ecology of farming,” Alan says. Without pointing fingers, he is also quick to mention that consumers need to draw the distinction between pasture-raised milk and organic. “Without doubt, the organic laws got watered down last year,” he observes. “What we do is far more natural.” Initially, the move to pasture allowed the family to spend more time together and less on the farm, but in the late 1990s, a new-found interest in cheesemaking began to occupy their time. The Yegerlehners make two kinds of cheese, raw milk and pasteurized, in a number of varieties. Alan is most proud of his aged raw milk cheddar, which is remarkably similar in every regard to its English relatives. Federal regulations require that this cheese be aged for 60 days at 35 degrees, to allow any undesirable bacteria or molds to manifest themselves. Of course, such problems almost never occur, but the stigma attached to such cheeses and the strict regulations involving their production do much to ensure that the majority of Alan and Mary’s cheeses are pasteurized. “All the flavor and nutrition is in raw milk cheese,” Alan insists. “When you pasteurize cheese you take all the good stuff out. With healthy cows you should have no problems at all.” Producing 140 to 180 pounds of cheese at a time, the Yegerlehners make extra towards the end of the year, to carry them through the following March, when the cows are returned to pasture after being “dried off” over the winter. In addition to cheeses, the farm produces butter and ice cream, as well as limited quantities of beef products. Raising their own cattle from at least six breeds, Alan and Mary maintain their herd at an average age of 5 to 6 years of age, considerably older than the national average. Older cattle are either sold to other dairy farms or slaughtered for beef. The Yegerlehners operate a farm shop daily on their property in Clay City. Their cheeses can also be purchased at Deano’s Vino in Fountain Square, and every Thursday at the farmers’ market at 38th and Meridian. In addition, they will have a stall at the farmers’ market in Carmel from June 1. For further information, please call (812) 939-2813. Terry Knudsen Viking Lamb Greenfield Since he was 10 years old, when he began raising animals for 4-H in Minnesota, Terry Knudsen has been something of a maverick in the American agricultural industry: a sheep farmer. Although a staple in Middle Eastern and European cuisines, lamb, until recently, has enjoyed little popularity on these shores, always playing second viola to beef, pork and chicken. Knudsen’s business, however, is brisk. “I sell to a lot of Indian and Middle Eastern restaurants in Louisville,” he explains, “as well as some of the more discerning white tablecloth establishments in Indianapolis. There’s a growing awareness of the value of lamb as an alternative to beef and pork.” After retiring as 4-H treasurer for the state of Minnesota, Knudsen relocated to south of Greenfield to continue his career in the animal feed industry, and to establish a new role in the business of raising lamb. With 175 breeding ewes on his 45-acre farm, Knudsen raises 40 percent of his animals for slaughter and sells the remaining 60 percent of his lambs to 4-H students. Those who have attempted to execute lamb recipes from European cookbooks might be all too familiar with the frustration of dealing with massive cuts of meat from sheep that bear a closer resemblance to mutton than to lamb. All too often, domestic lamb is tough and sinewy, a result not only of age, but also of transportation. There can be no doubt that the best meat comes from the youngest animals, so Knudsen slaughters his at 4 to 5 months of age, at an average weight of 130 pounds. The meat is processed in Greenwood, and can be cut to order. Preferring the Blackface Suffolk breed, Knudsen sells a large number of breeding animals to other farmers, then buys the lambs back. Because he is not in control of every animal at all times, he chooses not to seek organic certification, but believes that he could gain it, should he so wish. Despite the fact that he maintains a healthy flock, he still reserves the right to treat his animals with antibiotics should they become sick, a practice that should not be confused with the routine and regular treatment of livestock with antibiotics to promote rapid growth. Using the entire sheep (“everything but the baa”), Knudsen produces everything from breakfast sausage for retail to sweetbreads for Tavola di Tosa. His lamb is featured on menus as diverse as the Canterbury Hotel and Bynum’s Steakhouse in Martinsville. For further information about obtaining a half or a whole lamb, you can contact Terry at (765) 763-6179 or (812) 871-5700. Joe and Vonda Phelps Ladoga “If you put 25,000 people in the RCA Dome, and made them stay there for 16 months, living, eating, sleeping and everything else, all under one roof, you bet you’re going to need some Tylenol and some antibiotics. How do you think it is for cows in a feedlot?” Joe Phelps is a fourth-generation farmer, and is a passionate advocate of the farmstead philosophy. With 365 acres of rolling pasture, woodland and arable land, the Phelps family farm provides an ideal environment in which to practice healthy and sustainable agriculture. On the Phelps farm, chickens, although confined to large pens, are moved to fresh pasture each day. Free-range eggs will be available later this year from a new flock of laying chickens. Pigs are allowed to roam and root, as they should, and the beef cattle are pasture-raised without antibiotics. Joe and Vonda Phelps can be found every Thursday at the farmers’ market at 38th and Meridian. For further information about their products, you can call (765) 942-2047. Judith Schad Capriole Farms Greenville If anyone deserves to be called a farmstead pioneer, it must be Judy Schad. Perhaps better known outside of Indiana than she is at home, Schad has been producing cheese since acquiring a few goats for her daughter’s 4-H project almost 20 years ago. Now with 300 dairy goats, Capriole Farms has built a reputation for quality that extends from coast to coast. Hay and other feed for the goats is grown on the farm and all of the milk used in the production of cheese is from Capriole’s own goats. Schad is emphatic about the integrity of her product and the way in which it is made. She sums up her philosophy in this way: “Farmstead cheeses are cheeses produced specifically on a farm from the milk of the animals on that farm, with a connection between the land, the animal, the milk and the maker — what the French refer to as terroir.” Capriole cheeses are used in many of the finest restaurants around the country, and can be found in the better retail stores. Capriole produces two kinds of cheese: fresh and aged. In the former category are the logs, rounds and pyramids, which are made from fresh, not frozen, curd and are hand-ladled, molded and vacuumed to keep their fresh flavor intact. In flavor and texture, these are similar to the classic Chèvre (which means goat) cheeses from France. Stored and handled well, they stay fresh for four to eight weeks. Because they’re lower in cholesterol and calories than cream cheese, they’re a lighter alternative in many recipes. The aged cheeses are rather more sophisticated, in that they develop a natural rind, and can be aged for many months. Resembling the classic French crottin, these can be sublimely aromatic and wonderfully stinky. It’s a shame that these outstanding cheeses do not enjoy wider distribution in the Indiana market, because, quite frankly, they are about as good as such cheeses are likely to get. Capriole’s farm shop is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For information about farm markets and retail outlets, call (812) 923-9408.